Beyond Bullshit for Design Thinking

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Design thinking is in its ‘bullshit’ phase, a time characterized by wild hype, popularity and little evidence of what it does, how it does it, or whether it can possibly deliver what it promises on a consistent basis. If design thinking is to be more than a fad it needs to get serious about answering some important questions and going from bullshit to bullish in tackling important innovation problems and the time is now. 

In a previous article, I described design thinking as being in its BS phase and that it was time for it to move on from that. Here, I articulate things that can help us there.

The title of that original piece was inspired by a recent talk by Pentagram partner, Natasha Jen, where she called out design thinking as “bullshit.” Design thinking offers much to those who haven’t been given or taken creative license in their work before. Its offered organizations that never saw themselves as ‘innovative’ a means to generate products and services that extend beyond the bounds of what they thought was possible. While design thinking has inspired people worldwide (as evidenced by the thousands of resources, websites, meetups, courses, and discussions devoted to the topic) the extent of its impact is largely unknown, overstated, and most certainly oversold as it has become a marketable commodity.

The comments and reaction to my related post on LinkedIn from designers around the world suggest that many agree with me.

So now what? Design thinking, like many fads and technologies that fit the hype cycle, is beset with a problem of inflated expectations driven by optimism and the market forces that bring a lot of poorly-conceived, untested products supported by ill-prepared and sometimes unscrupulous actors into the marketplace. To invoke Natasha Jen: there’s a lot of bullshit out there.

But there is also promising stuff. How do we nurture the positive benefits of this overall approach to problem finding, framing and solving and fix the deficiencies, misconceptions, and mistakes to make it better?

Let’s look at a few things that have the potential to transform design thinking from an over-hyped trend to something that brings demonstrable value to enterprises.

Show the work

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The journey from science to design is a lesson in culture shock. Science typically begins its journey toward problem-solving by looking at what has been done before whereas a designer typically starts with what they know about materials and craft. Thus, an industrial designer may have never made a coffee mug before, but they know how to build things that meet clients’ desires within a set of constraints and thus feel comfortable undertaking this job. This wouldn’t happen in science.

Design typically uses a simple criterion above all others to judge the outcomes of its work: Is the client satisfied? So long as the time, budget, and other requirements are met, the key is ensuring that the client likes the product. Because this criterion is so heavily weighted on the outcome, designers often have little need to capture or share how they arrived at the outcome, just that they do it. Designers may also be reluctant to share this because this is their competitive advantage so there is an industry-specific culture that prevents people from opening their process to scrutiny.

Science requires that researchers open up their methods, tools, observations, and analytical strategy to view for others. The entire notion of peer review — which has its own set of flaws — is predicated on the notion that other qualified professionals can see how a solution was derived and provide comment on it. Scientific peer review is typically geared toward encouraging replication, however, it is also to allow others to assess the reasonableness of the claims. This is the critical part of peer review that requires scientists to adhere to a certain set of standards and show their work.

As design moves into a more social realm, designing systems, services, and policies for populations for whom there is no single ‘client’ and many diverse users, the need to show the work becomes imperative. Showing the work also allows for others to build the method. For example, design thinking speaks of ‘prototyping’, yet without a clear sense of what is prototyped, how it is prototyped, what means of assessing the value of the prototype is, and what options were considered (or discarded) in developing the prototype, it is impossible to tell if this was really the best idea of many or the one decided most feasible to try.

This might not matter for a coffee cup, but it matters a lot if you are designing a social housing plan, a transportation system, or a health service. Designers can borrow from scientists and become better at documenting what they do along the way, what ideas are generated (and dismissed), how decisions are made, and what creative avenues are explored along the route to a particular design choice. This not only improves accountability but increases the likelihood of better input and ‘crit’ from peers. This absence of ‘crit’ in design thinking is among the biggest ‘bullshit’ issues that Natasha Jen spoke of.

Articulate the skillset and toolset

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What does it take to do ‘design thinking’? The caricature is that of the Post-it Notes, Lego, and whiteboards. These are valuable tools, but so are markers, paper, computer modeling software, communication tools like Slack or Trello, cameras, stickers…just about anything that allows data, ideas, and insights to be captured, organized, visualized, and transformed.

Using these tools also takes skill (despite how simple they are).

Facilitation is a key design skill when working with people and human-focused programs and services. So is conflict resolution. The ability to negotiate, discuss, sense-make, and reflect within the context of a group, a deadline, and other constraints is critical for bringing a design to life. These skills are not just for designers, but they have to reside within a design team.

There are other skills related to shaping aesthetics, manufacturing, service design, communication, and visual representation that can all contribute to a great design team and these need to be articulated as part of a design thinking process. Many ‘design thinkers’ will point to the ABC Nightline segment that aired in 1999 titled “The Deep Dive” as their first exposure to ‘design thinking’. It is also what thrust the design firm IDEO into the spotlight who, more than any single organization, is credited with popularizing design thinking through their work.

What gets forgotten when people look at this program where designers created a shopping cart in just a few days was that IDEO brought together a highly skilled interdisciplinary team that included engineers, business analysts, and a psychologist. Much of the design thinking advocacy work out there talks about ‘diversity’, but that matters only when you have a diversity of perspectives, but also technical and scholarly expertise to make use of those perspectives. How often are design teams taking on human service programs aimed at changing behaviour without any behavioural scientists involved? How often are products created without any care to the aesthetics of the product because there wasn’t a graphic designer or artist on the team?

Does this matter if you’re using design thinking to shape the company holiday party? Probably not. Does it if you are shaping how to deliver healthcare to an underserved community? Yes.

Design thinking can require general and specific skillsets and toolsets and these are not generic.

Develop theory

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A theory is not just the provenance of eggheaded nerds and something you had to endure in your college courses on social science. It matters when it’s done well. Why? As Kurt Lewin, one of the most influential applied social psychologists of the 20th century said: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

A theory allows you to explain why something happens, how causal connections may form, and what the implications of specific actions are in the world. They are ideas, often grounded in evidence and other theories, about how things work. Good theories can guide what we do and help us focus what we need to pay attention to. They can be wrong or incomplete, but when done well a theory provides us the means to explain what happens and can happen. Without it, we are left trying to explain the outcomes of actions and have little recourse for repeating, correcting, or redesigning what we do because we have no idea why something happened. Rarely — in human systems — is evidence for cause-and-effect so clear cut without some theorizing.

Design thinking is not entirely without theory. Some scholars have pulled together evidence and theory to articulate ways to generate ideas, decision rules for focusing attention, and there are some well-documented examples for guiding prototype development. However, design thinking itself — like much of design — is not strong on theory. There isn’t a strong theoretical basis to ascertain why something produces an effect based on a particular social process, or tool, or approach. As such, it’s hard to replicate such things, determine where something succeeded or where improvements need to be made.

It’s also hard to explain why design thinking should be any better than anything else that aims to enkindle innovation. By developing theory, designers and design thinkers will be better equipped to advance its practice and guide the focus of evaluation. Further, it will help explain what design thinking does, can do, and why it might be suited (or ill-suited) to a particular problem set.

It also helps guide the development of research and evaluation scholarship that will build the evidence for design thinking.

Create and use evidence

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Jeanne Leidtka and her colleagues at the Darden School of Business have been among the few to conduct systematic research into the use of design thinking and its impact. The early research suggests it offers benefit to companies and non-profits seeking to innovate. This is a start, but far more research is needed by more groups if we are to build a real corpus of knowledge to shape practice more fully. Leidtka’s work is setting the pace for where we can go and design thinkers owe her much thanks for getting things moving. It’s time for designers, researchers and their clients to join her.

Research typically begins with taking ‘ideal’ cases to ensure sufficient control, influence and explanatory power become more possible. If programs are ill-defined, poorly resourced, focus on complex or dynamic problems, have no clear timeline for delivery or expected outcomes, and lack the resources or leadership that has them documenting the work that is done, it is difficult to impossible to tell what kind of role design thinking plays amid myriad factors.

An increasing amount of design thinking — in education, international development, social innovation, public policy to name a few domains of practice — is applied in this environmental context. This is the messy area of life where research aimed at looking for linear cause-and-effect relationships and ‘proof’ falters, yet it’s also where the need for evidence is great. Researchers tend to avoid looking at these contexts because the results are rarely clear, the study designs require much energy, money, talent, and sophistication, and the ability to publish findings in top-tier journals all the more compromised as a result.

Despite this, there is enormous potential for qualitative, quantitative, mixed-method, and even simulation research that isn’t being conducted into design thinking. This is partly because designers aren’t trained in these methods, but also because (I suspect) there is a reticence by many to opening up design thinking to scrutiny. Like anything on the hype cycle: design thinking is a victim of over-inflated claims of what it does, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not offering a lot.

Design schools need to start training students in research methods beyond (in my opinion) the weak, simplistic approaches to ethnographic methods, surveys and interviews that are currently on offer. If design thinking is to be considered serious, it requires serious methodological training. Further, designers don’t need to be the most skilled researchers on the team: that’s what behavioural scientists bring. Bringing in the kind of expertise required to do the work necessary is important if design thinking is to grow beyond it’s ‘bullshit’ phase.

Evaluate impact

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From Just Design by Christopher Simmons

Lastly, if we are going to claim that design is going to change the world, we need to back that up with evaluation data. Changes are, design thinking is changing the world, but maybe not in the ways we always think or hope, or in the quantity or quality we expect. Without evaluation, we simply don’t know.

Evaluation is about understanding how something operates in the world and what its impact is. Evaluators help articulate the value that something brings and can support innovators (design thinkers?) in making strategic decisions about what to do when to do it, and how to allocate resources.

The only time evaluation was used in my professional design training was when I mentioned it in class. That’s it. Few design programs of any discipline offer exposure to the methods and approaches of evaluation, which is unfortunate. Until last year, professional evaluators weren’t much better with most having limited exposure to design and design thinking.

That changed with the development of the Design Loft initiative that is now in its second year. The Design Loft was a pop-up conference designed and delivered by me (Cameron Norman) and co-developed with John Gargani, then President of the American Evaluation Association. The event provided a series of short-burst workshops on select design methods and tools as a means of orienting evaluators to design and how they might apply it to their work.

This is part of a larger effort to bring design and evaluation closer together. Design and design thinking offers an enormous amount of potential for innovation creation and evaluation brings the tools to assess what kind of impact those innovations have.

Getting bullish on design

I’ve witnessed firsthand how design (and the design thinking approach) has inspired people who didn’t think of themselves as creative, innovative, or change-makers do things that brought joy to their work. Design thinking can be transformative for those who are exposed to new ways of seeing problems, conceptualizing solutions, and building something. I’d hate to see that passion disappear.

That will happen once design thinking starts losing out to the next fad. Remember the lean methodology? How about Agile? Maybe the design sprint? These are distinct approaches, but share much in common with design thinking. Depending on who you talk to they might be the same thing. Blackbelts, unconferences, design jams, innovation labs, and beyond are all part of the hodgepodge of offerings competing for the attention of companies, governments, healthcare, and non-profits seeking to innovate.

What matters most is adding value. Whether this is through ‘design thinking’ or something else, what matters is that design — the creation of products, services, policies, and experiences that people value — is part of the innovation equation. It’s why I like the term ‘design thinking’ relative to others operating in the innovation development space simply because it acknowledges the practice of design in its name.

Designers rightfully can claim ‘design thinking’ as a concept that is — broadly defined –central, but far from complete to their work. Working with the very groups that have taken the idea of our design and applied it to business, education, and so many other sectors, it’s time those with a stake in seeing better design and better thinking about what we design flourish to take design thinking beyond its bullshit phase and make it bullish about innovation.

For those interested in evaluation and design, check out the 2017 Design Loft micro-conference taking place on Friday, November 10th within the American Evaluation Association’s annual convention in Washington, DC . Look for additional events, training and support for design thinking, evaluation and strategy by following @CenseLtd on Twitter with updates about the Design Loft and visiting Cense online. 

Image credits: Author. The ‘Design Will Save The World’ images were taken from the pages of Christopher Simmons’ book Just Design.

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