Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Design Thinking: Beyond the hype

Those of us who frequently browse business and technology magazines and publications would have noticed a surge in headlines about “Design Thinking.” For instance, just this past Sunday, New York Times business section had an interesting cover story about “IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares” When the media journals like the esteemed Harvard Business Journal dedicate cover stories to such technology or business buzzword, one can be sure C-level Executives are taking note. (“The Evolution of Design Thinking” HBR – September 2015).

During the past few years, consulting firms have been “investing” in building their Design Thinking skills and capabilities. The HBR article describes how
"The pursuit of design isn’t limited to large brand-name corporations; the big strategy-consulting firms are also gearing up for this new world, often by acquiring leading providers of design services. In the past few years, Deloitte acquired Doblin, Accenture acquired Fjord, and McKinsey acquired Lunar."
Offshore consulting services firms aren’t too far behind
“Infosys has already signed up 22 customers on its design thinking offering and will train 30,000 of its employees on design thinking by the end of the year to further boost growth in that consultancy service”
“For this year the company has announced a number of 100,000, but the long-term plan is to make sure all TCSers i.e., 324,935 will undergo this training.” (
Corporate leaders are taking note of this buzz over Design Thinking, which means an opportunity for those of us in the corporate world to cut through the hype.

Beyond the hype

Consultants and self-proclaimed gurus are yet to converge on common terminology. Definitions and terminologies vary in subtle ways, but most experts agree on a few common aspects, like having Personae, Users and user stories at the front and center of any design effort. For instance, Stanford’s D-School (link) highlights “Empathy” as the start of a design journey. 

Most experts, likewise, agree on the need to “Define” the problem, “Ideate” and evaluate options and alternatives before commencing with rapid prototyping and testing by the user; finally scaling up execution: developing what works better and faster. While these are easy enough concepts to understand, one cannot trivialize the practice in real life scenarios; if Design Thinking were that easy, would HBR devote a cover story to the topic?

So what does this mean?

Many of us have long used aspects of user-centric thinking, focusing on use-cases to highlight user requirements. The approach is straightforward: identify and understand the interactions between Actors (Personae ?) and systems to achieve their needs.  That said, agreeing on “Architecturally Significant Use Cases,” with stakeholders has been a perennial challenge, leading to the design of systems that partially meet the needs of users, or in some cases meet the need of only a small segment of users.
This is where Design Thinking techniques, if applied skillfully, can help bridge the gaps in our understanding of the user’s needs and wants. By empathizing with users, understanding their needs, and prototyping and validating with them early in development cycles, one can ensure that the limited resources are dedicated to scaling solutions that satisfy most of their needs.
In the past few years, I have observed several large programs adopting aspects of Design Thinking. For example, early identification of Personae and interviewing key users are intuitive and common enough. However, many of us are in early stages of adoption, and are bound to encounter challenges that may include:
  • Diverging needs of Personae: The popular case study from “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation”  highlights the divergence in needs of Personae. The four Personae - LIFER, TRANSACTIONAL, JUST-IN-CASE and THE INFREQUENT – have widely diverging needs.  For corporate design teams, without the deep pockets of the federal government, designing to satisfy all the needs of these personae, with limited budgets can be a challenge.
  • Business sponsors may not be users: Project sponsors - people with money - can be vocal about what they think users need. Sponsors may or may not understand user requirements, leaving the design team to wonder if sponsors also be included as distinct Personae
  • Typical users may not be the most vocal: The most vocal and eloquent Personae being interviewed may not represent the views of his/her peers, requiring the design team to be creative in gathering inputs
  • Organizational Culture: Organizational culture and internal dynamics may also dictate how Design Thinking can be applied. For instance in hierarchal organizations, where internal users are expected to manage with less-than-optimal solutions mandated by their leaders, design thinking needs to factor-in this constraint.
Please feel free to add to this list of challenges. And if you have used Design Thinking techniques in your corporate settings, please share your success stories too.

(Republished from my LinkedIn Pulse article)