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Design thinking methods are still better than all the alternatives

Design thinking methods are still better than all the alternatives

Not for the first time the design community has disappeared up its own backside while introspecting on the role design plays in the world and the methods it employs in that pursuit.

It has become fashionable in some quarters to dish out a shoeing to the double diamond, or script a hit piece on Design Thinking in an apparent fit of pique.  Such activities may help the author feel better for a short period, but they have real consequences on our craft and its ability to positively impact the world we’re trying to influence. Like writing one of those angry emails that you don’t write any more when you reach 25, you still have to wake up the next morning to a client who wants to leave, and an unhappy boss who wants you to leave.

Many of these take–downs are classic strawman efforts, mispresenting the subject and then criticising the misrepresentation. In defence of the straw–manners, the steel–manners started it!  They wrote glowing puff–pieces about the promise of design methodologies, couched in sugary PR terms, highlighting clean processes, perfect insight, huge data sets, easy answers and amazing outcomes all wrapped up in a wonderfully linear flow. It is true that Design Thinking hasn’t always lived up to the promise, but that is because the promise was wrong, not the process, not the technique, not the mindset.

Design Thinking evangelists, of whom this author is one, need to stop positioning it as a perfect process, offering a silver bullet which outputs the right answer.

Because that’s simply not what it is. None of those things exist.

It surely can’t be news, or even controversial, to conclude that a series of design processes (and accompanying mindsets), which live in the intersection of human behaviour, corporate culture, unconscious bias, technical change, innovation and risk, unspoken assumptions and shifting customer expectations aren’t perfect?

Consider the noise, ambiguity, shades of grey, contradictions, uncertainty, competing priorities and human folly wrapped up in that list.  It’s madness to suggest that a process can magically produce the right answer from all those inputs.  In fact, design processes have evolved with that chaos in mind, giving us frameworks to make black and white signal from shades of grey noise.

Design in the real world isn’t a GCSE project where we’re all hoping to get an A.  It’s the process of making deliberate decisions (and avoiding arbitrary ones) in pursuit of a future–focused objective, influenced by a series of relevant historic, current and future factors. In fact, many of the methodologies which we have available to us are focused around solving problems in the real world with all its messiness:

When the problem is poorly defined

When the solution requires innovation

When the problem requires collaboration

When more than one solution is possible

When the problem is noisy and ambiguous

Design thinking, the double diamond and Cynefin among others, have real value because they bring a deliberateness to the decision–making process, they highlight areas of arbitrariness which previously may have gone unnoticed, and they widen our horizons beyond our immediate view.  In doing so they protect us against some of the key reasons why problem–solving and innovation go wrong:

  • The solution diverges from the problem, typically because the project team lose focus, due to personal preferences, incorrect assumptions and unchallenged bias – design methods start with problem–framing and focus on insight as the means by which the problem will be solved.
  • The solution is too narrowly conceived, causing incremental improvements and not disruption or competitive advantage – design methods give us mechanisms to look both broad and deep, helping us look up and out to the market and to opportunity, not down and in to internal politics and current restrictions.
  • The solution is too blunt, misaligned with user desire and thus lacking nuance and missing opportunities to delight – design methods help us to see our products and services through the lens of our customers and in doing so surface touchpoints and interactions which we can design to the delight of our customers.

I am a proponent of the toolkit of design methodologies we currently possess therefore, simply because they’re the best we’ve got by some distance.

That doesn’t mean I think they’re perfect – of course they’re not, for the reasons outlined above.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think we shouldn’t iterate, hone and improve them – of course we should take our own medicine and improve them over time (as many have done).

That doesn’t mean I don’t think we should introduce new processes as they emerge – of course the kit can only become more powerful where there are more tools in the box.

On a more practical note, I’ve yet to hear anyone argue coherently what might replace the toolkit we currently have available to us.

American Engineer Henry Petroski summarised it best when reflecting on a 50–year professional career devoted to the analysis of failure, “Successful design is not the achievement of perfection but the minimization and accommodation of imperfection.”

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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