8 Design Thinking flaws and how to fix them

8 Design Thinking flaws and how to fix them

Design Thinking attempts to extract the mindset of a designer, an artist, a creator, or even a child into a series of steps that can be applied to any discipline (even business or politics) to solve human-centered problems. Its steps are so logical that we can’t imagine anyone opposing them.

  • Why wouldn’t you speak with customers and observe them?
  • Why wouldn’t you collect diverse perspectives and research before choosing a problem to solve?
  • Why wouldn’t you come up with lots of ideas, prototype the most promising and test those prototypes?
  • If you’re selling to people, to humans, why wouldn’t you use a human-centric approach?

Because people can quickly understand the power (or promise) of Design Thinking, companies, consultants, and universities have latched on to the methodology and quickly accelerated it to the top of the hype curve. This has created a lot of problems for both expert Design Thinking practitioners and for the methodology itself.

So, let’s look at eight Design Thinking flaws and how to fix them:

1. Design Thinking Has an Image Problem

Designers say Design Thinking isn’t cool or that it has nothing to do with design. Meanwhile, because of the hype, there are many pseudo-experts who have taken a single IDEO or Udemy course on Design Thinking and try to sell and deliver client engagements without the years of experience learning about human behavior and the multitude of techniques necessary to successfully adapt a Design Thinking approach to a diverse set of industries and challenges.

This squeezes the human-centricity and design mindset out of these projects and leads to the suboptimal results that give Design Thinking a bad reputation. There are no shortcuts.

FIX: Instead, focus on learning the human-centric components of the methodology, and then get a Design Thinking coach before jumping in. Team up with a proven, veteran design thinker to observe and learn on your first couple of challenges how the methods get applied for maximum success.

How do you know you found the right Design Thinking coach? Their focus will be more on the human element than the technical elements of the methodology and they’ll stretch/challenge the way you see things (you might even think they’re a bit nuts).

2. Some See Design Thinking as a Linear Process

Many people see the five-step Design Thinking framework from IDEO or Stanford (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) and think it’s a linear process (no iterations).

FIX: It’s not linear! It’s a series of experiments that go in crazy, and often unpredictable, directions. Don’t plan too much. If someone forces you to make it linear or wants you to take shortcuts, remind them that traditional problem-solving leads to traditional results.

3. Some View Design Thinking as a Glorified 2-3 Day Workshop

Executives often try to turn Design Thinking into just a workshop, feeling that’s where the real work gets done, but this leads to unsuccessful projects. In addition, even if the workshop produces mediocre results, workshop outcomes often proceed unchallenged to the next step, only to disappoint soon after.

FIX: If it’s truly a human-centered problem, it is going to take time to solve (typically 4-8 weeks). Set expectations early and often. Shortcuts lead to shortcomings. How can you predict where the process might take you? Make sure people understand the process, why it takes time, and are committed to taking the journey, wherever it might lead.

4. People Want Human-Centric Outputs Without Human Inputs

Understanding human challenges to find the right problem to solve takes time. Unfortunately, many Design Thinking teams get asked to take shortcuts and reduce critical ethnography/immersion work to phone interviews and to limit the creative period for ideation to four hours of a two-day workshop, with disastrous results.

FIX: Resist! You can’t get human-centered outcomes without sufficient human understanding. Get out and spend time with the users and do what they do. Extend the creativity/ideation time to allow inspiration to occur, and for ideas to be built upon, combined and improved. Provide people with the right creativity techniques, environments, sufficient collaboration time, and an online platform to keep the collaboration going outside of the sacred two-day workshop.

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5. Misalignment is a Risk to Every Design Thinking Project

Many Design Thinking projects run into problems because they fail to maintain alignment throughout the project. Design Thinking practitioners naturally spend more time with the client’s customers and digesting the findings to identify insights than anyone else involved with the project (project sponsor, core team, and workshop participants), and are farther along the Design Thinking journey than the folks showing up to understand and define the problem, ideate, prototype and test.

FIX: Either form a team with your client so they can do what you do 100% of the time or more accurately communicate your research approach and findings to your client. Try and walk them through the journey you went on (that they missed out on). Ensure core team members and workshop participants are hungry to make a difference, curious, fearless, playful, funny, and energetic dreamers ready to create and build solutions to a problem that they helped define.

Remember that everyone else will not be as mentally and emotionally primed and vested in the problem space as you are, or as knowledgeable of the Design Thinking methodology. And, most of them have day jobs to keep up with!

6. Failure Often Awaits Those Who Refuse to Re-frame the Problem

Yes, as Design Thinkers we often re-frame problems once we get deep enough to see a different reality. When clients don’t like that and want to use Design Thinking to justify their initial hunches instead, we are cutting corners and ignoring greater possibilities. Going through the Design Thinking process may also expose organizational deficiencies. Open-minded teams think this is great, but many client teams may turn a blind eye to what gets surfaced and miss out on improvement opportunities.

FIX: Further educate the customer on how Design Thinking may uncover more important problems to solve than the initially defined problem, or even organizational capabilities that are lacking or underdeveloped and needed for solutions to succeed. They can still decide not to re-frame the problem or develop the necessary capabilities for solutions to succeed, but you are absolved of responsibility.

7. People Use Design Thinking on Obvious Challenges

Using Design Thinking for obvious challenges (especially those that are not human-centred) may still help, but it may be overkill when compared to traditional problem-solving methods.

FIX: Before waving the Design Thinking flag, determine the nature of the stated problem. If the problem is well understood and the solutioning path is obvious, don’t use Design Thinking. If the problem requires deeply understanding people, solving it may have significant impact and the team gets energized about it, then you’ve got yourself a nice Design Thinking challenge.

8. Design Thinking is Marginalized

Design Thinking is not always trusted or understood by senior executives and so it is only approved for use at lower levels of the organization. Stuck in the basement, even great solutions will have a tough time getting noticed or fast-tracked by senior executives.

FIX: Involve senior executives in your Design Thinking efforts or at least make sure they are visible to them. Bring them along with you on the journey – even in a small way – so they become familiar and comfortable with the methodology – and its results!

Negotiate with executives to give you time and space to make the Design Thinking practice grow – or don’t do it at all. Over time you might even be able to help senior executives inject some Design Thinking principles into their corporate strategy planning and increase organizational agility!

Bringing it All Together

Most business leaders are driven by fear, not opportunity, and so they want to know THE answer and the best practices for getting there. Human behavior is messy and inconvenient and doesn’t fit neatly into a math problem. But, understanding human behavior is often the key to solving the difficult and complex problems that lead to the transformative growth and improvement opportunities that every organization is searching for to survive and thrive in our digital reality.

As a business methodology grounded in human behavior, Design Thinking is often misunderstood, and because executives are desperate for solutions to problems they don’t understand how to solve, Design Thinking is frequently misapplied.

Bringing empathy back to business, making time for creative stimulation, conducting many experiments, and identifying innovation opportunities are all things that Design Thinking can help with, but not everything is a hammer and not everything is a nail.

How Oracle Uses Design Thinking

The hype machine has led many consulting companies and technology providers to claim that Design Thinking is the hammer to every nail. To offer an alternative, we created Oracle FUEL to go beyond Design Thinking and partner with carefully selected Oracle customers who are:

  • Comfortable with the ambiguity of human behavior
  • Empowered to challenge the status quo
  • Excited to identify wicked problems worth solving and the associated crazy possibilities
  • Patient and understand that the most impactful problem and the best tools to solve it will emerge on their guided journey
  • Committed to making it clear, making it real, and making it happen


Original post co-authored with Adam Radziszewski

Adam Radziszewski  The Digital Transformation People

Adam is Director of Innovation Services and Human-Centric Problem Solving at Oracle. An innovation practitioner with extensive experience in enterprise innovation practice building and fostering creative and collaborative organizational cultures he is a workshop facilitator, Design Thinking and Creativity coach, a practitioner of Behavioral Economics and Experimental Design, and a product development lead. 


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