Thursday, August 28, 2014

Design Thinking’s “Deep Secret" & Why it Works

A revelatory moment
There has been a lot of digital ink spilt over the question of what Design Thinking is and whether it works. Is it a method? Is it a frame of mind? How is it done? Is it new, or just a restatement of another pre-existing method?

I’ve been participating in a few online forums discussing Design Thinking - much of which has been a lively back and forth between a variety of views. These have typically fallen into one of two broad categories; Differences of opinion resulting from difference in experience (“The Blind Men and the Elephant") and Tower of Babel / Lost in Translation / Why don’t we understand each other even tho we are using the same words? sort of head bashing.

A couple of days ago, I found myself in another of these situations when I was presented with the description of something called Presumptive Design, being advocated by Leo Fishberg, a very smart guy at Intel. It advocates a shoot, fire, correct, aim approach, with lots of rapid prototyping and testing. That looks a lot like Design Thinking in terms of the parts of the process, but didn’t line up in terms of the order. Which got me thinking about if order really makes a difference.

Is is possible to enter Design Thinking in any phase? If so, why do Tom and Dave Kelley clearly state that Design Thinking "starts with empathy”. What difference would it make if you didn’t begin with empathy?

Have the mindset of a novice.

Many of us received our design training at an "institution of higher learning”, with all the competitiveness that attends that environment. Many students believe deeply that good grades are the best indicator of a future profitable career. Even when we are put into teams in a classroom environment the grade we receive at the end of the course is individual. In addition, the tradition of the odd but brilliant individual contributor continues to be a part of our collective story. Much of our backgrounds biases us towards individual recognition and success. Sometimes we carry that bias with us our entire careers.

Let's compare Design Thinking to other methods in that regard;  In "traditional" approaches someone - often an "entrepreneur" - gets an idea for a new product or a better way to do something, prototypes it and (hopefully) tests that with potential customers. This is the “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door” method.  With Design Thinking you start with customers - ask them to tell you their stories, find their pain, and then reiteratively build and test prototypes until they tell you it’s what they want. 

Many of the world's business appear to have been built around the first model. It was what I was taught at business school. You design something and take it into the marketplace. Find the customers who will bring in the orders and the money. Ever watch Shark Tank? Have you ever seen someone come in and say "Hey Sharks! I don't have a neat new product! I have customers with unfulfilled needs and I want you to give me $5 million dollars to help fill them!"  Right... Next contestant.

You wanna piece of my pie?
With Design Thinking you go into the marketplace and say; “Hey! My friends and I have some skills that may be useful. Does anyone here need any help?” The more it hurts the more we care! With traditional design approaches its; “Hey! I’ve been working on this thing, which I think is pretty cool, for months (years.. decades…). It’s still not done, but I sure would like to know how many people here would like to buy it!”

Can you see the difference?  In one case there is a lot of time and effort spent building something that may fill the needs of a handful of people who may have the same need as the designer - entrepreneur, who is often very different from “the rest of us”.  

In the other case, the designer, who’s personality, skills and creativity make them very different from “the rest of us”, is trying to fill the deep and often unexpressed needs of "the rest of us", and starts by putting a lot of effort into discovering what they are.  Not to put too religious a spin on it, but that's similar to 1 John 4:19; "We loved him because he loved us first."

There is another benefit from this; When people are given the opportunity to participate in creating their own solutions, they are more fully invested and committed to a successful outcome.  Design Thinking’s open, collaborative, customer needs driven approach excels in investment, literally and figuratively, because it starts with a built-in customer base for the solution.

Vive la différence!
As usual, all images are copyright their respective holders, Disney in particular, and used here for non-profit, educational purposes.


  1. Derek - thanks for the shout out!

    I have a couple of questions about your post, however.

    You raise the question whether we can enter the design thinking cycle at any phase. You go on to suggest we must start with empathy. But the two examples you provide do not reflect entering with empathy - in the first, you suggest designers enter the market "to help" with their skills. In the second you suggest they enter to "to sell."

    In Presumptive Design (for those interested in knowing about this further, here's a five minute "ignite" presentation - we expect the business to craft an artifact, in service of deepening its empathy with its customers - not selling. We enter the DT cycle in the Concept/Prototyping phase - immediately, without any research - as a means of kickstarting the research.

    You also wonder whether its possible to switch up the ::order::. PresDes doesn't switch the order, since we look at DT through the Owens/Kumar/Sato lens of a true cycle. (see for images)

    In brief, we accept the (all too familiar) unfortunate situation in businesses declare They Know The Answer, but rather than fight it head on, we flip it on its head, inviting customers to inform us how wrong we are in our presumptions.

    1. Elroy - I'm actually making a different point than you suggest. There are two different aspects to the process; What and How. What is about the methods employed to reach the outcome. How is about focus of the designer's intentions. The deeper issue here is How we execute *any* of the phases in any process, call it Product Design or Presumptive Design or Industrial Design.

      My two examples illustrate the difference. In one case, the designer already has an idea, which may or may not reflect real external user needs and in the other the end users needs are the starting point.

      As I recall, the primary difference between Traditional and Presumptive Design relates directly to this point.

      According to Sato, Presumptive Design tests intentions and Traditional User Centered Design tests solutions. The other difference is where the cycle is entered. Traditional UCD enters at Research and PrD starts with concepts.

      "Design Thinking starts with Empathy" relates to the mindset of the designer even before they enter the cycle. The ends of the continuum there are self centered and other centered. (How)

      p.s. Unfortunately the links in your message aren't valid any longer.

  2. Derek - Thanks for chipping in. I went back and re-read the article and discovered that the thought flow was broken mid way thru. I should have said what I was thinking rather than what I was typing!

    I need to look more closely at the Ignite phase - it may be that it's another way to start a conversation/have the customer tell their story so you can get to their pain point.

    BTW - What's with the ::notation:: You and Leo both use it and I don't have a context for it yet.