The Design Process Dilemma: How to Align Process, Problems, and Stakeholders

Brian Hauch
NYC Design
Published in
8 min readApr 8, 2018


Design Thinking. Co-creation Workshops. Creative Problem Solving. Brainstorming. Gamestorming. Gamification. Agile Sprints. Storytelling. Human-Centered Design. Rapid Prototyping. Divergent Thinking. Convergent Thinking. Service Design. Lean Process.

With so many process options, how should a designer solve a problem?

Design processes have been around for as long as design itself. But over the last quarter century, process obsession multiplied our choices and created confusion. Currently, the design community scrutinizes process as much as the final deliverable. Therefore, understanding how process connects to the final deliverable, not just process in isolation, is key to innovating more effectively.

Too many processes and tools: The Toolification of Design

Design is on the verge of believing it is more about using the latest tool than understanding “Why should we make it?” and “How can we make it desirable?” The design industry thrives because, in a world full of ambiguous strategy, numerical spreadsheets and mechanical engineering, we make things for people. We must remember, focusing on making things for people is different than focusing on choosing a design tool for our process. Process selection is not problem solving.

Too few processes and tools: Everything is “Design Thinking”

Design thinking is marketed as a universal methodology for design problems — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. If that is true, the challenge of applying a universal design process to all problems is it either make naive assumptions about the problem or over-complicates a straight-forward solution.

Design thinking is a lightweight design process, bridging between multiple languages, multiple visions, and multiple skills solving a shared problem. In a world that is getting more complex, we need more than designers working on a designed solution to make it desirable, feasible and viable. Therefore, design thinking, regardless of how it is marketed, provides value to business and people.

Start with the problem

Modern design leaders must have the ability to apply critical thinking to problem context. Then be fluent enough to choose and apply the right process based on the problem. For example, rather than saying, “How might we use UX processes to solve this problem?” We should first ask, “Is this a UX problem?”

How do we connect the problem to the process? Begin by asking three questions to understand the stakeholder problem context then select the right process based on the desired outcome.

Question 1: How should design express itself?
Question 2: What is the level of stakeholder agreement?
Question 3: What is the degree of solution clarity?

How should design express itself? Making or Shaping
Design can focus on making things or shaping mindsets. When design is in making mode it makes tangible, static objects such as a product, service or experience. “Making activities” include graphic design, industrial design, architecture or UI/UX. When design is in shaping mode it facilitates intangible, dynamic elements such as team mindsets, business models or open system experiences. “Shaping activity” examples might include planning exercises, strategic visioning or exploratory design thinking.

What is the level of stakeholder agreement? Unified or Divergent
On every project, disharmony exists making it hard to define what is agreement. While there may be different biases, we should ask, is their a common objective reality of the situation? Do stakeholders agree on the base priorities or the general need?

Look for unified agreement clues like: is there an internal champion for the project? Have traditional project management processes been effective in moving things forward? If the answer to either of these is yes, then this might be a high agreement project even if there are dissenters.

What is the degree of outcome clarity? High or Low
When looking at the project itself, is there a creative brief with a solid understanding of cause and effect? Do past experiences serve as a foundation for moving forward?If the answer to these questions is yes, then there might be a high certainty on how to move forward and what to make.

However, clarity has many fathers. Clarity can come from knowing the user context. Or, clarity can come from knowing what has always worked in the past. Clarity might also come from fear of change. Do these clarity motives point us in the right direction? Sometimes the feeling of current clarity doesn’t lead to future desirability. In these instances, we may need to reframe the vision or de-risk new concepts before moving forward.

Stakeholder problem types

At this point, we’ve stepped back and thought about the context of the design problem. Based on the answers to agreement and clarity, the designer should respond with different work modes and process selection. High agreement and clarity situations work well with design as making — making a specific thing to solve a known problem. Low agreement and clarity situations work well with design as shaping — guiding people through an unknown problem.

Lets unpack process selection through the lens of stakeholder mindsets and example tools to use for each context.

How might we create desirable things?

High agreement and clarity are trademarks of a traditional design problem. Therefore, design can move quickly to making moments of elegance. Traditional design practices function well in this zone because everyone agrees on the problem and knows the solution. And innovation happens through superior execution. Design should follow the best practices establish by the design discipline required to bring the concept to life (graphic design, UX, IA, industrial design, etc).

How might we reframe the vision?

A problem in this zone requires design to break down barriers and reframe vision. Processes to systematically unpack a problem work well in this politically charged environment. Here, the design process selection emphasizes gaining alignment, not evolving concepts. Design functions as blend of making and shaping for conversation design.

A Small Tool (project): Root Cause Analysis–Connecting abstract ideas to functional activities can help build trust and a shared language.

A Medium Tool (team): Co-creation Workshop–Design thinking activities guide people through a shared experience of exploring the problem from multiple angles.

A Large Tool (many teams): SAFe–Promotes alignment, collaboration, and delivery across large numbers of agile teams.

How might we de-risk concepts?

Problems with an unclear path forward move slowly. People agree on the vision, but the process to move forward is unknown because it is new with unknown risks. Here, design processes lead with iterating on concepts and making to think.There is some degree of alignment needed, so it is good have the making exercises be inclusive of different skillsets.

A Small Tool (project): Low-Fidelity Prototypes–Quick, iterative prototypes allows for multiple rounds of feedback in a short period of time.

A Medium Tool (team): Ethnography and Contextual Research — Bringing in the voice of the customer into the boardroom can help to shift the conversation.

A Large Tool (many teams): Business Model Design–Instead of designing concepts to fit within a business model, consider how the business model should evolve to support the concepts.

How might we find footing to move forward?

Problems in this zone have little alignment and little certainty. And a history of failure holds back the team. Here design leads with empathy to create a foundation of trust to move forward and challenge each other. In this quadrant, design is focused on people and culture. Alignment can’t occur because there is no objective reality of the situation and de-risking ideas can’t occur because there is too much concept volatility.

A Small Tool (project): World Cafe–An event where divergent points of view are explored to build empathy and understanding.

A Medium Tool (team): Appreciative Inquiry–The process of learning how to have conversations and reframe problems.

A Large Tool (many teams): Innovation pipeline/portfolio–Generative, external research to bring in diversity of thought, scale and recombination into uncharted terrain and adjacent opportunities.

What if we start with design activity, not the problem?

Selecting a design process without stakeholder and problem analysis may result in frustrated people and uninspiring things. For example, forcing a process built for “Creating Desirability” into “Reframing Vision”. Designers and stakeholders will feel the misalignment with a constantly shifting vision and an underwhelming deliverable.

What if we over-extend a tool to serve two or more problems?

It is up to the designer to unpack the problem and curate a series of processes focused at the different stakeholder problem quadrants. And not stretch a single process to solve two quadrants. Such as co-creation workshop designed for alignment to also become an ethnography tool designed to de-risk ideas. It may feel like the ideas are de-risked but the ideas are still isolated from the outside world. And moving into execution may be pre-mature without mindful de-risking.

Problem context should drive the design process

Problems are unstructured. Problems live in one, two, three or all quadrants. Designers who are fluent in a variety of design processes will be more and more valuable as complexity increases. The ability to step back and read the problem before assigning process is key to creating value in the complex world.

Design is not about which analytical process we choose, but how we choose to balance analysis and synthesis for our customers and clients.

The inspiration for the stakeholder analysis comes from the Stacey Matrix and Cynefin Framework.



Brian Hauch
NYC Design

I believe the best digital solutions balance the practical demands of business with the investigative nature of design.