Over the past couple years we have seen Design Thinking become a leading offering in the major consulting firms, both in our market and overseas. Not only has Design Thinking proven to be a highly sought after and a financially rewarding business, it’s also come to be viewed as an intrinsically valuable business practice. If executed well, Design Thinking can enable organisations to move beyond the continuous improvement mantra of the past 20 years into something much more valuable – the ability to rapidly and incrementally create something new.
Unfortunately, fame has come at a cost. The widespread use of Design Thinking as a methodology under which projects are branded has led to some problematic dilutions in the market. Put simply, many have forgotten about the “thinking” part of Design Thinking, relying on creativity as a replacement for expertise.
We are seeing this dilution as many mainstream and small firms alike begin to incorporate elements of Design Thinking into their existing processes and offerings. I believe the intention in all cases was honourable – a desire to anchor products or service offerings around customer needs, desires and habits. Unfortunately, without guidance the result is simply a less rigorous consulting exercise, albeit with better looking documentation. A complex harmony of strategy, science and art has been reduced to a visually appealing veneer on existing products and services. Ideation has lost the strict focus around a customer action or need, and instead relies on blue sky ideation backed up by anecdotal evidence.
So, what happened?
Ironically, most of the problems with human-centred design, are because of the humans involved. The Design Thinking process can result in incredible ideas – but it also brings out the worst in people as imperfect and biased assessors of a potential solution to a problem. We see many shortcomings coming out of organisation, experience or service design projects.
1.      We are attached to our creations
As humans, it is in our nature to nurture our own creations, and place more weight on problems we have experienced or heard about directly. This bias can dramatically affect qualitative research and ideation. People will place more emphasis on customer needs that were discovered while they were present. Even more worrying is that humans naturally tend to defend their own ideas, mentally believing they are more desirable, viable or feasible than those they did not create.
2.      We are incentivised towards a predetermined outcome
Humans are incentivised to recommend outcomes that will bring them personal gain. This could come in many different forms, from a very overt financial incentive, to a more subconscious preference towards things that a person may find interesting. It is all too frequent that customers of Design Thinking services from one of the big technology consulting services are recommended personalised content, notifications, progress tracking, or any number of initiatives that will lead to a large software integration or product build. On the other side of the spectrum, we see many clients being recommended to dabble in AR or VR (read – cool new stuff designers like) despite serious viability concerns for investing in immature technologies.
3.      Over confidence causes to shortcomings in due diligence
The Design process can create an emotional echo chamber. Imagine – a whole team of clients and designers alike have been working long hours side by side to bring a carefully crafted idea to life. They’ve heard the customers frustrations, they’ve ideated, and the result is an idea of which they are very proud, and everybody involved supports. Fast forward a few months, and that very same idea is in front of a C-Suite review board and all of a sudden there’s all sorts of tough questions being asked. What’s the market size? Did testing give us an expected penetration rate? How does it sustain value over time? What’s the cost to commercialise? The reality is that a shared love for an idea is not enough to bring something to market. Unfortunately Design Thinking that doesn’t have enough evidence or detail to become realised in market doesn’t do the world a whole lot of good.
So how do we embed the power of Design Thinking into organisations, while avoiding some of the pitfalls associated with unfettered creativity? It’s not easy, but it’s certainly within reach.
Scientific rigour in research – Design Thinking cannot rely on simply talking to Customers. It is important that both qualitative and quantitative research is done with rigour about who to speak to, and what to ask them. It’s important to ensure samples (make-up and size) as well as questions or interactions are free of bias.
Filtration, prioritisation and sequencing – Handing over a set of ideas, features or concepts as a bundle makes it very difficult to know where to start when it comes to execution. The best tool to ensure Design Thinking becomes Design Realisation is creating a simple governance model that translates desirability, viability and feasibility into a way to make investment decisions. What first? What’s the highest priority? How can this idea be incrementally proved and developed? What are the dependencies?
Outcome agnosticism – Don’t be wedded to a particular outcome. If the best way to prove out a concept with customers is to hand draw a paper prototype – then do that instead of firing up a development team. If the problem you are solving can be fixed using a policy, or an internal culture shift – then suggest that over a new product or service.
– It’s not enough to hand over a new product or service, with an estimate of how much it will cost to build. Designers need to be thinking about how they can collect evidence to support the customer and business value of a concept as it takes shape. This may be come in the form of a business case for single party investment, or a more creative commercial model using partners or third-party investment to bring the concept to market.
Firms that are able to embed these practices into creative environments will blend the best of Design Thinking with the best of traditional expertise-based consulting to produce an offering that truly leads to desirable, viable and feasible outcomes.