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Was Design Thinking Designed To Not Work?

There is a fantastic (and long) article called “On Design Thinking” by Maggie Gram. It tells the story of badly-failing design thinking projects, and then explains the origins of modern design thinking. Before I cover the article’s history of design thinking and why I believe it was designed to not work as promised, here are excerpts from the article detailing two failed design thinking projects done by IDEO.

Gainesville, Florida

A Florida town wanted to become “a more competitive place for new businesses and talent.” Here’s how that went:

How do you make a city “citizen-centered”? IDEO’s report prescribes nine changes for Gainesville. Early in the list is rebranding: adopt a new logo, tagline, and visual style. Another is to create a “Department of Doing,” an office to help people start or grow businesses in Gainesville. Finally, the report says, the city should become more design-minded. It should train city employees in “design thinking”: the use of design methods to solve problems. It should replace City Commission subcommittees with design-thinking workshops and frame policy questions as design questions.

It went badly. IDEO completely missed the realities for most residents.

Gainesville is among the poorest cities in America, and one of the least racially equitable in the distribution of income and resources. Black residents, who make up 22 percent of the city population, live largely in East Gainesville, where residents report severely limited grocery options, inadequate transportation, and poor street lighting. The median household income for Black residents of Gainesville’s county is $26,561 — just over 50 percent of the median household income for non-Hispanic whites. High school graduation rates for Black residents of the county are 18 percent lower than those of white residents. Black residents are almost 2.5 times as likely as white residents to be unemployed.

A new logo, tagline, and website misses the mark. A “Department of Doing,” whatever that is, and running more design thinking workshops (ka-ching!) miss the mark. Design thinking couldn’t understand, empathize with, or solve the “wicked problems” of poverty and systemic racism.

Kaiser Permanente Health Records

The health care consortium Kaiser Permanente hired IDEO to address the problem of losing important patient information as Kaiser nurses handed off their shifts. Through a series of workshops, in which participants presumably empathized with nurses’ experiences, defined the problem, ideated potential solutions, and prototyped and tested them, IDEO and Kaiser defined a new shift-change process: to prevent the loss of important information, nurses would relay that information in front of patients themselves.

That’s right, after all that design thinking, IDEO decided that the best way for nurses to maintain good records during shift changes was oral story-telling in front of the patients. What about the information we might not say in front of a patient?

The origin of “modern” design thinking

The article explains:

IDEO was native-born to the new Silicon Valley. Its members were industrial designers: people who designed physical products with an eye to both aesthetics and function. They were also “interaction designers” — the term newly invented by Moggridge himself — in that they used the new science of “human factors” to design interactions between people and machine interfaces. Given their expertise in both industrial and interaction design as well as engineering, they were well positioned to win jobs designing things that Silicon Valley and friends were just discovering they needed. IDEO designed a user-friendly portable defibrillator, a revamped PalmPilot, a fast-acting mealtime insulin pen, and the three-and-a-half-ton mechanical orca for Free Willy. By the early 2000s, the firm had worked on thousands of products, most of which bridged physical and digital worlds. Its revenues were reportedly in the high tens of millions, and it was opening new studios in Munich, Tokyo, and Milan.

When the dot-com bubble burst, revenues fell. IDEO depended heavily on internet start-up clients, and more heavily yet on its clients’ confidence in the future. What to do? In 2003, David Kelley had an epiphany: Why not rebrand what they already did? Why be “a guy who designs a new chair or car, ” Kelley later recalled to Fast Company — or, indeed, a software interface — when he could be “an expert at methodology”? Suddenly, Kelley said, “it all made sense.” They would stop referring to IDEO’s approach as “design.” Instead, they would call it “design thinking.”

And from there, they had something to market and sell. Human-centered design, repackaged and renamed. For IDEO’s own profit, they tried to package up what great designers, problem finders, and problem solvers do to create a cottage industry. To sell you training, certificates, workshops, and projects. Because their biz was down and they needed to come up with something fresh.

IDEO knew what it took to be a specialized designer or human factors engineer. They don’t hire just any design thinker. You hire IDEO for who they hired and how they do things. It’s seen as special, different, better than the average agency (whether it is or isn’t). If they are selling a packaged “this is how we do things,” people will line up to buy it.

Hey, if Disney Parks and Resorts (now called Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products) packaged up, “This is how Imagineering and Imagineers work,” I’d buy it. I understand the attraction. I wish I could be an Imagineer and do whatever it is they do that is so special.

Design thinking sells a fantasy.

It sells you the fantasy that with some guidelines, templates, and sticky notes, you can do what IDEO does just like how they do it. I have seen this reflected in social posts and online articles. People are saying that now, design thinking lets them do what the best designers can do. That’s a big promise, especially when I consider that design thinking tries to take something that takes weeks or months to do well and says you can do it in 5 days. It’s more fake-Lean “just move fast” type of thinking.

IDEO didn’t spend 5 days with Gainesville or Kaiser Permanente. Why are they teaching you to do this in days?

More importantly, if it were true that design thinking lets you do what the best designers do, IDEO could put themselves out of business. If they were really selling you the absolute guide on how they solve problems, innovate, and design, you wouldn’t need IDEO. Their idea to save their business from a slump hypothetically cannibalizes their business…

Unless they knew that it wouldn’t.

IDEO must have known that they were creating something that people would find fun, maybe even slightly addictive. Something that would make people feel elite and special. You too can do what the best designers do. You can think like they think, work like they work, in just 5 easy steps and in days. You don’t need to be a designer or human factors engineer, but you can solve problems like they do.

IDEO knew they had something that would keep people coming back and telling friends and coworkers that they should take this training too. Something that claimed it could solve any problem, especially wicked problems, even when IDEO themselves had some wild failures with the technique.

Something teams and individuals couldn’t do quite as well when IDEO themselves weren’t around.

What company known for inventing things would purposefully invent something that could make them unnecessary?

This reminds me of how my evil grandma loved to give out her recipes but always left out one key ingredient so that yours never tasted as good as hers. She never told you that her delicious chocolate cake had some brewed coffee in it.

IDEO left out the key ingredient of talented, experienced UX and “design” specialists. They sold it as “anybody can do it” but they left out…

Anybody can do it, but few will do it well.

As a boiled-down commoditized 5-easy-steps-anybody-can-do thing, “design thinking” doesn’t guarantee that any of those 5 steps are done well or thoroughly. Quality of work and methodology matter. Critical thinking matters.

Working from qualitative research (preferably observational) that was correctly planned, recruited, executed, analyzed, and synthesized matters. Without that, you are guessing at “understanding” customers, users, or “the problem.” You will “empathize” with what you assumed, which might be far from true. And where we didn’t research with a diverse population, we might “empathize” with stereotypes and unfair assumptions about people, contexts, and systems.

Remember Gainesville.

Even IDEO says it’s a “theater of innovation” and you’re doing it wrong.

The fun cartoons and article, “Design Thinking and The Theatre of Innovation,” references a 2018 Fast Company article where:

IDEO partner Michael Hendrix acknowledged the superficial way that many organizations use design thinking, which he described as a “theater of innovation.” As he put it:

“We get a lot of the materials that look like innovation, or look like they make us more creative. That could be anything from getting a bunch of Sharpie markers and Post-its and putting them in rooms for brainstorms, to having new dress codes, to programming play into the week.”

“They all could be good tools to serve up creativity or innovation, they all could be methods of design thinking, but without some kind of history or strategy to tie them together, and track their progress, track their impact, they end up being a theatrical thing that people can point to and say, ‘oh we did that.’ ”

Of course you’re doing it superficially. IDEO knows it, and wants to make sure you still need more help and training. Re-certify every year! More empathy!

Many people see IDEO as geniuses. They and their design thinking are supposed to solve anything. The above quote is from 2018. It’s 2022 (as I write). Why haven’t they solved design thinking being done superficially and as theatre?

Ask yourself that.

Please use critical thinking about bringing it into your organization, making people take training, making people get certificates, etc.

It’s too often workshop theatre that is considered successful if we came up with some ideas and we had fun. OK, but did the ideas go anywhere? What are we spending? What’s the ROI? And what if there are better ways to do this… like how designers and problem solvers actually work… and letting them do the work?

Go back to the last year or two at your company.

  • What have you spent on design thinking trainings and certificates? Include outside facilitators and trainers. Include certificate fees and hourly/day pay rates for workers taking training.
  • What have you spent on design thinking exercises and workshops? This took people away from their work for hours or days, even longer if you hold these frequently. Calculate what you paid in facilitation and attendee time.
  • What have you spent on tools? Are there any tools, software, or systems that you’re paying for just for “design thinking”?
  • What did the next steps cost? Did Product and UX start working on a “winning” design or idea? Did Engineering build something? Did Marketing work on promoting something?
  • Are the winners from design thinking exercises going to market? Did UX ignore the ideas because they were weak or because UX doesn’t use design thinking in their work (and shouldn’t)? Did the ideas fail at some point and get abandoned? Did you release an MVP and then drop it? This cost time and money. Calculate that.
  • Have you had trouble hiring or retaining UX professionals because they didn’t want to work in an environment where people see UX boiled down to whatever “design thinking” means this week?
  • Where have you had your best ideas? In a facilitated, templated workshop? Or in quiet reflection on a walk or in the shower? Sometimes the best ideas come from individual time. Check if your workshops really solve business problems or if they only put a band-aid on cultural problems by creating “fun.”

Now consider if this is money and time well spent. It might not be.

Make sure that you are hiring great CX and UX teams who do work thoroughly and correctly with skill, training, expertise, critical thinking, and room for creativity when the creative moment strikes. Not when it was planned.

IDEO screen shot February 2022 of some of their many design thinking courses.

Thanks to Roshan Ravi




R Before D believes in Research Before Design (and Development). We care about customer, user, and human experiences with products and services. Submit your article if you match our vibe. :) Brought to you by DeltaCX.com. youtube.com/c/DeltaCX

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Debbie Levitt

Debbie Levitt

“The Mary Poppins of CX & UX.” DeltaCX.com and Delta CX on YouTube. CX and UX Strategist, Researcher, Architect, Speaker, Trainer.

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