The most common pitfalls in Design Thinking

Mohamed Fakihi
Sep 16, 2019 · 12 min read

I have always been a supporter of the design thinking methodology. I have been heavily using it with my teams for many years. I held talks and workshops about Design Thinking and Lean and the benefits it can bring to organisations. However, for the past years I have often witnessed situations where Design thinking does not help the organisation. Sometimes, it was actually what some would describe as an epic fail.

Design thinking is a very hyped innovation process that is praised in the press and conferences, but the truth is that Design thinking and all co-creation initiatives fail far more often than they do succeed. And this is what this article is about.

First, let’s start with a small reminder of what design thinking is. If I use the words from Tim Brown the from IDEO:

“Design thinking is 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.”.

In other words, Design thinking is a methodology to efficiently create innovation. It allows us to design products that people desire, while making sure that those products are not only technically feasible but that they are economically viable as well. So, as you can see now, innovation sits at the intersection of Design, Technology and Business.

The key word about Design thinking is that it is a methodology. Hence, it is a process that can be learned. The Design Thinking typical process consists of 5 steps or Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. This process is what is the most powerful about the design thinking methodology and one of its biggest assets. Thanks to its 5-step process, Design Thinking actually demystifies design for the business. Design is not this fluffy and almost esoteric thing practiced by capricious geniuses who smoke weed anymore. Thanks to Design Thinking, it is a methodology that can be learned and applied by anyone. This is what actually makes Design Thinking so attractive for business decision makers and that we are seeing more and more companies adopting it.

After seeing Design Thinking applied in many organisations, I started noticing a pattern that they all have the same thing in common. Whomever you’d ask in such organisation who have seen Design Thinking in action will tell you the same thing: “Since we started using Design Thinking, everything is getting better”. It was almost automatic, and it was quite fascinating to see repeat this every time.

Later on, I decided to call this phenomenon the Design Thinking Honey moon. Why is that?

Because in almost all the aforementioned cases, after a certain period of time passes, when I asked the same people about Design Thinking I would get a completely different feedback such as:

“We tried it but it doesn’t work for us.”,

“We did Design Thinking and it didn’t change anything”,

“We didn’t see much value out of it”,

Or “Our teams did not like it”

In short, what they were all saying was that Design Thinking not only does not work but that Everything Gets Worse Fast because of it

This is what this article is all about. I want us to take a look at some of the most common reasons why Design Thinking fails.

We can indeed identify two categories of reasons why Design Thinking fails:

1. The process
2. and the people

Of course, this doesn’t mean that these are the only two reasons there is, but it is the most common ones.

Practice and master the process

The first step is commonly known as the empathise phase. Empathy is the most important tool of the designer when working with clients, users, and customers. To generate innovative design, we must understand the wants and needs of the potential product or service users. Empathic design or user-centered design is all about understanding the psychological and emotional needs of people. This changes the business paradigm where we would build a product and then look for a market segment to sell it to. Instead, we first choose the market segment we want to sell to and we go from there to design a product or service they want and need.

The empathise step usually starts with building your user or customer persona. Most of the teams working with product and service design are familiar with personas and today it is usually something very common in marketing. Personas, unlike customer segments, are easier to empathise with. They are based on the analysis and research of real users and customers, which helps having a much more detailed picture of the ideal user or customer.

What I have often observed is that most teams don’t spend enough time on personas, and they rush into the next phases with half-baked personas. Working with personas can indeed be daunting, especially when we “Know the customers”. A lot of teams can find this work tedious and it might feel like a waste of effort. If you already have a product on the market and some market segmentation, your teams might see this as redundant work where you just put existing information in boxes. Whilst, if you are targeting a new market or looking for product-market fit, the teams can find it hard to collect the right information needed to build the persona and properly split the potential users into homogeneous groups. In all cases, one thing is true — you can never ask too many times the WH questions: Who, what, why and how.

Learn more: User personas — What are they and how to build them?

Keep in mind that if your personas are not right, anything you do afterwards will be going in the wrong direction. So why risk it and not just spend enough time on your personas until you are confident you know whose problem you’re solving?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Many have probably come across this quote from Einstein, as it is often used to illustrate the importance of first understanding the problem before looking for a solution. So, you can guess it, another common mistake that can lead to the Design Thinking initiative’s failure is a bad problem statement during the Define step of the process.

It is of the outmost importance not to start the ideation step before you have properly defined your problem statement. Quite often, organisations are struggling with defining problem statements. The teams are so caught in fire-fighting that they often forget their cadence and that they have to regularly stop and reflect on their actions and priorities. You know your organisation has issues in the define step when you start witnessing a lot of friction between the client-facing teams such as sales, support and the design teams. This can happen because they both perceive different things as the reality and do not have a common understanding of what is the customer or user problem to solve.

Learn more: Problem statements — How to make sure you are fixing the right problem

Fast thinking, slow thinking and the groan zone

The Groan Zone

As I mentioned above, in the ideation phase we get to use the first and second system of thinking. Which means that we have to use our fast thinking in a divergent phase to generate as many ideas as possible, and then we have to use our slow thinking to analyse and curate the ideas. The graphic above depicts how you transition from a divergent to a convergent phase when working in the problem or the solution space. The divergent part is where you are actually brainstorming and shooting as many ideas as possible, while the convergent part is where your structure all these ideas and select the ones you are going to test out. The transition between these two parts is called the groan zone and one of the trickiest parts is to wrap up the divergent part to move on to the convergent one.

In many cases, I have seen facilitators miss the groan zone or have issues managing it. Which often leads to endless brainstorming sessions where we don’t get to closure. On the other hand, some teams tend to fall in the other extreme and tame the divergent zone, which can lead to missed ideas and team members losing faith in the brainstorming process.

Learn more: The ideation magic field — Fast thinking vs slow thinking

In addition, mastering the divergent and groan zone is not enough, it is also key to be aware of the convergent zone because this is what you are going to prototype and test. On average, only 1 out of 3000 ideas. So it is very important to have a common understanding of what is a good idea and put in place the tools to scientifically select ideas, so that you don’t fall in the trap of “it’s my ideas against your ideas” but instead “Let’s look at all these good ideas and find the optimal one”.


If you don’t love your prototype, just change it or kill it.

Learn more: Don’t fall in love with your prototype

The last step, the test phase is where you actually make sure that your assumptions are right. When this step is not properly done, the consequences can be catastrophic. Not only you wasted time on the previous steps for nothing, but you might get false results and mislead your team and organisation’s decisions. Teams that fail because of this step do so because they do not prepare their tests properly. Testing a prototype without proper preparation is like going in the ring with a heavy weight boxer with no training. It is pure suicide.

Learn more: On the importance of being prepared for tests

In the next section, I will talk about the people issues that might lead to the failure of a Design Thinking adoption. I believe that these pitfalls are the ones we should focus on first because not only fixing people issues is way harder than fixing process issues but even if you fix your process without fixing your people issues it just won’t work.

Validate your organisation readiness

Creative atmosphere vs creative environment

In one of my previous companies, we decided to adopt a more user-centric strategy and implement design thinking and a lean approach to product development. We invested heavily in reshaping the workspace to facilitate intra-team and inter-team communication, collaboration and co-creation. We built a dedicated design space and a dedicated creativity room with all the bells and whistles à la Google. So, we had a creative environment and it worked pretty well in the beginning, but I missed the fact that although we had a creative environment, we didn’t have a creative atmosphere.

What I should have paid attention to were symptoms of a lack of a creative atmosphere. One of these symptoms came from my two partners at the time. They were very old-school business people who so far had only experienced classic brick-and-mortar businesses and this was their first tech startup venture. First, they were very resistant to the idea of “wasting” resources and space which is a clear symptom of organisational unreadiness for co-creation and lack of buy-in. In addition, after we created the creative spaces, they were constantly complaining that the employees were always in those meetings. I would everyday get feedback that would sound like:

Why are they in meeting all the time?

Why are they just having fun there?

When are they going to work?

What are we paying them for?

Guess what happened? People stopped doing meetings. Which of course meant they stopped being creative and collaborate. As a result, we not only lost all the progress we had made so far, but things got worse, faster.

Learn more: How to build a creative atmosphere beyond just a creative environment

With that experience, I learned the lesson that you can invest crazy amounts of money in a creative environment. But If you don’t trust your team, you can’t build a creative atmosphere and without a creative atmosphere you cannot succeed at Design Thinking and innovation.

Avoid empty empowerment

Very often, especially in smaller companies, you can see management doing what is called empty empowerment. They would give very challenging goals to their teams without any support or training, sometimes without the basic resources required to achieve those goals. Therefore, setting them for an inevitable failure.

Real empowerment means that you can only establish challenging goals for an organisation, if its people have practiced and learned an effective way of meeting them. This means literally that coaching is a prerequisite to empowerment. If you try to implement Design Thinking in an organisation where the teams did not have the time and resources to practice and learn Design Thinking methodologies and tools in a safe environment, it will only lead to failure and frustration.

In addition to the above, coaching by its nature of an ongoing activity requires constant observation and correction. So, for coaching to be effective it has to be performed by people who are constantly with the coached teams. This is why it is usually not very effective to hire external coaches or have some kind of “Design Thinking committee” for several teams. The people best fit to coach their teams are either line managers or team leads because they are constantly in touch with the team members and have already setup a rapport with them.

To summarise

  • Practice and master the process
  • Validate your organisation readiness before doing anything
  • Create a creative atmosphere not just a fancy creative environment
  • The managers are the best coaches so train your managers properly

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +788K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Mohamed Fakihi

Written by

Entrepreneur, investor and social activist turning ideas into reality at the forefront of technology innovation and business strategy.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Mohamed Fakihi

Written by

Entrepreneur, investor and social activist turning ideas into reality at the forefront of technology innovation and business strategy.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store