‘Design Thinking is fundamentally conservative’ — Digital design thinking is not

Traditional Design Thinking is designed to fit a consultancy business model — and by that offers some challenges to projects concerning uncertainty, which I will argue includes most customer related projects.

For one design thinking demands a designer deity (the consultant has to be essential in order to produce revenue) and it is limited in time (who would want to pay for a potentially endless project).

Setting up design thinking as a digital tool with digital design thinking gives the method to the organization — and removes the boundaries to innovation created by the consulting business model.

In her article Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo Natasha Iskander forcefully argues against traditional Design Thinking pointing out some of the weaknesses of the methodology.

Reading her article I’m boiling the argument down into to key points:

1.Design Thinking is an elitist approach, giving the designer the divine right to translate ambiguity into new ideas. It is not a democratic process acknowledging that an idea can come from anyone.

“Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process. In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty”

“..it reaffirms the privileged role of the designer, positioning her as the vessel through which all the implicit understandings that make it into the final design must first pass. She is the instrument that transforms messy ambiguity into the clean lines of an elegant solution.”

2.Design Thinking is defined in time and space, by its limitations (it does not scale) and by design (it’s a largely linear process performed within a defined time frame in order to produce ideas — which then a different process can implement as the design thinking process has ended).

In arguing against this Iskander describes a different approach, which she identifies as interpretive engagement, which solves a lot of the issues design thinking presents:

“It illustrates a design process where the designer is dethroned and where design is less a step-by-step march through a set of stages and more of a space where people can come together and interpret the ways that changing conditions challenge the meanings, patterns, and relationships that they had long taken for granted.”

“That process of interpretation can be unpredictable, sometimes unwieldy in both form and in duration, impossible to chart, and often only visible in retrospect. But it is precisely this inchoate messiness that makes interpretation generative: the insights people stumble upon by accident or patch together on the fly not only provide the basis for innovative solutions. They also allow a complete re-imagination of what counts as a solution to begin with.”

Personally I wholeheartedly agree with Iskander and her argument that traditional design thinking needs to be continuously improved. And it has been the conscious decision of Digital Design Thinking to solve some of these weaknesses in the method.

As we have worked to accommodate our tool to the agile organization we have looked at Steve Denning’s argument, in his article Explaining Agile:

“The organization operates with an interactive communication dynamic, both horizontally and vertically. Anyone can talk to anyone. Ideas can come from anywhere, including customers. As a network, the organization becomes a growing, learning, adapting living organism that is in constant flux to exploit new opportunities and add new value for customers.”

“All parts of the organization are continuously exploring how to add more value to customers.”

- Steve Denning, Explaining Agile

I will also argue that this is supported by Dave Snowden, author of the Cynefin model, one of the variants fo agile:

[paraphrasing]: The analyst will always bring their world view to the process and will act as a filter to the organization based on their world view, political perspectives etc..

And again, pointed out by Iskander:

“As any ethnographer worth her salt will admit, this subjectivity is inevitable, and that is why disciplines that rely on empathetic engagement for data collection stress the importance of paying attention to the researcher’s identity and political positioning.”

Digital design thinking promotes that any idea can come from anyone at any time in the organization (or amongst its customers) and so the tool has to make sure that the data is available at any time and in a format that makes it usable — meaning both understandable and motivating to engage with.

Agile is a continuous process, and so digital design thinking — being designed to fit agile, is also a continuous process. It captures and represents data every second, hour or day (whichever makes most sense for the nature of the project), and it keeps on doing it continuously, easily adjusting to new requirements as the project matures and improves.

Continue reading about digital design thinking on https://www.digitaldesignthinking.io



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Helge Tennø

Helge Tennø

Founder and Principal at Jokull AS