Monday, 2 January 2017

Design Thinking: is like Teenage Sex...

Escalator Acting As Stairs, (Devonian Gardens, Calgary AB) - Wayne Pau CC BY

Warning: I normally only write nice and polite blog posts. However this has been bugging me for quite sometime, therefore if I am offending anyone's sensibilities I apologize in advance. Hopefully I'm not starting the New Year on the wrong foot.

To bastardize a quote from one of my favourite authors Dan Ariely on Big Data:
"Design Thinking is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…” - Wayne Pau (2017)

The only big difference is that I think those who have been doing Design Thinking for a long time do know what it truly is (and what it is not). Unfortunately *not* being a typical formulaic step-by-step methodology and more a loosely knit tool-box and mantra, Design Thinking is vulnerable to many misconceptions and misunderstandings. Often small parts of a true process are used and labelled Design Thinking or people using similar methodologies and calling it Design Thinking.

Here are five reasons why I am sometimes forced into uncomfortable conversations which end with: "I'm really sorry Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. important person but you're not really doing Design Thinking..."

#1 - You didn't Interview any Real Users.

I've been at projects where they have advised that we skip the Empathy stage altogether since the senior people in the room know everything there is to know about the problem. A big reason to use something disruptive like Design Thinking is because you want to come up with something different and more than just additive innovation. 

You just don't know what you don't know.  You want to know why your team isn't getting any new and radical insights? Well quite simply start by going outside your organization and outside your team to the 'user'. If you haven't left the building yet, you aren't doing it right.

#2 - You started with with a Problem Statement.

Design Thinking has two whole stages before we even come up with the problem statement (aka the Point-of-View and How-Might-We Statements). By jumping into what you think the issue is, you skipped eliminated 2/5 or 40% of Design Thinking stages (Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype & Test). 

Many times by truly doing the Empathy and Define stages, you learned what the real underlying problem is and how you might go about rectifying the situation.

#3 - You didn't get a good Design Thinking Coach or Facilitator

It's easy right? Read a few blogs. Tried the Design Project Zero introduction. Baptism by fire right? (Ignore the fact that turn-key, all-inclusive, end-2-end project with IDEO or FROG could cost you $1M.) Running your first Design Thinking project isn't like taking the self-guided tour at the MoMA, where you can do a little research yourself and get by quite reasonably.

The real issue is that really no two Design Thinking projects are identical. The exact path or tools you used to attack on particular problem won't necessarily be the same way you tackle another problem. Good coaches and facilitators have been through a few projects and have a good idea of what to when things go south (because when things are going 'well', everything is 'easy'). Unless a group is well experienced with Design Thinking, you are going to need some level of guidance.

#4 - You didn't build and/or test anything.

"Build to Think. Test to Learn" - Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide

An idea is just an idea until you put it into life. While factories and roller-coasters today can be built virtually in 3D software, unfortunately the 'best' way we do this in Design Thinking is building some type of prototype and get people's feedback on it. 

Ideas are fuzzy and vulnerable to interpretation and misunderstanding. Prototypes are often tangible and interactive. In Design Thinking we actually go out of our way to make decision/stance on something and test it out in the prototype. This way we often a get clear positive feedback (in which case we can decide to amplify) or negative feedback (in which case we decide to remove or change it).

#5 - You didn't iterate on anything.

Basically you did the bare minimum and came up with a new wacky idea and put all your hopes on that one idea will change *EVERYTHING*. If you were honest, you probably just ran out of time, weren't that committed or didn't read that chapter on 'Failing-Faster to Succeed-Sooner."

How was your First Drawing you ever did? First Cake you baked? First Story your wrote? Design Thinking depends heavily on the power of iteration and that we might not get it right the first time, but we'll eventually get something amazing! One or two short brain-storming sessions does not make a Design Thinking project.

Curious Chameleon, Toronto Zoo - Wayne Pau CC BY

Design Thinking seems like all the rage today. That's great. The, IDEO and others have really helped share this with the world. Yet like every other wave of innovation, those whose are actually implementing the methodology properly and not just sapping on the label of Design Thinking will be the ones reaping the rewards.

Hope that helps...


Wayne Pau is Development Architect at SAP working on creating a new breed of enterprise Internet of Things products. A graduate of University of Waterloo Systems Design Engineering, Wayne has taken pretty much every job there is in Software/Product Development. Feel free to connect/follow on LinkedIn, Twitter (@Wayne_Pau) or Blogger (

Note: All views are my own.


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