How Might We… Avoid the Design Thinking Hype and Make Better Products

Alex Denniston
Sep 21, 2020 · 11 min read

As designers, strategists, developers, and professional problem solvers ourselves, we too have a complicated relationship with the controversial belle of the ball known as Design Thinking. However, rather than lobbing pot shots or claiming our proprietary method is the One True Design Method, we’d rather contribute to the maturation and refinement of the practice.

Many have acknowledged before us that Design Thinking is a good starting point but not a magic bullet. We have little argument that the basic tenets of the process or mindset are valid and hallmarks of a thoughtful problem solving process, whether you choose to label it Design Thinking, Agile, Total Management Quality, or just good ol’ common sense. However, our team has identified three common shortcomings and oversights we’ve observed both in our own work and in the world that prevent well-intentioned problem solvers from truly solving their problem.

#1 The Human Problem

One of the biggest challenges with Design Thinking is that one of its requisite tools is also its biggest liability: the human brain.

The human brain is an amazing machine, but hoo boy does it have some bugs. There are 203 items listed in the Wikipedia page for Cognitive Biases. 203 different ways your brain can trick and mislead you. They affect our decision making, our understanding, our memory, and our judgment. Many of the criticisms against Design Thinking aren’t so much about a failure of the method, rather the evidence of one of our many biases influencing our thoughts and actions.

Here’s a few features* of the brain we’ve found to be particularly persistent culprits:

Processing Fluency

Research has found that the human brain often gives more authority to ideas that it can understand more readily as opposed to more complex solutions. (Sam Brinson)

In its fevered race into the boardrooms around the world, Design Thinking has been diluted and oversimplified; falsely equating novelty to innovation, and the simplicity of an idea to its likelihood of success. The reality, however — especially with “wicked problems” — is that the answer is rarely so simple and readily implementable. Sometimes the explanation or the answer truly is complicated and we must honor that in our work.

Congruence Bias

The tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, instead of testing possible alternative hypotheses. (Wikipedia)

For example, as Natasha Jen highlighted in the oft cited example of fixing the scary nature of the MRI experience for kids

“[the solution was creating] a lot of cartoons and plaster them around the wall, around a whole machine. That intent is great. But the solution and execution is terrible. There are so many other things that can be questioned, like the dimensions of the room, the ceiling height, the lighting, the textures.” Natasha Jen

This shows up in even our own work; when we think we have a solution to a problem, we often test only that idea. It can be feel counter-productive to take the time to test a second idea that might tackle it in a totally different way.

Much like the quote “what gets measured, gets managed;” what gets tested usually gets built — often even when it’s not an ideal solution. So make sure you consider testing alternate or even unusual ideas to make sure you’ve not just found something that works, but something that works the best.

Hot-Cold Empathy Gap

The tendency to underestimate the influence of our emotional state on our decisions and behaviors, and overestimate the intellectual influence on decision-making. (The Decision Lab)

For example, we have a hard time believing someone is anxious about speaking to lawyer if we’re not. This can be especially misleading when designing for someone who is truly living a different experience from you. While we might have the best intentions when designing something to help a hurricane survivor, we are likely to downplay some of their feelings or discount their decision-making criteria because they are so out of alignment with our own feelings in that moment. When learning from others, consider this gap and be sure to listen to their words without translation or judgment, especially when not aligned with our own beliefs and feelings.

The (Human) Solution:

A fairly cerebral solution to this cerebral problem is simply to acknowledge that you have these biases and continually challenge your own thoughts, decisions, and ideas. A more tactical approach is to increase the level of diversity in your teams. Diversity in demographics, experience, mental/emotional state, etc. will help lessen the impacts of any one person or group’s current biases.

#2 The Experience Problem

In the world of Design Thinking we’re in the midst of an existential tug of war. On one side, we have a group of people trying hard to democratize design, encourage all of us, regardless of our training and role, to be a little more creative, think differently, to not hold our ideas to precious, and be willing to experiment. To simply be willing to take the first little bite out of a big challenge.

On the other side we have the group of road-weary, battle-scarred professionals who have actually done the work of busting through truly wicked problems. The ones who know the 13,462 ways Big Ideas can get diverted, slowed, or killed. The ones who know slapping a How Might We in front of a problem like “HMW overhaul the US healthcare system” is ineffective at best and deeply offensive to the scale and the seriousness of big gnarly problems.

To add fuel to the fire is the growing — and legitimate — cry against the sense of elitism within the design community. The idea that in order to really solve a problem, you need a degree or a certificate from the, or the pedigree of some innovation think tank with a name like Contrast (full disclosure I worked at a firm called Altitude, and currently work at Theory & Principle, so pot meet kettle.)

I (humbly) offer some advice for the players across the spectrum:

For the Enthusiastic Managers:

These 5 magic hexagons are not an instant cure all for your business challenges. Innovation is the outcome of battles hard-fought, not a button you can press or a series of activities you can run in a day-long offsite. Encouraging your teams to investigate Design Thinking can be a helpful starting place to develop a shared language and can potentially jump start new initiatives, but it can’t end after a 1 hour brainstorm session, even if you use all the post-it notes. If you really want your team to tackle the big stuff, ask them what they need to do it and truly listen.

For the Overly-Confident d(school)votees

‘Doing empathy’ has given carte blanche to say “I know exactly what you need, I interviewed 10 people!” This is especially troubling as Design Thinking practitioners are moving further outside their own circles, demographics, and industries. It’s one thing for a white 30-something man to design a new app for shopping for the best flight deals, it’s a wholly different one from understanding what a nursing mother needs. Or how to reimagine the bus stop when we’ve never even used one. Or pioneering a vaccine distribution system in sub-Saharan Africa. We must acknowledge that as the experiential gaps widen between those designing the solution and those living the experience, we must also realize that the techniques, duration, or participants of our “empathy phase” must broaden as well.

For the Seasoned Designers

Design Thinking is helping make everybody a designer!


But rather than feeling like it is commoditizing, or simply rebranding what you’ve been doing for decades, perhaps instead think of it as helping to elevate your craft and your skill. Design Thinking’s popularity is helping to legitimize to the rest of the business world many of the principles of good design practice that were previously seen as unnecessary effort. Thinking about your audience, sketching multiple ideas, being willing to scrap and start over; while always a part of design, they’re now given the same level of respect as the end result itself. This celebration of Design — even including its occasional misappropriation — is helping to show to the world the importance of the practice. Your role can evolve in two ways: using your expertise to thoughtfully critique these new participants, and to continue to highlight your expertise with your specific tools and medium. Similarly as we realized just because your nephew with a GeoCities account does not a web designer make, same will be true with our continued refined understanding of the breadth of the design world.

For the Newbies

One of my favorite all time articles about Design Thinking by Carissa Carter draws the analogy to using a recipe when cooking

“The order and process of a recipe helps new cooks get started, but it’s only with practice, inventiveness, experimentation, and constraints that you might begin to call yourself a chef.” -Carissa Carter

Design Thinking is a recipe, but it’s one of many. Absolutely use it as a starting point, but be willing to listen to other chefs, even if they use a different recipe. Remember as well that much like the difference between our cooking and that of a professional chef, those solutions that are truly groundbreaking and aspirational came from a team with years of experience, the resources to make it happen, and a willingness to experiment and fail. No Michelin-starred meal ever came from a microwave and no significant innovation effort from a 1 week Design-A-Thon. This is not to discourage you or suggest the only food worth eating comes from a fancy chef, but rather a reminder that in general the scale of the change desired should be matched with the scope of effort willing to be placed.

The (Experience) Solution

While the solution is dictated by the specific audience to which we’re speaking, I will focus mine on the challenge of democratizing design without trivializing the skills of those who came before and the effort required to be highly successful. My suggestion is that we as experienced problem solvers must begin to switch our focus from doers to facilitators, from athletes to coaches. This is especially true the farther we get from our own realms of experience. The further we are from designing for our own needs, the more we need to support the users in enhancing their own ability to solve their own problems. We can serve as guide rails to keep them on track, helping to amplify their efforts rather than replace them with our own.

#3 The Business Problem

For the vast majority of scenarios in which we’re creating something, they are not designed in a vacuum. Or more accurately: they might be designed in a vacuum, but they certainly won’t be launched, funded, used, and supported in a vacuum. This again is not so much a failure of Design Thinking as a process or mindset, but more of an oversight of the broader context in which our problems exist, both within and outside our organizations:

Internal Issues:

Failure to acknowledge the constraints or desires of those within the organization.

One of the most common reasons I’ve seen great solutions fail to succeed is because of a lack of buy-in of those outside the design team.

The bulk of work for a business or service designer is crafting integration and adoption. Without that, they fail. Regardless of how brilliant the idea. Regardless of the process used to generate it. If a business rejects or is unable to adopt the solution, the designer has failed. -Joshua Kubicki

As designers — whether that’s in the true Designer-with-a-capital-D sense, or simply someone who’s helping create a new idea — we must realize we are not the end of the line. At some point we have to hand off our idea to a team to build it. And a team to market it. A team to sell it. A team to update it and fix things when it breaks. The best seed of an idea cannot grow in a climate that will not support it throughout its entire life cycle.

This can happen when those charged with actually building or creating the solution aren’t consulted by those dreaming it up and it turns out that great idea that everyone latched onto… is impossible. This “Over the Wall” syndrome has become less prevalent over the years, but can always stand to be improved by involving the teams that will eventually take ownership of the idea earlier in the process. This challenge extends far beyond the “designer” and the “builder,” however. If the marketing and sales teams don’t support the idea because they weren’t involved, they’re likely not going to be able to effectively convince users of its value. If senior leadership doesn’t believe the idea aligns with their strategic goals (and often just personal judgment) they won’t serve as the force multipliers they can be to put the necessary resources behind the effort. Getting buy in early will pay dividends down the line.

External Issues:

Failure to acknowledge the constraints or desires outside the organization.

We’ve seen this personally when designing digital projects for grant-funded non-profits. While our obvious goal is to help solve a problem for our end users (e.g. providing easier ways for individuals to get their driver’s license reinstated) we must take into account that the project was funded by a grant that likely has very specific metrics of success. These are usually non-negotiables for our client and if we fail to consider them in our development we risk the product being built for the wrong use case, or even simply failing to launch.

There are also opportunities for critical oversight in multi-sided marketplaces are at play, or when the user is the not the same as the customer. A common instance of this is when creating SaaS or enterprise level products. In this scenario, those applying Design Thinking can fall short by only focusing on the end user of their product. For example a tool that was built for HR administrators but didn’t consider that the IT team will be the one to make the purchase and therefore must be convinced that it won’t make their lives miserable when they try to incorporate it into their IT ecosystem.

The (Business) Solution

In addition to popularizing the Design Thinking methodology, IDEO also coined the “Three Lenses of Innovation:” Desirable, Feasible, Viable — which, despite its own overuse and oversimplification — still offers a helpful framework to address this “Business Problem.” Perhaps in our attempts to make sure we’re designing something our users actually want we’ve put too much emphasis on the desirability of an idea and less so on the feasibility and viability. We must broaden our definition of “human-centered design.” While it is still important to consider the end user and their needs, it is just as important to consider the other humans who will help make, sell, communicate, and support our idea. Especially as the problems get bigger and touch more people, we must consider all of those perspectives as equally valid in the creation of a new solution.

The cold reality is while the design team might be excited about an idea, unless those that control the purse strings or the human resources to work on it are on board with an idea, it’s likely to die on the vine. Rather than considering the Bean Counting Boogeymen the enemy, consider their needs as another design constraint to ensure your idea will make it beyond the post-it note. When members of the organization feel included, heard, and validated, the more likely they will be to champion the idea through their departments.

Conclusion: How to Fix the World

Design Thinking’s lofty goal and biggest target of criticism is to try to explain a wildly complex concept in a way that anyone can understand in a few minutes.

Could you use Design Thinking to successfully solve tough problems? Sure, but it’d be like reducing brain surgery to a three panel comic strip:

To borrow from another controversial world, yoga defines itself as a practice. It is never complete, never perfected. Design (Thinking or any other ‘branded’ framework) should be considered similarly; its basics are helpful at encouraging all of us to get started on the problems that scare us — and we have no shortage of those that need help solving.

But we should also continue to look for where we fall short and how we can improve. Even in writing this article, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to put my own process and my own beliefs under the microscope and I’ve identified no small list of things I’ll need to continue to practice.

Namaste and buy a designer you know a drink, they need it.

Theory and Principle

We’re a product design and development firm focused…

Thanks to Nicole Bradick

Alex Denniston

Written by

Director of Strategy at Theory and Principle, a legal technology product design and development firm.

Theory and Principle

We build legal and justice technology.

Alex Denniston

Written by

Director of Strategy at Theory and Principle, a legal technology product design and development firm.

Theory and Principle

We build legal and justice technology.

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