Monday 2 September 2019

Design Thinking - Ayes and Nays

What is Design Thinking?

A buzzword for the last few years, that has grown in stature and importance steadily is "Design Thinking". Industry and academia alike wax eloquent about how amazing it is and how we should have been doing this forever rather than in the last few years. So, what exactly is "Design Thinking"?

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. Design thinking is a solutions based approach rather than problem based thinking to solve a problem. It aims to come up with something constructive to effectively tackle a certain problem, whereas problem based thinking tends to fixate on obstacles and limitations.

There are four key principles of design thinking (Ref - CareerFoundry) -

  1. The human rule: No matter what the context, all design activity is social in nature, and any social innovation will bring us back to the “human-centric point of view”.
  2. The ambiguity rule: Ambiguity is inevitable, and it cannot be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in being able to see things differently.
  3. The redesign rule: All design is redesign. While technology and social circumstances may change and evolve, basic human needs remain unchanged. We essentially only redesign the means of fulfilling these needs or reaching desired outcomes.
  4. The tangibility rule: Making ideas tangible in the form of prototypes enables designers to communicate them more effectively.
There are multiple variants of the Design thinking process and they have different phases. However, they all essentially say the same thing. The key phases of the process are -

  1. Empathise – with your users
  2. Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights
  3. Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions
  4. Prototype – to start creating solutions
  5. Test – solutions
The way to traverse these phases is iterative, but is it linear? Not really, you don't necessarily have to go through the phases in sequence all the time, but the first iteration definitely needs to be linear in order to ensure that the key aspects of the processes are covered. After that, the phases can be traversed as needed. (Ref -

How does it stack up against Lean and Agile?

After reading a bit about Design thinking, especially the iterative aspect of it, it is tempting to think of it as a alternative to Lean or Agile way of working. However, we should understand that all these methodologies are essentially for a faster and more efficient way of coming up with a solution and implementing it. As Jonny Schneider, Product Strategy and Design Principal at ThoughtWorks, explains: “Design Thinking is how we explore and solve problems; Lean is our framework for testing our beliefs and learning our way to the right outcomes; Agile is how we adapt to changing conditions with software.” All three methodologies highlight and work towards different aspects of this process and hence they are different but at the same time there are overlaps across them. No single methodology can be the solution for everything and hence it is essential to take the best out of all and fine tune our core way of working. In that sense, these three can and should be made to work together to achieve the best results.


There are a variety of benefits of using Design Thinking process. Here are a few - 
  1. Promotes out of the box thinking and fosters innovation
  2. Reduces Time to market
  3. Increases ROI
  4. Improves customer retention and loyalty
  5. Can be applied company-wide


Design thinking certainly works and it is touted as THE way to solve problems. However, we need to be very careful not to over-promise its utility. There are certain things to keep in mind when thinking about or using Design thinking
  1. It hides the complexity and completeness of solution - It is quite easy to come up with beautiful solutions that ignore the constraints and seem to solve all the customer problems (Since we have kept the customer at the center), however, the proof is in the pudding. When you bring in the burden of constraints and limitations (which you ignored earlier) the complexities of the final product start coming into view. These things cannot be ignored for "later iterations" always and could well be the key problem to tackle at the start of the solutioning rather than at the end of it. It is not enough to be customer focused first and think about all the harder stuff later.
  2. It is good for solving 'wicked problems', not necessarily the normal ones - Design theorist Horst Rittel defined 'wicked problem' as a particularly tricky problem that is highly ambiguous in nature. For such problems, there are many unknowns and variables. They don't have a single right solution. In such cases, Design thinking may help come up with a possible solution. However, even then the possibility of unearthing more problems in unknown areas while solving for one area, needs to be taken into account. At the same time, for the normal problems we may not need this methodology at all.
  3. It sometimes kills innovation rather than fostering it - This is a controversial one. Design thinking is supposed to foster innovation, however, because of the focus on customer solution, the other aspects of the problem are ignored and more often than not, possible chance of innovation actually is in those areas that are getting ignored. Innovation in those areas could be the differentiating factor between our products and those of the competitors and hence, focus on them is very important - that Design thinking tends to ignore
  4. Out of box is not always good - Design thinking is also called out of the box thinking. We have heard this term so many times in various contexts, that it has now got an aura of being the rebellious, innovative way of thinking that HAS to be right. Just because a solution is out of the box or rebellious doesn't make it the right solution. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. While using Design thinking, we need to keep in mind this possibility instead of going into it blind.


Is Design thinking useful? Yes. Does it work? Yes. Have people come up with good solutions by using this methodology? Yes. Is it the panacea we are looking for? No. It can't be. No single methodology can be. We have to use the best of multiple processes together as per the organizations need and maturity in order to provide efficient, quality solutions to our end customers, instead of putting all our energy into one.

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