Thinking about design thinking

“Instead the British Design Council expressed it as an infamous double diamond diagram that happens to look fantastic on a slide.”

Designers

“Designers don’t search for a solution until they have determined the real problem.”

I recently wrote a piece on the differences between design thinking, lean and agile. Since then I have been wanting to explore each of the topics on their own. The reason for this is because each of the mindsets deserve their own unique place in the sun. They have their own origin story and shine in different ways and contexts. Of course they shine most when combined to complement one another.

So Design Thinking…

One of the biggest buzzwords around today. For many it brings up visions of creative types walking around with pretty presentations of honeycombs and Venn diagrams. Paired with elaborate flow charts describing how it all works lead many to believe that design thinking is about process.

“But like most well intended ideas in our industry it is not about process or procedure at all. Instead it is once again a mindset or culture.”

But like most well intended ideas in our industry it is not about process or procedure at all. Instead it is once again a mindset or culture. It just so happens that the mindset is paired with a set of techniques for applying a designer’s way of doing things.

But design techniques are just for design?

Not true! Design thinking can be applied to any context or domain with great effectiveness. It is a fantastic approach to explore and brainstorm new territories. As such it is less about the outcome and more about the approach and path to get there. Conventional thinking would have you think that this is not the case and that the “design” in “design thinking” implies outcome.

So if design is not about design what is it?

It is about lifting they way designers approach problems and using it elsewhere. As Donald Norman the father of UX said: “Designers don’t search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they converge upon their proposal. This process is called Design Thinking.”

I still don’t get it spell it out for me

Ok, so its not about stickies, sketches, honeycombs or process. It’s not even about actual UX design. Design thinking is a set of approaches where almost all flavors aim to:

  • Figure out what the real problem is instead of settling on the first solution
  • Search for solutions expansively frequently leveraging the intelligence of the group
  • Critically considering the options, narrowing it down to the best
  • Collectively converging on a proposal that should in theory be far superior

The idea is that the more avenues and directions you explore the deeper and more thoroughly you think about your problem.

So why the honeycombs and diamonds?

Let’s formalize the above paragraph. Design thinking is the repeated divergence, emergence and convergence of solutions to problems. As such, it is nothing but deliberate practice for continually solving things from a different starting point and in a far better way.

“But that is way to fluffy to try and explain to business folk conditioned to think in PowerPoint and email. So instead the British Design Council expressed it as an infamous double diamond diagram that happens to look fantastic on a slide.”

But that is way to fluffy to try and explain to business folk conditioned to think in PowerPoint and email. So instead the British Design Council expressed it as an infamous double diamond diagram that happens to look fantastic on a slide. That diagram has now become the ubiquitous way of simply visualizing the model. Honeycomb diagrams aim to do the same with a little more detail.

Double diamond.PNG

“Behold the famous double diamond, or at least one version of it!”

Remind we what this all about again

As I said in my original blog. Design thinking is all about exploring the problem. Lean is all about building the right thing. And agile is all about building the thing right. Design thinking allows us to explore using intuition and deductive reasoning just like a designer. Or at least in theory 😉

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The difference between design thinking, lean and agile

“In a nutshell all three these concepts are mindsets (or principles that inspire culture) that when practiced correctly helps organizations develop new skills, abilities and competencies to respond to the modern world.”

Agile, Lean and Desing Thinking

“They are not the same thing but complement each other so well that they might as well be”

You would be hard pressed to go into a modern software development environment nowadays and not hear these three terms being used liberally by business and tech alike.

However like so many industry concepts you will find that people tend to have very different views on what these terms mean and how they should be applied. Some would see them as being the same thing (or at least virtually the same). Some may perceive them as processes and techniques to be followed by the book. Others will deny that they are things or processes and that they rather represent mindsets or cultures that should be embraced.

But it need not be confusing. In a nutshell all three these concepts are mindsets (or principles that inspire culture) that when practiced correctly help organizations develop new skills, abilities and competencies to respond to the modern world. All three attempt to make every organizational action a learning opportunity driving better decisions and new ways of working.

Each mindset brings its own value to a different part of the product life cycle. As such they are not the same thing but complement each other so well that they might as well be.

I can’t remember where I picked it up but my favorite way of summarizing the difference is with the following three sentences:

  • Design thinking is about exploring problems in a better way
  • Lean is about building the right thing
  • Agile is about building the thing right

If you take anything out of this article these three sentences would be it. But let’s scratch that surface just a little bit more.

Design thinking at a distance (Explore problems better)

Design thinking leverages techniques and practices that designers have used to overcome the weaknesses in traditional brainstorming to better explore complex problems that exists in uncertain environments. It draws heavily on empathetic thinking and the constant re-framing of problems (and potential solutions) from the perspective of the humans in the process. It is not limited to design and these techniques can be applied to almost any domain that would benefit from a less rigid approach or departure point.

Lean thinking at a distance (Build the right thing)

Famously tying its origins back to the revolutionary Toyota Production System and its father Taiichi Ohno, lean is the management philosophy that embraces scientific thinking when considering strategic decisions about how, when, where and how work gets done in an organizational value stream. It recognizes hard realities about constraints and uses it to focus improvement efforts where it matters most. It promotes the use of deliberate practice to create habits that result in a highly responsive and outcomes focused organization obsessed with value creation.

Agile thinking at a distance (Build the thing right)

Agile is not a noun, it is an adjective. And at the heart of having agility in your ways of working is adapting to changing needs and deferring decision making to the last responsible possible moment in time when you have the most possible information to make the right decision. It focuses on constant value creation typically through short iterative cycles of focused work that can easily adapt to almost any domain. Quality is not a goal but as a continuously integrated facet of your daily work.

So which one of the three is the most important?

Well this is awkward. The strengths of each of these concepts present themselves under different circumstances. As such, you cannot really compare and say one is more important than another. As such you should not be trying to figure out how to do one above another. Rather see them as a powerful trio that when done together can take your organization to new heights. In geek parlance it is ! an || but an &&.