Design Thinking's Missing Piece
This piece first appeared here on Medium.
Spoiler alert: Design Thinking is a 1960s cover of the 17th century hit, The Scientific Method. And like all great cover-vs-original debates, their tie score is unbreakable.
I recently had occasion to consider Design Thinking in a new light, when I was asked by an artist friend what it was. Having come from the arts myself, I should have been equipped to explain it, as arts training offers heaps of step-by-step guides to creative thinking.
Instead, I heard myself blurt out, “it’s basically the scientific method, with better branding.”
Once I’d declared it, I decided to research it — an admittedly questionable order of operations — and what I found surprised me. Each step of the Design Thinking process seemed to reflect one of its ancestor, more or less.
The Empathy and Observation steps refer to generating the seminal insight (more on that later), and Defining and Asking a Question are factually the same. (When we define the challenge in Design Thinking, we often do so by formulating a “How Might We?” query.) While Ideation and Hypothesizing do have nuanced differences, they amount to exploring what we think is happening and how we might respond to it. Prototyping is essentially Experimenting, and Testing is the way we Draw Conclusions.
(For all it’s worth, there are a few variations of Design Thinking, and even more of the Scientific Method, some including up to 8 steps. I’m using the simplest forms here, because otherwise I don’t get to say what I’m about to say.)
When comparing the two sequences side by side, one difference beamed at me: Design Thinking is missing a step. Reporting Results is not typically done by disciples of the 5-step program, and while I could guess why (ownership and authorship issues?), I can’t imagine that creatives or entrepreneurs — DT’s typical user group — have any more reason to hoard their ideas than scientists do. What do scientists know that the rest of us don’t?
Well, for one, they know the benefits of sharing knowledge.
Getting the first picture of a black hole, made possible by the work of Katie Bouman, required connecting radio observatories spanning almost the entire globe.
Reporting the results of our research and experimentation is the way we contribute to the forward movement of our discipline, our community, and civilization at large. And don’t get me wrong, plenty of people in arts and business do this — the best of them will tell you they wouldn’t work any other way. Collaboration is more than just a feel-good gesture to build community and boost morale; it is the way we fill in the (inevitable, undeniable) gaps created by our biases and blind spots, very literally demonstrated last week by the work of the Event Horizon Telescope. (!!!)
Scientific badassery aside, I recently discovered some crazy-generous knowledge-sharing going on in my very own professional community. Julian Cole’s newsletter, Planning Dirty, is a place where thinkers in the creative industry can find smoking hot resources, tips, and tools contributed by their peers. (Julian is awesome. And if you know of anyone else pitching in to the greater good like this, please do give them a shout out in the comments. Their work deserves our applause.)
Major boon noted, one might call our cover-vs-original debate an easy win for science. But Design Thinking’s got a secret hook, and it’s found in step one.
To begin with an observation means to start with my own perspective. But to begin with empathy means to start with someone else’s. It turns out, that empathetic shift of perspective makes or breaks every step that follows.
Granted, a first person POV works fine as a starting point for many inquiries (universal laws of physics, for example). However, when designing solutions for customers, framing the problem from our own point of view is a miss.
For anyone just arriving to the empathy convo, this isn’t about being “nice” (though compassion is a welcome byproduct). Empathy, for our purposes in problem solving, simply refers to the practice of stepping into the shoes of the person at hand. Once embedded in our processes, empathy impacts:
Research and development
…and everything else.
So who wins this battle of the bands? Our 17th century original, or its 1960s cover? On the one hand, the original boasts a coda that builds community and collective intelligence. But on the other, our modern hit is written entirely in the key of human-centeredness. As I see it, we’ve got a full-on Tainted Love situation: no one’s mad at Soft Cell for the cover that brought the song to my generation, but god bless Gloria Jones for starting the party right.
The best news is, I don’t have to choose. As an ethnographer and strategist, I aim to bond my clients with their audiences from beginning to end. As a facilitator of co-creation sessions, I promote the benefits of knowledge sharing by demonstrating collective intelligence in action.
Next time you have a challenge to explore, take a cue from Design Thinking and begin with empathy, then wrap it up science-style and share what you find. We’ll all be better for it.