Less Design Thinking – more Design Doing.

 

We think Design Thinking isn’t a silver bullet for any and all creative challenges. It doesn’t always make it easier to get results. It doesn’t guarantee those results will be any good. Despite what you might’ve been led to believe, Design Thinking is simply a useful tool. But as with any tool, reading the manual only gets you so far… using means doing – and doing leads to learning and getting better.

Don’t get us wrong, Design Thinking is a truly great concept. As a framework for creative problem-solving, it’s particularly well-suited to digital product development. In fact, Design Thinking could be described as a process that codifies how a ‘designer-consultant’ would deal with a client’s project, potentially enabling anyone to think through a problem like a designer.

But – whisper it! – consultants often don’t produce anything tangible. They’re there to help the client to do that. Which means that using Design Thinking to focus on innovation and new ideas means you’re only focusing on part of the solution. For a finished product, you need to take action, release your creative ideas into the ‘wild’ – in other words, do something with them.

Design Thinking’s value lies in both thinking and doing. The doing part is much scarier (though ultimately, more rewarding) and the big temptation is always to spend just a little longer thinking about your ideas (just to make sure they’re the best they can be, of course). Instead, let’s talk about why you should be doing  just enough thinking and then getting to the doing quicker.


The problem with Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a framework for creative and practical problem-solving with a focus on the eventual users of whatever solution results. Design Thinking consists of five stages:

  • Empathy – Getting to know the people affected by the ‘problem’ and who will potentially be users of the solution.
  • Definition – Understanding what those users need and the deeper issues around the problem they face.
  • Ideation – Coming up with ideas for solutions; storming ideas and giving free rein to innovation.
  • Prototyping – Creating a ‘product’, a version of the solution that can be used and tested.
  • Testing – Putting the prototype out to users and gathering their feedback.

But the process can be sabotaged by over-focusing on the thinking stages. People can fall into the trap of staying in the first three stages, refining, re-refining, and over-refining their ideas and (for all they know until those ideas are tested in practice) perfecting a solution that doesn’t fit the problem.

The thinking may still be great, world-changing even, but it’s isolated from the real world. Why would you quarantine your great ideas?

Often, the reason is that it’s easy to get comfortable in the ‘creative thinking’ part of Design Thinking, to get lost in the act of creation, without the risk of implementation or testing. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book, Blink: “We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation.”

That’s a good rationale on the face of it. But sooner or later you have to draw a line under information-gathering and deliberation, and do something.


DESIGN THINKING + DESIGN DOING

Here at Pack, we remember a time when design work generally involved less user focus, less data-gathering and, in a way, less thinking. That thinking element in Design Thinking and user-centred design in general is absolutely essential. Completely necessary. However… we’d argue that the balance has shifted too far and designers are often spending too long having clever thoughts and not enough time turning those thoughts into clever things.

We don’t just need to design think, we need to design do.

 

Have you experienced these problems in your design projects?

 

  • Never seem to launch a product, losing weeks and months in meeting after meeting, debating features?
  • Never try something new because you have too much conflicting and non-focused research?
  • Built what the business thought was the right product, but no one used it?
  • No feedback from customers before going live?

 

All of these are potentially signs of an excessive and closed-off focus on design thinking – the team gets wrapped up in the problem for its own sake, without clear direction or criteria for a solution, operating on assumptions about what users want. Usually, on some level, the team knows its process is flawed and that creates a reluctance to put the ideas to the test.

The research stages (Empathy & Definition) can become a comfort blanket, an activity that is a) fun and rewarding, b) delays action and therefore risk, and c) wards off possible failure. (This is understandable because failure can be expensive and – no matter how much the business agrees “failure is just another step towards success” – is rarely rewarded). But indulging your perfection obsession means you won’t make a move until you’re 100% sure you’ve cracked the problem.

Newsflash: you’re NEVER 100% sure.

This stems from a lack of trust in our initial ideas. First thoughts are often distrusted BUT they’re also often ultimately adopted. Something that lurks beneath most creative endeavours (or any endeavour) is the fear of failure. What if it doesn’t work!? And that particular fear is the fuel for spending more time in the data-gathering and ideation stages. A new idea is like any new being, it’s vulnerable.

And our doubts stop us from letting it out into the world, from ‘doing’.

To illustrate, here is a personal story about sourdough baking (bear with me).

During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people turned to baking. Cakes, loaves, buns, tarts… for me, the fascination was sourdough, a bread that uses wild yeast and naturally-occurring bacteria for a unique texture and taste. However, sourdough-making is a non-exact science, to say the least, balancing various factors – the starter, the temperature, the type of flour, the quantities. Making good sourdough is a learning process.

But to acquire that skill, you can’t just collect and read recipes. Or buy and look at ingredients. You have to make a loaf and see how it turns out. You have to feel the hydration of the dough, experience the way it goes wrong and eat the first, terrible loaf. What you learn from the first loaf means the second should be better. And the third… Just like Design Thinking, the learning comes from the doing. Not the recipe-gathering. Not the visit to the supermarket (or artisanal bakers’ shop). The doing. Actually having a loaf (a prototype) that you can offer to other people and ask, What do you think? is what produces information that can be used to improve the results next time.

Sometimes the only way to get a better product is to make it. That’s how you learn what’s right, and what’s wrong. Doing.

BE A ‘DESIGN DO-ER’

Using Design Thinking effectively is all about balance. About spending just enough time in each of the five stages to achieve a worthwhile result.

In essence, that means getting your thinking (those precious ideas) out into the real world where they can be considered, poked, prodded and criticised by others, preferably others who will be using those ideas (i.e. users!)

Most would consider Pixar (Toy Story, Monsters Inc., WALL-E, etc.) to be creatively successful (and successfully creative). Co-founder and President, Ed Catmull has repeatedly insisted on the value of showing your creative efforts to others early in the process, when they’re incomplete. You may have invested less time in creation but you’ve done just enough to garner useful feedback from your target audience to guide the next stage of development. Basically, don’t be proud, don’t be shy, just get it out there and see what people say about it.

Yes, get to know your users and their needs, gather information, come up with inventive ways to give them what they want… but then, do  something with all that information and brainwork; something you can test and measure. You’re looking for that happy medium, a balance of thinking and doing.


THE SECRET ZEN SAUCE

Tools and techniques are great. But it’s how you use them that matters. As any sourdough baker will tell you, attitude (and perseverance in the face of failure!) is important. Your attitude to creativity and innovation can determine how effectively you use Design Thinking.

The danger with creative thinking is that it often comes from a ‘smart’ place. The creative thinker believes that they are the best or only one qualified to come up with fresh insights and ideas. Fair enough, in a way; it is their job. But this is dangerously enclosed thinking and has limited creativity.

Instead… be humble.

Humility doesn’t mean believing less in yourself, just more in others. See the value in, and listen to, user needs. They’re not design experts but they are experts on what they want and need. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the idea. Your creativity is relevant, your ego isn’t. So don’t be selfish, share your thoughts. Sure, you can predict some of the feedback you’ll get, but not all of it. And you can use the unpredictable and unexpected input to make a good idea great… or a great idea world-changing.


HALF A TOOL ISN’T ENOUGH TO GET THE JOB DONE

Let’s be clear. We’re not bashing Design Thinking. It’s user-centred, it encourages creativity based on data, and it gets ideas out into the world. The problem we have is that a lot of people use it to focus on those first two, and shy away from the ‘real world’ part. Because that’s the scary bit.

It’s like climbing up to the high dive platform at the pool. That first time we look over the edge, we get the fear and vertigo, and maybe we climb back down again instead of jumping into the water. But once you do jump, it’s a rush. The whole experience comes together. And you can’t wait to have another go.

But the longer you linger on the platform (in the creative thinking phase) afraid to take the leap, the harder it is to jump and back down the ladder you go.

To return to the idea of Design Thinking as a kind of consultancy approach… here at Pack, we don’t climb and conquer the mountain for you. You do that. We’re the Sherpas, providing tools, routes and support to help you find your own way to the summit (your own summit, in fact). And we’ll be the first to tell you, sitting here counting the ropes, pitons and cold weather gear isn’t going to cut it…

As Michael Palin says in the infamous PFJ committee meeting in Life of Brian :