Upon beginning my fellowship at the d.school last September, one of the biggest questions I wondered was “Which problems are design thinking good for and which are not, and why?”
When I asked around, I got pretty underwhelming or only slightly helpful answers, like:
- “Design thinking is good for everything.” (not helpful)
- “Problems that aren’t technical in nature” (a little helpful)
- “Problems relating to human experiences with subjective answers.” (slightly more helpful)
Surely there must be some challenges involving human experience that are more amenable to the process than others, I thought. I started to feel like the only way I’d get a good answer to my question was to start applying design thinking to different problems myself. A dozen turns through the human centered design process later, my understanding is starting to take shape.
In retrospect, the question itself was a naïve one. It presumed that human centered design was a process that you applied to different problems (which is how we generally describe it at the d.school). But I’ve come to believe that it’s less of a process than it is a mindset empowered by a robust toolkit. Yes, most design teams move and iterate through steps which include understanding users and context, distilling insights and abstracting design directives, conceiving of novel solutions, then experimentation to learn what works. But a truly sophisticated designer understands how to adapt the principles and tools of design thinking to the problem at hand.
I’ve been thinking about human centered design sophistication along two dimensions: the design methods themselves (toolkit) and integration with other approaches. A robust design toolkit would include a plethora of research methods, synthesis instruments, ideation techniques, and prototyping approaches. The experienced designer can draw from a wealth of tools to adapt high-level design “mindsets” (i.e. empathy, prototyping, testing) to a wide range of problems.
The second dimension of integration with other approaches is equally critical, particularly in my world of taking design best practices into governance innovation. I’ve always been suspicious of professionals from the private sector (be they management consultants or designers or whatever else) bringing their tools into the social sector and believing they alone can move the needle on the world’s most intractable problems. As we’ve experimented with design in governance, we’ve always had an eye towards complimenting rather than replacing existing approaches. We’ve already begun to see where our social science backgrounds tend to dominate over our design skills. My suspicion is that for some types of problems we might rely largely on other approaches, with design tools sprinkled in here and there as appropriate. For example, for macro level policy questions that rest on philosophical beliefs, insights about citizens could inform debate rather than lead to policy design directives.
Bottom line is, I no longer think it’s a question of “Where human centered design is useful and where it’s not” but rather one of “How to draw on human centered design for the problem at hand.” The hard part is building sophistication as a designer. I asked David Kelley for his advice on the matter last week. His response? “Mileage.”