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Thinking About Design Thinking

February 13, 2019

How Businesses in Transformation Should Understand Design Thinking

Design Thinking is often presented as the silver bullet that solves business problems while making customers happier. Advocates say Design Thinking is a perspective, a methodology, a role, even something you can get certified in. Business leaders are embracing it, while at the same time designers are criticizing it. At some point, one has to ask: are we all really referring to the same thing here? And if not, how do we have a meaningful conversation about what we are trying to do? How to we make Design Thinking actionable?

The best way to make Design Thinking actionable is by understanding where the concept comes from and being able to talk about needs and approaches at this level. To do this, we start by focusing on what we mean by design and the influence this has on how a designer thinks. Then, we’ll see where it may be risky to use loose or abstract definitions of Design Thinking. By having a working conceptual model of design and how designers think, one can now say: “here’s what we need to do, here are our challenges, what aspects of Design Thinking are you proposing and why?”

What Exactly is a Design?

If we want to get to the value of Design Thinking, we need to understand what it’s like to “think like a designer.” To do that, we have to be clear about the term Design. The description below is a schematic to illustrate some important concepts relevant to Design:

– Designing is about problem solving. Finding a solution to a problem and defining the form + function of the solution

– Design involves navigating the steps taken to finding a solution to a problem (a Process) and providing specifications for the form and function of the solution (an Outcome)

– In successfully navigating the steps to a solution, decisions made by a designer (or presented by a designer for consideration) should support arriving at a viable solution. What this means is any potential requirements and constraints of production, implementation, and use that will have an effect on the effectiveness of the solution get considered and addressed during the process of designing. Because of this, different kinds of outcomes have different variations on processes (designing a marketing web site is different than design a mobile application, although they both have a digital interface).

– One common aspect of design processes is Iteration, or successive cycles of revision. In some cases, the cycles of iteration may be used to expand the number of options that might be viable solutions. In other cases iteration is used to drive out the details and ensure that all requirements and constraints have been considered for a chosen option.

– The outcomes of the design process, or what we often refer to as “the design”, can be Tangible (toaster, furniture, car, buildings, airplanes, Civil infrastructure) and Intangible (Policies, Programs, Software, Communication Protocols). Historically, Tangible meant an inability to easily modify characteristics after production, so design had to get everything right up front. Intangibles like

Software creates a novel situation. From one point of view Design is never complete, but in a constant cycle of identifying, solving, and specifying. Digital technology is blurring the boundary between Tangible and Intangible Outcomes. This change makes it all the more important to be very specific about what one means when using the term Design Thinking in a given business context.

How Do “Designers” Think?

Do designers think differently because they are different? It’s unlikely that there is a hard and fast line between the mind of someone who will later become a designer and someone who later became a business executive. Two things are worth noting. The first is the natural patterns of thinking common to people who design for a living, even when not fully immersed in their work. The second will be how a designer goes about getting from Process to Outcome.

Designers think a lot like the rest of us when playing the role of problem solvers: “What are you trying to do and how far along are you?” For a designer, this line of approach is very natural because it is leverages two key patterns of thinking that are relevant to their role:


The best designers are often very curious people; they want to know how things work, why, what else is related, what happens when you change things, what would a real customer say.

Curiosity is useful as designers need to know enough about the Outcome to ensure that the take the right Process and have the right information on needs, requirements, and constraints. Curiosity is also a tool, as designers know that they can often generate innovative and differentiated solution options, if the right insights or inspiration can be found. And curiosity is essential to the first rule of problem solving: define the problem as that’s often the key to the solution.


Design is all about context: what’s being considered, what is relevant, where are unanticipated influences going to come from, what is the existing mechanisms/dynamics at play? Is there evidence to suggest we don’t understand broader life context of people buying and using our products and services?

Being able to define the context for a solution to a problem is important. When context is too narrowly defined, the solution is incomplete. When the context is too broad, complexity gets out of hand.

To really follow the first rule of problem solving (define the problem) you have to define the context, which is why Curiosity an Context-Seeking are common characteristics of designers.

When a designer is working—engaging in a Process to reach an Outcome—they have a natural starting point: understanding how well the problem and requirements are defined. They will also want to know if they are starting from a blank slate. Lastly, they need to have an idea of who else needs to weigh in and how to get from potential solutions to final solutions.

A designer needs to know how things stand so they can determine if they should explore a breadth of options or go deep into fewer (or perhaps just one) options. They also need to know if they should exclude some options. This is because a designer has two different problem solving cadences.

Divergent Thinking

This is often what people have in mind when they imagine design creativity. It is explorative, generative, focusing on breadth over depth. Iteration is used to get breadth, through lateral-thinking.

Convergent Thinking

This is often what people have in mind when they imagine the craft of design. It is reductive, refining, with Iteration serving to increase specificity in components of the solution.

It is most important is to understand whether the need is for a divergent or convergent approach at any given stage of the Process. A design rationale that helps people understand past decisions as well as implications for choices of current options helps to ensure that everyone involved in the process is on the same page, as the stages of thinking are applied.

In choosing what steps to include in the process of design and what happens during those steps, a Designer’s end-goal is to provide a solution to the problem, based on a clear Design Rationale that allows people to understand why the solution is what it is and what options might exist to change or evolve the solution. In addition, the end goal should include adequate specifications so that the solution can actually be delivered.

Limitations of Design Thinking

One of the things that appeals to many people drawn to Design Thinking is the priority it places on designing for the human experience, and the kind of qualities it suggests as inspiration and source of insight. And that’s great. But that is just one aspect of what design is about. And the design process already accounts for that. If it’s not part of the process, one should understand why before expecting Design Thinking to deliver what you are looking for.

Implicit in any design process is that experience makes a difference. What is the nature of experience we get with Design Thinking? There are two important capabilities that an experienced designer relies upon. The first is experience with applying divergent and convergent thinking in a given problem space. Knowing how to use information and insight to guide divergence, and how to focus thinking in order to drive out details is key to efficiency and developing a design rationale. The second is they know—through experience—the requirements, constraints, and type of specifications needed for a given type of outcome. This means they don’t spend time collecting information or trying to understand the implications on a solution option. If Design Thinking creates an expectation that this experience won’t be needed or is somehow brought to the table through a non-design role, there is likely to be misalignment in expectations around the outcome.

The all-inclusive nature of current definitions of Design Thinking should raise important questions like: Who ensures that the process has been based on the right understanding of the problem context? Who ensures that the outcome has the right degree of specificity? These questions often come up when Design Thinking is interpreted as a methodology or process, but may not be the best fit. Examples of this include:

– Hoping to improve plans for a product or service by applying divergent thinking during convergent Iteration (where Design Thinking is proposed as a way to innovate a product during the UX/UI design stage)

– MVP/CICD-based product strategies, where there is limited investment in design ahead of real user feedback. Efficiency is gained through investment on design systems and ability to iterate product. In some ways this is turning the traditional design process inside out where you will iterate the design of something based on how people are actually using it.

– Complex ecosystems (multiple business needs, customer needs, stages of value creation delivery, multiple touch points, multi-stage interactions, etc) require a more structured approach to managing information through the process of design. Service Design is such a framework and is Design Thinking-friendly (but Design Thinking is not the same as Service Design)


Design Thinking is here to stay as part of the common vocabulary and can stand for a lot of useful knowledge. This is good because it helps keep design in the right conversations. The key to making it actionable is to understand how design works, as this is actually design thinking. Letting Design Thinking become a term synonymous with a single missing ingredient that can be applied to your situation to make things better, is not likely get you where you need to be.