How to make Design (Thinking) last?
Recently I read some critical comments about Design Thinking which motivated me to share my story and my views.
Same as for many trends I assume the popularity of Design (Thinking) mainly originates from people perceiving it as helpful to understand and overcome problems they are seeing. At least this is how I ended up with Design (Thinking).
I am neither a native designer nor a Design Thinking coach but started in software development. I had the chance to be actively involved in an onsite customer project end to end from sales opportunity, via demos, proof of concept, implementation, escalation, to go live. As I traversed roles and KPIs of the involved business units I got first hand insights in how it feels like working from a (pre-)sales, consulting, escalation & support team and customer perspective. I witnessed and also contributed to occurring problems, their origins and the approaches to solve them. I learned:
- How working in silos handicapps the project flow (e.g. “proof of concept” to sell vs to pilot)
- How a technology-driven agenda distracts from properly analyzing & understanding problems
- How not involving all relevant and affected parties lead to inadequate solution approaches (e.g. business representative or secondary users instead of real end user)
- How solution oriented thinking leads to solving the wrong problems (i.e. improve technical performance rather than refine the problem through user research and redesign solution to match the real user’s needs)
- How the lack of a guided end to end collaboration prolonges the time from sale/purchase to go live
Throughout and after the project I found myself sustainably motivated to use this experience to understand why and how things happened in one way or the other and how to proceed better next time. Reflecting the questions and looking for answers led me straight into the arms of Design Thinking, User Centered Design, and design in general so I spent some time working with these topics in customer projects with both native and non-native designers. I do not want to go into the details here but rather recap what for me turned out to be the 5 most helpful key elements in Design (Thinking) to answer my questions:
- Focus on both understanding the problem & finding solutions (problem space / solution space)
- Human centered
- Creativity & creative guidance
- Interdisciplinary collaboration to complement relevant views of involved & affected parties (permanent multidisciplinary validation of progress)
- Visual communication (enables cross functional collaboration)
After I identified the most relevant key elements for me I reconsidered and reflected all my previous experiences. From my design engagements I already learned that those ingredients can also be applied in more or in less effective ways. Which traps are there to avoid and how would I make best use of those key design elements? How can you get the significant benefits from Design (Thinking) that are required to make it last and not just pass as a trend? Here are the 4 principles which from my perspective are most essential when applying those key design elements:
1. Directly involve and consider all affected parties
Many times I have been working with “representatives” of the stakeholders instead of the real stakeholder. This may lead to serious misconceptions. Talk with the real stakeholders. If it is a certain business department, talk with them. If it is IT department X talk with IT department X not department Y, if it is an end user talk with the real end users. “I know what they want”, “I know how it is there” is not the same and many times not sufficient.
Imagine an experienced driver, he might still recall how it was when he started but he would never be able to provide the same kind of feedback about a car as a totally unexperienced driver because he cannot forget to know how to drive.
2. Apply Design (Thinking) end to end instead of punctual
While interdisciplinarity (business, technology, human) as propagated in Design (Thinking) could also be seen in the context of a short term collaboration (e.g. a workshop) I believe the true potential lies in leveraging and reflecting the multidisciplinarity within long-term and end to end engagements and processes across different units (sales, business, consulting, development, users, customer departments, support, etc.) to overcome functional silos and enable cross functional collaboration along the entire way.
Then we are not only talking about punctually executed sales-, design-, ideation- or pre-implementation workshops but about sustainably integrating key elements of Design (Thinking) in project management and execution processes as well as making it part of standard development processes. This could help to align different units and departments that need to collaborate along a project lifecycle. Talking about software development processes extending and integrating User Centered Design into Agile Software Development would just be a perfect match. After problem definition, user research, journey map, and paper prototypes a developer as a “code designer” designs early visual prototypes which over the time get more and more mature until the final solution, all of this iteratively accompanied by a permanent multidisciplinary validation (incl. users) of the progress. By applying Design (Thinking) end to end you leverage the power of guided visual communication to enable cross functional collaboration throughout the whole lifecycle.
3. Leverage Design (Thinking) to focus more on the problem space (understand)
I could say: “be less solution oriented” but that is not really the point. The point is that many of us are educated and used to think in a solution oriented way. In fact I am so solution oriented that even when designers make me aware of that fact it takes me some efforts to change my point of view and focus on (re-) defining and understanding the problems first. This gets amplified by a solution-oriented business culture and KPIs. Do you know the phrase “bring me solutions, not problems”? Sometimes we even take something as a solution and afterwards try to find matching problems for it, for example when we see technology as a driver and not an enabler. We ask what problem we can solve with a technology rather than which technology can help me to solve the problem I have. I say let’s go for the problems, at least we need to understand the problems better before thinking of solutions. Imagine a presales department preparing a customer demo. Asking “how can we fast sell this product“ could lead to a demo which makes maximum use of the available features whereas asking “why are we selling this product to this customer” (problem reframing) may point to a particular customer need and a totally different solution and delivery approach. Design (Thinking) encourages to consider the potentials in the problem space, like understanding topics and stakeholders, discovering new insights through research and analysis, redefining problem statements todiscover alternative solutions and allows you to make more out of the opportunities. Like this Design (Thinking) can be applied not only to build new products and services (solutions) but also for strategic topics like business strategy and innovation.
4. Embrace the full potential of designers and what they are good in
Last but not least I had to learn to extend my perception of designers from visual content providers & UI shapers to creative guides with backgrounds in cognitive psychology. I learned to embrace designers for what they are good in rather than forcing myself into a Design (Thinker) role. Involve real designers (skills, not role) as creative leaders with advanced visual communication skills guiding you through challenges. These things cannot be entirely learned but also require talent and a certain skill set. In fact there might also be designers who have more artistic skills than thought leader qualities. I for myself learned a lot about design along the way but that does not make me a designer (otherwise you would see illustrations instead of text here). I am not saying that it is impossible to learn some of those skills. Actually Design (Thinking) provides creative methods enabling people to think beyond familiar grounds. Nevertheless people have different qualities and talents which are equally important to succeed in Design (Thinking) driven activities. I would not encourage everybody to act as a designer but rather make use of the skills of native designer and extend the perception of what they are capable of. Use the power of creatively guided visual communication to support and align interdisciplinary and cross functional collaboration throughout entire lifecycles.
Now that I shared my journey with you I hope you understood what for me are the 5 most helpful key elements in Design (Thinking) and how I recommend to apply them (4 principles) to overcome the problems I perceived in my daily work.
I see the need to integrating these key elements into project delivery, into solution development processes, or generally speaking to absorb them into your enterprise culture, strategy, processes & methodologies as well as people & networks. I recommend doing this end to end rather than punctual and directly involving all affected stakeholders. I encourage understanding and refining problems before thinking of concrete solutions and involving people with real design skills & talents as creative and visual thought guides which help to align interdisciplinary and cross functional collaboration throughout entire lifecycles.
This is how I believe Design (Thinking) is going to help, last, and not just pass as a trend.
Looking forward to your criticism, comments, opinions, experiences and points of view!
Further readings regarding the value of design: