UNPACKING: "Design Thinking: Understanding the Process”
Updated: Mar 4
Peer Review Series: Review #5 of 10:
In this NextD Journal Peer Review Series we are including this popular video published on LinkedIn in 2016 as it is representative of many such videos utilizing the same logic cascade, that begins with use of the term Design Thinking. On the timeline of the Design Thinking confusion story this video appeared in the year following the Harvard Business Review article “Design Thinking Comes of Age” published in 2015 (See Peer Review #4).
The purpose of this NextD Journal series is not to present unified views but rather to share the diversity of perspectives of Peer Reviewers, spanning theory and practice, philosophy and methodology, in order to provide an authentic window into this complex subject.
The question the Reviewers are addressing in this series is this one:
Is this public document contributing to the clarity or confusion around the subject of Design Thinking?
You can watch the video series on LinkedIn here:
Accessing ‘Design Thinking’ resources online is useful. There are a wide range of approaches available, and I’ve enjoyed learning, applying and adapting methods within professionally and classroom contexts. Is Chris Nodder’s Design Thinking: Understanding the Process Linkedin course contributing to the clarity or confusion around the subject of Design Thinking? I can only respond to this question based on what I can decipher through Nodder’s online preview videos (I wasn’t prepared to commit to undertaking a “free month”) – just as other people have to do before they decide to invest time and money in Nodder’s approach with the belief that the course can help them ‘understand’ and ‘implement’ design thinking in their organisations (rather than having to rely on outside agencies or design school classes).
STRIKING A CORD
Nodder’s course contributes clarity around the design thinking ‘process’ to a degree. Overall, the course is structured professionally through Linkedin, and Nodder has practical goals (in relation to his intended audience): he promises to explain “where design thinking fits into product development and what it can help you achieve. He describes each step in the process, from identifying the problem you want to solve and brain storming solutions, to prototyping, development, and release. Learn about the pros and cons of this approach and how to overcome challenges such as organization inertia and silos.” Throughout the course Nodder maintains that he will emphasize “how you can do [Design Thinking] yourself within your organization” (‘Welcome’ video) … I don’t see his offering as problematic as such, rather: (1) it’s simply one of MANY approaches in the marketplace leveraging the popularity (and the idea/approach) of design thinking as potential ‘toolbox’ (with 10,672 members “liking” his course (as I write) he’s obviously striking a cord with the Linkedin community); and, (2) audiences don’t really get to see what’s offered in reality ‘under the hood’ beyond Nodder’s online preview videos.
Overall, Nodder’s course contributes confusion around ‘understanding’ Design Thinking. Firstly, over the past decade a considerable amount of literature has been published on the term ‘Design Thinking’ and this has generated much interest in contexts beyond the traditional design domain. In their major study on the design thinking discourse, Johansson-Skoldberg, Woodilla and Cetinkaya (2013) identify five different discourses referring to design thinking and designerly thinking: as the creation of artefacts (Simon, 1996); as a reflexive practice (Schön, 1983); as a problem-solving activity (Buchanan, 1992); as a way of reasoning/making sense of things (Cross, 2007); and as creation of meaning (Krippendorff, 2006). Kimbell (2011) points out that there are three main design thinking approaches have emerged in the contemporary era: design thinking as a cognitive style, a theory of design, or as an organizational resource. She also argues that there is no clear definition of design thinking. Nodder doesn’t acknowledge any key people/sources involved in design thinking historically! This is frustrating, as it gives people the impression that he is introducing design thinking as his “new” idea, rather than the reality that he is simply collecting and re-packaging what already exists (online and offline).
MANY LEVELS PROBLEMATIC
Secondly, the course is problematic on many levels. On the homepage, Nodder promises that he will describe “each step in the [Design Thinking] process, from identifying the problem you want to solve and brain storming solutions, to prototyping, development, and release. Learn about the pros and cons of this approach…”, yet on the ‘What you should know before watching this course’ video he states his course “doesn't go into the real detail about each of the techniques used in a design thinking process. If that's your focus, you should also watch my course on applying design thinking”(!). Also, terms such as ‘agile’ and ‘lean’ are simply “skimmed over” (‘Agile, lean, and design thinking’ video). Ultimately, I feel that the course sets up people with unrealistic expectations. For Nodder, “If you are planning on using an agency or attending a design thinking class, you can use the information in this course to help evaluate which of these agencies or schools is most likely to help your team out” (‘Welcome’ video). To do this, I assume people would have achieved their ‘Certificate of completion’(?) … however, “completion” does NOT equate to “understanding”!
Lastly, in Section ‘2. Design Thinking Isn’t Magic’ (‘Celebrity design thinking vs. real design thinking’ video) it was simply unprofessional (by adding to confusion around ‘understanding’ Design Thinking) to state: “Lots of design practitioners, including large universities and famous design agencies, seem to think the end deliverable of design thinking is a concept or storyboard.” “If an agency delivers a sexy presentation to your executives, those executives are gonna turn round and get you to build it. … [the “celebrity version of design thinking” is] a waste of time, because you'll never really be able to build the concept in reality.
Those concepts might look great, but how likely is it that the development team will be able to understand, let alone implement, those sketches? And what will happen if they do implement them? How likely is it they'll work?” Nodder boldly argues that he “always advocate involving representatives from every discipline on the team in the design thinking process. There's a myth that only design agency staff can do creative thinking, so you need them in order to bring creativity to your company. The reality is they follow the same techniques that you will.” Unfortunately, statements such as these come across as spiteful, inaccurate, irresponsible, and will add unnecessary pressure on teams with a range of skills who are genuinely open to exploring design thinking as a usable approach … ironically, statements suggesting external companies offer people a “mythical creative input” perpetuate existing ‘myths/stereotypes’ which in themselves damage a holistic ‘understanding of the process’ of Design Thinking contextually.
*See Mark Bradford Reference Links below.
It may be constructive to clear up my attitude to Design Thinking (DT) and expectations relating to guiding adoption of its methods to effective or simply expedient ends. Design Thinking can mean a number of things, from trivial downstream challenges of product or service design to a way of approaching systemic contexts through a readily accessible process (think Systems Thinking lite). The systemic orientation, grounded in early IDEO prescriptions of multidisciplinary field research and design critique, is my own favourite. This orientation represents little more than practical workarounds for more conventional Systems Thinking formalisms; a compromise which lends itself well to accounting for a broader base of stakeholder inputs, as well as leveraging internal knowledge in business settings and consumer marketplace.
Design Thinking can however, also be a formula for obfuscating the absence of concrete initiatives, while at the same time creating an impression of innovation savvy and outward appearances of ‘keeping up with the times’. The latter case may be considered in terms of potential conveniences behind conducting inconsequential activities in order to justify all manner of corporate and marketing hyperbole. In effect, ‘thinking out of the box’, without actually rocking the boat, a Design Thinking reality so common these days. It is probably self evident that, from my perspective much of contemporary Design Thinking practice and training may actually be eroding and setting a low bar.
TECHNIQUES or BUZZWORDS
Given that a number of Chris Nodder’s Design Thinking course descriptions on LinkedIn include references to a notion of integrity in design and/or associated ethical concerns, one could expect an earnest approach to structuring the adoption of Design Thinking theory and its execution techniques, especially at the ‘overview’ level "Design Thinking: Understanding the Process” is targeting. And yet, Nodder appears to be choosing a more direct path for gaining traction, namely, the seduction of familiar loosely related industry jargon and widely overused buzzwords. Further still, he frames the Design Thinking process in terms of product design alone, a common and no doubt resonant constraint imposed on the potential scope of Design Thinking initiatives. The first ‘hook’ for impatient solutionists can be found in the intro clip; getting to what the product will look like quickly. Supposedly, an ‘understanding’ that is equally instructive if a project was to end-up outsourced to an agency. Conveniently, I guess, there is no mention of research components for the workshops, or for that matter any ‘in the field’ work.
Following the buzzword driven blueprint, the broader perspective on Design Thinking encompasses interplay with Lean business processes and Agile engineering work. This rather sketchy approach to process hybrids extends to awkward jargon like ‘Sprint 0’, one of the less than successful attempts of fitting-in a design stage into Agile time-boxes and swim-lines, as well as, references to a one week timeline, reminiscent of Google’s Design Sprint.
Another surprising aspect is an unconventional approach to cross-discipline team engagements involving daily product demonstration updates. Similar excesses of process realisation style, stipulating interaction across the entire organisation, bring me to the key concern with meanings behind this course offering, the very notion of ‘sessions’ as a delivery mechanism. All it takes to set an initiative for a fail may be wrong language and in this case, framing DT workshops as sessions is an invitation to the proverbial ‘death by PowerPoint’, a clear opening to a one-way game. I doubt that I’m alone in favouring open design critiques, at most involving some light touch moderation just in case ‘creative’ contributions get out of hand, over end-to-end performance routines.
This problem is broader and predates my allergic reactions, but at the turn of the century I’ve observed a growing trend for activity and training oriented transformation programmes. Typically, these don’t make explicit connections between practice and desired results and instead defer to signals of improvement in terms of big multidimensional global milestones. In general, the change delusion is complemented by new and often synthetic measures for performance and quality management. However, in context of this argument, the key symptom is a changing character of meetings. Rather, talking about problems or other tangible things, people become an audience for ambiguous statements about lofty goals and regrettably; they walk out less certain about what to do next than on the way in.
In a nutshell, a question that begs to be asked is whether this ‘course’ is more of a way of pitching some other gig, like Nodder’s facilitation services. Rather confusingly, the activities targeting every conceivable silo of business operations, as participation in Design Thinking should, instead of inclusive iterative discovery process, the prescribed ‘sessions’ may end in inconsequential staged events. Also, despite the emphasis on cross silo participation a key aspect of strategy seems to be missing, the business model itself; issues like pricing targets, product versus subscription service, etc., a common omission from the scope of design decisions.
I fail to see how prospective students can be expected to reconcile the gap between enterprise-wide engagements in ‘sessions’ with Design Thinking workflows presented to illustrate the process hands-on. Instead of building an understanding, a lack of clarity regarding the character of execution and consultation techniques or paths for practitioners’ contributions, the course and its promotional material may actually seed confusion, misunderstandings and consequently set candidates on a path of commissioning outside facilitators, which as I suggested could be an ulterior motive for this exercise.
This introduction oversimplifies design thinking and gives the impression that “you can do away with the design profession”. Not a comprehensive introduction since it speaks only of customer-centricity and stays mostly in the digital design space. And jumps straight into marketing and implementation of design thinking, over thinking design.
Severely restricts the value proposition of design thinking. Several dimensions of design thinking are missing.
Design thinking’s promise goes way beyond human-centricity and the comfort of a structured approach. It is about mindsets. Design thinking gets non-designers to understand how using the concepts and approaches that designers use, gives them an outside-in view of what users find relevant and a way to test ideas with real users.
Expecting the tools to work automatically without people having to change the “fixed” ways they have learnt to think is a clear indication of ignorance packaged in a consulting box. Just another label for product innovation, targeted to lazy manager types who are looking for brownie points.
This introduction adds to the confusion that already exists (if that’s even possible) around design thinking. It’s superficial at best.
When describing any method, it is advisable to note its expected benefits but also pitfalls. It is good practice to note when it will not work. This creates a balanced view, and may I note, is more convincing. The description mentions pros and cons but ends with “Done right, design thinking can start your ….” Can one do what is ‘right’ and fail?
The preview talks about implementing it in startups or multinational organizations and the example products are an app or something on a website, how about a cell phone? a car? a space rocket? I think there is a gap between the terms used. What is design thinking really good for? What kinds of products could I expect to develop and what can I learn in less than one hour?
Personally, I am not a fan of customer-based design, having co-authored “We Are Not Users: Dialogues, Diversity, and Design (2020).” The instructor Chris Nodder is also an author of the well-received “Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation.” Is the insight from this book penetrating the design thinking course? Is the course mentioning how we avoid doing evil with design thinking or with designing? The introduction does not spell this out.
Obviously the video tries to sell the course, it is not aimed at describing exactly what it is selling. Hence, it does not help clarifying what design thinking is.
The video is a vigorous and probably effective sales tool for selling a course in Design Thinking to people who have no idea what DT is about. It uses all the buzz words that have become associated with the topic to attract LinkedIn members to sign up. It even promises to provide them with information they can use to sell the idea of using Design Thinking to others in their organization. But it does not deliver.
The video does not describe what designers do, what motivates them, how they think, and how they differ from other categories of people in an organization. It is not clear about how collaborating with others in the organization to do high-level design thinking might yield results. It is never explained.
The video will confuse people who aspire to learn a formula, and the tools and skills demonstrated to make themselves more valuable to employers as members of design and design thinking teams. There is no mention of the soft stuff; feelings, communicating, excitement, understanding, epiphany, curiosity, imagination, and connecting to the wider world and other people through such experiences.
Designers are different from other people. They are curious, they will question basic assumptions; they are not looking for one answer. They want to explore a variety of directions; to invent or design something no one has ever seen before. They look for inspiration from hanging out with those they are designing for, whose lives they want to improve, as well as the people who will implement the systems they design and make their ideas real.
To be most effective and credible, they must learn the language of business, they need to learn what is important to their business colleagues, to understand how they make decisions, and to prepare them for unexpected outcomes. Nothing about how inspiring and valuable working with designers is in the video.
How the subject of Design Thinking got so confused is not rocket science. It is a form of confusion that can be traced to 5-10 types of marketplace documents. This video, posted on LinkedIn at the height of interest in the subject of Design Thinking and viewed by 60,000 + people is among the best, most obvious examples I have seen (there are many other examples) regarding how the confusion around this subject is manifested in and propagated by the design community itself.
We can have debates whether we think that the confusion is occurring by accident or by design but never-the-less its manifestation seems obvious here. To me it does raise the question of ethical responsibilities in the community but that is a question for another day. The marketplace is an unregulated wild-west as this video confirms. Even if you just watch the introduction, the central hocus-pocus of Design Thinking does appear. Once you see it, then it becomes quite obvious and difficult to unsee. Now widespread in the marketplace, it is this hocus-pocussy thing that has fueled vast confusion around this subject and narrowed the public perception of what Design Thinking is intended to be.
If there were not direct implications for the design community, especially graduate design education it really would not matter but there are and it does.
For this brief review I watched the 3 sections entitled: “Introduction”,”The Design Thinking Process” and “Finding the Right Problem” in this video series. That was enough for me. It’s a familiar picture that can often be seen in the marketplace today, years after this video first appeared.
At 6 seconds: The narrator: “Welcome to this course on Design Thinking.”….At 19 seconds: The narrator: “Design Thinking is a way to get your team thinking creatively about your products and services from your customers perspective.”
Huh? Who said anything about products and services being the challenge? Where did that assumption come from? Where is that assumption being imported from? Are these methods assumption-boxed around product and service creation? Is that what the narrator just said? Not very clearly stated. In less than 20 seconds, without acknowledging it, the narrator jumped from the broad notion of Design Thinking to the much narrower product/service creation, exhibiting in plain sight that hocus-pocussy thing. Since product design and service design are assumption-boxed methods they do not represent the adaptive intent of Design Thinking. One is not the other.
That contortion, seen in the first 20 seconds of the introduction video is now widespread across the industry and unfortunately around the world. By 2016 that contortion had become the defacto, selective explanation standard for the subject. It makes no literal sense but there it is. It is a contortion that is often accompanied by the useful philosophical notion that Design / Design Thinking can be applied to any type of challenge, all problem scales...and then the dysfunctional punch line is product/service design methods. Today you can find the same contortions in hundreds of Design Thinking videos on Linkedin and YouTube.
Reinforced repetitiously by the narrator throughout, any arriving viewer of this video series would certainly get the message that Design Thinking is product creation. At 1:53: The narrator: “The aim is to deliver a product that has business benefits.” and “Design Thinking is an on-ramp to Lean and Agile [methods that are also assumption-boxed around product creation].” and “The thing I really want to get across in this course is how you in your own organization can use the Design Thinking process to create better products and get your best ideas to market sooner.”
Why not call this product design then? How did the notion of broad Design Thinking get mixed up in this narrowly boxed product creation soup? Mr. Narrator: Are you telling me that what you are selling here is product design repackaged as Design Thinking? If so then why all the spinning around what this is?
At no point in the sections that I watched is there any explanation of where the challenges came from or what the broader constellation of organizational challenges was from which they were selected. Nor is there any picture of that challenge constellation. Nor is there any explanation of challenge framing. How did the design team know that the organizations’ challenges were product related? Osmosis? Somebody told them so? This was dictated from leadership? There is no upstream activity at all in this methodology, which is very typical of traditional downstream product design methods. Making reference to Lean and Agile does not magically change that. (See also NextD Journal Peer Review #1 and #2)
Design Thinking begins when someone gives you a product design challenge? Is this the strategic intent of Design Thinking? Not really.
The narrator seems to be projecting from his UX, user research, interface design background. Lots of references to “users” rather than stakeholders or constituents. This is a UX interpretation of what the narrator thinks Design Thinking is. Seen here is the “user centered” methodology logic most common to Design Arena 2 (product/service/experience creation).
Typical of product design methods no one in the video ever asks to reframe the challenge outside the product assumption track. Missing is any logic, any procedural knowledge from Arena 3 (organizational changemaking) or Arena 4 (societal changemaking). Viewers are left to extrapolate the narrow product/service methodology to broader themes referenced in the video such as culture change.
IS THIS WHAT WE WANT TO TEACH FUTURE DESIGN LEADERS?
This is essentially Design Thinking constrained in an often seen corporate box…ie kept focused around and literally defined as product creation. This notion of what Design Thinking is has not come from practice community thought leaders, or academic leaders but rather it’s an idea that is very popular in highly structured corporate settings where other folks, often MBA type managers see challenge framing as their job. The version appearing in the video is designed to fit in that operational context.
At best let’s recognize this is as a truncated version of what Design Thinking was and is meant to be. This truncation is a big part of the Design Thinking confusion story.
Think of the educational implications of the procedural model seen here in this video. Do we want to be training a new generation of professional design leaders in methods that begin with the challenges defined by others? The design team jumps in after others have defined the challenges? That’s the full reach of what we should be teaching our future design leaders? Don’t think so. That domain of skill is not adequate to the present level of complexity that already exists in the marketplace, let alone the rapidly arriving future complexity.
The design community has for some time, been actively engaged in encouraging the notion that Design / Design Thinking can change the world...can be applied to complex contexts, and then what gets taught is product/service design methods? That makes no sense at all but there it is.
Humantific would not, does not subscribe to that logic. It is a hocus-pocus that is simply not fair to the participants who presumably would include students and organizational leaders.
Since what the narrator is explaining in the video series is product design, not Design Thinking, it does more to muddy the waters around the subject rather than adding clarity.
Last but not least in this review, I will mention that its a hocus-pocus that has not stopped a relatively small portion of the practice/education community to recognize the problem, embrace the challenge and to begin the methodology redesign work necessary to operate on the other side of that spin, in order to better fulfill the promise of operating in complex contexts. The existence of that emerging practice community already focused on Design for Complex Contexts is something that we point out in the Rethinking Design Thinking book.
*Mark Bradford Reference Links:
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8, 5-21.
Cross, N. (2007). Designerly ways of knowing. Berlin ; London: Springer.
Johansson-Skoldberg, U., Woodilla, J., & Cetinkaya, M. (2013). Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures. Creativity and Innovation Management(2), 121-146. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.massey.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.329552233&site=eds-live&scope=site
Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.
Krippendorff, K. (2006). The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor and Francis
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Simon, H. A. (1996). The sciences of the artificial (3 ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
*GK VanPatter Reference Links:
Humantific, (2020), Storming Design Thinking: Making Sense of Harvard Business Review
Humantific, (2020), Design Thinking is Creative Problem Solving?: Truth or Fiction?
Humantific, (2017), Defining Design Thinking: Mind the Methodology Gap
Humantific, (2017), Methodology Ethics: Embracing the New Era
Humantific, (2017), Arguments Roundup: Making Sense of "Design Thinking is Bullshit"
Humantific, (2015), Origins of NextDesign Geographies
Humantific, (2017), Innovation Methods Mapping: De-Mystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design