The Thinker, Musée Rodin.
The Thinker, Musée Rodin. (source: Tammy Lo on Flickr)

There are two questions I’d like to try to answer in this post:

  1. Can design thinking processes be useful to product makers?
  2. What’s missing from current design thinking practices?

Can design thinking be practical?

By definition, design thinking refers to the creative thinking strategies designers utilize during the process of designing. However, design thinking is now used by a broader range of people than just designers, and it has become an approach used to resolve problems more broadly than just in the design environment. Design consultancies, like my firm Fresh Tilled Soil, are hired to apply design thinking to a wide range of business and social issues.

My concern, which is shared by other product leaders, is that design thinking is becoming another buzzword associated with theory and not practice. A lot of smart people like design legends Don Norman and Jared Spool have written about how the value of design thinking has been misappropriated. Others have suggested replacing these thinking processes with doing processes. I highly recommend reading the awesome suggestions by Tim Malbon, Don Norman, and Nikkel Blasse. The theme running through these reactions to general design thinking is the same:

Where are the people?

To get practical results out of design thinking, it turns out that you need to have people thinking and doing.

The origins of design thinking

In essence, design thinking is an extension of the scientific method. It’s a proven process by which you make observations, create a hypothesis, and then test its validity.

simplified version of the scientific method
Figure 1. This diagram is a simplified version of the scientific method. A more detailed version of the process can be found here. Courtesy of Richard Banfield.

This process of making observations, testing theories, and then generalizing those theories to reflect reality has been the basis for almost all scientific discovery. It follows, then, that this process would work well for design-driven problem solving. This process is essential to discovering solutions, but its goal is to validate a hypothesis. This process doesn’t turn those validations into practical solutions.

Design thinking borrows from this scientific rigor and provides us with a reliable way to go from unproven concept to validated solution. That’s a great process to produce a useful outcome. What it doesn’t do is provide us with a way to deliver value to our customers. We need something else to help us produce valuable outcomes.

A small slice of the overall value

Using the scientific method as a starting point, design leaders at places like IDEO have described how teams can validate ideas and get closer to solutions. This has been going on for a few decades now, and it’s been essential in revolutionizing how we get better at design. But these design thinking processes are only half the story.

Teams relying exclusively on design thinking exercises are missing out on the best opportunities because it’s only delivering the first part of the promised value. In general, design thinking frameworks can only be effective if you take the outputs and use those to produce outcomes. This is why we like design sprints so much. They don’t just deliver artifacts (outputs); they also deliver answers (outcomes).

For most, design thinking is like writing a recipe. It’s a guide to what needs to be done, but it’s not the outcome. Unless we actually gather and measure the ingredients, cook the meal, taste the final product, serve it to customers, and gather their responses, we haven’t really delivered the complete value. Recipes are great because they provide the instructions for a guaranteed and repeatable outcome. If you ordered a slice of pie at a restaurant and they passed you the recipe you’d walk out disappointed. And yet, that’s exactly what you’re doing when you expect design thinking to deliver on the full product outcome.

The way most product teams do design thinking is to focus all the attention on the thinking. Makes sense right? These are design thinking exercises, so why shouldn’t you focus on that? Unfortunately, the thinking part doesn’t naturally lead to the doing part. Design thinking is only the start of the work. The problem is that too many people are using it with the expectation that it’ll get their solutions to the marketplace, but it won’t.

The solution to connecting design thinking principles to practical outcomes is astonishingly simple. Unfortunately, it involves talking to people, and most product people find that hard.

The rest of the value

Nothing beats the impact and speed of well-crafted design thinking frameworks. They get the creative juices flowing and are loads of fun. Having run hundreds of design thinking workshops, I can tell you with confidence that it’s some of the best fun you can have at work. It’s the ideal blend of meaningful work and creative fun. We think hard about problems, we sketch our ideas, we run rigorous exercises to encourage creative thinking, then we pick a few well-considered solutions and we create a prototype. We present our pretty designs and everyone applauds. It’s amazing. It feels really good.

Then it sits there. This beautiful prototype becomes an artifact of this awesome day, or couple of days, that your team spent together with the design thinkers. That perfect prototype is a lovely memory of those sessions. But now you’re back at work and all that hard work seems to have been for nothing.

Nothing practical happened because too many design thinking exercises don’t do that hard work. They don’t take the prototype out into the world and test it. And if they do, they don’t use that new knowledge to make improvements, and then test those improvements. They don’t take the next steps of turning paper or digital prototypes into something more functional.

Why? Because talking to people and getting feedback is hard. Because making real products is hard.

You can’t stop when you’re finished with the thinking. That’s when things get interesting. Design, with a capital D, seeks to solve the entire problem, not just the initial validation. If all you have is a paper or HTML prototype, you still haven’t solved the problem. The problem must be connected to a customer-validated solution. You’re not done designing until there is a clear link between what you’re solving for, the problem, and what your solution is—the delivered value.

To be truly effective at creating product solutions, we need two things: a reliable framework and autonomous team structures. Without one of these things, the product creation process falters and you cannot be successful. In order to solve problems, you have to do several hard things. Most of those hard things relate to communicating with other people.

Before we talk about these things, lets clarify how design thinking is currently done. In general, there are two schools of thought. The first is a top-down approach, driven by a vision for the future. The second is a customer-driven approach, driven by the needs of the audience. Neither of these approaches is mutually exclusive. They share attributes, and there are even some scenarios when they can be used together.

Vision-first approaches

In cases where the future is something that would be difficult for people to imagine, the first approach makes sense. This works well for groundbreaking technologies like inventing a new way to communicate (iPhone), or a new way to get around (Uber), or an energy solution inspired by sci-fi (Tesla). By visualizing a future state, then validating that with inventions, a team can craft something never seen before.

Vision-first approaches
Figure 2. Courtesy of Richard Banfield.

User-first product solutions

When people have a very clear need and they are able to articulate that need, the second approach works very well. By starting with the user or customer problems and developing solutions from there, a product company can find innovations that either become new products or features on existing products. The user is essentially telling you what their problems are, and you’re making a solution that fits their needs. Here’s what that looks like:

User-first product solutions
Figure 3. Courtesy of Richard Banfield.

The path forward

There are a lot of ways to skin this cat. There really isn’t a perfect product creation process, but, ultimately, the ideal process needs to include the following attributes:

  • Big-picture vision
  • A problem worth solving that serves that vision
  • Potential solutions to the problem
  • A basic product to test (e.g., MVP)
  • Repeatable test outcomes
  • Customer validation on whether the problem is being solved
  • Team structures to ensure the cross-functional collaboration
  • Collaborative path (roadmap or theme) to show scalable economics
  • Ongoing customer feedback and testing cycles

Designers can only be successful at designing products if they are talking to each other and to the potential customers. Without those conversations, they are designing in a bubble. A very dangerous bubble. For every step in the product creation process, there’s a parallel track for the people involved. Let’s call that "human thinking" for now.

human-related impacts and considerations
Figure 4. Courtesy of Richard Banfield.

This diagram shows just a sample of the human-related impacts and considerations. Who will be involved? Who cares if this works? How will that affect their work? Who needs to be included in the feedback? Who doesn’t need to be included?

Steps to improving the design thinking

1. Develop a human-centric vision.

Great product vision starts with a purpose to improve people’s lives. Making tons of money for your company is not a good vision. Market share or share price is not a vision. A great vision must excite your customers. It should paint a picture of a brighter future for your customers. It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I wrote a detailed post on the importance of vision to product leaders.

2. Your solution must solve a real human pain.

Creating a product purely because you have a cool new technology is not a solution. I heard this described as an elegant solution looking for a problem. Who will be the humans that delight in exchanging time, money, or energy for your solution? Have you listened to them? Have you immersed yourself in their world to truly understand their pain?

3. Design an experiment to test your value to your customer.

You might have the best product team in the world. You might even have a few wins under your belt. But sooner or later, being smart and lucky aren’t going to guarantee success. Your conformational biases and blind spots will ambush you when you least expect it. Prototype like your life depends on it. Take those prototypes into the wild. Put them in context so you have the best possible data to validate your work.

4. Get feedback from the people who count.

Get your products in front of the people who will be using them. Don’t just test your product with internal users and friends. Internal stakeholders have huge biases and blind spots. Get out of the building. Find out what real customers like, and what they don’t like. Listen to them. Really listen. When they say things you don’t like, ask them for more detail. The answers that make you uncomfortable are the best answers. Then go make improvements and come back for another conversation.

5. Make outcomes, not just outputs.

We have spent the last few decades improving the product process to improve the output (the product experience) but the uncomfortable truth is that we haven’t spent nearly enough time improving the outcome (the human experience). Outcomes are harder to measure because they are often qualitative, but you should still measure them. The consequences of your work is the true measure of your success.

The hardest part of design thinking is also the best part.

The real hard work for any design thinking process is the people part. We can keep iterating on the process stuff, but if we’re not talking to team members, stakeholders, and customers, then no amount of process improvement will matter. Collaborating with humans can be messy, complicated, and often time consuming. You have to educate people as to what you’re going to be doing. They won’t always be open to being educated. You have to invite the people you don’t want to invite—the sales people, the marketing people, and the operational people. You have to invite all the people who have opinions that you don’t like to hear. You have to carefully listen to their concerns and their perspectives. You’re going to hear a lot of things you don’t like. People will say your ideas and process won’t work, but the only way to succeed is to do it anyway.

Do it anyway because it’s ridiculously rewarding. Product leaders who stay close to their customers are better at delivering value to their companies. Product teams that embrace cross-functional diversity are more likely to be successful at producing products that customers actually want to use. Product leaders who double down on their teams and stay close to their needs see high retention rates and loyalty.

Do the hard work. Talk to people. You‘ll be glad you did.


Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s an entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experiences, we’ve interviewed almost 100 product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.

You can follow us on the Twitters at @rmbanfield, @bfgmartin, and @nwalkingshaw

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The book will be published by O’Reilly and on shelves in May 2017. You can pre-order the print book on Amazon or directly from O’Reilly, or start reading on Safari.

Article image: The Thinker, Musée Rodin. (source: Tammy Lo on Flickr).