What the hell is design thinking anyway? | April 4, 2016

In a meeting a couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues asked me to define “design thinking”. This question felt like a potential bear trap—after all “design thinking” isn’t a new or distinct form of cognitive processing that hadn’t existed before us designers laid claim to it—but I decided to blunder in regardless.

For me, design thinking is essentially a combination of three things; abductive reasoning; concept modelling; and the use of common design tools to solve uncommon problems.

If you’re unfamiliar with abductive reasoning, it’s worth checking out this primer by Jon Kolko. Essentially it’s the least well known of the three forms of reasoning; deductive, inductive and abductive, and the one that’s associated with creative problem solving.

Deductive reasoning is the traditional form of reasoning you’ll be familiar with from pure maths or physics. You start with a general hypothesis, then use evidence to prove (or disprove) its validity. In business, this type of thinking is probably how your finance department plans its budget i.e. to generate this much profit we need to invest this much in staff, this much in raw materials and this much in buying attention.

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning, using experimentation to derive a hypothesis from a set of general observations. In business, inductive reasoning is often the preserve of the customer insight and marketing team i.e. we believe our customers will behave this way, based on a survey sample of x number of people.

By comparison, abductive reasoning is a form of reasoning where you make inferences (or educated guesses) based on an incomplete set of information in order to come up with the most likely solution. This is how doctors come up with their diagnoses, how many well-known scientists formed their hypotheses, and how most designers work. Interestingly it’s also the method fictional detective Sherlock Holmes used, despite being misattributed as deductive reasoning by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Abductive reasoning is a skill, and one that can be developed and finessed over time. It’s a skill many traditional businesses fail to understand, preferring the logical certainty of deductive reasoning or the statistical comfort of inductive reasoning. Fortunately that’s starting to change, as more and more companies start to embrace the “design thinking” movement.

So what else does design thinking entail other than abductive thinking? Well as I mentioned earlier, I believe the second component is the unique ability designers have to model complex problems, processes, environment and solutions as visual metaphors rather than linguistic arguments. This ability allows designers to both understand and communicate complex and multifaceted problems in simple and easy to understand formats, be they domain maps, personas, service diagrams or something else entirely.

All too often businesses are seduced into thinking that everybody is in alignment, by describing complex concepts in language-heavy PowerPoint presentations, only to realise that everybody is holding a slightly different image of the situation in their heads. This is because, despite its amazing power, language is incredibly nuanced and open to interpretation (and manipulation). Some of our biggest wins as a company have involved creating graphic concept maps in the form of posters that can be hung around the office to ensure everybody understands the problem and is aligned on the solution. We call this activity design propaganda, and it’s a vital part of the design process.

A simpler incarnation is the design thinker’s tendency to “design in the open” and cover their walls with their research, models, and early prototypes. By making this work tangible, it allows them to scan the possibility space looking for un-made connections, and drawing inferences that would have been impossible through language alone.

The final aspect of “design thinking” is the tools us designers have developed to help think through these complex conceptual problems. These tools include a wealth of research techniques, prototyping activities and design games, not to mention processes and frameworks like “lean” and “agile”. Designers are often better equipped than typical management consultants and MBAs to tackle the sorts of problems business are starting to experience. This is just one of the reasons consultants and business leaders have started turning to programs like the Singularity University and dSchool, to become versed in the language and practice of design thinking.

It’s really good news that “design thinking” is starting to gain wider adoption, but this success comes with a small warning. While we designers helped pioneer and popularise the practice of “design thinking”, we may eventually lose out to the traditional purveyors of corporate strategy. Why?

Because despite having the skills necessary to deliver these functions, designers have shied away from the term, and resisted immersing ourselves fully in the business world. The large internal consultancies still have the business connections, they speak the same language, and are now starting to adopt the best practices of our field. So unless we get out of our beautifully designed and ergonomically friendly ivory towers, we may find it’s a hollow and short-lived victory for design after all.

Posted at April 4, 2016 9:32 AM