September 3, 2019 11:20:28 AM EDT

Design Thinking is Not Democratic

Design Thinking is not democratic. Well, at least it shouldn’t be. If you don’t know what Design Thinking is, my previous statement probably didn’t make any sense. Don’t worry. If you’ll stick with me, I’ll explain what it is before I explain why it shouldn’t be democratic.

The term “Design Thinking” has become quite popular in recent years, and its popularity has made its meaning muddled. This makes my attempt to define it difficult, but I believe the definition I’ve developed captures the gist of it. Ultimately, Design Thinking is the application of a set of problem-solving techniques traditionally used by designers to other domains (for example, consumer products, healthcare, and government). Organizations or teams usually call upon Design Thinking when they’re trying to innovate, as in, when they’re trying to find a creative solution to a problem.

Despite its popularity, or maybe because of its popularity, the term has its critics. And, you guessed it, some of these critics think that it functions democratically and liken the approach to a free for all. I personally think that their critiques fall short, and I'd love to tell you why. However, to understand the critiques, I must first discuss Design Thinking’s particulars.

What You Need to Know About Design Thinking

As I said before, Design Thinking’s definition has become muddled because of its popularity. It means something different to different people and to different organizations. You may be asking yourself, 'If it’s a confused buzzword, then what can we even say about it?' Well, though the meaning of the term is somewhat elusive, we can learn much about it by discussing its most popular form, which is the 5-step framework developed at Stanford’s d.school. According to this framework, Design Thinking contains the following five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

Design Thinking Standford d.school
In the Empathize phase, participants (those in the team employing Design Thinking) are tasked with uncovering the problems a consumer is facing. In the Define phase, these problems are categorized and refined to guide the efforts of the team. In the Ideate phase, each person in the team brainstorms potential solutions to the problem. In the Prototype phase, the ideas produced in the previous phase are, well, prototyped. These prototypes are then tested in the Test phase. From the Test phase, depending on how the test goes, the team can go back to any of the other phases that needs to be adjusted accordingly.

The framework’s guiding principles are that it is iterative—meaning that different steps within the process will inform each other in a continuous loop—and collaborative. This seems like a pretty straightforward approach, so what’s the big deal?

The Problem

The classic images associated with Design Thinking are those of teams looking at walls plastered with Post-it notes. These images represent some of the cornerstones of Design Thinking, both in principle (collaboration) and in process (ideation), but they also represent some of the reasons it is loathed by its critics.

Without having been exposed to Design Thinking through the work of my colleague, Michele Petruccelli, I might’ve agreed with some of these critics. Once I heard about Design Thinking and saw these images, I would’ve thought the following long-winded, but passionately skeptical, thought: ‘If we simply pull everyone in a room and direct them to put their ideas on the wall, don’t we produce only a wall full of unbacked and random ideas? After all, the number of Post-its championing each idea says very little about the quality and applicability of that idea.’

To me, Design Thinking, or at least the empathize and ideate phases, would’ve seemed like a democracy, where uneducated votes are assigned the same value as educated votes. And, if I’m honest, the framework alone doesn’t refute this worry. If I had tried to apply Design Thinking’s 5 steps by myself, I would’ve come up with this very problem: Design Thinking would be unable to determine which ideas are best. I tried to figure this issue out on my own, but it wasn’t until I talked to Michele that I found the answers.

As it turns out, Michele has anticipated this very issue and, when she facilitates Design Thinking workshops, she takes purposeful steps to ensure that her clients avoid this problem, while still gathering as many innovative ideas as possible. I’ve compiled some of the techniques Aspirant employees utilize to avoid ending up with a wall of unbacked and random ideas, and I’d love to share them with you.

The Solution(s): Data, the Right People, and Priorities

The first of the solutions takes place at the very beginning of the workshop. Aspirant employees make sure that the empathize phase, where participants are uncovering consumer problems, is not just a cerebral exercise, but is backed by real consumer data. This can take place through “pre-work,” which is research gathered or read by the participants before the workshop, or through “expert pitches,” which involve subject matter experts informing the participants about a certain facet of their problem during the workshop. These are great examples, but there are many other ways a team can stay informed, and the “right” process will depend upon the nature of the team and the nature of their needs. Granted, gathering data won’t solve the problem entirely, but informing your team’s ideas will help guide them.

In addition to data, expertise is a great way to evaluate your participants’ ideas. Unlike the “expert pitches” discussed in the previous solution, which are centered around industry or subject matter expertise, a team needs to have expertise regarding how well ideas fit with the company. For example, if the company employing Design Thinking is in the consumer products industry, and the team is brainstorming new products, they ought to have an idea of what’s possible to build. Without someone from the engineering team present, how could they determine whether the ideas presented are viable? When employing Design Thinking, one must involve the right people in the process. However, there is a balance to strike between this principle and the need for a small, lean team. If you do a Design Thinking workshop with everyone in the company, depending on the company size, the sheer number of distinct ideas may be overwhelming and unproductive.

Lastly, Aspirant employees develop a prioritization framework catered to each company and the problem they’re facing. This framework usually takes the form of a grid that has different metrics on the x and y axes. For example, as I mentioned “fit” earlier, the X axis may be a “fit” metric, on which the relevant employees (engineers, product managers, etc.) plot ideas from the Ideation phase. Maybe the Y axis would be a measure of the “breakthrough” potential of the idea or how well it fits with the stated demand of consumers. The relevant employees for understanding consumer demands may be the marketing or sales teams, so perhaps they would plot ideas on the Y axis. In either case, the framework helps to prioritize ideas, with some being thrown out if they fail to make the cut. The possibilities are infinite, and the right recipe will depend upon the particulars of the problem.

A Broader Point

After reading the solutions provided above, you may be asking yourself, 'Are these solutions part of the official Design Thinking framework, or did you just get these ideas from your colleague?' Well, truth be told, I don’t think these solutions are part of the “official” framework at all, but that shouldn’t surprise you. Design Thinking isn’t magic; it’s merely a tool. As such, Design Thinking is unlikely to give you the solutions you need by itself. When individuals put too much faith in the framework, they lose sight of the end for which it was created, and this leads to missed opportunities to amend and improve the framework.

In the case of Design Thinking, this is manifest in unbacked and random ideas. So, you shouldn’t focus on applying Design Thinking; you should focus on solving a problem. If “solving a problem” is your guiding light (rather than “implementing the framework”), not only will you be able to apply the tips I’ve provided above, but you’ll also find new tactics and tricks of your own. Design Thinking is a helpful tool, but it’s our job to apply it well.

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Jesse Newton
Jesse Newton

Jesse Newton is currently learning about the consulting industry through his internship with Aspirant. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Grove City College with a major in economics, and minors in business and philosophy. He is looking to apply his critical thinking abilities in the realm of business to create value and improve lives.

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