Are customers included in design thinking?
Nov 13, 2014

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's 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.)