Design Thinking is Holding Your Business Back: Debunking the Myth of Innovation
Design Thinking has become a buzzword in the world of innovation and problem-solving. It’s often touted as the key to unlocking creativity, driving growth, and staying ahead of the competition.
But, Is it as good as people say it is? Is it delivering on its promises? Is the excitement justified?
Is Design Thinking really the best tool for innovation, or is it holding your business back?
First, it's important to acknowledge that Design Thinking can be a valuable tool for solving certain types of problems, particularly user-centric ones requiring a deep understanding of customer needs and pain points. However, it's not a panacea. Design Thinking may be less effective when it comes to driving broader business strategy and transformational change.
Nokia’s experience is a prime example of how over-reliance on Design Thinking can lead to a company’s downfall.
In the early 2000s, Nokia was the undisputed leader in the mobile phone industry, with a reputation for producing high-quality, reliable, and user-friendly phones. The company was renowned for its Design Thinking approach, which emphasized understanding user needs, desires, and pain points to create user-centred products. However, Nokia struggled to keep up when the smartphone revolution took off.
While Nokia’s design thinking approach focused on incremental improvements to existing products, Steve Jobs and Apple were busy disrupting the market with their iPods and iPhones. Jobs famously declared that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” and relied on his intuition to create products that transformed the market. Apple’s approach starkly contrasted with Nokia’s user-centred approach, which involved extensive user research and testing.
Nokia’s Design Thinking approach gave the company sustainable innovation rather than disruptive innovation. While Jobs was working on the App Store for iPhone, Nokia’s design thinking approach was working on modifying the buttons and finding the right shape for the button on its mobile phone when the touchscreen was going to enter and rule the world.
This raises the question — why couldn’t Nokia’s design thinkers come up with disruptive concepts as Apple did?
Despite being bombarded with the notion that Design Thinking can make disruptive innovations, there is yet to be a single disruptive product created through this approach.
Blackberry, formerly known as Research In Motion (RIM), was once a dominant player in the mobile phone market. The company had a reputation for producing secure and reliable phones that were popular among business professionals. In part, Blackberry’s success was attributed to its strong design thinking team and its focus on user-centred design. However, the company’s fortunes changed dramatically with the rise of the iPhone and Android smartphones. Despite Blackberry’s investment in design thinking, the company failed to keep up with the rapidly changing market.
One of the key reasons behind Blackberry’s downfall was its reluctance to adapt to emerging market trends and opportunities. Blackberry’s design thinking approach was focused on incremental improvements to its existing product line rather than driving broader business strategy and transformational change. The company was slow to adopt touchscreen technology and failed to anticipate the emergence of app stores and the importance of the developer community. This led to a lack of innovation and differentiation in the company’s product line, eventually leading to its demise.
Blackberry’s design thinking approach was overly prescriptive and focused on a narrow set of user needs and pain points.
While Blackberry’s phones were popular among business professionals, the company failed to appeal to the broader consumer market.
One of the critical mistakes of the Design Thinking methodology is its myopic focus on existing users rather than exploring new market opportunities. Nokia’s and Blackberry’s approach to design thinking was to observe the same customers repeatedly and make incremental improvements to their existing products. This approach severely limits the potential for disruptive innovation. Businesses that rely solely on design thinking risk falling into the trap of only making minor improvements to existing products rather than pushing the boundaries and creating truly innovative solutions.
Cirque Du Soleil and Southwest Airlines are great examples of businesses that achieved innovation without relying on design thinking. Both companies targeted non-customers rather than existing customers and created entirely new markets.
YellowTail — The Australian company, Casella Wines, is a prime example of a business that fell into the trap of relying on design thinking. When they launched their Value brand Caramer Estate in the USA, they studied the market deeply, spending time with customers, and making changes to their product. However, their solution was incremental, and they failed to differentiate themselves from hundreds of other value brands in the market.
When Casella Wines shifted its focus to non-customers, it launched a new wine targeted at beer and soft drink drinkers. It was a disruptive product, as it was cheaper, with less ritual, and sweeter than other wines on the market.
Olay — In the late 1990s, P&G’s Oil of Olay brand struggled to capture the fifty-plus female demographic in the beauty industry. Despite P&G’s extensive use of design thinking methodology to understand the needs and preferences of this target market, the brand failed to improve sales growth significantly.
The breakthrough for P&G came when someone within the company went beyond the target segment and identified a new group of women in their mid-thirties who were anxious about the first signs of ageing. This group of women was committed to a rigorous skincare routine, regularly using moisturizers, cleansers, and toners to maintain a youthful and healthy appearance. By understanding the unarticulated needs of this new target segment, P&G was able to redefine its value proposition and create a new product that met its needs.
Design thinking alone would not have solved P&G’s reinvention problem. By focusing solely on the existing target market, P&G would have missed the opportunity to identify a new, untapped segment of customers. To truly reinvent the brand and increase sales growth, P&G needed to go beyond design thinking and adopt a more comprehensive approach that included market research, customer insights, and strategic planning.
These examples illustrate that studying the same customers repeatedly can be limiting and unproductive. Businesses that rely solely on design thinking to make incremental improvements risk becoming complacent and failing to identify new market opportunities.
The Big Picture
One of the critical flaws in the design thinking approach is that it fails to take a holistic approach. It focuses on a small area and ignores the larger picture, leading to several businesses failing despite relying heavily on design thinking. Sony is a perfect example of this. It had a design thinking approach and divisions for electronics, computers, hardware, software, and music. Despite this, the design thinking approach could not bring a product like iPod to the market. On the other hand, Steve Jobs never bothered about design thinking, yet iPod succeeded.
Some still may argue that the design thinking methodology used by designer Jonathan Ive was the reason behind iPod’s success. Undoubtedly, the iPod device had a superior user interface and file transfer capabilities compared to other devices in the market. Moreover, Steve Jobs asked his team to shift various tasks, such as making song lists, from the device to the personal computer. The introduction of the scroll wheel made it easier to use than other devices available at that time. However, these were just incremental innovations that competitors could easily replicate.
Interestingly, sales were poor when the iPod was first launched, despite its wonderful interface and aesthetics, exposing the limitations of design thinking. Shouldn’t design thinking methodology have ensured the success of the product?
In reality, design thinking takes a narrow approach that stops at the product and users, failing to consider the larger picture. Instead, a holistic approach is needed to succeed in business, as exemplified by Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs had a visionary approach that went beyond just the product and focused on understanding how customers could obtain songs. He identified that customers did not want to download entire albums and only wanted specific songs without paying for the whole album. With this insight, he created the iTunes Store and sold each song for 99 cents. This proved to be a game-changer as iPod sales picked up.
Yet, iPod sales were not soaring very high as expected. The turning point came when Steve Jobs introduced the iTunes store for Windows. Now, the sales skyrocketed. This shows that a user-centred device design alone cannot guarantee success.
Surprisingly, Apple’s design team couldn’t come up with the idea for the iTunes Store despite being a company that heavily relied on design thinking. Ironically, the iPod, initially conceptualized by a computer engineer (Tony Fadell), ended up being the product that revolutionized the music industry. This shows that design thinking is not the ultimate solution to all business problems or innovation.
Similarly, it’s a wonder why the Design Thinking team at Sony, who owned music labels and had a software division, could not come up with a concept like the iTunes Store and the selling of each song for 99 cents. Despite having all the necessary resources, the design thinking team failed to develop a groundbreaking idea that could revolutionize the music industry. This proves that the design thinking approach is not always the solution to every business problem, and a more holistic approach like Steve Jobs’ is necessary to succeed in business.
A holistic approach considering the entire business model and customer experience sets a company apart.
The Environment — Another critical factor that contributed to the success of the YellowTail brand was Casella Wines’ ability to leverage the Australian government’s advertisement campaign promoting Australian products in the USA during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The brand cleverly piggybacked on these advertisements, incorporating Australian symbols such as the Wallaby on its packaging and aligning itself with everything Australian. This approach enabled the brand to establish a strong and unique identity in the minds of American consumers, setting it apart from other Australian brands that launched in the USA around the same time.
This idea of using an Australian association to market YellowTail would never come from User Research or any Design Thinking process. It required someone to think holistically and see opportunities beyond the product and user research. The design thinking team of other Australian brands launched then in the USA failed to leverage this opportunity as YellowTail did. This shows that the Design Thinking methodology is not the be-all and end-all of business success. It fails to identify critical factors and opportunities that could give a business an edge over its competitors.
A holistic approach is needed that considers all aspects of the business, including external factors, to succeed truly. So, the next time someone tells you that Design Thinking is the answer to all your business problems, turn yourselves away.
It is worth noting that Design Thinking is centred around the user and that user-centric thinking is a fundamental element of this methodology. However, it is important to recognize that user-centred thinking has been integral to successful businesses for centuries before “Design Thinking” was even coined.
For instance, in the 1960s, Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, built his business around thinking from the user’s perspective. He understood customers wanted low prices and convenience and created a business model that offered both. This idea of putting the customer at the centre has made Walmart one of the most successful companies in the world.
Another great example of user-centred thinking comes from Aristide Boucicaut, the founder of Le Bon Marché, the world’s first department store, in 1852. Let me repeat — Boucicaut built the departmental store in 1852.
Boucicaut designed every aspect of his store with the customer at the forefront. He introduced price tags, eliminating customers' anxiety while haggling for a fair price. He also eliminated floor stalkers, allowing customers to browse at their own pace. He even provided free entry and allowed customers to browse without buying anything, a revolutionary idea. Boucicaut was also the first to introduce restrooms for women, and he utilized large windows for grand-scale visual merchandising. People would visit his store daily to see the new displays in the front window.
While Boucicaut’s ideas may seem basic in the modern era, they were groundbreaking at that time. His customer-centred approach set a new standard for businesses, proving that putting the customer first is essential for success.
Despite this, someone eventually coined the term “Design Thinking” and narrowed the approach to a small area, taking credit for the basic concept that had existed for centuries. While it’s important to acknowledge the contribution of design thinking to the business world, it’s essential to recognize that user-centred thinking existed long before it was packaged under the label of design thinking. Any successful business model must prioritize the customer experience, a fundamental principle that has existed for centuries.
Cognitive Biases in User Research
While Designers are proud of their ability to identify and understand users’ cognitive biases in research, it is essential to note that this is a complex topic. Cognitive biases are multifaceted, and even designers themselves may not be aware of the biases they hold in their minds. In fact, many designers may not realize how their behaviour changes in different contexts or may misjudge certain things in their research due to their own confirmation bias.
Even experts in psychology and neurobiology don’t claim to fully understand others’ biases, which cannot be learned easily. It requires specialized and in-depth training that designers don’t typically receive. It’s almost like a separate career in itself. Despite this, designers often boast about their ability to identify user biases and ensure they don’t affect research. This overconfidence reveals their weak and superficial knowledge of biases, which can actually lead to more biased research.
Moreover, self-awareness is often a myth, and it is challenging to be completely self-aware of our own biases. It is not uncommon to come across designers who display egoistic attitudes, which clearly indicates a lack of self-awareness. The reality is that designers are also human beings, and they, too, are prone to cognitive biases. Therefore, it can be challenging for them to identify and understand users’ biases during research.
Identifying and understanding users’ cognitive biases is crucial for creating effective design solutions. However, it is equally important to recognize that biases are prevalent not only in users but also in designers themselves.
Empathy is a critical component of the Design Thinking methodology, as it aims to understand users' needs, desires, and behaviours to develop effective solutions. However, empathy has limitations, as it is nearly impossible for designers to understand the experiences of others fully.
Design Thinking methodology often promotes a type of empathy that involves putting oneself in the shoes of the user and experiencing their needs and wants firsthand. This can be problematic, as it assumes that designers can fully understand the perspectives and experiences of others, which is often not the case. It is important to recognize that empathy can be subjective and influenced by personal biases and experiences.
Furthermore, there are limitations to the amount of empathy that can be developed through research and observation alone. Designers may not have access to all the information needed to understand the experiences of their users fully. This can lead to incomplete or inaccurate assumptions about user needs and behaviours, resulting in ineffective or inappropriate solutions.
Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of another person. However, every person’s experiences are unique, shaped by their past experiences, upbringing, biology, and many other factors. This means that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to empathize with someone else’s experiences truly.
For example, even if two people have experienced the same event, their interpretations and emotions related to that event may differ greatly. Childhood experiences, in particular, can significantly impact a person’s emotional development and worldview. Additionally, differences in biology and hormones can affect how individuals perceive and respond to different situations.
Given these complexities, it is nearly impossible for someone to understand and share another person's feelings completely, especially when the experiences differ vastly from their own.
Ignorance of Organizational Culture
An organization’s success depends not solely on its products or services but also on its culture. Design thinking teams that claim to provide business strategy solutions often fail to recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy organizational culture. Without a supportive culture, even the most innovative ideas can fall short.
Unfortunately, many design thinking teams do not understand how to build and maintain a strong organizational culture. They lack knowledge of crucial factors such as psychological safety, the effects of radical transparency, and strategies for improving work engagement. Such teams often focus on idea generation without considering the practicalities of implementation, and their solutions are often half-baked and impractical.
By ignoring this fundamental aspect of a successful business, design-thinking teams set themselves up for failure.
Design Thinking methodology is often touted as a creative problem-solving technique that can help individuals and organizations generate innovative solutions. Its proponents often emphasize how it promotes creativity and encourages “out of the box” thinking. However, the truth is that the creative tools and techniques used in Design Thinking are not unique to this methodology but rather have been used for decades by innovators and creative thinkers.
Design Thinking methodology has taken these existing tools and techniques and grouped them together under the umbrella of idea generation. The methodology does not inherently promote creativity but provides a framework for using these tools to generate ideas. Tools like Edward De Bono’s Lateral Thinking have long been available to anyone looking to generate great ideas, and Design Thinking has co-opted them.
The fact that creativity is not unique to the Design Thinking methodology itself undermines the idea that it is a superior problem-solving technique. In reality, anyone can use these creative tools and techniques to generate great ideas; the methodology itself is unnecessary for this process. Thus, the emphasis on creativity in Design Thinking methodology is overstated and misleading.
The notion that Design Thinking methodology is a uniquely creative problem-solving technique is a fallacy.
Time and Money — The design thinking methodology stresses the importance of studying users in depth to understand the needs and preferences of the target market. However, one of the critical drawbacks of this approach is the amount of time and money spent on user research, which can be prohibitively expensive.
Studying existing customers in-depth can result in incremental innovations, but it may not be enough to keep a business ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing market.
Furthermore, extensive user research may not always be the best use of time and resources. While it’s essential to understand the needs and preferences of the target market, there is a risk of spending too much time and money on research without making significant progress towards a viable product or service.
Qualitative Research — Many design thinking methodologies rely heavily on qualitative research, which can be biased and subjective and lack statistical significance. Qualitative research methods such as ethnography, in-depth interviews, and focus groups rely heavily on interpretation and subjective analysis, which can result in biased results. Additionally, these methodologies often prioritize the views and opinions of a small sample of users over the larger market trends and data. As a result, the solutions derived from these research methodologies may not be scalable or effective in addressing the needs of the broader market. Furthermore, some design thinking methodologies may not take into account the cultural and social contexts in which the business operates, leading to solutions that are not appropriate or effective in different regions or cultures.
Moreover, qualitative research may not always provide actionable and measurable outcomes, making it difficult for companies to implement the findings into their business strategies.
Another issue with qualitative research is that it can be difficult to replicate or generalize findings to different contexts. This limits the ability to apply the research to other situations or settings, making it less useful for designing solutions that are scalable or have broader applications.
Observational Research — Observational research, a common methodology used in design thinking, also has limitations. The main issue with observational research is that it can be biased and subjective based on the researcher’s interpretation of what they observe. The researcher may observe only those behaviours that align with their assumptions about the users and ignore other behaviours that may contradict them. This can lead to a limited understanding of the user’s needs and behaviours and may not provide a complete picture of the user’s experiences.
Additionally, observational research may not capture the context and environment in which the user interacts with the product or service. Observing users in a controlled setting may not reflect the reality of their everyday experiences, which can impact the accuracy of the findings.
Moreover, observational research is time-consuming and resource-intensive, requiring significant money and time investments. This can be a challenge for small businesses or startups that may not have the necessary resources to invest in long-term research projects.
Another limitation of observational research is the small sample size. The insights gathered from this small sample may not necessarily represent the needs and preferences of the larger population.
Other research methodologies used in design thinking include surveys, interviews, and focus groups. The quality of questions and response bias can limit surveys. Interviews can be influenced by the interviewer’s biases and limited by the sample size and representativeness. Focus groups can suffer from group dynamics, where participants can influence each other’s opinions and limit the range of ideas generated.
Iteration and Prototyping
Iteration and prototyping are critical components of the design thinking methodology. They allow designers to rapidly test and refine their ideas, often resulting in a better end product or process. Designers can quickly develop and test multiple versions of a product or process through iteration. Each iteration builds on the previous one, incorporating feedback and learning from failures.
One problem with this approach is that it can be time-consuming and costly, especially if multiple iterations are required. This can be a significant barrier for small businesses or those with limited resources. Additionally, the focus on prototyping and testing may lead to a lack of focus on other critical aspects of the product or process, such as business strategy, marketing, or distribution.
Another problem with the stress on iteration in Design Thinking is that it can lead to a “design trap,” where designers keep iterating without making significant progress towards a solution. This can happen when the focus on iteration becomes an end rather than a means to an end. Additionally, the focus on iteration can lead to a lack of focus on long-term planning and strategy, as designers become too focused on immediate results. The emphasis on iteration can lead to a culture of “fail fast, fail often,” which can demoralise employees and lead to a lack of investment in long-term projects.
There is also a risk of becoming too attached to a particular design or idea and becoming resistant to change or new ideas. This can limit innovation and prevent a company from adapting to changing market conditions or customer needs.
Iterations can also waste resources and time, as iterating multiple times can be costly and time-consuming.
The focus on iteration can also create a false sense of progress, as the team may continue iterating without significantly improving the product or service.
The focus on iteration can lead to a bias towards incremental improvements rather than bold, innovative solutions.
Prototyping — Design studios often boast about the number of prototype versions they create before finalizing a product. Some even proudly announce that they went through over a hundred versions before coming up with the final product.
It shows that those designers are not considering all the necessary specifications and constraints in the concept and design stage itself. They simply create prototypes and make changes until they arrive at a satisfactory outcome. This approach is not only time-consuming but also wasteful.
In today’s fast-paced world, with technological advancements, it’s absurd to think that designers must create over a hundred prototypes for a product. The focus should be on identifying and addressing all the specifications and constraints in the initial stages of the design process itself.
Design thinking methodology needs to evolve beyond just iteration and prototyping.
Customer Journey Mapping
Customer journey mapping is a process of visualizing and analyzing a customer's entire journey, from the initial awareness of a product to post-purchase support. The practice of customer journey mapping has been around for quite some time, with roots in service design and user experience design. However, the design thinking methodology popularized the concept and made it a critical part of the process.
Design thinking claimed ownership of the customer journey mapping process, stressing the importance of understanding the customer’s journey to design a better product or service. While the methodology has been successful in helping companies understand their customers’ experiences, there are some inherent problems with the process.
One of the problems with customer journey mapping is that it relies heavily on assumptions and generalizations. Customer journeys are not linear, and they differ from person to person. Therefore, capturing the full scope of a customer’s experience in a single journey map is challenging. This can lead to an incomplete understanding of the customer’s experience and can result in designing a product that is not tailored to the customer's specific needs.
Another issue with customer journey mapping is that it can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. Creating a journey map requires significant research, data analysis, and collaboration between teams. This can take up valuable resources and be a significant investment for smaller companies.
Furthermore, customer journey mapping can be misleading if the data and research are not thoroughly analyzed. A journey map may show a particular stage of the customer’s experience as problematic, but it may not be the root cause. In such cases, designers may end up spending significant time and resources addressing a symptom instead of the underlying issue.
In conclusion, while customer journey mapping can be a helpful tool in understanding the customer’s experience, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. The process requires significant research and collaboration, and it’s essential to ensure that the data and assumptions are thoroughly analyzed to avoid making incorrect design decisions.
Design Thinking methodology heavily relies on group brainstorming to generate new ideas and solutions. However, research has shown that group brainstorming can actually be counterproductive, as individuals in the group may hold back their best ideas due to social pressures or conformity bias, resulting in groupthink. This may lead to the group becoming overly focused on a particular idea or solution while disregarding other possibilities.
Moreover, unproductive meetings may result from group brainstorming, leaving participants feeling like their time and effort were wasted. This is especially true when there is a lack of structure or clear goals for the brainstorming session. Sometimes, group brainstorming can also be dominated by a few strong personalities, leaving quieter or less assertive members feeling excluded or ignored.
As research has shown, production blocking, evaluation apprehension, and social loafing are some problems arising during group brainstorming sessions. Production blocking happens when team members are prevented from sharing their ideas because others are speaking or because they are waiting for their turn to speak. Evaluation apprehension occurs when team members are reluctant to share their ideas because they fear others may judge them negatively. Social loafing occurs when some team members contribute less effort than others because they feel their effort will not impact the overall outcome. These problems can hinder the creative problem-solving process that the Design Thinking methodology aims to achieve.
Lack of Diversity of Ideas
Design thinking methodology emphasizes brainstorming and ideation to generate new and innovative solutions. However, a major limitation of this approach is the lack of diversity in ideas that can arise from group brainstorming sessions. Participants in these sessions often have similar backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, which can result in a limited range of ideas being generated.
This lack of diversity in ideas can lead to a narrow focus on specific solutions or ideas, ultimately limiting the potential success of the designed product or service. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that design thinking methodology often prioritizes speed and efficiency, which can result in a rush to settle on the first viable solution rather than exploring all potential options.
Design Thinking methodology is often touted as a powerful problem-solving approach that can help organizations come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. However, one of the major challenges associated with Design Thinking is the struggle to implement and execute ideas.
One of the reasons for this struggle is that Design Thinking often focuses heavily on the ideation phase, with less emphasis on the implementation and execution phases. While generating ideas is important, having a plan for implementing and executing those ideas is equally important.
Additionally, the implementation of Design Thinking ideas can be complex and resource-intensive. It may require significant organisational changes to existing systems, processes, and structures. This can create resistance and reluctance to change, making it difficult to move forward with the implementation.
Sensory Presentations — Another reason for the struggle in executing projects using the Design Thinking methodology is its heavy emphasis on the visual and sensory representation of ideas. When ideas are presented in a visual or sensory format, they bypass the analytical part of the brain and directly connect with the emotional centres. This can lead to an initial emotional response of excitement and enthusiasm for the presented ideas, which can cloud judgment and create a false sense of success.
However, practical challenges and limitations often arise when it comes to actual implementation. The initial enthusiasm and excitement can quickly dissipate, and the realities of the situation can set in. This can result in a lack of follow-through on the proposed ideas as the practical limitations become more apparent.
Furthermore, the visual and sensory representation of ideas can often oversimplify complex issues and overlook important details. This can lead to a lack of diversity in ideas and a narrow focus on certain solutions, limiting the potential for successful implementation.
In conclusion, Design Thinking is a valuable tool for solving certain types of problems, particularly user-centric ones. However, it may not be the best tool for driving broader business strategy and transformational change. Businesses should adopt a more holistic and integrated approach to innovation that considers multiple perspectives and frameworks. By doing so, they can stay ahead of the competition and drive growth in a rapidly changing market.