How Effective is Design Thinking as an Innovation Methodology?

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A few years ago, I took part in a Design Thinking workshop. My first impression: the room was a mix between an atelier and a day-care facility for children. So, initially, I thought, this is going to be fun!

Our task was simple – we split into groups of two. We needed to design a new wallet for our partner. First, I interviewed my partner. Then, I came up with a variety of different wallet models, which I then presented to him. Based on his feedback, I built a prototype of my best idea and consulted with him again. My result was an impressive and futuristic wallet – a piece of advanced technology – and indeed, the process was enjoyable.

Like most people that apply this innovative method, I enjoyed the process. The wider question, however, is: How useful is Design Thinking for generating ideas?

 

What is Design Thinking (DT)?

 

Innovation methodology design thinking

 

 

Searching for “Design Thinking” on Google, we get 32,700,000 hits. But you don’t need to see more than the first few results to get the gist.  Although there are quite a few definitions, the majority are based on the following five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.

And indeed, it’s not surprising to see that these five steps are the core of Design Thinking. According to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, the birthplace of this innovation methodology, this is how the steps are defined:

  • Empathize: In the first step, you “view the users and their behavior in the context of their lives.” You “engage” with the users and “experience what they experience.”
  • Define: In the second step, you “unpack and synthesize your empathy findings into compelling needs and insights.” Based on a deep understanding of the user, you come up with an “an actionable problem statement.” That is, we clearly define what we wish to create.
  • Ideate: Now it is time to ideate and “generate radical design alternatives.” Similar to brainstorming, the goal is both a “large quantity of ideas and a diversity among those ideas.”
  • Prototype: Prototyping means “getting ideas and explorations out of your head and into the physical world.” The idea is to perceive and interact with your idea. In the beginning of a project, prototyping goes “rough and rapid” and later becomes more detailed with your progress.
  • Test: The fifth step includes testing your prototypes and getting feedback about your solutions. This is a chance to “refine your solutions to make them better and continue to learn about your users.”

Two Tough Questions

These five steps constitute the basic formula of the Design Thinking innovation methodology. Due to its apparent simplicity and clarity, the method is extremely appealing. It’s no wonder then that Design Thinking has become such a buzzword, so much so that it is often used as a synonym for innovation.

However, two essential questions arise:

  • Do users of DT compare it to alternative innovation methodologies and find it superior? Or is it selected for merely being the only game in town? We claim that the latter is the case, i.e. DT is more placebo than remedy.
  • Let’s assume then that DT is fun, easy to use, and provides useful customer insights. However, is it effective for changing the way people think and helping them generate new ideas? As we explain below, the answer is negative: DT is not designed to help create novel concepts.

To the first question, here is our recommendation. One must not compare Design Thinking to a complete lack of systematic methodology. Rather, one should consider other innovation methodologies and evaluate DT in relation to them.

 

Does Design Thinking Have a Flawed Core?

  1. Empathize: Engage with users and view their contextual behavior.
  2. Define: Come up with insights and understand the user.
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm, get a large quantity of ideas.
  4. Prototype: Perceive and interact with your idea.
  5. Test: Test and get feedback, refine to make better.

Reviewing the five steps in this innovation methodology, it is immediately obvious that the central element, the core of the entire process, is the middle step: Ideate. At the end of the day, the entire point of the exercise is to think of new things, right? So, what does Design Thinking tell us we should do in order to generate new ideas?

We’ve collected plenty of useful insights in the first two stages of the process, and we have everything we need to develop great ideas except for one thing: a method to come up with the ideas. Behind all of the Design Thinking hype, there is a disappointing reality that Design Thinking’s ‘method’ for generating ideas is (not-so) good-old brainstorming.

 

The Weak Link in this Innovation Methodology

Of the five steps, the ideation phase is the only one where ideas are actually generated. The instructions are simple: Brainstorm. Try to think unconventionally. There is no bad idea.

But as is repeatedly established, brainstorming is not an effective way to generate ideas. Much is written about this topic by us and many others, so here we just mention three of the most common arguments:

  • Participants in BS sessions are encouraged to freely say what comes to mind, eliminating critical filters. As a result, sessions end with a large number of ideas. Of these ideas, very often, none turn out to have any practical value. In addition, those participants who could have raised objections in real time are (by definition) strongly encouraged not to do so.
  • Participants are instructed to associate freely. This means there is no mechanism to overcome functional fixedness, a natural bias of human thinking. This also happens to be the strongest barrier to creativity and innovation.
  • Group dynamics, such as groupthink and social insecurity, are well researched. They have consistently shown to inherently inhibit the creation of truly radical ideas in the absence of a structured mechanism.

With such a flawed core, DT cannot be an effective approach to innovation or innovation methodology. We, at SIT, are of course partial, since the very essence and entire trajectory of our past 22 years includes designing and refining a powerful alternative to brainstorming. And, indeed, we propose today a combination of the useful elements of Design Thinking paired with a powerful and effective method to generate ideas.

We promise to come back with more on this topic. Meanwhile, we invite you to share with us your experience using DT versus other innovation methodologies.

 

Why stop there? Continue reading and learn how to incentivize innovation in your company.

Johannes Stark

Digital Assistant at SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking)

Johannes is a psychology student at LMU in Munich and IDC in Herzliya. Experienced in behavioral research, therapy, leadership training and coaching. Freelancing journalist and blogger. On a mission to change perspectives.

Amnon Levav

Co-founder & Managing Director of SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking)

Amnon spent the last 22 years in 30+ countries, helping people and companies determine their future by imagining viable alternatives to their current way of thinking and doing. Amnon’s experience ranges from startups to multinationals, and he is especially passionate about social innovation

Total Comments: 4

  • Thanks for your article. I’m sorry, but I think it reveals a fundamentally flawed understanding of design thinking.

    Firstly, the five things you talk about are not “steps”, they are activities. “Steps” implied that we move through them in a linear fashion, from top to bottom or left to right, each one building on the last. But this is not the case.

    My first analysis and synthesis (“define”) activities will usually send me right back out to do more research (“empathise” – a far too fluffy word for robust triangulated technical and non-technical enquiry). Prototyping is where most of my “ideas” come from, and so on. Your article misses completely the most important success factor in design thinking: iteration. And this does not mean looping through the five activities trying to make one idea work, it is constantly jumping back and forth between activities, running multiple prototypes of multiple ideas and learning from them all the time. In DT, experiments make the decisions.

    Then we have: “it is immediately obvious that the central element, the core of the entire process, is the middle step: Ideate. At the end of the day, the entire point of the exercise is to think of new things, right?”
    Why is this immediately obvious? I always argue quite the opposite: ideas are the least important part of design thinking, and the most unreliable. We should not be “thinking” of new things, we should be researching and prototyping in reality. With good research insights, you will have more ideas than you need. And you will be flooded with even more ideas when prototyping. I think Michael Schrage (MIT, consultant on national security innovation to the US Government) says it best when he says “You don’t need good ideas, you need cheap experiments.” That is the essence of design thinking for me.

    You latch onto the term “brainstorming” – but please remember term is used in many ways. Some use the term “brainstorming” to describe Osborne’s specific method, which is deeply flawed, I agree. But most people use the word more generically to mean all kinds of idea generation methods, including brainwriting, bodystorming, ideation based on insights or other “sensemaking” tools, ideation based on analogies or random inputs etc. I know very few DT practitioners who rely heavily on “Brainstorming” a la Osborne.

    And if they did, it wouldn’t really matter. Because we are never ideating with the intention of then validating and implementing our “thoughts”: we are always ideating around the question “which real-world experiments (prototyping, research) will we try next?” That’s a very different question, and it makes the quality of the ideas much less important. They are only a connector between research and prototyping, not the lynchpin of my innovation process.

    Also, please don’t confuse a short wallet workshop with design thinking. Beginners often think DT is “workshops”. Then they realise that doesn’t work, and they say “It’s a way of running projects”. They they see the problems with that, and say “Ah, it’s culture change, away from linear thinking and respect for opinions, towards iterative action around real world data and experiments.” This is reliable, and it’s why organisations from IBM to the US Army are using design thinking – not as a panacea, but as a powerful approach to change,

    All the best,

    Adam Lawrence

  • Thank you for your in-depth analysis!
    >
    > I agree the term “steps” — although widely used in theory — can be misleading.
    >
    > However, I’d argue that this doesn’t affect the main point of our article. Note: We don’t want to criticise every aspect of DT. Quite the opposite. We consider many parts of DT, such as “empathise” and “prototyping”, as very interesting and useful.
    >
    > Please also note that we don’t claim DT does any harm to its users or will be entirely inefficient. Quite the opposite: We believe DT might be useful in most cases.
    > However, what we do claim is within the “ideation” phase, the methodology has not yet reached its full potential.
    >
    > So let’s again revisit “ideation”: According to the DT methodology, in theory, the act of “ideation” isn’t specified in any meaningful way. This doesn’t mean that no DT practitioner has ever integrated an effective approach in the “ideation” phase. We believe that many practitioners have developed their way to overcome this lack of an effective tool. We simply contend that there’s no theoretical advice about how to ideate efficiently. In theory, “ideation” in DT is literally “brainstorming” in the Osborne sense. Our advice is that this stage should be defined, perhaps according to the idea generation methods you mentioned.
    >
    > That’s exactly the reason why, for a beginner – just like me, it’s significantly more difficult to develop useful ideas with DT compared to applying other methodologies.

  • As an UX researcher, the biggest gap I see in Design Thinking is the lack of research (or well-done research) in the immersion phase (you called it “empathize”). Not only proper research is usually not considered, but people involved in the workshops also come to the table with lots of bias and opinions that are most likely linked to their personal experiences and observations than to actual customer behavior. It’s usually superficial and tendentious. This midset tends to repeat it self in all stages, even when personas, maps and journeys are being produced. I think this is extremely dangerous. I see Design Thinking as a great tool for coparticipation and to give people the feeling of being inclued in the creative process, but not as a reliable way to help users/customers’ real intrinsic needs.

  • In my perspective innovation provides value and actually deliver a solution to aproblem, and Design Thinking is a discipline and a methodical way to identify problems and analyse the capabilities to create innovation.

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