What’s Wrong With Design Thinking? - Big Idea School

What’s Wrong With Design Thinking?

Basics For Entreprenerus

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a cousin to the scientific method which most of us learned in high school science or biology class. It's a wonderful process, but it doesn't always work. I'll show you three ways it can fail to solve problems.

The reason I want to talk about design thinking is because it bears on a problem I had a few days ago---the problem was a toothache. But before I tell you about my problem, let me describe the design thinking process. 

Design Thinking starts by identifying and defining a problem. Next, you brainstorm alternative solutions and test the most promising one. You evaluate the test, and if it solves the problem, great. If not, you try other alternatives until you find a solution you like.

Design thinking is pretty straightforward. Solving actual problems is more complicated. That requires empathy, asking the right questions and using careful observation to define the problem.

Design Thinking can be used to solve virtually any problem from designing a building or a consumer product. You can use it to set up a manufacturing process or design an organization. It can even relieve the pain from a toothache. 

I was worried that my toothache was the beginning of an abscess so I went to the dentist. He took two x-rays. Fortunately, he didn't see any evidence of cavities or abscesses. Nevertheless, my tooth still ached.

He asked if my bite had changed. I didn’t know how to answer that, so I told him I didn't know. He tapped on my teeth with a little hammer and picked around the gums with a barbed tool. He asked me if that hurt. It didn't.

He concluded I should not be in pain. With that, he removed his latex gloves and tossed them in the biohazard bin. That was the end of his design thinking.

He charged me $120 and told me to come back if the pain got worse. I left his office feeling like a hypochondriac. My tooth still hurt and now I felt a headache above my right eye.

This is an example of how design thinking can fail in three different ways.

• First, my dentist lacked empathy for my problem. He made me feel like the pain was in my head not my mouth.

• Second, he didn't ask enough questions to identify the problem;

• Third, he failed to adequately observe or study the problem.

Design Failure #1:  Lack of Empathy

At the heart of design thinking is empathy. When you place yourself in the shoes of the person with the problem, you have a better chance of defining it.

A good design thinker shows empathy by keeping an open mind. ​Suspending judgment is vital. If you rush to judgment you'll miss important clues and disregard symptoms. These clues can lead you to the heart of the matter.

My dentist could have probed deeper by empathizing with my pain. He could have said something like, "I know you wouldn't come to see me unless you were feeling pain. Tell me more about how this started."

Instead of recognizing my pain, he made me feel I imagined it. That ended his design thinking. A few more questions might have kept me talking and produced positive results.    

Design Failure #2:  Careless Questioning

After I left the dentist's office and arrived home, I thought more about his question regarding my "bite."  I wondered if clenching my teeth could be causing my pain.

I checked my bite in the mirror and noticed something odd. My lower jaw appeared to have shifted a little to the right side.  Two of my lower teeth impinged directly against the aching tooth.

For the rest of the day, I focused on relaxing my jaw. The pain receded. 

Asking me if my bite had changed may seem like a straightforward question for a dentist. However, as the patient, I didn’t know how to answer. It wasn’t like he asked if I was feeling warm or hungry. All I knew for sure was my tooth hurt.

This is a tricky part of design thinking. Questions asking for yes or no answers often lead to dead ends. They can send the designer down the wrong path to defining the problem.

Open-ended questions often bear sweeter fruit. For example, if my dentist knew that a change in bite can lead to a toothache, he could have asked this, "Can you describe how your tooth feels when you clench your teeth?"

If clenching my jaw was causing my toothache, he could have suggested ways for me to relax my jaw.  I would have left his office feeling hopeful instead of frustrated and confused.

Design Failure #3:  Limited Observation

If the dentist suspected that a change in my bite could be the cause my toothache, why didn't he study my bite more carefully.

He could have easily examined my bite using those little blue strips. Dentists use them check bite alignment when adding a filling or a cap. If he had tried that, he likely would have seen what I saw when I went home and looked in the mirror.

Okay, maybe he was having a bad day. He did seem preoccupied. Perhaps he wasn't at the top of his game. I understand that and I only use my experience as an example of how hard it is to apply design thinking.

Designers get distracted from time to time and don't carefully observe the client's behavior to find the root cause of a problem.

Before I started inventing consumer products, I was an architect trained in design thinking. That helped me be a better designer, but it didn't make me immune to making design mistakes.

For the past 40 years my wife Mary Lou and I have created consumer products for our own company. Here's a simple example of how observation helped us recognize and solve a problem we had.  

One of our products is called Sneaker Balls®, an air freshener that makes sport shoes and gym bags smell fresh and clean. We no longer own the product, having sold it to another company some years ago.

A Sneaker Ball is made from injection molded recycled plastic. It's a little larger than a ping-pong ball. It's made of two hemispheres separated by a thin plastic center ring.

To release the freshener in the original design, users had to pull apart the hemispheres and remove the center ring. Then they wedged the hemispheres back together leaving a space for the freshener to escape.

This original design wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was the best we could envision when we created it. Here is how we improved it using careful observation.

Each time we handed the original ball to someone, we noticed they twisted it rather than pulled it apart. When we asked users what they would do to improve the product, they had no idea. They just said it was awkward to use. And we feared that's why it wasn't selling.

It was our job to make it better. Watching each user’s natural behavior signaled us to redesign the ball to twist open. It took a few months to figure out how. Because of the redesign, the product went on to sell millions of units.

We hear a lot of advice today suggesting that new products come from asking prospects or users what they want or what they’re struggling with. That's okay, as long as you ask the right questions. Plus you must carefully observe consumer behavior. That helps ensure you are on the right track to understanding the problem. 


To get the most out of design thinking, designers must use all three of these essential keys to defining a problem.

First, show empathy by honoring the user's pain as valid even if you don't feel it yourself. That opens the dialog that can reveal the source of the pain.

Second, if you ask someone a question they can't answer, ask a different question. Ask in different ways until you get an answer that helps you understand the problem.

Third, carefully observe people's behavior as a key to leading you to the heart of the problem.

Can you tell us about a time when empathy, careful questioning or keen observation helped you solve a difficult problem?
Let us know what you did!