Design Thinking – Beyond the Breakers
Depending upon the source, Design Thinking (DT) is key to innovation in everything from consumer goods to complex social systems, or it’s an overhyped workshop package. Having first been introduced to the concept at QRCA’s 2019 annual conference, and with the idea that others reading this blog might also be new to Design Thinking, I wanted to share more about it. Design Thinking is meant to place those who seek to engage in innovation – often diverse stakeholders – into an uncomfortable space. It should move people past their own biases so they can understand customers’ real needs, and design solutions that work.
The five steps of the process are most often introduced graphically on brightly colored hexagons: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. Activities in the first two steps live in the problem space, and the last three are in the solutions space. People who understand the ego-threatening implications of these steps point out that practitioners must be willing to manage controlled chaos in seeking the path to making something great.
Design Thinking is demanding. Yet, it is often sold as a quick fix and its core essential stages skimmed. This is why it is disparaged by some designers and others close to it. Consultancies and companies seeking commercial success without committing to authenticity may champion superficial workshops. Some using the process try to make Design Thinking overly linear, misunderstanding the untamed nature of the creativity that lives within its DNA.
The first step – Empathize – has the most relevance to qualitative researchers — but can also be the most often snorkeled-over by those who don’t have the training or the gear to dive deep. “Empathy is hard!” notes Annette Smith in Is Design Thinking a Silver Bullet for Consumer Research. She explains what we all know better than most: “The ability to empathize without imposing your own cultural values and preconceived notions on a consumer is just not easy to do.” Add cultural difference to the equation, and empathizing is, of course, exponentially more difficult.
Jon Kolko addresses criticism of DT in his article, The Divisiveness of Design Thinking. He asserts that the real work required during the Empathy step might conceivably be exchanged for 2-hour ‘subject matter expert’ interviews; but in taking such an approach, you may only gain a scratch-the-surface understanding of the business needs at hand. Kolko also examines breakdowns that happen in the other Design Thinking steps. In summary, anyone planning to take on the enormous job of leading others through the process would have to have the ability and experience to guide people toward dramatically reframing a problem by asking more interesting questions and to facilitate rich, meaningful collaboration. I recommend reading Kolko’s article to gain a much deeper introduction to the topic than provided in most introductory articles that stick to defining the steps.
Circling back and thinking about Design Thinking’s qualitative heart, it’s interesting that just this month there was a post in the Qual Power Blog by Patricia Sunderland titled When Ethnography Becomes a Joke. In her post, she explains the difference between valuable and degraded ethnographic fieldwork, the methodology that is, as it happens, key to Design Thinking’s Step One – Empathy. Sofia Costa Alves, in her presentation Discover and Deploy Design Thinking described the careful ethnographic work that underpinned the Design Thinking activities she led with participants who were holders of diverse roles in a corporation during her facilitation experience in South America.
Being introduced to Design Thinking, what it can yield when done courageously, and also the ways in which it can be used when thinking “out of the box”, has been a wonderful learning experience. If you would like a list of resources I found valuable for gaining some understanding of Design Thinking, feel free to let me know in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liza Carroll is Consumer Insights Manager at RDTeam, Inc.