In the approximately 8 years since I first began reading about design thinking, as a strategy for user-centered problem solving, I have probably seen an equal number of articles touting the glory of design thinking and those predicting its demise as an approach to thoughtful problem resolution. Neither side has quite gotten it right. Design thinking is no cure all for what ails society (thought IDEO has been exploring how design thinking can solve global problems) but it has certainly survived Nussbaum’s declaration that it was over. [NOTE – if you are new to design thinking click on “design thinking” in the category list to find and read any of the many prior posts on design thinking here at DBL]
Design thinking has never really caught on in the library community the way that user experience has, though I’ve always thought of these two as being connected. Done well, a user experience should be the result of a design process. Design thinking might help get it right. The IDEO Design Thinking toolkit for libraries might change that though. I was at a conference just recently where the theme was user experience, and the individual who gave the opening welcome surprised me by speaking to the importance of design thinking as an approach for developing thoughtful solutions to challenging problems. It was good to see design thinking getting a mention, but I suspect we will still rarely encounter design thinking workshops at library conferences.
Part of the problem is that the library community has yet to really figure out how to use design thinking. I would include myself among those who see value in design thinking but can be challenged to find good opportunities to put it to use. We get that it’s important to adopt a user-centered approach to planning library services and spaces, but it should be more than that. The attraction of design thinking is having a systematic approach to tackling a truly challenging problem. There are few case studies of librarians using design thinking to solve a wicked problem such as local (campus) scholarly communications reform or a dramatic decline in library gate count.
In his essay on the failings and end of design thinking Nussbaum asked “what’s next?”. For him the answer was creative intelligence. For others it was strategic design or perhaps the design approach. Several years after Nussbaum asked the question, it’s still being asked. Mark Payne is a cofounder of Fahrenheit and author of the new book “How to Kill a Unicorn”, and he argues that design thinking still falls short of what it needs to be. Unlike Nussbaum, Payne sees value in design thinking but believes that design needs strategy to help organizations succeed. He offers some examples of how some businesses are using design thinking in tandem with analytical thinking to achieve better solutions. What’s next for design thinking, according to Payne, is moving beyond user-center design to design that seeks balance between what the user needs and the organization can deliver.
Larry Keeler is an innovation expert who also suggests we need to enter a post-design thinking phase. In a long post titled “Beyond Design Thinking” Keeler explores territory similar to Payne: design thinking must be more than just design. He writes:
Design thinking without deep analysis and synthesis can be reckless. Leading companies are seeking to do both recursively and in integrated new ways to manage complexity, derive insights, and catalyze innovation in fast-changing ecosystems.
Keeler amplifies on this statement by reminding us that we must refrain from believing that design thinking alone will solve all of our problems. That’s not a particularly new piece of advice, but a good reminder that we all need multiple problem-solving tools in our box. Like Payne, Keeler advocates that design without analysis is reckless. So what does Keeler suggest should come next for design thinking? Not unlike Payne he sees a growing blend of design and analysis. He writes, “What works today is deep, informed analysis seamlessly synthesized into coherent, beautiful solutions.”
Payne and Keeler offer interesting visions for how design thinking needs to evolve. Both point to integrating a more analytical approach into the design. Whether some next-generation of design thinking will soon emerge is not yet clear. What seems to be happening now is some new exploration on what design thinking could be with a greater emphasis on analysis.
Wherever design thinking may be headed I would encourage library workers to follow the conversation and pay attention to the ways in which designers, innovators, educators and others are applying design thinking for everyday and complex problem solving. I think it’s great that so many more librarians are learning about user experience and wanting their community members to have a better library experience, but let’s not overlook design thinking as a tool that can help us figure out how to get there.