In working with organizations of varying sizes and across sectors, from national museums to tech start-ups, I’ve observed a set of common errors that practitioners new to design thinking often make when implementing and applying the process.
First off, it is useful to define design thinking. I recently came across Lee-Sean Huang’s definition of design thinking, and it is spot-on:
Design thinking: a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame and solve problems.
Design thinking involves developing empathy for visitors, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. From executive directors to front-line staff, I’ve worked with people at all organizational levels on applying this process to challenges ranging from the development of new digital products to the reimagining of visitor experiences.
Following are the most common errors I have observed, with examples of how to overcome them. My hope is that by outlining some common mistakes, others can save precious resources — and morale — thereby ensuring the success and viability of the design thinking process inside their own institutions.
1. Skipping the empathy phase
Design thinking is grounded in understanding people — the people for whom your organization creates programs, exhibitions, services, or experiences. Whether these are first-time visitors coming to your museum or users of your website, the first step of the process is about understanding their motivations and building deeper empathy for their needs.
The only way to do this is to directly interact with them, through interviews, observations, and immersions in their experiences. If this sounds simple and common-sensical, that’s because it is. Yet I’m frequently asked by clients to skip this phase and jump straight into problem-solving. Similarly, I’ve seen countless teams embark on activities like journey mapping or persona creation without ever talking to real people. This results in well-meaning but superficial and self-reflexive artifacts.
Many times, clients will ask if they can skip this phase because they “already know” what their audiences need and can “speak for” them. To me, this is like building a new house without laying down a foundation. You might build it more quickly in the short run, but you are setting up for failure.
Design thinking is about recognizing that you are not your visitor or user. It is about adopting an open-minded attitude of curiosity and exploration, setting aside assumptions, rolling up one’s sleeves, and talking to real people. This means going into the galleries, or beyond the institutional walls, and talking with and observing current visitors as well as non-visitors. And this does not require weeks of time. Even five to six 45-minute interviews and observations can yield immensely valuable findings and insights.
2. Expecting design thinking to be appropriate for all organizational problems
Design thinking is not the best approach to solving all problems. It’s not a one-size-fits-all-process, and there are many situations where it simply does not make sense.
Design thinking is best suited for exploring new offerings, audiences, markets, and opportunities, while other processes, such as Six Sigma, are better applied to improving existing programs or products.
For example, I was recently working with a non-museum client, a utility company, on applying design thinking to various organizational challenges. Many of their processes and practices relating to customer safety have been in place for decades. And they work. There may be room for incremental improvements or increased efficiencies, but these are not processes that need radical reinvention. Furthermore, some of the common practices of design thinking, such as lo-fidelity, rapid prototyping, could be outright dangerous in their context. This is where another process they already use, Lean Six Sigma, is more appropriate. For a museum, this might be an existing exhibition development procedure, or an in-house evaluation process.
For this client, we learned that for other challenges they are facing, like consumer-facing digital services, design thinking is an appropriate choice. It offers them a fresh, out-of-the-box way to reimagine and reinvent the customer experience. Another client I was working with, a large museum, was using design thinking to develop new offerings for adult visitors. In this case, design thinking was also a good fit, as they were very early in their timeline and the problem space was wide open.
3. Misconstruing it as quantitative research
Design thinking is not quantitative research. It is not market research. It is not visitor evaluation. It is not about amassing vast amounts of quantitative data to arrive at statistically validated answers. It is about developing nuanced insights and understandings through direct interactions and observations with people, and then arriving at breakthrough, new ideas.
As UX expert and author Laura Klein says, “Quantitative research tells you WHAT your problem is. Qualitative research tells you WHY you have that problem.”
Design thinking is a process that helps you understand the WHY behind your data. It should be used as a complement to other processes, such as visitor surveys or web analytics, but never should be construed as a replacement for quantitative methods. If anyone tells you to rely solely on design thinking methods to make strategic decisions, be wary.
For institutional cultures that are suspicious of what is perceived as less rigorous and “scientific,” design thinking may not be appropriate, or it should be paired hand-in-hand with quantitative research.
4. Mixing divergent with convergent thinking
The design thinking process is often represented with the “Double Diamond.” This is a visual map of the iterative steps of diverging and converging.
During a design thinking cycle, the team is either diverging or converging, also referred to as focusing and flaring. When you are in a diverging step, you are trying to open up without limits—gathering inspiration, brainstorming, generating alternatives, exploring analogies, and saying “yes, and” to all ideas. During a converging phase, you are evaluating, sorting, narrowing, focusing, selecting, and judging.
And you can’t do both of these things at the same time. Trying to do both at the same time is like driving with the brakes on. This means that when you are in a divergent phase of the process and generating lots of ideas, you can’t be simultaneously deciding which ideas are awesome and which ones suck. You have to leave your internal critic at the door until it’s time to converge.
And this is very difficult — even outright uncomfortable — for most people. Yet’s it’s critical for generating breakthrough ideas. I often tell people that it’s easier to dial back a crazy idea than it is to take a meh idea and make it great.
For example, one of my museum clients was brainstorming about how to drive more engagement with millennials. One of the “crazy” ideas was to invite celebrities to events to attract new visitors. Another colleague’s first instinct was to shut down this idea (“That’s crazy! We aren’t going to get celebrities to come to our events!”) But, we captured the idea and set it aside. Later, during a converge step, another team member was inspired by this idea to arrive at a more realistic concept: getting a handful of local celebrities to interact with museum audiences through social media in conjunction with a specific exhibition. This was an idea that could work, and there was already a precedent for it at another local institution. But if they had shut down the original idea in the diverge phase, they would not have arrived at the final concept in the converge phase.
5. Calling design thinking design thinking
I was working with a corporate client recently who was lamenting how his organization was suffering from what he called “flavor-of-the-month” fatigue. He was convinced that if he suggested to his team that they use design thinking, he would face resistance. But his colleague had another idea: don’t call it design thinking. So they started introducing methods and mindsets, such as empathy mapping and converging and diverging, but they didn’t call it out as “Design Thinking.”
Design thinking is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. And it’s definitely an overused buzzword. This can prompt the powers that be to shut it down, even without knowing what is involved, exactly. So although it may sound counter-intuitive, not using the term “design thinking” can help ensure success.
Its merits have been endlessly debated. Some people think it’s a failed experiment , while others think it’s, well, bullshit. Yes, there are definitely bullshit applications of the process out there, and there are consultants who slap a bunch of Post-its on a wall and call it design thinking. Yet design thinking is a lot more than Post-its, and there are also extremely sophisticated and nuanced applications of the process and its attendant methods. Even if the term is a jargony buzzword, it’s what Lee-Sean Huang calls a “useful starting point for deeper understanding” and for having “conversations about approaching and solving problems in new ways.”
Given the bias towards the process, I often find that it’s best not to call it design thinking. Instead, I advise beginning design thinkers to name the individual methods and mindsets and frame them as useful starting points for having conversations, without calling it “Design Thinking.”
My goal in outlining these errors is not to admonish those who have bravely embraced the sometimes scary and often messy process of design thinking, but to leverage their learnings so that others can more successfully champion, utilize, and apply the process. By grounding the process in empathy, having realistic expectations about what it can and can’t accomplish, knowing when to use quantitative vs. qualitative methods, separating divergent from convergent thinking, and choosing your terminology carefully, you can ensure greater success to your design thinking endeavors.