You may find the confession I’m about to make a bit strange given how central design thinking is to our team’s work as well as my rethinked*annex side project. But here it goes: I am sick and tired of talking about design thinking. As you know, design thinking is a huge buzzword right now in innovation and management circles. Unfortunately, most conversations and articles about the discipline center on either embracing it as a cure-all methodology for every single one of our innovation and creativity woes or decrying it as a depthless, overhyped, passing fad. I find these two binary views to critically miss the point about what design thinking is and what it can offer.
Just yesterday, browsing LinkedIn’s “Management Consulting” news tab, I found two separate articles detailing the woes of design thinking. In “Design Thinking” Destroyed Us, Brian de Haaff writes:
The problem is when this approach is fervently adopted as the only approach to solving challenges and delivering great customer experiences. And this is where it all went wrong. Everything looked like a problem that we could “design think” our way out of to the UX teams.
Even problems that no one on the product team thought were customer or business problems became ripe for long design-centered studies by people who never previously spoke with customers and definitely did not grok our product.
I see three big problems with the above passage. First, nothing about design thinking mandates that it should be embraced as a step by step recipe. “When this approach is fervently adopted as the only approach to solving challenges” –who is doing the fervent, exclusive, adoption? That is a result of the company’s culture and management, not the discipline of design thinking itself. The second issue is the “long design-centered studies” that he describes. As IDEO’s Kelley brothers like to say, “Fail faster, succeed sooner.” Design thinking is about rapid prototyping and iteration, not months of market research. Also, and perhaps more worryingly, why are these studies being conducted by people who are not at all plugged in to the environment of the challenge they are trying to solve–those “people who never previously spoke with customers and definitely did not grok our product”? If there were a design thinking mandate it would be to empathize. Design thinking is, above all, human-centered–meaning the solutions focus on the actual perspective and experience of the people invested in the challenge, not on unexplored assumptions of what that experience might be.
The third big issue here is “everything looked like a problem that we could “design think”.” I think this statement reflects a serious misunderstanding of the design thinking process. It is not simply a list of steps to problem solve, it’s a way to explore and redefine the problem landscape to uncover more holistic and potent solutions. One of the major benefits of design thinking is how richly it allows one to explore and reframe the problem one is trying to solve. In design thinking, teams use an initial definition of the challenge at hand as a springboard for further exploration. I have never participated in a design thinking challenge where the initial statement of the problem wasn’t later reframed and recrafted.
de Haaff goes on to list some of the specific reasons why his company’s “application of design thinking destroyed progress and fractured the UX groups from the product and engineering teams“:
“The core issue was that design thinking fundamentally requires that no matter how obvious the solution may seem, many solutions must be created for consideration and testing.”
Again, design thinking doesn’t fundamentally require anything–it’s a tool. If you had to mow your lawn and you had at your disposal a lawn mower and a pair of scissors and decided to use the scissors, when you found yourself exhausted and discouraged at having wasted your afternoon cutting only a small patch of grass with your scissors instead of finishing the job in an hour with the lawn mower, you wouldn’t blame your scissors for the poor outcome, would you? Tools are just tools, their impact and effectiveness depends on how we choose to use them.
I do not mean to pick on Mr. de Haaff, but I think his article illustrates a lot of the problematic ways in which design thinking is being framed and experienced. Design thinking is a human-centered problem solving methodology–it gives us a framework and a set of tools to problem solve. It is neither a miracle nor a curse, it is what we make it. Which is what makes Tamara Christensen‘s interview on think jar collective about Demystifying Design Thinking such a refreshing and important read:
Buzzwords can be dangerous if they don’t promote sustainable changes in thinking and doing, and shared understanding. They can be easily dismissed. Ironically, I find that most designers have trouble clarifying exactly how they think and making their own process explicit for others. The most simple definition of design that I use is by Herbert Simon, from Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press, 1969) where he describes design as “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones”. Design thinking, therefore, is basically about the kind of mental activity that facilitates this transformation. Fortunately IDEO and the d.school at Stanford (among others) have done a great job of promoting the process and providing a wealth of information about how it’s done and why it’s valuable.
I think the biggest obstacle to understanding Design Thinking is to treat it as a rigid process, a series of steps that must be followed in a particular sequence. I have seen this happen time and again when a team tries to apply Design Thinking with questionable success and then decides “Design Thinking doesn’t work.” In reality, what doesn’t work is treating Design Thinking like a recipe that must be adhered to. It is more like a mindset, multiple modes of thinking and doing that are iteratively utilized as the project requires. Design Thinking is first and foremost about people and keeping them at the center of the process.
The most common modes are Empathize (with humans), Frame (an opportunity from the perspective of a human), Ideate (about how to address the opportunity), Prototype (possible solutions) and Test (your ideas with people using the prototypes).
IN MY EXPERIENCE THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL THINGS TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT DESIGN THINKING (AS A PROCESS AND A MINDSET) ARE:
- It is human-centered and people-powered, keep stakeholders engaged as much as possible.
- Empathy is an essential and transformational experience for fueling creativity.
- Prototyping is about building to think and test ideas. The faster we fail, the better.
Source: Demystifying Design Thinking: Interview With Tamara Christensen via Think Jar Collective