Why Moving Prototyping From The Solution Space To The Problem Space Is Key To Unlocking The Power Of Design Thinking

Traditionally, prototyping is used to test out different solutions. Testing with a prototype is cheaper and faster than testing with fully developed products and services. You can make a prototype to test a part of a solution or try out different approaches. Prototypes are made not as final solutions, but as a way to learn. But if you want to innovate, learning should not be limited to the solution space. To innovate, you first need to gather new insights about your problem, get a fresh perspective on what it is you should solve.

The Double Diamond

The famous Double Diamond design process of the Design Council puts prototyping in the develop phase. In the discover and define phases it puts observe and analyze activities. Once you have made sense of things with all kinds of analysis tools, you can start to develop potential solutions with prototypes. What I have always found strange is that the things you learn while making prototypes are not seen as discovery and defining. The way I see the Double Diamond, you don’t even need designers in the discover and define phase. This is just typical business analysis. Apart from some light visualization in the discover phase, there is no real need for specific design skills it seems. If you ask most people, they will think design only happens in the second diamond.

The Double Diamond design process

The question arises: what can designers add to traditional business analysis in the first diamond?

I’m thinking two things.

A fresh perspective

First designers have a specific way to look at the world. They see it differently, they offer a fresh perspective. With complex problems, it’s not just whether you understand the problem but HOW you understand the problem. There is not one best way when it comes to innovation and having designers do business-analysis-type-of-work can lead to different insights than if a traditional business analyst would do it. The problem is that business analysis tools use a different part of the brain then designers typically use and use a different language that might be challenging to master. But if you can, this will be a valuable skill in complex projects. I use business process modeling in projects to analyze processes from time to time.

A business process based on UML I did for a project

It’s also important to understand the downsides of using models like this. I have written a blog about how thinking in diagrams like this can prevent you from seeing the best solutions:

Make to learn

That is why the second thing designers can bring to a business process analysis is so powerful. The second thing designers can bring to the discovery and definition of the problem phases is making stuff. If prototyping, making stuff, is such a powerful tool for learning, bringing people together, creating a common language, making things concrete, engaging people, then why wait until the development phase? If you see prototypes not as possible solutions but as a way to ask questions, a way to find the problem, a way to provoke and observe, to learn, you can use it in the discover and define phases as a part of your research.

About problems and solutions

This is a totally different way to navigate the problem space. You don’t analyze all the information that is available to define the problem. Instead, you use solutions to navigate the problem space. You pivot your way to the best solutions instead of analyzing and brainstorming. You operate like a hunter, a sniper. Nothing makes a problem more clear than a possible solution. We did not know that paper maps were such a problem until we saw GPS navigation systems, and command line interfaces were fine until the arrival of the graphical user interface.

Paper maps were not a problem until we saw GPS navigation

In fact, I don’t think there is a separate problem space and a separate solution space like the Double Diamond suggest. I like to see it as a problem-solution space through which you have to navigate in iterations in which you learn about the problem through solutions. The relation of problems and solutions is not linear. Solutions define problems as much as problems define solutions. Today’s complex problems are too complex to analyze completely in advance. On top of that, if you wait until you completely understand the problem, the situation has already changed. You have to move before you are ready, prototype before you have all the information.

If you combine the problem space and the solution space, you get a problem-solution space

That is what makes design thinking design thinking. Thinking by doing, learning by making. Of course, you need some research to have a starting point for your prototype. I’m not against traditional research and analysis, but I learned that if you stay too long in the business process analysis mindset and context, you severely limit your capacity for creative problem-solving. Design thinking can open up new ways to learn, to discover the problem. I would even go as far as arguing that a crappy developed solution to the right problem is far more effective than a beautifully designed answer to the wrong question. Traditionally designers only get asked to work on the answers, but the true value of design (thinking) lies in working on the questions. So many of the worlds most used applications looked like shit when they were first launched, but they were shitty answers to the right problem.

Design really shines when it can work on discovering problems, not only on developing solutions. Design (thinking) is not only about problem-solving, but also about problem finding. That is the key to unlocking the power of design thinking: to see design as a way to think, to analyze, to discover, to research.


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