Why Design Thinking Will Fail

Why Design Thinking Will FailWhere there is a rise of a dynasty, there will be a fall of a dynasty.

Similar concept applies to the most-hyped innovation process; Design Thinking. If a process meets the current needs of the market, it escalates with monumental success. Not living up to the hype will be the cause of failure of Design Thinking as the sought-after innovation process. However there are good reasons why Design Thinking has been prominent in the recent years.

Design Thinking is a creative problem-solving approach with specific tools, methods and mindset designers are adept in. If doing the same thing over and over again brings the same results, doing things differently to bring pleasantly surprising results require creativity. Imagination is thus the root of creativity, as for which the semantic reasoning you may find here.

The essence of creativity in design is packaged to organizations as Design Thinking with the promise of delivering creativity in their business world of logic and analytics to solve wicked problems they’re constantly bombarded with. Design Thinking does this through understanding the users, making-sense of ambiguous information, re-framing opportunities, ecosystem conceptualization, prototyping to fail early and often. All this adds up to a creative process.

This creativity is one of the key essences of innovation. Advocated by the governments in Singapore, Finland, UK and Germany to name a few, Design Thinking has been implemented at all levels of organizations from start-ups to multinational corporations for less than a decade now. Engagements are typically conducted in workshop, or private settings by designers, design consultants and strategists.

With a variety of processes from different organization, a typical process in Design Thinking are involved several key steps:

Immersion: Immersion of a subject matter to gain market understanding and future trends from the macro level.

Ethnography: Understanding stakeholders in a subject matter to gain empathy and insights from the micro level.

Synthesis: Making sense of insights to identify and re-frame new opportunities and needs.

Conceptualization: Co-creating with clients to generate, combine ideas systemically into a concept ecosystem within the verified opportunities.

Evaluation: Filtering and selecting ideas based on the client’s strategic objectives and potential impacts.

Prototyping: Developing concepts from the selected ideas by low-fidelity prototyping required elements at low cost and iterate through user validation towards high-fidelity prototypes.

While these key steps have proven that it can deliver creativity to organization by providing qualitative value in innovation, it’s strength becomes its weakness because these steps are insufficient and unconnected to the reality. Therefore, innovation cannot happen until and unless there is an equal input from Business Thinking.

1. Misperception of Meaning
The term Design Thinking has the impression of being perceived as an aesthetic tool used by the end of business process merely to beautify the products of an organization’s logical and analytical thinking. Thus there is an instant judgement on thinking with design means thinking only in terms of visual aesthetics of products and services.

2. Loss of Meaning
The term Design Thinking also has been such a buzzword over the years that its meaning has become diluted by being overly and loosely used by amateur designers and business thinkers. It has come to the point where business owners and executives flee when they hear Design Thinking, but when framed as being creative, they return with a smile with a typical question – how can I be more creative in solving my needs and meeting my desires?

3. Misunderstanding and Not Accepting Creative Elements
Organizations desire creativity but have difficulty of accepting the fuzziness, messiness, abstractness, and obscurity that come along with it. This is because in a world of logic, it doesn’t make sense for a systemic process to be fuzzy, messy, abstract and obscure as they are perceived as unpredictable, inefficient, ineffective and not measurable. Therefore it is hard for organizations to relate how tasks can be executed by the confused team and business objectives can be achieved using Design Thinking. This is the biggest obstacle organization cannot accept as part of their working process, but when they do innovation happens.

4. Lack of Business Elements
Design Thinking attempts to use creative process to bring innovation in the areas of product, service, process and organization structure. However, innovation requires more than launched prototypes of concepts as the end result. It requires business modelling and business planning to create a more holistic approach to innovation. Business modelling allows the creation, exchange and maintenance of values created in an ecosystem. Business planning packages necessary building blocks in a business such as financial plan, marketing plan and operations plan to name a few, in order to implement and create real impact in the organization.

5. Language and Perspective Barriers
Design thinkers consulting business thinkers are like human talking to dogs and vice versa. This poses problems for both at language and perspective levels from intuitive vs analytic, insight vs hindsight, abductive vs deductive, human impact vs ROI. The inability for both of them to meet halfway will result in an unsuccessful project, a frustrated relationship and a bad reputation towards Design Thinking.

6. Missing Future
Design Thinking is a process designed to identify opportunities based on insights from the target stakeholders. These opportunities typically decide the future direction of organizations. While acquiring insights are necessary to identify what the target stakeholders need right now, foresight is the missing link that will allow organizations to anticipate the future of what they do not know they need and desire.

7. Wrong Implementation of Process
Because Design Thinking is packaged as a process to deliver creativity to organizations, it is natural for them to be implemented like operational process like Six Sigma. This becomes an attempt to maximize efficiency in creativity by turning it into a linearly gated and step-by-step process. Thus the value and effectiveness of creativity offered in Design Thinking is diluted and results becomes of an incremental innovation at best.

8. Poor Direction Scoping
The process of Design Thinking starts with understanding the target stakeholders by immersing in their lives and the market.This is exactly what is misleading because the framing of where to play that guides the direction and strategic objectives of organization are missing. Without knowing where to go, the process becomes a misleading effort with the end result of incremental innovation at best. This is a wasted effort of the journey towards disruptive innovation.

9. Co-creation at the End of Process
If designers and consultants are the process experts that guide champions or executives throughout the whole process, the clients are the industry experts. It is common for designers to be working in isolation away from the clients as the fuzzy front-end process of Design Thinking requires them to be dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. This is one of the critical stage where buy-in from clients are necessary that can only be achieved by co-creation of process and industry expertise. Thus co-creation should not only be implemented towards the end of the process but from the beginning.

10. Misconception of Approach to Creativity
Design Thinking preaches individualization and collaboration at certain stages of the process in order to generate breakthrough ideas. However, true creativity is a combination of both individual thoughts during Alpha state of mind and showcasing it to be improved by the team during brainstorming sessions.

11. Wishful Thinking for Culture of Innovation
Implementing Design Thinking to become a mainstay culture of organization is one of the dreams the process hopes to offer. However, it is not enough for designer as consultant to establish the process because when he is gone there will be nobody to carry on the will in a premature design culture. What is required is an ecosystem of several elements; a customized and modular innovation process, the right senior leadership that advocates from top-down in creation of supporting, sponsoring, prioritizing and climatizing Design Thinking, and empowered ground-up employees lead by the process champion middle manager who is preferably a designer.

12. The End Process is not the End
The end of Design Thinking process is to prototype and launch pilots to learn from the target stakeholders about the implemented concepts. As there is a start and an end to a process, Design Thinking doesn’t provide what is more essential towards the reality of the business world; business modeling and business planning. Without integrating these two, buy-in from senior leadership and especially skeptics are more challenging.

13. Risk of Stagnancy
A process used repetitively and efficiently become more risky in the long run. Until and unless the process is improved or a new innovation approach is discovered, Design Thinking will become stagnant as it will be replaced by a new process that addresses a more holistic needs more systemically and effectively.

With these reasons in mind, a change of striving towards excellence is required. What will come next after Design Thinking will be an evolution of how Design Thinking will be integrated towards business and becomes a process with synergy. A holistic process that combines the user and the market, analytical and intuitive, deductive, inductive and abductive. What will complement more from Design Thinking will be how strategy, leadership and culture can be fully integrated into the system with synergy which will have a dominant effect in shaping the future of business in innovation.

This article is written during my tenure as an innovation consultant at NBDA Asia; image credit: archaeology.org

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Jeffrey TjendraJeffrey Tjendra is a designer, researcher, strategist, consultant and entrepreneur passionate in innovation, design, and business. He has worked at commercial, academic and government organizations in Singapore Polytechnic, NBDA Asia, Ambient Experience Lab at OCAD University. He has experience working with various industries including healthcare, education, retail, and energy. Jeffrey is currently based in Toronto, Canada, traveling between Singapore and Malaysia.

Jeffrey Tjendra




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No Comments

  1. Maxine Horn on February 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Really good article Jeffrey, well thought through. It would be a good article for Innovation Bank (www.innovationbank.co.uk) if you want broader coverage?

    Contact me direct and I’ll send you a users code to place the article or a similar one/s directly

    Regards, Maxine

  2. Sam Burrough on March 2, 2013 at 3:30 am

    Great article and I agree with everything you wrote except the title. I know it’s tempting to write provocative titles to get more hits, but surely this should have been “Why design thinking CAN fail”. You’ve highlighted a whole string of important and legitimate reasons why design thinking might not deliver, but they are all things that can be mitigated.

    • Sajid on April 9, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      +1. Great breakdown of the dangers that the term design thinking faces, but why the sensationalism? Its a bummer to see design thinking exposed to predictive language that can add to its perception as a business strategy meme. To me, it feels like the real opportunity here is to frame it as a tool amongst others with room for growth and improvement.

      Thanks for your writing.

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