Designers vs Design Thinking

The definition and ideation phase is a very important part of the process of creating digital products and services and around which there is lately a lot of debate given the variety of approaches and results.

The results to be obtained might vary depending on the kind of project, the time, the budget, and the team. Therefore, one size does not fit all.

Processes may range from the most condensed – in 5 days, such as Google Sprint – to the longest – lasting 4 to 7 weeks, like our RPM or Sprint zero – and designers, researchers, analysts, and product, technology and business experts can take part in them

Each process has its own purpose and provides a more or less detailed vision of the product to be built. Goals can range from analyzing the business so as to come up with a wider-scope strategy to obtaining as much information as possible to be able to ideate and define the product in order to subsequently develop it.

One of these methodologies is popularly known as Design Thinking (DT), which was developed and disseminated by the consultancy firm IDEO. In short, it is a framework for ideating and defining products and services whose purpose is to act as a step-by-step guide for designing them in 5 stages: Empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.

“DT packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by coding its processes according to a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem-solving, claiming it can be applied by anyone to any problem.”

– Natasha Jen. Pentragram

One of its basic tenets is that ‘everybody is a designer’ and anybody can be benefited from its introduction: private companies, hospitals, public administrations, and so on. By following the method step by step – and without being a designer, anyone can lead Design Thinking dynamics and design products and services. At least this is the theory.

The debate around this methodology has been fierce in the design world, and has followers and critics in equal measure. Criticism mainly focuses on whether this methodology is truly effective and who should lead and who should not. Its own creators have had to come to the fore to respond to these attacks.

It is true that the irruption of DT has generated a lot of discussion about design methods in all walks of the product creation society. The introduction of its working framework is helping many people to design in a responsible manner, which in turn has stressed the importance of design as a process, not as a result.

Another important change that DT has brought about is the democratization of design. Not from the point of view of design by committee but with a view to expanding and formalizing the information input channels.

From the educational side of things, DT is helping those who are dipping their toes in design for the first time to work with one of the formulas out there for defining products and solving problems in a methodical manner.

But the thing that I really find interesting about DT is the validation of ideas with users and the planning and scheduling of tests before entering the production stages. We designers have always preached that we need to validate and test products and services to reveal any hidden problems before developing them to thus come up with proven, effective solutions.

However, Design Thinking also has grey areas which I think it is worth mentioning, as they are affecting how companies understand the concept and, consequently, see the job of designers.

First of all, the term has already become a commodity that provides pseudo-value at the decision-making and strategy-devising meetings of consultancy firms. The same happened with ‘customer-centric,’ an expression all executives now toss around – even though they still keep harassing end customers via their call centres. Even good old Don Norman has said Design Thinking “needs to die.”

As the expression has become commodified, I have recently been running into diverse profiles, such as PO, PM, SM or Agile Coach, who want to profit from it and think they can or know how to lead product definition dynamics.

These profiles play a key role in agile production environments and have high responsibilities, but I think that in some cases they are letting themselves become lured by the mainstream nature of the term.

Furthermore, Design Thinking courses and master’s degree programmes have grown exponentially, and LinkedIn status updates proportionally, over the past two years. Now you see people who claim to be Design Thinking facilitators – which means they can lead the product definition phase – just by having taken a 16h course.

I think the industry should be wary of this sort of profile and also analyze how we are applying Design Thinking. I understand that it is a marketable name but in my opinion a designer who says they know Design Thinking is like a cook saying they know how to use a microwave oven. The important thing is knowing how to stew, bake, marinade, flambé, broil… and have a good sense of taste.

Not all profiles are good for leading DT dynamics. The ideation and definition phase is actually a very complex process which only the most experienced designers and profiles can lead and get the most out of.

It is necessary to speak the language of business, to have design, strategy and research skills, to have experience in other, similar projects and to have other abilities that take a lot of hard work to master. In addition, the variety of problems and projects is so wide that any closed method is counterproductive to finding a solution that is suited to each client’s needs.

For my part, after almost two decades of working in this field I still feel intimidated during these phases by the high level of commitment they require and of complexity they entail. I have never encountered two identical problems or projects, and although we have a method, we adapt it to the client and the need. We rarely start a project from scratch or without any hitch.

On the other hand, it is well known that the results of dynamics that are led by non designers are basic and superficial. In many cases, they just consist in a liturgy of sticky notes and are ineffective to know and solve problems. More critical, in-depth thinking is necessary.

This is a serious problem because the results of dynamics are everything during the definition phases and the success of a project rests on the information that is obtained at the beginning. Magic tricks, bragging, and incomplete definitions do not work.

This is why it is necessary to put the roles of UX Services and Strategy Designers back in their rightful place during the definition phases – above packetized dynamics. These profiles have been around for a long time and defend a method that can be adapted to the widest range of projects.

With this method, we get involved in the problems of systems and businesses, we attempt to really get to know the users of the products and we analyze all possible technological limitations. This search for knowledge is thorough and helps us to understand and internalize a myriad of microrequirements. We bring our experience from other similar projects to the table, something which prevents us from making the same mistakes all over again and provides us with a longer-ranging vision. Of course, let us not forget about the knowledge of formats, hardware, software, and platforms.

The purpose of a designer leading or supporting a dynamic idea is to continually stay in touch with reality and to help others to visualize abstract concepts. We tend to guide clients to land their ideas just as a person flies a kite by reeling in or paying out string.

However, the most important thing a designer brings to the table is knowing how to translate the business logic into human behaviour via technology; one thing UX designers really know about is people and how they behave.

Design Thinking is a sellable packetized method that opens the door to a variegated range of profiles from other fields who need formulas to innovate and define products in a more efficient manner.

Personally I believe more in designers’ knowhow and their capacity and commitment to achieving results. They are a key component during the ideation phases for coming up with effective solutions, and their experience provides value that few dynamics achieve.

The world needs more designers who think and less thinkers who design.

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I am a UX Designer and Interface in Paradigma Digital with more than fourteen years of experience in design and identification of digital interactives. Obsessed by the quest for a balance between functionality and aesthetics. After a few black eyes I have learned that to achieve a good design that balances user needs, business requirements and technical restrictions, you have to fight your corner in meetings as well as on the screen.

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