Design Thinking. Meet Business Thinking.

A perspective from a reformed designer.

@theservdesgroup
 

Abstract

In this article, the founder and managing principal of The Service Design Group, the premier customer experience and service design consultancy in the US, shares his personal journey, experience, growth and point of view on today's often discussed "design thinking." He also explores the much less often discussed relationship between design thinking and business thinking, particularly related to service design.

 
 

Background

While I love the idea of design having meaningful impact in business and the world, I have mixed feelings about Design Thinking. I believe the term was coined in a well intentioned manner. And, I know that the deep thinking, research, analysis and science behind the ways a human can engage their mind to solve problems, is spot on. But, I fear today's rampant use of the term has, perhaps, led to some misconceptions and, perhaps, poor conclusions.

Back in the day...

Noticeably absent? Design Thinking. Oh, and sticky notes. I never saw those in design school either.

I attended design school in a mostly pre-digital age. Email was beginning to gain traction, but far from what it is today. There was no social media, e-commerce, mobile apps, or mobile computing.

There was no User Interface (UI), User Experience (UX) or Service Design. There was architecture, landscape architecture, graphic and industrial design.

Importantly, there was no drive to specialize. One could, if desired, mix studios and specialty classes across disciplines. That's what I did.

Across a spectrum of structures, installations, painting, screenprinting, illustration, animation, woodworking and weaving, I was continually indoctrinated in and challenged to apply design fundamentals to grow my design literacy:

  • 1. Understanding and applying gestalt principcles of layout, space and composition.
  • 2. Identifying and forming conceptual relationships between things, activities, and systems.
  • 3. Creating compelling stories that could move people and impact their point of view.
  • 4. Properly identifying problems, human needs and wants and solution requirements.
  • 5. Exploring possibilities at rapid pace and mass quantity through constant ideation.
  • 6. Making things with my hands and embracing the qualities of deep craftsmanship in all one produces.
  • 7. Applying critical thinking, and the critique process, to refine concepts and uncover additional opportunities.

Noticeably absent? Design Thinking.

Oh, and sticky notes. I never saw those in design school either.

Instead I learned to nurture a personally effective design process, and how rigor in design is identical to the scientific method of inquiry: one should develop, refute or prove hypotheses to solve problems (credit: Marvin Malecha, while at NCSU College of Design).

The early years

I rolled up my sleeves and got dirty in the code.

I entered the emerging world of enterprise software immediately upon graduation. I was in the first wave of classically trained designers who joined computer scientists, human-computer interaction specialists and electrical engineers in the trenches to start shifting software from a highly technical, unapproachable space to a human centered space.

I bucked any notion of my role being constrained to visuals and on-the-glass interactions. Instead, I embraced a systems design approach, working diligently to understand the art of the possible given the (often) non-trivial constraints of emerging technologies. I thirsted to understand underlying models and architectures.

I rolled up my sleeves and got dirty in the code. I worked collaboratively with engineering, sales and marketing to solve problems and take multiple solutions to market.

And I was pretty good at it.

A necessary change

If you were picked tomorrow to make strategic decisions and run a business, would you be able to?

I was rewarded with increased responsibility, culminating in being the creative director for a sizeable team of visual, interaction and systems designers as well as HCI (human-computer-interaction) specialists and user researchers.

However, I became increasingly frustrated with a lack of ability to impact strategic direction. Too often, it seemed, design was serving as a post-strategy service. Innocently naive, I believed that design – and design alone – was the answer to solving all challenges facing a business.

However, one day, I thought: "If you were picked tomorrow to make strategic decisions and run a business, would you be able to?"

The honest answer had to be "No."

I opted to pursue an executive MBA and my mind was blown (in the best possible way!).

A new way of thinking

The secret sauce is the soft, squishy, much harder to learn and hone, complex skill set.

Generally speaking, a MBA curriculum consists of:

  • 1. Hard, or concrete, skills: finance, investing, economics, accounting, statistics, operations and marketing.
  • 2. Soft, or complex, skills: strategy, leadership, communications, organizational behavior, change management, negotiations, ethics and entreprenuership.

For better or worse (I believe, for the worse!) most associate a MBA with only the hard skills.

For reasons I don't understand, most seeking a MBA degree and practicing business think the hard skills are the "sexy" skills. This has led to today's perceptions of "how a business thinks."

This isn't to say I don't like the hard skills. They are vital and important, and must be mastered for effective business management.

But, the "secret sauce" is the soft, squishy, much harder to learn and hone, complex skill set.

It's an awesome cocktail that blends a vast set of frameworks and models for problem solving and analysis with a deep understanding of how to leverage group dynamics, personality profiles, information processing aptitudes and change management.

Once you've tasted it, there's no turning back. You're changed, and you can't get enough of it.

My total transformation

I went from being in the business of design to being in the business of designing businesses.

I began my MBA program as a functional fanatic. That is, someone who is convinced their area of pactice — in my case, design — is the only solution to every problem (credit: Hugh O'Neill, UNC Kenan Flagler).

It's a dangerous way to be. Fortunately, I was transformed.

  • I entered with a designer's toolkit, which provided a set of lenses through which I could attack problems and find solutions. Perhaps it was a cube, allowing me to flip a problem around in order to empathize, ideate, innovate, explore, test and refine.
  • I exited with a management framework and significantly expanded set of lenses through which I could attack problems and find solutions. Now, I flip a much more complex shape around. I'm not sure what it is – perhaps a pentakis dodecahedron.

Essentially, I went from being in the business of design to being in the business of designing businesses.

I never turned back.

My biggest fears, concerns and complaints

Design Thinking is tossed about as a magical elixir capable of solving all ailments. And, any design project related to users, interactions and brands is characterized as service design.

My passion is Service Design, born from a personal journey. My professional experience, combined with a highly specialized education path, created a burning desire to synthesize design and business into a single mode of thought, uniquely tuned to do what The Service Design Group calls real service design.

Yet, I operate The Service Design Group in a complex environment and still nascent market. Design Thinking is tossed about as a magical elixir capable of solving all ailments. And, any design project related to users, interactions and brands is characterized as "service design."

The things I really don't want to see happen are:

  • 1. Design thinking replaces design doing – Sticky notes, fashionable clothes and whacky ideas don't make good designers. Craft, skill, a well-honed understanding of fundamentals, and hands-on creation defines design.
  • 2. Design thinking becomes misconstrued as design led – Too many designers hold up Apple as the shining beacon of what's possible when a company is "all-in" on design thinking and call it design led. Last I checked, the late Steve Jobs wasn't a designer. He was a leader, with a clear vision for his firm and the managerial skill set needed to implement that vision, including making timely acquisitions, partnerships and investments.
  • 3. The designer skill set gets grossly overstated – Having a design degree or title doesn't qualify one to design anything and evertything. Design as a practice area has limits. We need to embrace limits and expect excellence within the skill set (e.g. amazing ideation skills).
  • 4. Empathizing replaces market analysis – User centered design is important, but doesn't guarantee results. In fact, it may prevent identifying market opportunity. Henry Ford's – "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses" – comes to mind.
  • 5. We lose sight of the big picture – Service Design is as much about management as it is design. The orchestration of people, process, content, technologies and environments requires a sophisticated understanding of business dynamics. Innovating the customer experience is just a small piece of the puzzle.

My hope

I'd like Business Thinking to come to the forefront, be placed on par with Design Thinking, and be viewed as a necessary skill set for Service Design.

I support what's happening today with regard to teaching design thinking to MBAs and business leaders. But, it's not enough.

We need to realize that many of the soft, complex skills in the business education framework are as critical as design thinking skills. Perhaps more critical. Skills like effective communication, facilitation and change management are priceless, and should be elevated and recognized as key enablers to design thinking and innovation efforts.

In parallel, I'd like to see core design skills of ideation, exploration and story telling continue to be instilled in designers. I'd like to see the design community and degree programs avoid over specialization. We need designers that can design and think, not ones that have been taught how to do today's journey map, wireframe, persona or some other trick du jour.

I'd like the broader design community to step back and take stock of what it does and does not know. I'd like to see more designers take active steps to augment their understanding of business.

More importantly, I'd like designers to honestly self assess the work they do and more accurately separate product, interface and experience design from service, system and business design.

Most importantly, I'd like Business Thinking to come to the forefront, be placed on par with Design Thinking, and be viewed as a necessary skill set for Service Design.

Back to you

What do you think? What is your view on Design Thinking? What experiences have you had mixing Design Thinking with hard and soft skills from Business Thinking?

Read next: Models for service-based innovation
 

If you liked this article, continue the discussion with us:

We mean business.

The Service Design Group gets results. We know our solutions work, so we offer fixed prices, results-backed guarantees, and pay-for-performance contracts. If you need to transform your customer experience or service delivery, you should give us a serious look.

Get started with us today

Ready to transform your customer experience and services?