The Missing Part of Design Thinking
Killer ideas might not be what we thought
Design thinking is flawed. And by that I could not just mean the famous methodology with the same name, but since this is one of the main references in design theory, this critique might be a good fit to the whole designer mindset itself.
Let’s quickly review the design thinking approach. There are 3 core activities: inspiration, ideation and implementation.
Inspiration starts with a first immersion into the users’ problems and needs, identifying key players and defining the project scope and boundaries. This part requires a lot of research, where designers get to know the real user concerns, identifying patterns and opportunities. Here we aim to reach a high empathy level with our users and their surrounding world.
Then comes ideation, where we generate innovative ideas based on the intel we’ve got through research. For most designers, this is the enjoyable part. After timeless brainstorming hours, workshops and lots of colorful post-its, we end up with an idea. And not just a simple, plain and lame idea, but the greatest and more accurate one for our project. This killer idea is the one that will truly solve our user needs and save the day one more time in the office.
Finally, at implementation it all sums up to the prototyping part. This is the passage from abstraction to physicality represent this idea in reality through a tangible prototype. This helps us create a simulation to unfold problems, test hypotheses and finally, validate our ideas.
That’s roughly the design thinking process and it all makes sense for most of us. Let’s stop here for a moment and focus now on the killer idea.
We must admit that this idea is kind of a big deal. We as designers focus on it for two thirds of the design process. More than half of our work (in the best case scenarios) is pretty much about the preparation of ourselves to pop an idea and bring it to the world. Designers are kind of an idea machine. We could even say that these ideas have some kind of lifespan. They are stimulated by inspiration, born through ideation and finally they bloom or die with implementation.
We can’t deny it. Ideas are seen as the precious starting point of value generation in any project. They may not be the all-important thing as many creatives seem to think, but they are one of the critical points of every design project.
And since ideas are a fundamental part of problem solving, we should at least know their true nature. And here comes the tricky part of design thinking.
What is an idea? And not just a plain and simple one, but the brightest of all. The idea we choose, the one which for us has the potential to solve a design problem is very special, and to everyone’s surprise, no one knows exactly what it is, nor can define it.
We can say a lot of things about this idea. We can say that it is the result of the ideation part of a design thinking process. Killer ideas are also the foundation of marketing campaigns, brands and even startups.
As a designer, if you try to define an idea you will come with something like this: An idea is a bunch of information, a concept, that serves as the basis to solve a design problem.
We cannot doubt the preeminence of this idea. But what do we mean when we define it as a bunch of information or a concept? This bunch of information is no other thing but other ideas or concepts, which are a bunch of information and so on and so forth.
Some designers could challenge this argument by saying that this idea is not just random intel but the culmination of user research. Interviews, Journey maps, Benchmarks and Blueprints are some examples of resources that give sense to all this data that comes down into the killer idea that will solve a design problem. The fact that we can’t say anything else about ideas but for what they are useful or where they come from is the reason why design thinking is faulled at its core.
An idea is an idea. This is pretty much what we mean so far. There is no clear definition of what a killer idea is and this is the missing part of design thinking. We don’t know for sure what we are creating to give sense to every design solution. Design thinking is based on a vicious cycle, and this is its brutal failure.