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Design thinking first, design doing second

Design thinking first, design doing second

A seminal Journal of Marketing article, written in 1977 by G L Shostack (former VP at Citibank), outlines the core differences between marketing and selling product (a tangible item that is put on the market for acquisition, attention, or consumption) versus service (an intangible item, which arises from the output of one or more individuals).  The article argues (persuasively in this author’s view) that in broad–brush terms services should be marketed by making them more tangible and products should be marketed by focusing on their less tangible characteristics.

We see this manifest in the marketing we most regularly encounter as consumers.  For instance, car manufacturers don’t lead their marketing initiatives with their products’ tangible functions such as their top speed, acceleration 0–60mph time or size of boot, but rather with their intangible assets such as their personality, their status and the lifestyle they support.  Similarly, professional services organisations work hard to make the impact of their work tangible, talking not about what they do but about what they cause, and to gain trust by outlining process, showing case studies and where relevant explaining the experience and expertise of their people.

So, when we seek to apply that logic to the championing of user experience design, we should show stakeholders outputs, talk them through a rock–solid process and let them know who is working on the job, right?

Well, it’s complicated – for several reasons!

Firstly, the UX theory book tells us to be very wary of committing to outputs at the start of any process, and to maintain a degree of flexibility about which outputs will best communicate design needs to whoever comes next in the process. Furthermore, a quick look at the first page of Google image results for the phrase “design thinking framework” will show dozens of processes and approaches for this, all with varying strengths and weaknesses, merits and demerits.  Whilst we can of course share the CVs of a design team who might be working on solving a specific problem, even design teams can be fluid and evolve to meet the emerging needs of a specific problem.

In short, some of the key building blocks which are normally the foundation for stakeholder engagement, internal advocacy and selling UX design services aren’t available because of the nature of the work that we do.

The underlying reason for this is because at its kernel, design thinking is more than anything else a state of mind, a set of beliefs about what design is. (Of course it is I hear you cry – the clue is in the name – design thinking!) These beliefs underpin what design believes itself to be and the role in plays in the world, typically helping to solve business goals, meet user need and solve customer challenges.

Design thinkers believe that left unchecked, design is flawed because it is overexposed to human bias and personal preference.  It is a response to the three most common reasons that design doesn’t fulfil its full potential, or fails entirely:

  • The problem to be solved has been misdiagnosed, taking design teams in the wrong direction and solving problems users don’t have
  • The solution to the problem is too narrowly conceived, missing opportunity for innovation and competitive advantage
  • The solution is too blunt, misaligned with user desire and thus lacking nuance and missing opportunities to delight

This design thinking mindset therefore represents a way of understanding the world which recognises that culture and ethos is more important than process in gaining good outcomes.  Process is inevitably driven by culture, but a strong culture can make up for mediocre process, however no process can save a mediocre culture.

While this reflection may sound somewhat pretentious or even trivial it’s not – it is the foundation of all good design – and the beating heart of the design culture at the world’s leading digital organisations.

Belfast–born writer, lay theologian and Christian apologist C S Lewis wrote extensively about the importance of first and second things.  He contends that in life no amount of second things can make up for the absence of first things and challenges the reader to prioritise their life accordingly.  He summarises the principle perfectly as follows: “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things”.

For the designer, design thinking is the first thing, and design doing (with its myriad of approaches and processes) is the second.

First thinking, then doing.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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