When to use Design Thinking and when NOT to?

Sebastian Kummetz Brunetto
3 min readApr 2, 2018

Right now, you hear about Design Thinking just everywhere! Business magazines such as “The Economist” or “Business Insider” are writing constantly about this state of the art innovation methodology and also at INNOVATION RADICALS we use a lot of Design Thinking in our workshops, projects and daily doing. Viewed from the outside, Design Thinking sometimes appears to be the right solution for just everything. But let’s pause here a for second and take a look behind the hype!

When to use Design Thinking?

1. When facing a complex challenge

Design Thinking is a great method and mindset when dealing with complex challenges, where we do not fully understand the problem domain nor do we have a good solution at hand. This is why complex problems are ideally tackled using an explorative process such as Design Thinking. Typically, complex problems are strongly connected to human behavior, emotions and habits. They are also connected to high speed of development and change in the world (new technologies, change in culture and behavior, etc.).

However, do not mistake complicated problems for complex ones! A heart surgery for example is very complicated and needs to be conducted according to best practice and high standards. So it’s really complicated but you would think of it as complex problem in the way Design Thinking defines complexity. A complex problem is a problem without a proven solution and the problem behind the problem is most likely not fully understood — there is no best practice at hand. This is why complex challenges are all about designing and conducting experiments to learn from the results and eventually converge towards a suitable solution. In Design Thinking, we do such experiments by designing prototypes in order to test our assumptions with the user group. These experiments are also a good way to make sure that you are really building a solution for the user and not for yourself.

If you want to learn more about the difference between complicated and complex challenges and how to cope with them, read Ronald Heifetz’ free introduction to the Adaptive Leadership framework. The framework focuses on leadership in complex world and helps to understand the mindset and view on the world that’s fundamental to Design Thinking and other agile approaches.

2. When facing a human centered challenge

An integer part of the Design Thinking process is to really understand the human aspects of a challenge and developing ideas based on this understanding. At best, we are able to create a solution that builds on the user’s current behavior, needs, wishes and habits and this way allowing for easy adaptation.
This focus on the user in Design Thinking isn’t rocket science and sounds pretty straight forward. However. In real business life it’s often not the case. A great example are hospitals and how it makes all the difference if processes and services are designed with a human centered focus. For more info on the topic check out https://hbr.org/2017/08/health-care-providers-can-use-design-thinking-to-improve-patient-experiences.

When not to use Design Thinking?

This question is actually quite easy to answer: Don’t use Design Thinking in processes that are not open-ended. Design Thinking is an exploratory approach used when the problem behind the problem isn’t really understand and a convincing solution isn’t obvious. This setting mandates an open-ended process! When starting a Design Thinking process you wanna have a good idea of useful process steps and methods to approach the challenge. However, the final outcome and eventual process strongly depends on important key-insights that you’ll find along the way. This is why Design Thinking is hostile territory for everyone who wants to plan for specific results in advance. Traditional strategy or management consultancies for example have the tendency to meticulously prepare and script stakeholder-workshops aiming to steer towards a desired outcome. Design Thinking does not work this way.

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