You’ve probably experienced design thinking in any digital project you’ve started or been a part of in the past few months. The tools of design thinking are highly popular in the enterprise today – from ethnographic research, contextual inquiry, and shadowing, as well as delving beneath the surface of user stories for real insight.
But let’s start by reminding ourselves about why it works? The reasons are fairly obvious design thinking starts from a position of empathy. This by itself should be an obvious thing, but clearly it’s been lost in the ossification of corporate processes and taken over by the lure of experience. So people have been building solutions based on what they ‘think’ they know about what users want and how, rather than asking them. As this piece from the HBR, by Jeanne Liedtka, highlights, design thinking works because it forces us to challenge our assumptions. The more interesting questions we ask, the better the answers are.
Also, design thinking gets past 2 of the biggest barriers in designing solutions. The first is assumptions. We typically have truckloads of assumptions about our users, and design thinking forces us to validate and often counter them. The second is the false comfort and lure of experience. A marketing manager with 20 years of experience thinks she understands her customers really well. Or perhaps we self reference, after all we’re all experts in retail because we shop every week.
So design thinking works, and it delivers by addressing all of these challenges and building a solution around the users needs. But while it is the mythology du jour of defining digital product experiences, it isn’t exactly new. Any product developer will tell you that this is exactly what product designers have done throughout history. My favourite example is that of the Honda engineering and design team that spent a week at Disneyland in the US just observing what families took out and put into the boot of the car.
Steve Jobs was apparently not a big fan of asking his customers what they wanted. Nor according to received wisdom was Henry Ford. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t keen observers of human behaviour and needs. The latter also suffered because he didn’t keep pace with the changes in the needs and expectations of his customers.
My current concerns, working with a number of design thinking based projects and scenarios, stems from 3 key challenges. The first is the dilution of the idea of design thinking. This is when we jump to the rituals of design thinking without actually getting to its key principles. Plenty of so called design thinking workshops are just brainstorming sessions under a different name. If the right questions aren’t asked and the right people aren’t responding, then this is just another workshop. The second is the danger of reinventing the wheel. Design thinking, when applied to a known problem space, should follow after enough secondary research has been done, else you will simply be learning the hard way what others already know. For example, while designing a shopping cart for a new ecommerce business should not be design thinking based from scratch, given that there are hundreds of examples of working shopping cards online to compare and evaluate. The third, follows from the second therefore in knowing what kind of problems to apply design thinking to. And this is typically new areas, and new products, or where there is a belief that current solutions don’t do enough. And you can’t know that unless you’ve done the research.
This article, also from the HBR, by Natasha Iskander, provides a more structured critique of design thinking – as it highlights the gatekeeping role of the designer, the inevitable subjectivity of the process and the problem of a finite and book-ended process of design that ends up preserving status quo, rather than a continuous evolution. Those of you who have been involved in agile projects will know the difficulty of fitting the commonly accepted double diamond design approach into an ongoing agile process. Usually it ends up as an early stage activity that has an end point, while product development becomes an ongoing and open ended activity. One of the most insightful points Iskander makes is the challenges faced by the prescriptive nature of the design thinking process in a world defined by continuous and evolving uncertainty. In other words, a VUCA world.