Trying to get my head around “design thinking”

I have to admit that I’ve been steering clear of talking about “design thinking” for a while now. A couple years back, when I first heard about what sounded like an exciting new angle on design strategy, I eagerly scoured the web to figure out what it was all about. At Cooper, we’ve always concerned ourselves with challenges beyond skin-deep ornamentation, and we particularly relish working for clients who value the insights that we can bring to their strategic business decisions. I’m interested in anything that gives us leverage to help businesses get beyond the assumptions that stand in the way of truly serving human needs.

So when I set off to learn more, I was a bit disappointed to discover that all the information I could find about “design thinking” appeared to prominently feature the Keeley triangle, some business success stories and not a lot more. (For those that aren’t familiar, Larry Keeley, an OG innovation strategist, devised the triangle as a way of expressing how successful businesses are balanced in the concerns about the desirability, technical feasibility and financial viability of their products.)

keeley triangle diagram

The Keeley Triangle. The d-school site appears to have been refreshed in the interim, but if I remember correctly, at one point, the home page featured a marker sketch of this diagram with the words “this is design thinking.”

To be clear, I have no argument with the Keeley triangle. It was part of the foundation of Alan’s arguments in The Inmates are Running the Asylum (Alan Cooper’s 1999 book about the challenges of creating great digital products), and throughout the years I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful device in explaining how design fits with business and technology concerns.

But I guess I feel like defining design thinking by the Keeley triangle alone is like explaining how to fly by stating the laws of physics. In a 1998 HBR article, one of the first articulations of design thinking, Tim Brown defined design thinking as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” I have very little to disagree with in this, yet I don’t find it particularly useful or interesting. And it really begs at least one big question—what part of “the designer’s sensibility”? The obsession over details? The ability to create incredibly disorganized Photoshop (or Fireworks) files? The propensity to wear black?

All this said, I certainly see promise in the vision and enormously appreciate the work that Brown and IDEO have done to popularize the idea that human-centered design methods are fantastic tools for improving all kinds of things—not just product skins and interfaces, and that businesses can get vastly more value when they ask designers to participate in the product (or service) conception process, rather than to just pretty-up an already-formed idea. So I was really excited when I finally got around to reading Roger Martin’s The Design of Business and discovered a conceptual model that has really helped me understand what part of the designer’s skillset is really useful for this big picture thinking.

Martin refers to this conceptual model as “the knowledge funnel.” The funnel starts with a mystery—for example, how to feed the newly emergent car-centric middle class of 1950s Southern California. Businesses then can create value by moving along the tunnel first to a heuristic, or simple idea about how to solve the mystery—a quick service hamburger stand; then to an algorithm, or the specific operational rules about how to achieve the heuristic—where the hamburger stands should be located, how they should be designed, what the menu should be, how to prepare every item on the menu, and how customers should be served.

Among other things, what emerges in Martin’s model of design thinking is that this “designer’s sensibility” that Brown speaks of is the ability to use an understanding of customers’ needs (as well as technology and business factors) to move inwards and outwards in this funnel by iterating through many different heuristics and algorithms to ultimately imagine and then validate a way of solving this mystery. Intrinsic to this ability is abductive reasoning— making logical leaps to imagine what might be true in the future.

These ideas really resonate with me, but I struggle with the notion that abductive reasoning abilities are unique to designers. Martin is dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and his audience is largely business people. I understand why he wants to differentiate these sensibilities from the largely analytical skills that dominate modern business education. But when I first read and thought about the idea that abductive reasoning is “design thinking”, I had two reactions: first, this is what I’d thought business people were supposed to be doing all along; and second, I know plenty of designers who aren’t at all interested in or good at abductive reasoning beyond their medium of, for example, interaction design, visual interface design or industrial design.

Ultimately, I have grave concerns if imagining a better future becomes solely the province of designers or design thinkers, a world of business and political leaders will be absolved of their core responsibility—making things better. (Not that I’m suggesting either Brown or Martin propose this; in fact, they both very focused on how non-designers can learn to think like designers.) I also worry that the term “design” will lose relevance for all the other meanings we rely upon it to convey. As Michael Beirut recently put it, “Don’t say design, say innovation, and when innovation doesn’t work, make sure you saved some of that design stuff, because you’re going to need it.”

Given the big challenges we face in terms of the economy, environment and society, I think it’s a great idea that everyone learns more about creatively engaging with mysteries through abductive reasoning. Still,there must be a better term than “design thinking” to describe it. Any ideas?

Dave Cronin

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