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Design Thinking Isn’t the Problem

But here's what it takes to create good design

There’s a big search on for what’s next after design thinking.

Over the past five years, people have lined up to write critiques of design thinking (also known as human-centered design). In the case of the more thoughtful critiques, those thinkers have offered alternatives. Instead of human-centered design, we need systemic design. Or we need strategic design. Or we need life-centred design.

At the core of these critiques are two points. The first is that human-centered design is superficial. Yes, you can create a nice app or a great service experience for someone — but are you actually solving a meaningful problem?

The second is that human-centered design doesn’t pay enough attention to something that’s important, whether it be strategy, systems, or the rest of life on this planet.

It turns out both of these arguments only perpetuate deeper problems in design practice — and unpacking them holds the key to strengthening the impact of not only design thinking practice, but also the impact of the many other approaches to design.

Why do we have a human-centered design in the first place?

In both the public and private sectors, human-centered design is often introduced as an antidote to a natural problem. As businesses or governments become larger and the people who work in them become more distant from citizens and customers, they start to lose focus on them. They begin practicing other — often less desirable — problem-solving approaches: budget-centred design, timeline-centred design, what-my-boss-said centred design. Human-centered design has come to be a significant movement in both the public and private sectors because it provides an approach to designing products or services and more generally problem-solving that refocuses on the citizen or customer. It brings what might seem obvious — but too often isn’t — back to the forefront.

Where does human-centered design go wrong?

There are two major storylines about how human-centered design goes wrong: it’s superficial, and it’s missing an essential design consideration.

It’s superficial

“Do we really need to do all this training to ask people what they want and give it to them?”

“Human-centered design gives us good user experience — but truly innovating is more than designing good user experiences.”

This is the easier of the two critiques of human-centered design to address. I totally relate — but these aren’t truthful ideas about human-centered design.

Human-centered design is often against asking people what they want and giving it to them. If you want to be open to designing something that doesn’t yet exist or the people that you’re designing for (and hopefully with) haven’t yet experienced, asking them what they want isn’t going to work. The job of the human-centered design is to understand peoples’ lives and needs and to design for that.

And while human-centered design is often about creating good experiences — it’s applied to a wide variety of challenges. My team has successfully applied human-centered design to everything from designing new learning approaches that help undocumented youth and refugees to learn vocational skills independently to speeding up information sharing between hundreds of teams working on construction projects.

What is true is that there’s a lot of superficial human-centered design practice out there. Years of well-intentioned and worthwhile efforts to “democratise” human-centered design have led the field to a crisis. Anyone can do the 5 hexagons but some people are considerably more skilled than others in doing design research during empathy or synthesising findings when defining the opportunity. What was missing from those efforts is any distinction about the level of skill in practice.

This problem can’t be solved with a new design process that adds one or two steps to design thinking. You wouldn’t get a heart surgery from a doctor who told you he did a heart surgery bootcamp two weeks before, no matter how many steps it had. The d.school at Stanford is changing how it talks about human-centered design from a process to a set of design abilities. These abilities — not the process — are what we need to build and refine to bring good design to the table.

It’s missing an essential design consideration

“Human-centered design creates good local solutions, but those solutions don’t scale.”

“Human-centered design gave us convenience, but the convenience of disposable product packaging is killing the planet.”

This is the more problematic critique for human-centered design. Human-centered design, even when well-practiced, misses the mark because it doesn’t consider something important, whether it’s the planet, the broader systemic change that’s needed to solve a problem, the need for scale, business strategy — or any other number of things that don’t directly involve the user, customer, or citizen.

Ignoring these considerations can have terrible consequences both in the private and public sectors. Dan Hill argues that human-centered design can give us a great car sharing experience — but Uber is ultimately making cities worse to live in because it creates more traffic (and it’s making society worse because by putting more people into jobs with few protections.)

Another version of this problem has led to the demise of many corporate innovation and public sector labs. Teams in innovation labs designed things that were great for users but that weren’t particularly strategic. I’ve seen this manifested in all sorts of ways. It’s the laundry list of user experience improvements that were nice but wouldn’t generate a meaningful return on investment for the business or the product that failed to get off the ground because designers trying to design the best user experience rejected using existing distribution channels. It’s the corporate startup with an innovative solution and a loyal customer base that was shut down 3 years in because it was never going to grow large enough to be interesting for the parent business. This piece by UNDP similarly argues that a good deal of social innovation isn’t sufficiently strategic and so fails to penetrate the core of government or development organisations.

So design thinking is nice for users, but it doesn’t pay enough attention to strategy, or the planet, or something else. Instead we need: life-centred design, which argues that we need to design considering that all life on the planet is connected — not just design for people. Or we need systemic design, which argues we need to pay attention to the structure of relationships between different entities, not just to users.

Yes, yes, and yes. But there’s one problem: you can take your pick of system-centred, life-centred, strategy-centred — but if you aren’t also human-centered, the likelihood that people will actually want and use your solution is pretty dim.

We need solutions that people want and that can scale, and are good for the environment, or whatever might be the essential considerations. If people are doing human-centered design without paying attention to strategy, it’s not good design! If people are designing products that are convenient but that destroy the environment, it’s not good design. If people are designing solutions that fail to solve the problem — or create more problems — because they don’t think about their solution being part of a broader system, it’s not good design. And that’s true for all the alternatives to human-centered design. A systemic approach to climate change that people don’t want or isn’t strategic for the implementing organisation isn’t going to work.

Strategic design isn’t better than human-centered design. Good design needs to consider humans and many of these other things. Good design goes back and forth between user needs and strategic needs, and planetary needs, and societal needs, and more, to frame challenges that incorporate multiple considerations. An essential design ability is the ability to create elegant solutions at the intersection of a variety of different — and sometimes seemingly contradictory — considerations.

Which considerations are most relevant will depend on what you’re designing, but here’s one thing I’m willing to bet: humans are always going to matter. In fact, they’re probably a central consideration.

The ingredient that makes it all possible

Good design is about bringing strong design abilities to the table and it’s about going back and forth between different frames — strategic, planetary, systemic, etc. But there’s another important ingredient that makes it all possible.

A few years ago, a global pharma company came to us with a challenge: design a mobile app to teach people healthy eating and exercise habits to help address Malaysia’s growing diabetes crises. “Sounds interesting,” we told them, “but let’s spend some time in the field to better understand the challenge.”

We went to 24-hour restaurants and asked people how they decided what to eat. We went to gyms to learn how people got addicted to going to the gym. We gathered a ton of insight that later went into the design of the solution. But one very critical thing we learned was this: people knew that what they were doing was unhealthy, they just weren’t interested in changing anything. We could have designed the best education mobile app ever — it still wouldn’t have solved the problem because the strategy was wrong.

We took the data back to the pharma company and their partners at the Ministry of Health and made the case for shifting the approach from education to behaviour change. We made different versions of the argument until one stuck and we framed the new approach so that it wouldn’t look too divergent from what had already been signed off. They agreed and the shape of the project changed in some important ways.

Good design never happens if designers aren’t in a position to answer the important questions. The important question here wasn’t so much the design of the app — it was the strategy the organisation was using to prevent diabetes.

Some argue that designers aren’t asking the important (often big) questions. I imagine that’s true, sometimes. More often I see designers pigeonholed (“oh, you’re here to make the web site look good!”) or organisations that don’t have the right leadership to lead a significant change in direction.

“Good design never happens if designers aren’t in a position to answer the important questions.”

Sarah Schulman tells of working on a project to support women in shelters get job opportunities and finding that what they really needed was to be out of shelters so they could get the right support system. The problem: her client was in the business of running shelters. Sarah is a fantastic designer but she wasn’t in a position to answer the right question — and her client didn’t have the right leadership to enable answering that question.

Very often, however, the challenge is designers themselves. The best designers I’ve worked with take responsibility for making the space for good design to happen. It doesn’t get handed to them. They make that space by picking who they work with and applying their design abilities — resolving different tensions that arise in a way that works for multiple stakeholders, not just the end user. They do it by empathising with organisational leaders and with front-line staff and building trust. They do it by speaking convincingly not just about user needs, but also about strategy and implementation.

In other words, great designers don’t just design things like services or businesses — they also design the space that allows good design to happen.

. . .

We don’t need a new design process to replace human-centered design. Design processes don’t give us good design — they’re merely a scaffolding to help us get there. We need a picture of what good design looks like and we need designers who can make the space for it to happen.

What all this hunger for something beyond design thinking tells us is that designers need to take a more expansive view of what they design. Designers don’t just design good solutions. They design the conditions that enable good solutions to emerge — the system around creating the solution.

“Human-centered designers bring two essential abilities to the table that can help make that happen: the ability to empathise with people and the ability to solve for multiple, seemingly contradictory, constraints.”

These abilities are at the foundation of design thinkers’ strength in working horizontally across organisations (e.g. bridging engineering and marketing) as well as vertically (e.g. bridging strategy, implementation, and user experience).

Designing the system around creating the solution can be a lot harder than designing the solution itself. It hasn’t gotten any easier with our polarised politics and pathological short-termism.

But if anything is clear, we need designers to step up to this challenge — helping businesses bridge strategy with the needs of life on our planet or governments bridge short-term demands with a longer-term flourishing of society — today more than ever.

“Great designers don’t just design things like services or businesses — they also design the space that allows good design to happen.”

Originally posted on Kal’s Medium.

CEO at Tandemic, an Asia-based innovation firm. Helping organisations prepare for the future.

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