Interest in design thinking as a professional practice seems to ebb and flow. Currently, we’re in a period when there is great interest in design thinking. This trend may lead to some confusion or even consternation among my UX colleagues, who may see design thinking as a faux version of User Experience that dilutes interest in the real work that UX professionals do. Other criticisms of design thinking are that it is derivative of other innovation methods and that its reliance on empathy is a poor stand-in for doing real user research.
While these criticisms are fair, they may be misdirected. Certainly, design-thinking workshops take certain shortcuts. An abbreviated description of design thinking might emphasize the need for multiple iterations and the fact that an innovation process diverges at the beginning, then converges on possible solutions. The assumption is that insights arise from a project team alone, with little to no interaction with users. However, design thinking has made creativity and design processes accessible to more people and introduced new ways of building consensus.
The Changing Role of Designers
Early in his book Change by Design, Tim Brown describes how the role of design has changed. In the past, design was a tactical activity that followed the serious work of engineering and technology development. Today, however, we see design becoming more disruptive and playing a strategic role in business.
The former way of doing design, with designers working toward the end of the innovation process, stunted the potential for disruptive innovation and led to incremental improvements of existing products and systems. However, as Brown describes, the use of design thinking to drive innovation enables organizations to reimagine products, services, and business models.
Title:Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation
Author: Tim Brown
Formats: Hardcover, Paperbook, Kindle, and Audible
Publisher: Harper Business
Published: September 29, 2009
Note—Harper Business published a revised and updated edition of this book on March 5, 2019.
How Research Leads to Empathy
At the core of design thinking is its focus on understanding people. However, corporate workshops often sprint through design-thinking exercises, with participants just imagining themselves walking in the shoes of customers. While this is not the same as conducting real user research, it is at least a useful exercise to help reframe the perceptions of product teams.
Brown presents a particularly interesting anecdote early in his book, describing an activity that a researcher at IDEO undertook: performing an undercover, on-site research study to improve emergency rooms. The typical way of designing this kind of environment would be to begin by gathering requirements from doctors, nurses, and administrators. After all, these are the experts who understand the complexity of medical care—to say nothing of the healthcare system. A key finding from this research was how something as simple as a repetitive pattern of ceiling tiles along indistinguishable hallways increased patients’ confusion—and, therefore, their stress levels. But this insight didn’t come from putting Post-it notes on a whiteboard with a gaggle of doctors and nurses gathering around. Instead, it came from the researcher’s literally lying in a hospital bed and going through the process of checking into an emergency room.
Empathy for customers also provides insights for business opportunities. Brown provides a wonderful example of how a bicycle-parts manufacturer faced stagnation because they couldn’t increase sales of their components. Through research, they discovered that their customer definition was too narrow, focusing largely on expert-level biking enthusiasts. While virtually every adult had a bike as a child, a minority had bikes as adults. By realizing they had too narrowly focused the adult market on expert-level cyclists, the company discovered an opportunity to introduce a new type of bike to a casual adult cyclist. This led to a powertrain they could sell to a variety of manufacturers. Thus, the modern cruiser-style bike was born.
Improving Your Odds by Taking More Chances
The trouble with so many brainstorming methods organizations use today is that they tend to focus too quickly on what seems to be the right solution—not the best solution. Brown describes this as convergent thinking, which is useful in identifying practical solutions from a known set of alternatives, but not particularly effective in identifying new opportunities. In contrast, divergent thinking enables teams to generate diverse potential solutions to problems. The interplay between divergent and convergent thinking is at the heart of all truly disruptive innovation. It’s what enables design-led organizations to find solutions to problems they might not even have recognized, but then seem obvious once they share them with the world.
By encouraging divergent thinking—by iterating not just multiple versions of an idea but completely different ideas—you can increase the likelihood that you’ll find the best idea to solve a given problem. When you see students or your coworkers approaching a wicked design problem with just one obvious response, this should be a red flag that they don’t understand the problem they’re trying to solve. This limits them to making incremental improvements. In contrast, iterating and prototyping lets us, in Brown’s words, “Fail fast to succeed sooner.”
How Culture Enables Innovation
Surveys of corporate leaders frequently cite innovation as a key concern. These leaders worry that another company might disrupt their current business model, leaving their organization behind. We should ask what those leaders and organizations are doing to encourage the behaviors that enable innovation. Too often, they place promising talent on teams that are jaded or have been burned by failure. They incentivize people based on predicted results instead of the diversity of their experimentation and strongly encourage people to conform to their organization’s culture. When risk avoidance and aversion to failure or diversity in opinions are the critical success factors for a project team, it should be no surprise that only incremental innovations result.
Of course, hiring a design-thinking expert is not a cure-all for organizations facing changes to their industry. Organizations that do not tolerate experimentation or even resistance to an organization’s conventions inevitably see their change efforts whither.
In contrast, having a healthy disregard for authority—as well as tolerance for the testing of an organization’s norms—are vital to enabling innovation. Brown provides an example from Hewlett-Packard, where a young engineer named Chuck House ignored an explicit directive from David Packard against research into large-screen, cathode-ray tubes (CRTs). By defying this directive, Young developed technology that ultimately led to the first commercially successful computer display, enabling transmission of video from the Apollo Moon landing.
Similarly, in the 1960s, General Motors had a specific policy against a focus on racing—that is, the development of cars that could achieve high speed and race-car level performance. They enacted policies that dictated the power / weight ratio of automobiles to prevent high performance. These strictures extended to advertising and marketing. They were to sell cars not on the basis of speed or performance, but on reliability and a stable ride. In the Pontiac division, an engineering team that included John DeLorean snuck an oversized V8 engine into Pontiac’s LeMans, creating the Pontiac GTO. Dealers had taken 5,000 orders before the corporate brass caught on. This sleight of hand not only changed Pontiac and propelled DeLorean’s career as an automotive executive but launched the muscle-car era in the USA.
I frequently ask myself what audience an author has written a given book for. I think Tim Brown wrote Change by Design as an introduction to design methods for corporate managers. This book provides a wonderful collection of anecdotes that validate the value of design methods and their use in an organization.
Ben’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Read More