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Design Thinking – Love or Hate?

In the past few weeks, I met a few friends and associates, and the topic coincidentally fell on Design Thinking and all the way down the rabbit hole. The post is a recount and expansion of my very personal opinion from these Design Thinking conversations. If it offends you, you’re welcome.

Why Design Thinking Impressed Me

It was some time around 2008/9 when I first learned about “Design Thinking” (DT). Tim Brown’s HBR article and other stuff from the design and business communities sparked my interest. But I’m a cautious (and slow) learner. So, I spent the following few years learning more about it and started integrating Design Thinking into my client work only after 2013.

Although I was not a “design professional”, the core ideas and methods of DT were not new to me. It simply provided a beautiful package to do problem-solving in a wide context. A few things I valued most were:

  1. DT highlighted the need to be human-centered, not just customer-focused. From my earlier work in quality and process improvement/redesign, I knew enough that customers, process workers, and other “humans” were all important.
  2. DT stressed on developing different point-of-views (POVs). The first thing that DT caught my eyes were the trend that design firms hired people from a wide spectrum of fields – psychology, art, music, to anthropology – to gain different POVs and insights. This really broadened the possibility space in problem formulation and solution generation.
  3. DT is an iterative process. The real process would be messy. A roadmap only provided the logical steps that “should normally be” involved, but it was not a straight line. Like all problem-solving work, it should be iterative. Sometimes you have to go back to square one and start over again (and again).
  4. It stressed on “thinking” or practical idea generation. The implementation part was still the work of specific professionals. Say, we use a DT approach to design the very ideas of a workspace, the architects, interior designers, facilities experts, etc. do the actual work to realize the design.

Those were, and still are, what I like about “Design Thinking”.

Because of these, I integrated DT concepts and some methods into my client work… until the fad cycle kicked in. (* I usually include relevant concepts, methods, and cases into my projects/workshops for specific clients, rather than do “general” DT sessions. Different contexts require different flavors. We need to be user-centric!)

Why I Hate Design Thinking Now

Well, I don’t really hate it because DT is not a tangible thing! DT is a concept, or a practical discipline, that codifies the “thinking processes” and tools/methods of good designers to enlighten people, especially those in business, to move to a more human-centered approach to (creative) problem-solving. We use the terms together, but we are having different understandings and interpretations.

That’s why Natasha Jen said, “Design Thinking is Bullshit.” And I agree. Totally.

DT is now out in the wild and becoming a bubble.

Or more accurately, DT is not the problem, but the so-called “Design Thinking Community” is. (Again, if you feel offended, reflect!)

The word “design” is sexy. With “design”, your mind automatically adds the words “creativity”, “innovation”, “beauty”, “smart”, … and your eyes light up!

Like many great business ideas, the concept gains traction (another buzzword :p) and then it is now fully commercialized and productized.

To appeal to the general audience, the concept is simplified to roadmaps, a few methods, and canvases, to a point that it becomes rather simplistic.

Good designs require hard work. To begin with, “Empathize” does not equal design research. How do we decide what to do when facing different design problems? What information to gather? How should we get the information? This is Research 101 but people are just fascinated by the exciting research group sessions using toys, photos, or fruits! Behind the eye candies is careful planning and design of these research activities. It’s not just “get out of the building” and then you can nail it. How about the fact that design research can also itself be an iterative process?

Even intuition doesn’t come out of thin air. You need insights from different disciplines, knowledge from different fields, and exposure to a spectrum of ideas, etc., to build a neuro-network in your brain capable of generating those stimulations and intuitions, let alone the rigorous process of deciding what really works.

The simplistic matrix of feasibility vs impact is only good for the presentation. Placing your dots on the matrix requires work and brain power.

How many of those trained DT practitioners have these in mind?

Here is what the bubble, or the Dark Age of DT, looks like to me.

  • Experts with many years of experience suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Certification programs at different levels are instantly available. (This reminded me of the green and black belts for Six Sigma.) And there are train-the-trainer programs for “certified” DT practitioners to spread DT.
  • DT “graduates” telling me that “DT is an interesting brainstorming methodology”
  • People follow the roadmap in a straight linear manner
  • Sticky-notes wall becomes a hallmark for practicing Design Thinking.
  • DT case published which contained an obvious misunderstanding of concepts and methods
  • DT becomes an all-purpose problem-solving approach, even treated to be the only sensible approach. Really?
  • DT gets simplistic and hollow – many sexy buzzwords without real actions. Do you simply get a bunch of people going out “empathizing” with people and solving the poverty problem? Do you gather people and use sticky notes to improve the education system? DT is now more of a “feel good” activity.

The bottom line is: what real benefits have businesses gained from learning DT? Some argue that DT is for building a creative and innovative culture. If so, how do you know if you have succeeded? And most importantly, are there better approaches?

The risk is: we may be creating a troop of DT zombies running around to “solve problems” and “innovate” without really living the promise!

In Fact, I still Love Design Thinking

Yes, I still find Design Thinking a useful package to solve problems and transform culture.

But the methods, tools, and canvases are all secondary. The “thinking” and “mindset” parts are what we should value and develop.

Design Thinking should be generative. You gain experience and insights from a problem, and you get better at solving other problems in the future. Good designers/problem solvers should not be constrained by the framework or methods, but find or create new methods to get the job done. Good designers also borrow ideas from other disciplines to enrich their own toolset.

Design Thinking, Generative Problem Solving, no matter what you call it, should be used to develop people’s capability to go meta: solve problems and generate new and better approaches to solve problems. (Wait… NOT the metaverse @_@)

What All These Stimulated Me to Do

Here’s what I am thinking: To organize an experiential learning program to develop your generative problem-solving capability.

Are you interested?

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