Design thinking. It’s a buzzword, and the popularity is real. So is the controversy, the cult-like belief and the outright hostility some feel toward the methodology.
In fact, the ideology has become so ingrained in business, education and recently government, that it has become mystified -- a legend promising creative and innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems -- to some degree. And, as it continues to evolve and move across boundaries into new fields, this mystification will only occur with more regularity.
To be sure, the cure-all approach -- that many organizations are attempting to use design thinking for -- is a byproduct of the popularity-stricken buzzword. Nonetheless, the skepticism caused from the strife end-users feel after the process “fails” them, is not entirely unfounded.
However, this skepticism is also a direct result of misunderstanding what design thinking was originally intended to accomplish, and what it can still accomplish, namely: a unified approach to problem-solving, and creative solutions that always have the end-user in mind.
So, instead of griping about whether or not it’s a hoax, let’s demystify it and bring the most important tenet to the forefront, empathy, while discussing how this principle can be best leveraged through equity, or what’s known as equity-centered design thinking.
What is at the Core of Design Thinking?
Hint: It Starts with Empathy
While design thinking is an iterative process, and implementation depends on many steps, the core truly relies on empathy, in this, there is no dispute.
Sure, ideation is key, and the process of failure as a means to growth and unhindered thought-making is pivotal; however, it’s ultimately not about the sharpies, the sticky notes or the rapid-fire prototyping. It’s about designing a solution that can be implemented to reach the varying needs of a range of stakeholders.
At its core, design thinking is about empathy -- solutions need to be human-centered -- and understanding how the end-user will react to the finished “design,” or how colleagues and company culture/environment will benefit from an empathy-driven climate.
In order to design with others in mind, we must first understand how that person reacts to their environment -- by empathizing with them -- what their triggers and pain points are and truly take the time to experience life in their shoes.
The designers then take this feedback, and this empathetic approach, and define the pain points and problems facing their target audience. From there, solutions can be created to counteract and overcome these pain points.
There’s Just One Problem
Empathy in Design Thinking Must Be Accompanied by Equity
What is that problem? By giving the designer the power, and control, over the solution, said power structures remain unchallenged, and “empathy” misses the mark.
As was recently outlined in the Harvard Business Review, by Natasha Iskander, and reiterated by Fast Company, if the design thinking process continues to be dominated by the ideation, prototyping and testing -- the iterative processes that follow empathizing and defining -- of the designer, then the designer will continue to be in control of these so-called empathetic solutions regardless of the first step in the process.
When you give the designer the privilege of the crucial decision-making, as Iskander says, it “limits participation in the design process,” thereby making the solution inequitable.
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Herein lies the root to the misunderstanding: a designed solution cannot be based in the core tenet of design thinking if said solution is not first equitable in its empathetic approach. As such, the process of design thinking will continue to be misunderstood unless it necessarily incorporates equity as a mandated facet of the process.
It’s not so much a product of the methodology of design thinking being flawed, it’s that humans are innately fallible, and unless processes are built to distribute power equitably, the process will continue to fail.
Incorporating Equity into Design Thinking
How is Equity Best Utilized in the Design Thinking Process?
It’s clear that there is a disconnect between the intent of design thinking, and its delivery, but, how does equity support the closing of that gap, and how is it best established in the design thinking process?
Equity, in the design thinking process, is established by empathizing with the full range of stakeholders that will be impacted by the solutions and the design process. In order to do this, the full range of stakeholders need to play an integral role in the entire process.
Everyone has biases, and biases cloud judgment and experiences, regardless of whether or not they are intended to. This is why the roles of designers, and the choices they make, are imperative. In order to design equitably, designers must acknowledge their experiences and realize how they may cloud their “design,” while simultaneously taking into account the thoughts, biases and experiences of the user(s) they are designing for. In order for this to be accomplished, the users need to be a part of the design process.
This is why equity-centered design thinking adds an additional two components to the design thinking process: notice and reflect, both of which take place throughout the entire process, as the image below suggests.
Notice and Reflect Throughout the Process
Awareness and Contemplation Lead to Inclusion
The “notice” phase asks designers to be aware of their social and emotional being, and how their identity, values, emotions, biases and assumptions impact their design. Noticing how experiences -- both the designers’ and the end-users’ experiences -- impact a situation ensures that designs are human-centered.
In order to empathize with others, designers must be aware of their identity and how that identity interacts with their end users’ experiences, thereby humanizing the process, and creating a space where the identities of the end-users lead the process.
The “reflect” phase is also embedded throughout the process, and allows designers and end-users to constantly reflect on the results of each phase of the process. By reflecting constantly, the designers and the end-users can take time to share their learning and results, and work toward equity and inclusion every step of the way.
The designers need to constantly ask themselves who they are not including in their design, and work with the end-user to ensure that all stakeholders are included.
Equity-centered design thinking differs from the typical design process because it does not focus on a single user, but instead, a wide range of users. It is constantly iterative to make adjustments for different needs. It allows the designer to be aware of their identity and how that may contribute to their design. And, it allows the end-user to take part in the process every step of the way.
In the end, the controversy around design thinking can’t be denied, neither can the arguments that label it as a power structure in and of itself. They are not unfounded. However, these arguments are founded in an inherent misunderstanding: that humans will innately avoid fallacy.
This is not the case. Nonetheless, there are processes and steps that can be built into the design thinking methodology that lead to an equitable approach.
The world we live in is becoming intrinsically more dependent upon holistic approaches to community, whereby education, government and industry cross-pollinate to create innovative solutions that place the end-user at the center. Equity-centered design thinking is just one ideology that places the focus on human values, while ensuring that all stakeholders have voice, in attempt to reimagine archaic power structures.
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