Design Thinking – Silver Bullet Or White Whale?

With Nicola Halliday

Design thinking has been propelled into the consciousness of many organisations and their people, eager to experience its healing properties. It’s been exalted and applied liberally to all types of organisational problems – big and small, national and international.

But I’ve also seen CEOs and team members alike for whom the silver bullet of design thinking has lost its lustre. They express disappointment that pursuing design thinking didn’t deliver the solutions they needed in the allotted time. The chase left them frustrated and confused, with only some lukewarm ideas to show for it.

Using a design thinking approach successfully involves knowing when not to use it, because it’s not a universal solution. A good starting point for understanding what it is and when it works is the distinction between design thinking and design.

Design thinking design

‘Design’ is the broad discipline that is essentially about creating something intentionally – it traverses 2D design (flat images used everywhere from electrical engineering to animation), to experiential design (the user’s experience with products and places). You brush up against design every time you use your mobile or try to navigate the health system. Its scope is so broad in fact that top design thinker Richard Buchanan once remarked that, from an academic perspective, it’s ‘one of the few disciplines with no subject matter’ (Beth Jarvie, American Entrepreneurship Today).

Design thinking on the other hand is a creative, problem-solving method that offers people with no design background a swipecard for entry into this previously locked world. The process has some core phases – gaining empathy, problem definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing (also known as ‘Discover, Define, Design and Deliver’). This may sound very linear, but the process is inherently a lot messier than that – I’ll come back to that.

‘Not all problems lend themselves to design thinking’, warn Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman and Daisy Azer in their new book. They advise:

Save design thinking for areas of high uncertainty – areas where real human beings aren’t making the choices we’d like them to make and existing approaches and solutions aren’t working.’ (Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector, 2017)

The key words here are ‘real human beings’ – design thinking comes to the fore in human-centred design, especially in social contexts. Listening and empathy are central here, as a recent project of mine clearly showed. This work addressed the illegal dumping of waste in public places, a problem that’s rooted in some deeply complex social issues.

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Adapted from Stanford, IDEO and Design Council

Illegal dumping: What we got through listening 

We approached the project eyes wide open, knowing we could only solve parts of the dumping problem given its complexity and the many entities involved. But we were clear that a design thinking approach was the right one, as although we had plenty of quantitative data, we knew we didn’t understand the needs or motivations of the people at the heart of the problem.

A couple of light bulb moments stand out for me. First, through empathy conversations we discovered people who had immaculate front gardens, but who also had back sections stacked with old mattresses, sofas, tyres and other unwanted items – something the passers-by at the front of the house didn’t see. These families presented one type of life to the outside world while living a very different one behind closed doors.

Listening to those on the enforcement side was also illuminating. They told us: ‘Illegal dumping is the new graffiti’. This eloquently captures the nature of the problem: it’s social, it’s anonymous and undercover, and the results are usually unsightly.

Those critical conversations with real humans enabled our project team to accurately define the problem and gave us a deep understanding of the needs and experiences of the people in this eco-system. From there, it led finally to implementable solutions.

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Example of illegal dumping

Iteration and reiteration

Design thinking is also an excellent fit for an ongoing project I’m involved in for MartinJenkins, addressing the tension between food waste and ‘food insecurity’ – the mental and physical state experienced by those with insufficient food to nourish themselves and their families.

The critical stages of empathy, problem-definition and ideation have already armed us with a workable understanding of this social problem, based on both qualitative and quantitative data. We’re now ready to begin the ‘prototype’ phase: the project team will quickly test and iterate the concept of a ‘social supermarket’ – a community-led social enterprise that sells surplus food received free or at low cost from retailers for a substantial discount to those most at need. 

Community members will work alongside the project team as co-designers and co-creators. They’ll decide which features of the prototype supermarket meet their needs and which don’t – and ultimately, whether and how the social supermarket will reduce their food insecurity by repurposing food that’s regularly and needlessly wasted. Once again, design thinking excels at taking on this kind of human-centred problem – empathy is critical here, and so is flexible iteration and reiteration of potential solutions.

Embracing the ambiguity

It can sometimes take steady nerves to steer a multi-disciplinary project team that’s using design thinking as its favoured methodology. You inevitably come up against ambiguity early on, and that kind of inherent slipperiness can be unsettling for people who are analytical, most likely time-poor, and hungry for tangible results. Success here will often depend on embracing the uncertainty – you need to ‘wallow’ in the not knowing, as Liedtka et al put it. Rest assured, the uncertainty does fall away and clarity and direction replaces it.    

My final thought on design thinking is to remember that it’s a framework. It’s literally a type of scaffolding – a structure that enables you to reach another state, to build into the future. Once you’ve reached this new position, it’s safe to dispense with the scaffolding, because what’s been built can now stand on its own. As well as judging when design thinking is going to be right for your project, once you’ve engaged in the process you need to be able to judge when it’s time to set the framework aside because it’s done its job.

Design thinking has a purpose. Knowing when to use this approach, and then when to let it go, will serve you well.