When I first heard about Design Thinking, I thought it was a clever rebranding effort by IDEO to charge twice as much for user-centered design. What can I say, I’m an old fart of a designer, and when I read about design thinking, I didn’t really see the big whup. And I wasn’t alone.
But over time I’ve discovered that the oft-parodied approach to Design Thinking — a lot of post-its and a lot of prototyping — works better than nearly any other approach to product and service innovation.
Distributed cognition is a very simple idea: Thinking with your brain and objects in the world is not a better way to think; it’s natural. Humans aren’t just tool users. We are tool thinkers.
Distributed cognition helps everyone think better. Agile Practitioners use kanban boards as a combination memory enhancer and strategy accelerator. My financial planner just had me create a mindmap to see where my money is and where it goes. Getting Things Done demands you move your task lists out of your head and onto paper so you can think through harder problems. These are all distributed cognition strategies.
We all use the world as an extension of our mind. As we do so, we get better at it. We discover tools and develop techniques, and we get higher and higher returns as we get better at these tools. Different professions use different approaches, and thus develop different ways to think about a given problem.
For example, let’s call the way that chefs work, Chef Thinking(TM). Chefs have a class of problems (preparing food) and a body of skills to combine into a set of solutions.
Design Thinking has recently been adopted by the Lean and Agile communities as another way to build the right thing at the right time. There has been some anxiety from old fart designers that product managers and business owners will take a design thinking class and think they are designers. I haven’t seen that. What I’ve seen is a greater desire for design literacy — including learning how to use Design Thinking — and that leads to a greater desire to hire designers. Design Thinking is not design, no more than Agile is engineering or Lean is business management.
When companies become design literate, they’ll use design thinking to solve problems such as improving team dynamics or coming up with a product line extension. Design Thinking is a terrific approach for coming up with viable ideas for innovative improvement. But design itself is much more.
Design is the art of the making the complex clear, the disordered ordered, the unusable usable. So when companies run into a truly intractable challenge such as a complex tool menu that needs sorting out, or integrating an algorithm that doesn’t make sense to users, or finding a market application for a crazy bit of new technology… the first they’ll want to do is a hire a good designer.