Dear Corporate Design Thinkers: You are Not The User — and Why That’s a Good Thing

Like many a good idea whose time has come — cubicles¹, blockchain²— the concept of design thinking has morphed from its origins as an on-the-fringes approach into a popularized tool now deployed deep into the belly of corporate America. I am a first-hand witness.

Think… like a designer

For those of you who are unfamiliar (?!), design thinking in its simplest form is an alternative approach to problem solving that borrows from the design discipline — no artistic ability required.

What does this mean in theory? It means putting the user at the center of the problem-solving process, thinking outside the box to generate ideas, and being open to experimentation and iteration. It means pushing to understand what users actually need, welcoming any and all ideas, and testing the best ideas through prototyping and refinement. It means creativity, cross-disciplinary teams, and collaboration.

To increase adoption, sets of artifacts and practices have been articulated and packaged by academics (Stanford’s d-school), consultancies (IDEO), and yes, even corporations (IBM). Some weighted average of these kits is what is now commonly used by everyday design thinkers: user personas, empathy maps, ideation sessions, prioritization grids, “how might we” statements, journey maps — the list of tools goes on.

But, what does this mean in practice? If harnessed well, the premise goes, design thinking can deliver better results that truly meet user (or customer or employee) needs. In addition to reviving the use of Post-Its and 3M’s relevance, design thinking has brought the world such varied products and services as: Apple’s first computer mouse, Colgate’s electric toothbrush comeback, the AirBnB success story, and GE’s kid-friendly (aka not terrifying) MRI experience.

Design Think… in Corporate America

Bringing design thinking into corporate America should translate into increased organic innovation, more highly engaged teams, and new product development that delights consumers. While there are many skeptics out there³, I actually am a true believer… of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

While design thinking is not the elusive silver-bullet-we-claim-doesn’t-exist-yet-hunt-for-anyway, it’s got decent bones. Innovation is important for growth; ideation is key to innovation. Design thinking has great tools for this. Staying user-focused is also incredibly important — not just for a company’s bottom line but also for a company’s soul/brand. Cross-functional groups that design thinking sessions bring together usually come with a greater diversity of thought, which is a good thing. And, by all means, please hand me more Post-its and sharpies and less Powerpoint decks.

And yet, the skepticism holds (bath)water. For every successful workshop I have been a part of in my stints in Corporate America, there were at least two others that were a complete waste of time — ideas sat on the shelf or did not meet user needs, or engagement was incredibly low.

So where does the design thinking promise breakdown? I’m going to argue that it’s mostly user error. Half-baked attempts lead to half- or entirely unbaked results.

One mistake I see regularly is the tendency towards what I’ll call experiential narcissism. It’s that subtle slip into conflating your personal experience as a participant in the process with the experience of the user you are designing for — either out of intellectual laziness or a sense of self-importance. This tendency ultimately skews the outcome of the design thinking process, moves the discussion away from the problem at hand, and breaks a cardinal rule borrowed from the UX world: you are not the user.

Anyone is capable of committing this error, but the usual suspects typically are not the product managers, UX leads, or designers. Who, then, you ask? People with limited imaginations. Stakeholders with slightly more power. Busy executives. And due to the corporate-culture-power-dynamic-syndrome, the tendency can be infectious. Once someone important enough veers into this territory, the entire conversation easily derails even with the most talented facilitator at the reins.

So, for all those struggling corporate design thinkers, here are a few quick reminders you can keep in your back pocket for when you need to wrangle your boss or stakeholder back to the matter (and user) at hand.

YOU ARE NOT THE USER AND WHY THAT’S A GOOD THING

  1. It’s actually not about you, dummy. If the point of any business is to return value to shareholders (suspend disbelief, all you bleeding hearts) then everyone’s job in the business is to meet customer needs AKA increase willingness to pay AKA make more money. So, don’t make it about your problem — make it about the customer (or future customer) problem.
  2. Even if it’s actually about you, get a second (and third and fourth) opinion. The probability of you being the primary target user of your product is pretty darn slim, but if that happens to be the case then mazel! Even so, in the spirit of design thinking, you should incorporate and evaluate perspectives from others as you bring your own experience to bear. More perspectives typically means more ideas — which might just lead to the idea.
  3. Focusing on the user and not on yourself probably means you’re on the right track. Assuming you’ve done well in articulating the business opportunity, problem statement, and user in need, then being maniacally user-centered will keep you headed in the right direction. Having a user persona (or two) at the heart of your team’s project is also a quick and easy device for re-centering on goals and plotting the path ahead. WWUserD?
The only dummies welcome in design thinking

If the above sounds simplistic, it’s because it is — at least in concept. Having the discipline to actually stick to it is not as simple, especially if you’re the lone voice for the process. But for those who manage to, I strongly believe better results will await — whether your KPIs are fewer pointless workshops and wasted hours, or better performing products and positive customer feedback.

I’m not saying that design thinking or user centered approaches will save us (in fact, they definitely won’t and that Medium post is coming soon…), but snuffing out experiential narcissism and biased blindspots with a good dose of process discipline and self-awareness is a good thing. That’s why I suspect you don’t see many narcissists regularly shipping blockbuster products on their own, though I’ll leave the official study to the academics.

So, Corporate Design Thinkers, go forth, in whatever function you may serve in the big machine and just remember that it’s not about you (or your boss) — it’s about the user.


Notes

1. Cubicles were originally designed with the intent to empower employees (!) but the first, full featured design flopped. Take two, a more modular workspace with less bells and whistles, took off as a cheaper solution to packing employees in to corporate offices… and the rest is Office Space history. More here.

2. Blockchain is mostly a thing because of bitcoin which is mostly a thing because of a bunch of ideological, anti-establishment nerds with strong beliefs about economy and power. Now, the same technology that fueled a movement is fueling corporate frenzy for supply chain operations, contract execution, etc. Oh I C U, ICOs.

3. Here are some skeptical articles if you’d like to read: