"Design Thinking" Destroyed Us

Design thinking product management

Design thinking will cure all your innovation ills. It will remove any customer cruelty from your product or service and deliver nothing but honey and flowers and tender kisses. Your team will flourish and customers will rejoice. It will be the type of love that lasts. Everyone knows that design is everything. So, centering your existence around soul-enriching, design-based thinking must be nirvana.

At least that is what many of us were told. And how could you argue against achieving a state of customer zen — because if you want to be like Apple, you must be centered on design. Right?


I once worked at a large public company before co-founding Aha! that was design-thinking aspirational. An SVP was appointed to oversee design across the entire company and UX groups everywhere went from productive members of the team to brand and usability czars overnight. They were appointed champions of customers that they did not even understand.

Fiefdoms of design excellence sprouted and everything ground to a halt. There were lots of problems in the business for sure, but design thinking was no friend to innovation or progress. Unfortunately, customers enjoyed little new value, a major restructuring followed, and many folks suffered.

Now, for every design or UX person reading this, hold on before you send that flame email or hateful comment. Many of the core principles of design thinking make sense when appropriately applied. Let me state the following clearly:

  • We should agree on the problem we are trying to solve
  • We should have empathy for our customers (and each other)
  • We should test concepts
  • We should look for objective feedback
  • We should iterate

The problem is when this approach is fervently adopted as the only approach to solving challenges and delivering great customer experiences. And this is where it all went wrong. Everything looked like a problem that we could “design-think” our way out of to the UX teams.

Even problems that no one on the product team thought were customer or business problems became ripe for long, design-centered studies by people who never previously spoke with customers and definitely did not grok our product.

This application of design thinking destroyed progress and fractured the UX groups from the product and engineering teams for the following main reasons.

No problem could be solved quickly
The core issue was that design thinking fundamentally requires that no matter how obvious the solution may seem, many solutions must be created for consideration and testing. And the testing should be done in as neutral a manner as possible. The belief is that looking at a problem from more than one perspective always yields a better outcome.

All of this takes time and lots of it. And I think it is obvious that most decisions do not need lengthy study. Innovation actually suffered and teams splintered as product owners did not have time to wait to move the business forward. They simply cut UX out of the discussion. That hurt both people and the product.

Experts had to be ignored
Design thinking devalues your company’s own talent, culture, market and unique know-how. It informed the UX team that anyone internal to the company could not be trusted to solve problems regardless of their customer insight, past experience, or market awareness. Worse, it trained the team to only focus on improvements as learned through customer feedback. But most breakthroughs don’t come through feedback — they come from personal immersion in a problem area and bold ideas.

As businesses reach to develop frameworks for gaining deep customer insights while reducing the risk associated with major product developments, design thinking offers a guide. It can be used to put the customer at the center of a discussion and empower UX and product teams to think differently.

However, as we painfully learned, design thinking definitely is not a cure-all. And it will destroy you as well if you try to apply it to every product problem that needs to be addressed on your way to building what matters.

Reach for design thinking or any other customer-centric and iterative innovation framework when you need to really slow down and refine your thinking before making a big investment of time and resources. Otherwise, trust yourself and others around you who are being paid good money to make quick decisions and move forward.

Have you implemented a design-thinking program? I would love to hear about your own experience and the results.

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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