Academic Research vs. Design Thinking

The Tortoise and the Hare (1935)

Innovation, a buzz word in health and healthcare today, is central to both academic research and design thinking. As someone who is now working in both areas, I can’t help but think that they can at times be quite similar, and yet can also be diametrically opposed fields.

Academic research is defined as the “careful study of a given subject, field, or problem, undertaken to discover facts or principles,” while design thinking is loosely defined as a creative, human-centered approach, to solving problems (IDEO). As Tim Brown stated in his book Change by Design, “In a design paradigm…the solution is not locked away somewhere waiting to be discovered...” Similar in that their core tenent is to answer questions and solve problems, academic research and design thinking are quite different in their approach. And it is in the approach where the stark differences begin to appear.

The process of design thinking begins with “empathy”, seeing, feeling, and understanding the world through someone else’s experiences. It is through this human-centered approach that solutions to problems are created. In contrast, as an academic researcher, your goal is to observe and document your subject’s experiences, and allow the data to confirm or deny a set hypothesis.

Due to the methodical scientific process, academic research moves at a glacial pace, with years to decades spanning from idea generation to funding, study implementation to publication, and several more years to public utilization. One study showed that it can take approximately 17 years to bring health interventions from the bench to the bedside. Design thinking on the other hand encourages rapid movement through the process and within the process. Iteratively creating and testing ideas and launching new solutions, systems, and products within weeks or months to just a few years. Though, there is no publication confirming that time frame, and herein lies another stark difference.

Academic research requires rigorous testing, statistical analysis, and peer-review to be considered valid, while design thinking, while also necessitating testing, may comparatively lack the rigor of the other. And that is why some, as a recent Chronicles of Higher Education blog post stated, can consider design thinking as “boondoogle”. Though for the record I definitely don’t agree with that assessment.

Both are collaborative in nature with design thinking inviting diversity, and encouraging a wide range of views, skills and experiences from all people along the process. Academic research, and really academia in general, has struggled with the lack of diversity — though my hope is that as a field we are beginning to acknowledge the strength and value diversity plays in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).

In academia, failure is not an option, and academics are encouraged to do whatever they can to extend a project’s life cycle and funding. In addition, since academia has not yet embraced a culture of failure, it is more difficult to publish “null results” and “negative studies”, even though they too add to our library of knowledge. In contrast, design thinking embraces a culture of failure, and encourages the ability to pivot when needed. This is yet another area of divergence between academic research and design thinking— having the “grit” to persist forward versus being ok with “failing fast”.

From my perspective, both academic research and design thinking have a place in the race to solve the world’s problems. Aspects of both are needed at different times to achieve the same goals of decreasing health disparities and increasing solutions to the overabundance of health and healthcare problems we now face. Though I would caution that academic research may soon be left at the back of the pack if it is not more expeditious, agile and inclusive. As for design thinking, only time will tell as to whether this approach has the validity and staying power required to overtake the health innovation race. May the best approach help the world win!