Design thinking is everywhere, but definitions and interpretations vary. Is it a paradigm allowing you to “think like a designer?” A platform for creating innovation? A mindset you must shift into to design products? A process focused on bringing sketched ideas to life? Many believe it is the process that customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) practitioners use to do their work, and by harnessing their approach, anybody can do CX or UX work. 

If nothing else, it’s a cottage industry offering endless training, workshops and certifications.

Design Thinking Definition

Wikipedia defines design thinking in part as, “Cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for new products, buildings, machines, etc.) are developed by designers and/or design teams. Design thinking is also associated with prescriptions for the innovation of products and services within business and social contexts. Some of these prescriptions have been criticized for oversimplifying the design process and trivializing the role of technical knowledge and skills.”

Design thinking is typically shown as a five-step process:

  1. Empathize with the user.
  2. Define the problem.
  3. Ideate (typically sketching solutions to this problem).
  4. Prototype.
  5. Test.

Talented CX and UX pros already have a model that they use: the User-Centered Design process (UCD). They are naturally empathetic and don’t need step No. 1 as they don’t know how to turn their empathy off. If you can’t interrupt someone doing it, it’s not a step. You’ll often see that step No. 1 is done by asking yourself to describe what the user is feeling. This is more likely to be an expression of sympathy or intellectualizing on the customer’s experience. Only through proper user research can we know what the user is feeling or experiencing. All things beyond that are essentially guesses, assumptions or arrogance, which should not be part of the process.

Related Article: Use Design Thinking to Put Yourself in Your Customers' Shoes

How User-Centered Design Differs

UCD is a flexible process where experienced CX and UX specialists can strategically pick and choose which steps and tasks a particular feature or user story needs. The process can include tasks related to:

  • Auditing the current product.
  • Competitor research and analysis.
  • Researching current and/or potential customers to learn their behaviors, environment, habits, motivations, needs and so much more. What tasks are customers trying to accomplish? There are many research methods including interviewing customers and going to visit them to observe their behaviors and uses of our products.
  • Content analysis and strategy, which is mostly about the copy and media that will be part of our interfaces and experiences.
  • Information architecture (IA), which is often structures, hierarchies and taxonomies. The most common example of IA is how you organize website or app navigation. You also look at process flows and the steps a customer might have to take to accomplish their tasks. You consider all possible success and error paths.
  • Interaction design (IxD) is when CX and UX architects work on the layouts and interactivity. This is often expressed through wireframes and interactive prototypes. The more challenging the situation, the longer professionals will spend on refining ideas and their execution. Great ideas executed poorly can still fail.
  • Testing is done on real or archetypal customers. You don’t test on co-workers if they are not the end users of the system. Like research, testing must be carefully planned, undertaken as scientifically as possible, good data collected appropriately, and then expertly interpreted. Each of the aforementioned tasks can be researched and tested. You can test and iterate on copy and wording. You can test and iterate on site or app navigation before it gets layout or design. Testing is the QA of CX and UX; you don’t want to skimp or wait until engineering is done to find out if the idea’s execution is the best solution for customers.
  • Visual design. Expertly applying the pixel-perfect aesthetics, branding and “feel” to the interface.

Any flaws in any step or task along the way, and the product, service or experience you are architecting could be a failure for your customers, burning time and money for your company. Therefore, the focus should always be on doing as much of UCD as you can, time and budget allowing, and it must be done well and by specialists. Quality matters — just ask your customers.

UCD Doesn’t Look Like Design Thinking

You could retrofit UCD into design thinking if you had a good reason to do so. You could say that a CX or UX specialist empathized with customers, defined a problem through extensive research, ideated for days or longer to come up with customer solutions, prototyped one or a few of the best ideas, and tested to validate or invalidate hypotheses. Design thinking often aims for simplification, something people can try to do in hours or days, and therefore isn’t a true match to UCD.

However, you could boil any complex situation in your world down to easy steps. We could say that getting an x-ray is just standing behind an x-ray machine, taking an x-ray, diagnosing the problem, and creating the treatment or solution. Any layperson without medical education or knowledge could do those steps and check them off a list. Who do you want taking and interpreting your x-ray and then coming up with your course of treatment?

The same is true for design thinking. You can check your steps off a list, but what was your approach, and what was the quality and depth of your work?

Related Article: The Dangers of Designing for Only One User

Learning Opportunities

Who Isn’t a Design Thinker?

Are you a design thinker? Given the variety of definitions of the term, design thinking has become like a newspaper horoscope in that we all see ourselves as great design thinkers. One company recently asked children to imagine how a newly discovered island might operate and be self-sufficient. The company then declared the children some of the best design thinkers on the planet. If everybody is a design thinker, what does it really mean, and is it confusing our co-workers, leadership and execs?

Evangelizing Design Thinking Leads to Respect for Design Thinking

Some UX practitioners jumped on board, got certified in design thinking and started evangelizing it. It’s a hot term and everybody wants to say they’re doing it. Even SAFe Agile version 5.0 slapped the words “design thinking” across their new infographic, though it’s unclear how that or real UCD work fits into their Agile model. So you’ve spread it around the office and people are talking about it. Have you successfully evangelized UX, leveled up your company’s CX maturity, or found a new “seat at the table?”

That question is best answered with other questions.

  • Thanks to design thinking, if your CX or UX researchers want four weeks to really dig into a serious product challenge, are they now given that time because design thinking taught everybody the value of deep customer research? Or are you more likely to hear that research is too time-consuming and expensive, and you just need to do some design thinking exercises to “define the problem?” If CX or UX is not being given more time, budget, or headcount, design thinking isn’t helping and could be working against you.
  • Have lovers of design thinking at your company said anything to CX or UX pros along the lines of, “I do what you do,” “I’m doing UX work” or, “I’m doing the UX process?” Design thinking is often presented as a simple framework with simple steps that anybody can do. You might even hear that design thinking has made the best traits of designers and innovators available to anybody to adopt and use.
  • CX and UX practitioners, have you increased your autonomy? Thanks to socializing design thinking, are you finding that you truly now have that seat at the table? Are you treated less like an order taker, and trusted to do your job without being circumvented, overruled, or excluded? Are you able to make final decisions on most UX or CX matters, or are those still made by product, analysts, engineering, or stakeholders?

In reality, CX and UX work — when done well — isn’t simple. It has complexity and lives in the cognitive psych and human factors realm. Every job at your company has complexity. Product management, coding, testing, marketing, sales and nearly everybody working at your organization has complexity in their jobs. Science, math and elements of psychology come together differently in each of your jobs, yet no other discipline feels the need to severely boil what they do down to a simple framework. Engineering has not come out with the easy five steps to “do engineering” so that everybody can imagine they are “engineering thinkers.”

Related Article: Grow Up! Evaluating the Maturity of Your User Experience Strategy

Share What You Really Do: User-Centered Design

CX and UX practitioners, does your portfolio show the steps, approach and artifacts of UCD? Or does your portfolio only demonstrate the five steps of design thinking? Do you have to shift your mindset into design thinking when you show up to work? Probably not. You probably have CX and UX running through your veins with no off switch.

You — like the rest of the planet right now — might see yourself as a design thinker, but your process is UCD and its subsets. If you are joining in the chorus that promotes design thinking, why are you socializing, sharing, teaching and evangelizing something you don’t even do? Instead of talking about design thinking, what if you were sharing with co-workers the ROI of great CX work, proving the value of quality customer-centric work so that even no-empathy stakeholders and teammates could see the benefits? Where does CX save teams time, money and sanity? Where does CX predict and mitigate business risk? This is what you should be sharing with people who care about numbers and the bottom line.

Shift away from using the term design thinking. Shift towards proper CX and UX terms. If your goal is to get people talking about what you do, talk about what you actually do.