5 biggest myths about design thinking, and why they persist

Design thinking is not just about designing clever technology or a piece of beautiful furniture. It also is not about the end-user, or a domain limited to a handful of experts. It’s much more.

5 biggest myths about design thinking, and why they persist

Friday May 29, 2020,

7 min Read

design thinking

Design Thinking is a systematic, human-centered approach to problem-solving. Though the method could be traced back to its roots in product and industrial design, design thinking has come to represent means of designing compelling experiences and solving complex, multi-faceted problems elegantly.

“Design can mean many different things”, says Mauro Porcini, PepsiCoChief Design Officer. The former veteran of innovation and design from 3M explains, “At PepsiCo, we’re leveraging design to create meaningful and relevant brand experiences for our customers any time they interact with our portfolio of products. Our work covers each brand’s visual identity, from the product itself, all the way to the marketing and merchandising activities that bring a brand to life across different platforms—music, sports, fashion, and so forth.”

That is how broad the canvas of design thinking is, and yet most often the term is very narrowly associated with designing clever products.

In this article, I identify some of the glaring myths about design thinking which is stopping practitioners and problem solvers from embracing this highly effective technique in a broader realm.

Design is applicable primarily to product design

The first and, arguably, the most understandable misconception is that design thinking is about product design. The problem is with the word “design” in design thinking, which makes one to believe that in the end, one must have to design something, like a clever technology or a beautiful piece of furniture. Design thinking involves, as Tim Brown likes to put, “instead of thinking about what to build, building in order to think.” Both, the approach and the result of design thinking are not ‘design’ as much as a better way of thinking.

You may solve any problem ranging from how to get youth to save more money (Bank of America’s “Keep the Change” program), or designing a corporate identity (Dr. Reddy’s “Good Health Can't Wait” rebranding). What it takes is a complex enough problem involving multiple stakeholders and no clear way forward. Increasingly, technology is getting reduced to a via-media in offering remarkable experiences. Think of how much you bother about, or even realise the extent of technology in place when you watch a Marvel Cinematic Universe film. It is full of technology, but what counts is experience. In summary, design thinking is about designing experiences.

Meant only for the hi-tech industry

Two of the most influential proponents of design thinking, IDEO and Stanford d.School, are based out of Silicon Valley and little doubt, some of their projects and ensuring successful products come from the hi-tech space. Right from Applefirst mouse which David Kelley and his team at IDEO designed, to the folks at Google Ventures who advocate design thinking Sprint for getting tech startups off the ground, the hi-tech occupies a disproportionate amount of media attention. However, hi-tech is not the only or probably, the best avenue to apply design thinking.

Think of how the team at Stanford d.School addressed the grossly overlooked issue of baby incubators by designing and developing an ultra-low-cost, and highly reliable baby warmer, Embrace. They took a medical problem underpinned by significant social and economic problems, delved into first-hand consumer insights, and delivered a world-class product, which is sold in over 80 countries today. There is no hi-tech here.

In fact, companies like Samsung have embraced design in their DNA to such an extent that they adopt the design principles to visualize the future of their company and build strategic options.

You must have a customer in place

Another self-limiting view associated with design thinking is that the approach is only applicable in the context of a customer, that too an end-consumer or a user. The notion of “customer-centricity”, and more famously “customer obsession” (in the words of Jeff Bezos) narrowly indicates that you must be a consumer-facing, B2C company to realize the benefits of design thinking.

Design thinking is “human-centric”, and this human could be anybody – employee, vendor, prospect, or pretty much anyone in the society.

The more sincere companies ensure that they make design thinking broad-based, and take a more expansive view of the customer as anyone whose problem you wish to solve. As Brad Smith, the former CEO of Intuit notes, “Intuit has 8,000 employees, and we want them all thinking about how to improve the design of products and services, even if those offerings are intended for internal support only.”

According to McKinsey, the leaders on design thinking treat it as more than a feeling, more than a department, more than a product, and more than a phase. So, to apply design thinking, all it takes is a human whose life you wish to better.

Takes a lot of time

The typical five-stage process of design thinking, viz. Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test, looks expansive and time-consuming. If you listen to the anthropologists and ethnographers, you would rather have to live with the customers to get to their unarticulated needs, and only then could you design superior solutions.

In fact, Jake Knapp and his colleagues from Google Ventures advocate a five-day design thinking Sprint where they take a concept through rapid development to market validation over a week, and this is allegedly the shortest possible cycle. Not all managers are ready for such investments, both in terms of time and real resources, let alone the opportunity cost. Resultingly, gut-feel based, common-sense driven, ad hoc means of problem-solving survive.

To get started with practicing design thinking, it is important to lower the bar significantly and shed the elitist tag that the approach typically draws.

Two practical recommendations: Firstly, you need not go through all the stages of design thinking for you to solve a problem. If a problem is well defined, start with ideation and validation, and if you already have ideas on the table, jump straight to some quick and dirty prototyping. Think of it as a toolkit than a prescribed course.

Secondly, you can crash the journey into as short as one day, provided you work with heterogeneous participants and have done a decent groundwork. Once you get used to design thinking, you can add layers of sophistication and exactness. This brings us to the biggest practical hindrance of them all: the call for experts.

Calls for external experts and facilitators

The inherently high bar of adopting design thinking, coupled with the enigma the popular press has created around it has put the scant number of design thinking coaches and practitioners onto a false pedestal. It is often perceived that to be able to get to even a basic appreciation of the context, you need to dish out large sums of money, invite folks from consulting and design houses, and get soaked into week-long outbound programs.

While a lot of practitioners gain from this view, and I have been guilty too, such approaches seldom result in enduring advantage for the focal organization.

There are a good number of books available in the market, nice TED talks, curated material at IDEO U and Stanford d. School resource centre and a battery of well-documented cases on the application of design thinking that can convert a slight inkling into a full-blown passion for the subject. For the more sincere ones, there are online courses, including certification programs. I deem that resorting to, and worst still, relying on external experts is not a sustainable model, and with the democratisation of content, ideas, practices, and cases, a lot can be picked quite easily. All it takes is to practice it with sincerity.

I hope that this article helps you overcome some of your reservations in trying out design thinking.

Edited by Aparajita Saxena

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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