Call me late to the party, but in my web travels I just became aware of a concept called “Design Thinking”, a method of using right-brain creative thinking to design new human-centered products and services. The term is credited to IDEO’s David Kelley, who began using this approach in 1982 to design Apple Computer’s first mouse followed by such innovations as the Palm TREO, Oral-B toothbrushes, and Steelcase Leap chairs. But now Design Thinking is being heralded as the next great business innovation which can be applied to tackle complex business problems and address greater social issues like poverty, education, and healthcare.
In an effort to further understand the concept of Design Thinking, I got lost in a myriad of academic online publications and esoteric blogs that attempt to explain the methodology and applications in great detail. Here was probably the clearest description of the process from the Stanford Social Innovation review.
“The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives. The reason to call these spaces, rather than steps, is that they are not always undertaken sequentially. Projects may loop back through inspiration, ideation, and implementation more than once as the team refines its ideas and explores new directions. Not surprisingly, design thinking can feel chaotic to those doing it for the first time. But over the life of a project, participants come to see that the process makes sense and achieves results, even though its form differs from the linear, milestone-based processes that organizations typically undertake.”
Hmmm … sounds an awful lot like Steve Blank’s Customer Development methodology and Eric Ries’ Lean Startup concept which both take a very similar iterative and human-centered design approach. However, what struck me as the biggest difference between Design Thinking and Customer Development is not the concepts themselves, but the packaging and presentation of them. In reading about Design Thinking, I felt intimidated and stupid – like I needed an advanced degree in industrial design, social science or futurism (had to look this one up) to understand how to interpret and apply it. On the other hand, the practical nature of Customer Development makes me feel smart, confident and provides a source of daily inspiration. Their community of practitioners are battle-scarred entrepreneurs who provide checklists, visual examples, case studies, lessons learned, and step-by-step guides to help everyday folks like me. Customer Developers are real people like the raw Dave McCLure who speaks to us in a language we can all understand, Ash Maurya whose sensible blog proclaims “Practice Trumps Theory” and Cindy Alvarez, a successful Product Manager who happens to be great at design too. I couldn’t help but imagine that Design Thinkers hang out at libraries, lecture halls, and museums while Customer Developers gather at Starbucks, dimly lit pubs, and founders’ lofts.
While I do agree with the right-brain principles of Design Thinking I have a hard time believing it will reach critical mass given the esoteric nature by which it is communicated and the lack of grass roots educational efforts. Perhaps Design Thinkers should take a page out of their own playbook and do some real user testing on the approachability of the methodology itself. I also believe that the solutions to the social challenges of education, health care, and poverty will be more quickly solved not by academics with d.school degrees, but by Lean Startup entrepreneurs skilled in the practices of Customer Development.
Nonetheless, if you’re still interested in further exploring Design Thinking check out these resources: