Why 'design thinking' is risky

When design thinking is promoted it can look like this

"Design Thinking is a mindset. Design Thinking is about having an intentional process in order to get new, relevant solutions that create positive impact. It’s human-centered. It’s collaborative. It’s optimistic. It’s experimental." (link to text)

It sounds really good. But what is not mentioned is that designing is also complicated, difficult, hard and risky. So, why is it that 'design thinking' is portrayed as this fun, exciting and highly positive process without mentioning how risky it is. Well, some people who advocate for 'design thinking' are selling it. They have selfish reasons for making design thinking look exciting, fun and useful and they do not want to stress 'negative' aspects of design thinking. They want everyone to believe that they can easily learn and use design as an approach.

There is of course no serious problem with describing 'design thinking' in a positive light. Designing is intrinsically an optimistic and positive approach. It is built on a core belief that  positive change in the world is possible, that we can make a difference. And to be honest, to those who are trained in designing, the process is rewarding and fun, despite (or maybe thanks to) it being complex and difficult.

However, a process aimed at producing the not-yet-existing is by definition risky. A design process is intended to lead to something that we have not seen before, something new, something different. It means that there is no way of knowing if the process is moving in the right direction, if what is designed will work in its intended context, until it is too late. Designers have to trust what they do. They have to trust the process and their own judgment. And since there is no 'guarantor of design' (that is, anything that can guarantee a 'good' result) the final outcome is a consequence of the designer's judgment and therefore also the responsibility of the designer.

It is not difficult to find examples of bad design in the world. I take this as a clear sign that designing is difficult. It means that whoever decides to approach a situation/problem with a design approach also has to accept that the process may seriously fail. And they have to be ready to take the responsibility for that.

Designing is different from many other process that have well defined goals and outcomes, that have well developed steps and procedures that can to some extent guarantee that if you follow the process you will end up with a good or adequate result. Designing is a process that is 'designed' to not lead to expected outcomes, which is why it cannot be prescribed in detail and why there is no way to clearly 'measure' what a good design is.

So, remember that the design approach is powerful in what it can achieve, but that that power comes at a cost. It is risky. Unpredictable. And difficult. And requires a good design judgment and not just a superficial understanding of what 'design thinking' is.


Comments

subhrajit said…
Hi Erik,

Thank you for the insightful article. In software product development design thinking approach is a way to mitigate risks by involving potential customers/users early in the process. Non involving design thinking is riskier as assumptions about the product are not validated early and often by the users. As a result, when a product comes to the market, it has more of a chance to fail to meet customer expectations.

Having said that, it is a constant challenge for me to persuade my product management and dev team to practice design thinking methods as there is no prescribed approach or guaranteed outcome.

Regards,
Subhrajit
IU HCI '13
Harold Nelson said…
Thanks Erik. This is an important reminder for those who become interested in "design" and get imprinted with "design thinking".

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