Design ≠ Design Thinking

I used to sort of dislike the term Human Centred Design for it’s un-human clunkiness. Now I think I may be becoming a firm advocate.

I recently had three really interesting design thinking related experiences.

The first was with a highly creative corporate type discussing the dangers inherent in formalising a company’s approach to design thinking. Scaling something so inherently fluid is tough in a systems driven environment, and it can quickly become hardened and rigid—a “thing” rather than an approach or mindset—as people default to the lure of certainty at the expense of creativity.

The second was with a design thinking enthusiast who was frustrated that the budding entrepreneurs at her innovation hub refused to even consider a user-centric approach to getting their start-up up and running.She figured that having been given the validation for their idea in the form of a $40,000 (or whatever) seed funding, they couldn’t afford to check or question their premises. Instead they felt under huge pressure to get on with executing and delivering as fast as possible.

The final was attending a design thinking meet up, primarily populated by software and UX designers, and realising a) how attached they seemed to be to the kudos of their identity as bona fide “designers”, and b) that whenever those that spoke discussed their process, it was in terms of pure reductive problem solving. I did hear someone talk about bridging the gap between business needs and tech development processes, but this same person then went on to caution people against bringing users into the design process too early least they lead you into solving the wrong problems. Huh?

It’s not that this approach isn’t a valid design approach. Of course it is. It’s just that it’s not design thinking. It’s not human centred.

And herein lies a larger problem. Because as more and more organisations race to prove how innovative they are by jumping onto the design thinking band wagon, they are gobbling up as many design thinkers as they can find. And the more the tendrils of design move out of product and service development and into strategy, the more important this becomes. Because basically, there aren’t nearly enough genuine human centred design thinkers to go around (and a lot of the ones that genuinely do have that mindset don’t think of themselves as such). And there are even fewer with the maturity and business experience credentials to help the company use those new skills well.

What there are however is plenty of designers. And herein lies the trap buried in the terms used and the assumptions they carry.

The logic seems to go like this:

Design thinking means literally thinking like a designer. Ergo if I’m a designer, I must be doing design thinking.


If I’m a designer and most of what I do is problem solving, then design thinking is basically problem solving.

An equivalent is:

I’ve been given the funding to develop a start-up so therefore I’m an entrepreneur. If I’m an entrepreneur, I must be using entrepreneurial thinking.

Not necessarily so. Why?

Because it’s missing the crucial part of design thinking and genuine entrepreneurialism: the focus—first, foremost and throughout—on the people you are helping and the experience they want you to help them achieve.

Instead they focus on making a new or better gizmo, assuming either that this gismo will automatically create a better experience for the user, or using what customer feedback they do receive to develop the idea without ever questioning the validity of the idea itself. The same is true of corporates trying to use a design approach to improve their systems and customer offerings. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the very sincere and confident assertion that by making X service more efficient, the customer will get Y benefit, which automatically makes the project customer centric. It’s like the story one customer recently told me of how proud he was years back to have reduced a branch’s ATM experience from 15 down to 2 minutes (huzzah!) only to discover that what customers really wanted was to not have to go to a branch at all.

Now this “build it and they will come” angle may be a perfectly valid design approach (though frankly, that’s up for debate and one of the main causes of the endemic 80-90% failure rate of start-ups and new products), but it ain’t human centred, and therefore it ain’t design thinking. Instead of human centred design (HCD) it’s gizmo centred design (GCD), business centred design (BCD) or worse, designer centred design (DCD).

So the danger (and emerging reality in many cases) is that as as the corporates continue to swallow the design fraternity by the hundreds, instead of ending up with a genuinely customer centred, entrepreneurial, innovative culture based on the principles of human centred design, they end up with a beautifully designed, creative and possibly more iterative version of BAU. In other words BCD. Much more familiar and comfortable, but not necessarily what they’re after.

GCD is almost never as innovative as HCD. That’s not to say it isn’t useful. In fact the most sustainable is to have a healthy mix of the two. (Check out John Kotter’s Accelerate for one of the best discussions of this). We just have to recognise thatdespite the similarity in tools and process, the two are fundamentally inversions of each other in terms of orientation. And while BCD rules, the mindset shift that companies claim to be after in using human centred design is unlikely to happen.

So it’s not a that one approach is inherently “right” and the other “wrong” or that either is a silver bullet. Instead, as always, it’s a question of how useful they are, and where. Which in turn depends entirely on what outcome you’re trying to create, and why that’s important.

So what are you trying to achieve by adopting a design approach?
Who are you helping?
 How will the world be different when you’re done?

What would have to be true for that to be a reality?

And what flavour design approach will help you get there?



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