Rethinking Design Thinking

More disciplined research will enable design thinkers to create better, more human-centered designs

Robert J. Morais
Nov 20, 2020 · 6 min read
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Design Thinking has been championed and vilified. IDEO CEO Tim Brown defines it as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Design Thinking, contends IDEO, “can transform the way organizations develop products, services, and strategy.” In contrast, Natasha Iskander wrote recently that, “When it comes to design thinking, the bloom is off the rose,” citing Natasha Jen’s Design Thinking is B.S. Christian Madsbjerg, author of the book, Sensemaking, argues that Design Thinking is a “bullshit tornado,” dismissing the approach as anti-intellectual and “unhelpful to creative thinkers.” Madsbjerg puts his finger on a central problem with Design Thinking: Although design thinkers claim to discover needs, wants, and emotional hot buttons, they often conduct what Madsbjerg calls “drive-by anthropology.” In fact, their detailed methods for understanding and obtaining the holy grail of empathy for their subjects are largely invisible other than references to techniques like ethnography, which they seem to characterize (incorrectly) as interviews.

This article starts with the premise that while Design Thinking has value, there are yawning gaps in the research components of the process. My perspective emanates from qualitative market research, so I favor books on market-driven interviewing, focus groups, and ethnography such as Talking to Humans by Giff Constable, Qualitative Consumer & Marketing Research by Russell Belk, Eileen Fischer, and Robert V. Kozinets, and Practical Ethnography by Sam Ladner. To be fair, there are savvy researchers engaged in design initiatives, but for designers in need of research discipline, the following are proven techniques that will enhance their discovery and assessment processes. These methods are used by research professionals for strategic planning, product and service innovation, and user experience (UX). The techniques included here are not exhaustive, but they offer a way forward for more disciplined and revealing design-related research.

Before turning to specific methods, it is worth noting that effective qualitative research, the research mode that design thinkers prefer, begins with the crafting of actionable learning needs rather than “nice to knows.” Interview guides should allow for semi-structured conversations rather than rapid Q&A so that respondents have time to answer in depth. Rapport should be established with respondents, and care must be taken to avoid leading questions, e.g., How much do you agree or disagree rather than How much do you agree. Attention must be paid to respondents’ facial and body language; non-verbal cues can reveal discomfort and contradictory feelings that should be explored. A good interviewer will seek more than simple answers and probe for the deeper “why” behind them.

The Discovery Phase

Design thinkers explore human needs and wants to inspire innovative solutions. Their precise discovery tools are vague, but observations and interviews play a substantial role. Here are specific ways designers can deepen their understanding of and empathy for their subjects. These tools are drawn from anthropology, psychology, and classic qualitative market research.

· Some design thinkers embrace the notion of a beginner’s mind, but they do not appear to have a protocol for starting there. Purposeful naivety is used by anthropologists to reduce their bias. That posture also helps unveil the core meaning of an artifact, experience, or relationship from the respondent’s point-of-view. An interviewer might ask a respondent to assume the interviewer just arrived from Mars and, depending upon the design focus, define, What is a dog? What is a meeting? What is a newspaper? What is a luxury hotel? The follow-up discussion can open up new vistas for products, services, and environments.

· Triadic Sorting is a technique that reveals how respondents perceive three different people, places, or things, and it can be valuable for understanding a competitive context. For example, respondents could compare and contrast one brand vs. the other two on any given criteria and then continue the comparisons and contrasts.

· Laddering is a tool that helps researchers access what a brand, service, or experience accomplishes functionally and emotionally for a respondent. Queries that follow each response enable the interviewer to arrive at “higher-order” emotional end benefits.

· Deprivation Scenarios: Respondents are asked what they would do if their preferred brand or service or organizational practice was not available. That question can reveal how and why they would choose alternatives.

· Projective tools such as respondent created collages and the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique utilize images as springboards to enable respondents to express ideas and sentiments about brands, services, and experiences that might not be accessed in direct questioning.

· Storytelling is a means for respondents to speak expansively and contextually. Through their stories, respondents can convey their product, service, or organizational experiences in full, including the trials, successes, and personal transformations those experiences engender.

Ethnography was invented by anthropologists a century ago and applied later to organizations and marketing. It entails naturalistic observation and interviewing in the spaces that subjects live, work, shop, and play. Ethnographies, unlike surveys and focus groups, reveal discrepancies between what people say they do and what they actually do, and uncover needs and wants people might not express or even realize they have. A consumer ethnographer might spend 90 minutes in subjects’ homes in order to comprehend how they engage with a product category, then accompany them on a visit to a store or a web site and watch and interview them while they shop in that category. An organizational ethnographer might observe workers during hands-on manufacturing and executives in management meetings. Design ethnographers should become immersed in the lives of their subjects in real time — even briefly — to discover the impact and reactions to their designs holistically. Ethnography is a potent way for design researchers to gain empathy during the Discovery Phase of their process. It can also be applied during the Testing Phase.

The Testing Phase

Minimal viable products (MVP) are often used by designers to learn how potential users experience their ideas and to seek direction for improvements. A combination of well-conducted ethnographies and structured interviews is a highly effective approach for assessing designs, and it is used commonly by UX researchers.

Ethnographic Approach

• Respondents should be observed using the MVP version of a redesigned product or service in a natural setting or, as appropriate, functioning in a revamped organizational or architectural environment. It is best to observe respondents initially without questioning, then subsequently ask them to verbalize their perceptions as they proceed. The experience should be broken down into discrete moments of use and respondents should be queried about what they are thinking and feeling during each moment.

Structured Interviews During the Ethnographies

• Comprehension of the design. Is it clear what it is/does?

• How likely would you be to buy or use it on a 1–5 scale (5 = Extremely likely)?

• Why didn’t you make your number higher?

• Why didn’t you make your number lower?

• Is this design valuable for you, e.g., is it worth the price you would pay or the life-style/work changes you would need to make? Help me understand why you feel that way.

• How distinctive is this idea from similar ideas you have seen or experienced?

• How might this design impact your life?

• Would you recommend this design to a friend? Why/Why not?

• Assume you could participate in the development of this design. How would you improve it? What would you add? What would you subtract?

This kind of systematic, disciplined research will compel some design thinkers to rethink their learning processes. Their reward will be richer user personas, multidimensional customer journey maps, and access to a fuller array of their subjects’ experiences, perceptions, and values. The revelations will enable them to produce better human informed — and more human centered — designs.

Voice and Value

collaborative provocations and stories that deepen our perspective on society, culture, and our future. We connect the dots between storytelling, research, business, career development and making an impact

Robert J. Morais

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Robert J. Morais is a Lecturer at Columbia Business School. A Ph.D. in anthropology, his 35+ years in business encompass advertising and market research.

Voice and Value

collaborative provocations and stories that deepen our perspective on society, culture, and our future. We connect the dots between storytelling, research, business, career development and making an impact