A Designer Addresses Criticism of Design Thinking

Should you believe in something that’s been over-hyped, over-promoted, and over-blown? In the case of design thinking, yes, you should. Like an overused cliché that still rings true, design thinking may be exaggerated as the cure-all for the uninspired, but it is too valuable a method to toss aside. Here, I will address some of the common criticisms of design thinking.

In case you came late to the party, design thinking is both a mindset and a methodology for generating creative solutions. It’s not magic, and it’s not a silver bullet. Yet there are certain characteristics of design thinking that make it effective in almost any field, from business innovation to product design to learning design. Design thinking is iterative, human-centered and flexible. One of the original approaches to design thinking consists of five phases:

  1. Empathize with the user
  2. Define the problem
  3. Ideate solutions
  4. Prototype solutions
  5. Test and refine the solutions

You will find the process described in varied phases and represented in different diagrams, but the general principles are the same. 

The first phases of design thinking, empathize and design, are sequential. The latter phases, ideate, prototype, and test, are cyclical and might repeat one or several times.

Figure 1: The five phases of the design thinking approach

Why design thinking is effective

Design thinking is effective because it requires multidisciplinary teams. This mix of unique and varied perspectives creates the spark that can lead to innovative thinking. Design thinking demands that you understand the audience or user at a very deep level by observing and getting to know them (the Empathize phase). It prods you to get at the root cause rather than the superficial aspect of a problem (the Define phase). It supports divergent thinking, so that teams can generate a wide range of solutions (the Ideate phase). And it supports convergent thinking for organizing and selecting viable solutions from the wealth of ideas.

Design thinking involves building low-fidelity prototypes (the Prototype phase) to let users try out your team’s ideas (the Test phase). Members of the target audience may even co-design with you. This iterative process continues as you filter out the less effective ideas and refine the worthwhile ones.

Criticisms of design thinking

After design thinking was widely popularized as the ultimate way to transform business, technology, management, products, services, and education, it was bound to inspire criticism. The number of articles and books praising design thinking only added to the rebellion. While many of the criticisms are valid, design thinking could still work in your organization. Let’s examine each complaint and find a way to overcome it.

The Criticism: Design thinking is ill-defined

The flexibility of design thinking is both a benefit and a curse. Although design thinking methods can be applied to problems of all magnitudes and in all fields, its adaptability has led to varied definitions and interpretations. This confuses those who want to try it out but don’t know which path to take.

The Cure:

Within each definition and methodology, look to the spirit of design thinking. It will reflect the fine principles of inspired human-centered design. Find a method that speaks to the world you inhabit. It shouldn’t take long to find the one that’s right for your team. As a design thinking enthusiast, I am most interested in the essence of the method.

The Criticism: Design thinking is too process-oriented 

Critics contend that many organizations are overly focused on the process, resulting in a rigid system that fails to produce innovative ideas. In their effort to quickly seek transformation, these organizations try to turn creativity into an efficient process. There is nothing efficient about creativity or design.

The Cure:

To avoid a focus on process alone, develop a mindset and environment that are conducive to design thinking.

  1. Instill optimism, empathy, and inspiration into your design thinking sessions.
  2. Promote a design thinking culture that allows for messy exploration, ambiguity, and failure.
  3. Dig deeply for your most creative ideas. Go beyond the superficial solutions.

The Criticism: Design thinking is not how real designers work

Some professional designers claim that design thinking does not reflect their technique. One specific aspect that is missing is the design critique. Critiques are a common practice in design studios and in some learning experience design departments. They are a valuable part of the feedback loop that designers need from other professionals.

The Cure:

Consider adding design critiques to your design thinking process or as part of your workflow. Learn more about the benefits of the critique process, how to run a critique, and how they can help designers reach their goals. Then incorporate design critiques into your practice.

The Criticism: Brainstorming doesn’t work

Critics complain that brainstorming, conducted during the ideation phase, is not effective for creative thinking and may leave the shy among us lurking in the background. These critics don’t realize that there are many ways to generate ideas that don’t involve traditional brainstorming.

The Cure:

One approach is to conduct brainstorming sessions where ideas are written rather than expressed verbally. Using this approach, participants are presented with the problem statement or with “How Might We” questions. They then write their solutions on sticky notes that they place on a vertical surface to be organized and discussed at the end. With everyone involved in the physical act of writing and placing sticky notes on a wall, no one person has the hot seat.

There are many other approaches to idea generation, such as providing time for making rudimentary sketches or time for individual brainstorming. Finally, an approach that some teams might like is to write ideas on paper and then pass the paper on to the next person, who builds on the idea. In a few minutes, pass the paper again. At the end, hang the papers so everyone can read them and discuss.

The Criticism: Design Thinking Can Never Replace _____ (fill in the blank)

Practitioners in many fields are concerned that design thinking will replace their traditional methodologies. Our field is no different. There are concerns that design thinking will replace instructional design.

The Cure:

Instructional design and design thinking are not parallel methodologies, so this should not be a concern. Use design thinking to enrich your instructional design practice, not replace it. Allow the tools of design thinking to transform your mindset, so that you make design choices based on empathy. Let design thinking deepen your analysis, so that you examine the underlying problem—not the superficial one. Use design thinking methods to find creative ways to approach training and to guide your cycles of prototyping and testing. But ensure that you are still grounded in solutions that are based on instructional science.

The positive side of criticism

Regardless of the method or model you choose, every potential solution in our work involves the conception of ideas and the implementation of a vision. We now have an opportunity to integrate design thinking with learning experience design. If we look squarely at the valid criticism of design thinking, we can help the method evolve into an improved strategy that increases creative and imaginative thinking. This is imperative to building the design-centric culture we require to do our jobs the right way. John Kolko, vice president of design at Blackboard, writes, “A design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life.”

Want to Learn More?

Connie Malamed will present a pre-conference workshop, Using Design Thinking to Craft Learning Experiences, on March 25 at Learning Solutions 2018 Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida.

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