Why Design Thinking Won’t Help You

Part I — Two Important Points

D esign thinking is hype. Not a day goes by without someone — teacher, designer, consultant — mentioning it. But who really knows what it means?

Let’s break things down.

To start off, the word design itself is not totally clear. One reason is that it’s used in many contexts and fields, from the arts, to science to…well, design.

Is design the look and feel of a product or service? The binding relation between the aesthetics of a product or service and the technology that it incorporates? Does it apply in the same way to products and services? Or does the word design essentially refer to the act of creating, i.e. a process? Or is it all of the above?

Of course, we can turn to sister Wikipedia or brother Merriam-Webster for wisdom. But the definitions they give are hardly useful in our analysis of design thinking as a whole.

Some designers help us better grasp the essence of design by describing what “good design” is but, of course, knowing what’s good or bad design is different to knowing what design actually is.


So if the definition of design is unclear, how do we expect people to understand precisely what design thinking is? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking that thinking is by essence one of the most difficult words to define clearly.

Definitions such as this one aren’t very helpful:

From http://designthinking.postach.io/post/what-is-design-thinking

Fortunately, for those who have already heard of design thinking or have some interest in it (i.e. have read lots on the topic or, even better, have applied it), it is a problem-solving methodology founded on:

  • user-centred innovation (involving the end user at the heart of the method), and
  • iteration (your prototype and product is meant to be constantly evolving thanks to users’ feedback).

These two characteristics are actually common to the lean startup methodology, in which customer involvement and repetition are central themes.

The never ending process of lean startup

The design-thinking and lean startup methodologies are both extremely popular since they offer clear frameworks and guidelines meant to help create products/services that answer customer needs. Their aim is to offer a solution to an existing problem. This means, at least in theory, that the newly created product or service will be useful and, more importantly, SELL.

But although these two approaches have helped many companies elaborate new products/services, they are not a miracle recipe for success and have their flaws. Here are the two major challenges faced by design thinking and lean startup methodologies:

1 — First hurdle: finding out what people (really) want

Most people, in addition to being predictably irrational, are not very good at speaking honestly about their future behaviour. This is due to several reasons.

  • Firstly, there is a difference between imagining using something, using it just once to review it, and actually using it on the long term. When New Coke was launched, it had received positive feedback from group tasting, but it didn’t succeed as expected: this is due to the fact that people enjoyed its taste on testing day, but didn’t consider drinking it over a week or so.
  • Secondly, depending on the way you ask users for their opinion, they might not answer truthfully. This happened to Michal Bohanes, founder of the failed startup Dinnr. He explains in this great piece why you should be extremely cautious about what people say during market survey. In short, most of the time:

- People want to make you, the courageous founder or the interviewer, happy

- People are too optimistic about their future behaviour (especially when it has an aspirational halo around it)

- People will judge for others although they themselves might only use it occasionally

So how can you check if an idea is any good? Michal provides two ways of making sure the validity of a business concept:

  • A way to have an honest answer is not to ask about their future intentions but to look into their past behaviour. This will help you picture how exactly your new product/service might fit in their day-to-day habits.
  • You can also ask for commitment (read: $$$) straight away to check if your idea is any good. If people are willing to help you on the spot, it means they believe it will bring them value. If they don’t, you’re not solving an actual problem, and you should rethink your plans.

One book Michal mentions for doing good customer research is the Mom Test, so have a look at it if you’re interested in learning more about this. I’m currently reading it, a review will be available soon.

2 — Second hurdle: creating radical innovation and value

The second challenge regarding design thinking is that it hardly helps to create unique products or services. Since it is founded on answering people’s needs and solving their problems, any company with decent market research can see what needs to be done. As Roberto Verganti argues, most users are trapped in their vision of the world and can hardly imagine radically different products. This leads companies who rely mainly on user-centred innovation to design products or services are likely to succeed, but not create radically new products like…the iPhone, or any other trendsetting product that changed standards and redefined entire industries.

In his talk “Why the Majority is Always Wrong”, Paul Rulkens argues that if you want to have results that you’ve never had before, you need to start doing things that you’ve never done before. Following the norms of your industry will restrain your actions in a box (hence the “think out of the box” mantra) and will only lead you get the results that everyone else is getting. If you’re looking for extraordinary results, you should quit fixing things using a methodology that everyone is also applying and move to massive innovation. And by that, I believe, Paul actually adresses the topic that will be addressed in the second part of this article: design-driven and radical innovation.

These are the two flaws of design-thinking, let me know your thoughts in the comments. In the next post, we’ll talk about design-driven innovation and how it can lead to radical new products and services. Think of the iPhone, the Wii, Swatch or the Dyson fan.

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