The New Design Thinking Imperative

Illustration for "The New Design Thinking Imperative" by Misa Yamamoto.
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By Jared Huke, BFA

Design thinking has spread to many disciplines, businesses and cultures; however, the way design thinking is executed requires change. The “fail fast” mentality can sometimes cause more harm than good, but merging design thinking with principles from the scientific method may offer a more successful way forward.

Design thinking, the tried-and-true democratizing force of design across corporate America, is ready for a fresh coat of paint. Chips, dings and cracks are starting to show as it is not only spreading far and wide across Western business culture, but is even trickling into the nooks and crannies of the Confucian Eastern industrial powers. 

Design thinking was a welcome soft revolution in how people defined problems and how they went about solving them. Successes most likely outnumber failures, but there are some places that design thinking, in its current form, just can’t take us. 

Having spent the last couple of decades working with product creation in industries as widespread as Midwest agriculture products to French luxury goods in China to large nuclear generation mobile ecosystems, I have a certain perspective on where products go right and where they fail—and not the fashionable kind of failure, but the big, company-destroying kind.

If I were going to place the blame, I would lay it at the feet of designers. Designers are amazing, mind you—I have had the pleasure of calling myself one for 25 years—but we do exactly the wrong things at the right time. They lead with design. It’s right there in the title “Design Thinking.” Maybe it was "The Fountainhead" or Philippe Starck or "Mad Men" that made us believe that we are the ones who can uniquely find the answers. And of course design thinking was an attempt to solve this: none of us are as smart as all of us. Spread the load across all the stakeholders, and we can balance each other. But just like giving everyone a scalpel doesn’t make us all surgeons, giving us all Post-its doesn’t make us the right people at the right time to make the right product, observe the right users and capture the right insights. 

So, great—what are we doing wrong?  And what can we do about it? 

First, we need to work on our intent. I hear terms like “pivot,” “fail fast” and “iterate” used with reckless abandon. So much of our startup culture is defined by the engineers that started it, as would be expected. I have heard many times that you can only learn this through coding. My reply: YOU can only learn this through coding; I can learn it on a Post-it Note or on a clipboard. But launching a poorly vetted product without having done due diligence in user research is just negligent. Lean startup, lean UX, design thinking all have a “let’s just break shit and move on” mentality. Startups also have a 90 percent failure rate.1 Ninety percent. Failure. Why on earth are we doing things this way? They could only be ten percent less successful if they tried! 

Second, while an engineering-led approach is not ideal, the design-led approach commits a more insidious crime. It self-validates. “We had our UX-icorn (UX designer, researcher, business analyst and coder) go and talk to our users, and here are all of our features.” This approach glosses over the fact that the person sent out for a couple of interviews in a conference room has no training in how to calibrate for inherent bias in being both a data gatherer and data interpreter. 

Let me explain the kind of problems we have had to solve and why having people ideating while gathering insights is so dangerous. One of my public projects that I can discuss was a large oil field management software suite. It took four full days of product demos for us to scratch the surface of more than 1,000 large, data-dense screens. This company was under huge pressure to create a mobile application version of this suite. Ultimately, this application would allow people to open and close oil pipelines with one hand on an iPhone. We needed to get this right. There was no iteration in a release product for this. There was only one chance to get it right. Exactly right. 

So my lead researcher and I had a talk about how to tackle this. A UI failure or a user error could cause huge environmental damage, including the very real possibility that people could die. When failure isn’t an option, we go to the method that is the most definitive we know: the scientific method. 

How does one cram scientific method into a product design project? Surprisingly easily, it turned out. 

In broad strokes: 

  • The client brief becomes “Ask a question.” 
  • Research becomes … wait for it … research, but done objectively by a trained scientist. (Cognitive psychology with a human-factors focus seems to work best for us.)
  • Hypothesis is your reframe of the problem statement, but it is grounded in objectively gathered research, which can’t be over-stressed. 
  • This is the fun part: Your design concepts are your experiments, and testing them is their whole raison d’être.
  • Rinse and repeat until you get to a data point that has proved the viability of your design to an acceptable level (a SUS, or System Usability Score, if no other key performance indicators present themselves). 

THEN build it. 

Not to be exclusive, but anything less than this method is trading short-term speed for long-term cost and risk. I have seen it dozens of times throughout the Fortune 500. At the beginning everyone says they need it fast, but in the end, they need it right. With commercial products, the valuation creation process can obscure the effects of a bad process, but in the world I work in, my users need value—they need 100 percent—and they will wait a few weeks to get it right. It wasn’t so long ago that “measure twice, cut once” mentality was common as a culture, or at least valued. Is it me, or do we all prefer products that took a little time to get right? 

References

1 Griffith, Erin (24 September 2014). Why startups fail, according to their founders. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2014/09/25/why-startups-fail-according-to-their-founders/


Jared Huke is Managing Partner and CEO at Daito Design.