As buzzwords go, design thinking is having one heck of a ride. I say this after 20 years of an Internet career that has seen enough fads, trends, and buzzwords to make for a somewhat jaundiced eye to these things.

This one, though. Design thinking is practically a cult. And we need to talk about it.

One of the marks of a truly popular buzzword is that people have trouble defining it. That’s the case here. Check the Wikipedia entry and you’ll learn that design thinking might be a combination of “empathy, creativity, and rationality,” which is pretty vague – or, if you prefer, the rather confabraculated “matching people‚Äôs needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. (My absolute favorite from that page: design thinking is “design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.” I mean, as Wikipedia pranks go, that’s a pretty good one. Please don’t tell me it’s for real.)

I’ll grant that design thinking in its pure, ideal conception isn’t too far from the worldview I wrote about in Customers Included. As I understand it, design thinking is supposed to encourage innovators to consider customers’ needs, and then design to meet those needs with empathy and with an eye toward business results. I’m all for that method, whether it’s called customers included, design thinking, or any other buzzword.

The problem is that, as I’ve encountered design thinking in practice, it doesn’t much resemble what we espouse at Creative Good. In some ways it’s quite the opposite.

As I’ve seen it, design thinking often ends up as an “ideation workshop,” a kind of modified brainstorming session, where everyone on the team is encouraged to be as creative as possible – using different sorts of tips and tools for lateral, “disruptive” creative thinking. The cliche is that these sessions are full of whiteboards, modeling clay, and pipe cleaners, inviting participants to doodle or mold whatever idea comes to mind. Part Pictionary, part cocktail party, part kindergarten arts and crafts. As long as we’re brainstor- excuse me, ideating well – it should all turn out innovative and great… right?

Maybe not. As fun as these workshops are, I always wonder: where is the customer?

When I ask participants or leaders of these sessions, I’m usually assured that, yes, customers are included. Specifically, customers tend to be called upon at one of these moments:

• Sometimes customers are interviewed beforehand – but not by the whole team. Instead, it’s all handled by a specialized research team, which then writes up the report and emails it around to the team, just to set some context for the ideation workshop. (You can imagine how effective those reports tend to be.)

• Other times, customers are brought to the workshop itself, to evaluate the team’s new ideas. “Here, customer: do you think this is cool? How about this, is this cool?” Sitting in front of the team that designed this prototype and is clearly enthusiastic about it, customers are hardly likely to give authentic, unbiased feedback about the customer experience.

• Finally, if they’re not involved beforehand or during the workshop itself, customers might be brought in at some later point – once all the decisions have been made – just to, you know, “iterate” the design. (Read: provide validation of the team’s great design, and offer small – if any – suggestions for tactical changes.)

The outcome is that design thinking, as I’ve seen it practiced, tends to focus on the team – the team’s creativity, the team’s ideas, the team’s prototypes – while de-emphasizing the customer. As a result, the team makes all the big decisions on its own, without including the customer. Which was exactly the problem that design thinking was supposed to solve.

There’s an important lesson here. As I wrote in this tweet, to advocates of design thinking: all your design & thinking don’t mean much if you don’t spend time with customers beforehand. (Read Customers Included to see what a better process looks like.)

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Creative Good can help your company include customers in the innovation process. Contact us.

  1. Mark, sorry, but I have to be honest. When I unsubscribed about a hundred mail-list recently to get more time for things I care, yours was spared as I follow you for so long and actually enjoy reading your Creative Good mails.

    But now this rant about words and processes and saying other words and processes are better that this or that. That’s to easy. You can exchange DT with Scrum or any other method and come up with tons of examples why this did not work. But you can also come with examples where it does work.

    Yes, it’s about a team and people who do something. Because you can do good/right steps in a bad way – and bad/wrong steps in a good way. I’ve been in teams where this process leads to fantastic results – with clients and the people who we design for. Project heaven – I’ve seen it. It’s real.

    So please, don’t make it to easy – just reading your book won’t solve anything – acting on it, getting experienced, fail, understand it, perfecting it, teaching it – that’s where the difference is made.

  2. Mark – you struck a nerve on this one.
    A) I think you’re absolutely right – there is a lot of buzz and a whole lot of nonsense out there about this topic
    B) But – there’s considerable deep thought as well, and entire curriculum ::of business management:: incorporating design thinking into the way we approach problems. Your post does some dis-service to the real work going on in this area.

    In my “website” entry on this comment form, I point you to a brief overview of what Vijay Kumar (and others from IIT-ID) have been authoring on this for several years. Your point about “customer research first” is built into this model as the first step. So – design thinking (as defined by these deep thinkers) is very much customer focused.
    My second response has to do with the notion that customer research must be done ::first:: as you suggest. Yes, that is the standard approach, but it isn’t necessarily the fastest, most insightful or powerful approach.
    The approach I’ve been driving, which is based on the IIT-ID DT model, ::starts with an artifact:: and uses it to drive customer conversations. So the customer research comes ::second::
    The bottom line here is that we are in violent agreement, there must be customer engagement. Where I’d ask you to do a bit more digging is where DT has had much deeper and more significant things to say than some horrible Wikipedia entry.

  3. In defense of MH, he is not trashing this concept. The point is that if the customer is not involved you can end up with a really cool, good looking UX that is terrible for the customer. I have seen this with many companies that have large UX operations. And that also happens even when the customer is included. The key to getting it right is to take what you get from the customer and then produce something useful for them, not necessarily what they ask for. If the latter is what is meant by design thinking, sign me up.

  4. Jim – thanks – well put.

    Philip/Leo – as Jim pointed out, the column isn’t saying DT is always practiced poorly. Instead, as the title suggests, it’s asking the question of whether customers are appropriately included before the ideation begins – and in my own experience (not to say your experience), they’re often not.

  5. Well, Mark, I think you know I feel pretty much the same as you regarding buzzwords – but I think it’s important, when one of them happens to refer to something useful (which is not every time by a long shot, but definitely not never, either), that we take action to preserve and further the value of that useful thing, over taking action against the buzzword being a buzzword.

    In the case of design thinking, well, those “ideation” workshops and (heavily) modified brainstorms have precious little to do with what it is at heart – and since you’re right about those longwinded descriptions here’s a short one: Design Thinking is creative problem solving.
    That’s it – now, where’s the user, you ask? In the word “problem”; there is literally no problem we can define that doesn’t involve human beings, i.e. users, and if one arrives at a problem definition without considering them, then the problem definition is wrong. (you don’t have to take my word for that since you’ve written a book full of examples of solutions that were wrong because the problem definition didn’t include the user/customer)

    Using “design thinking” instead of simply “design” is an attempt to connect the problem solving process more closely to the core of the problem – classically, design mostly isn’t concerned with how the problem is defined, or if the problem definition is correct, but simply with “answering” it with whatever design deemed likely to do so.

    With design thinking one goes further back into the process and takes part in the problem definition part of it (since the first step in solving a problem should always be to find out what the problem is) – and at that stage, or so the most interesting proponents of the “method” (for lack of a better descriptor) maintain, one *absolutely* has to include and understand the users.

    Plainly: If the customers aren’t included from the get-go, it’s not design thinking. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

  6. Nice to know I’m not the only contrarian out there who doesn’t just jump on the bandwagon of each new popular buzzword.

    Along this line, I just received an email from a firm looking to connect with mine: “I’m writing to you from ________, a design and Innovation consulting firm based in _______.

    We offer services, experiences, and products for businesses of all shapes and sizes. We draw on the principles of design thinking, organizational transformation, branding, and community development in our work ….”

    When you are trying to be everything to everybody, I guess they feel it helps to throw in the latest buzzwords.

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