Design Thinking methodology can help start-ups be better informed
How to Make a Portal Which Assists in Startup Development: A Serbian Experience
January 16, 2023
How to build an Internet portal which offers start-ups simple and user-friendly information needed for their further business development? This was one of the challenges that UNDP Serbia Accelerator Lab faced. We tackled it in 2021 and 2022, to help the Ministry of Economy and the Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia to ensure faster growth of this segment of the Serbian economy, in collaboration with our colleagues from Digital Serbia Initiative and consultants from Design Thinkers Academy.
According to the OECD, small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) in Serbia employed 65% of the workforce and provided for 85% of GDP in 2018. This makes them the backbone of Serbian economy. Although at the moment there is no official and exact data on the share of start-ups, they form a significant and vivid part of the economy in Serbia and contribute to the increasing growth of the SME segment.
One of the world’s leading reports on the start-up ecosystems, the 2020 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, states that the Serbian start-up scene is characterized by high growth, but also by a limited access to financing and global markets, compared to similarly-sized economies.
In order for start-ups to overcome the challenges they face, their access to information has to be improved, especially information about financial support programmes, regulatory changes, and opportunities for networking and education.
Thus, we came to the task mentioned at the beginning. To make a useful portal for start-ups in Serbia, we used Design Thinking approach. Considering that this methodology is based on understanding the problem from the user’s perspective, it can also be successfully replicated in other countries with growing start-up ecosystems, or in overcoming other development challenges. That is why, through this case study, we want to point out the advantages of this approach and show how it helped us avoid mistakes.
How we built the Start-up Portal?
The project team for creating the portal was composed of representatives of the UNDP (who led the project), Digital Serbia Initiative as the primary organisation dealing with the development of start-up ecosystems, the Ministry of Economy as the ministry supporting and developing start-up organisations, and representatives of the Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia.
Design Thinking was immediately implemented in structuring the project, which was carried out in two phases. In the first phase, we dealt with understanding the challenges we were facing and our ideas for solving it, while during the second phase we tried to turn these ideas into reality.
The first stage is also known as ‘Problem space’. It entailed research and definition of the problem, and the greatest contribution at this point was given by the project team members who had a solid understanding, from different points of view, of the context in which Serbian start-ups work.
Firstly, we mapped all stakeholders in the domestic start-up ecosystem, together with their roles: from formal and informal education institutions to start-up accelerators and co-working spaces. Then we committed ourselves to understanding how differences in start-up sizes can affect their expectations from the portal.
This was a particularly important step because, as a team, we thought that the portal should offer the content tailored to different stages of the start-up development. However, this hypothesis was false. Following the Design Thinking methodology, we interviewed and surveyed the representatives of local start-ups, making sure we have a representative sample of the entire ecosystem. This stage also helped us understand how much start-ups cherish networking opportunities and how the portal might help them see the bigger picture of entrepreneurship in Serbia, in addition to the other information and functions we intended to include. At the end of this stage, we reached the detailed concept of the site and thematic units it would contain: legal questions, securing investments, sharing knowledge, professional cooperation/support/mentoring, events, connecting with other start-ups, education, and good practice examples. We also had some ideas about the specific content that would serve the users: how they would be presented, what additional functionalities would be there, where the links would lead.
This concept served as the basis for the second phase, that is, ‘Solution space’. It was much different from the first phase because it was a “sprint week” during which user experience and interface designers created the website prototype. In its first version, the prototype was basic, in order to confirm it suited the ideas of the project team. Afterwards, it was turned into a clickable version, which was given to a group of five start-ups for assessment. This approach was extremely valuable for the project because it allowed making quick changes to suit users’ needs before significant time and resources were invested in the development of the portal. Prototype testers gave their suggestions about what they liked, which functions should be merged, which should be shortened and which should be excluded. Based on these comments, designers perfected the prototype and presented it to the project team and other start-up scene stakeholders. In this final stage we considered some broader issues regarding the portal: how it would develop further, who would maintain it, and what should be done to make it sustainable in the long run. The version we created was given over to the colleagues from the Serbian Government and Digital Serbia Initiative. After three months the prototype grew into a functioning portal, with the mission to aid, like a Formula 1 pit stop, to a more rapid and successful growth of start-ups in Serbia.
Why Design Thinking?
Implementation of the Design Thinking methodology helped us avoid the mistakes we would have made if we had not relied on users’ comments.
For example, as we have mentioned already, contrary to our expectations, the portal proved better when not segmented by the stages of start-up development. Moreover, we underestimated the need of start-ups for networking and being able to see “the bigger picture” – who comprises the ecosystem, who does what and in which industry – which the portal offered after their comments. Finally, prototyping was crucial to developing a high-quality product. Without a well-conceived prototype based on user needs and experiences, changes to the portal would have been considerably more difficult and expensive, and would therefore threaten its functionality and sustainability.
The Startup portal now functions as a microsite within the entrepreneurship web page of the Ministry of Economy. It offers a wide range of information to its users, from interpretations of the legislative framework and opportunities for financial support to the list of available workspaces and events dedicated to the start-up scene. Since it was launched in early 2022, the portal has become very popular among start-ups in the country. The implementation of Design Thinking proved to be a great way for the country to respond to the needs of a significant segment of its economy and society. The UNDP Serbia Accelerator Lab team also applied Design Thinking to understanding the needs of repats in Serbia, in order to come up with specific suggestions about how the Government can help this kind of migration, whereas UNDP already uses it around the world to overcome various development challenges.