Where Design Thinking Breaks Down—and How to Avoid It


Socrates once told the tale of an old sea captain who is confronted by the sailors on his ship, each believing that he had the skill and the right to steer the vessel. And although the sailors were well versed in the mechanics of sailing, they had never properly learned the art of navigation. Nevertheless, the inexperienced mariners took the helm of the ship and, after a matter of days, found themselves hopelessly adrift. These allegorical sailors teach us an important lesson about overestimating our own expertise. This ancient tale also applies to our world—even to the fields of design and innovation.

I’m a big believer in the benefits of design thinking, but many people get so excited about its potential that they want to take the wheel and set off for adventure before they’re really ready. I want to share with you three measures that can help your organization avoid several little-known design thinking hazards.

Design thinking, which traces its roots back nearly 50 years, has exploded onto the corporate scene over the past decade and is in use in many Fortune 500 companies. The essence of the design thinking movement is deep understanding of, and empathy with, the customer’s attitudes, behaviors, and unmet needs. By embedding this capability within an organization, businesses become more adept at creating solutions that solve problems and “delight” customers. But the design thinking approach demands that your design thinkers are well versed and trained in the art of questioning, listening, and learning from customers.

Design thinking starts with empathy. As a designer, you need to understand the people for whom you are designing, and build empathy for who they are and what is important to them. In order to build empathy, the traditional approach is to “observe” and “engage” by interviewing users. On the surface, this is a sensible and thoughtful way of arriving at understanding of a problem, spotting an actionable insight, and designing a human-centered solution. However, when organizations scale design thinking across many people, the essential skills and techniques such as interviewing and observation get very short shrift. And this is where the practice of design thinking can break down.

In a typical design thinking workshop, participants are asked to go out into the world and conduct “interviews,” either independently or in a team, with a small complement of “target customers.” Preparation is often minimal. The interviewers are given perhaps a short crash course on interviewing techniques and then unleashed onto the world. The findings from these customer interviews will often become the foundation for their problem definition and ideation. If questions are poorly framed, overly leading, or the responses misinterpreted, the clues they gather will likely create a distorted portrait of the customer and their experiences. As the old computing adage goes: garbage in, garbage out.

So what can you do to ensure that your designers are using effective techniques to build an appropriate foundation for customer insight? Here are some recommendations:

Start by defining the problem: Searching for insight without clear problem definition is a bit like shooting in the dark; you might hit something, but you won’t know if you hit the right target until its too late. Before you release your interviewers into the wild it is essential that you have thoughtfully explored and visually mapped your challenge. Designers must commit time in advance to understand the project sponsor’s vision of success; the research scope; and the customer audience in order to conduct meaningful interviews.

Separate process from content: One of the basic tenets of great interviewing is to “always stay in the process.” This represents the single greatest hurdle for upstart design thinkers, because they often feel so personally invested in the outcome. The inexperienced designer assumes you can wear both hats: interviewer and innovator. But in practice, these two are like oil and water. To overcome this barrier, every team should identify a member who is properly briefed and given the exclusive role of facilitating the inquiry process with the customer. That individual should have no stake in the outcome, so that he or she can maintain independence as well as compassionate and curious inquiry.

Know thyself: No matter how good of an interviewer you think you are, it can be challenging to be perfectly objective. These three key research biases often manifest when conducting empathy interviews with target customers. Being on the lookout for them will help you gather untainted insight.

  1. The experimenter bias is the well-established tendency, throughout the behavioral sciences, for experimenters to be biased by their own expectations. People tend to find whatever they expected to find.
  2. The observer-expectancy effect is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to subconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.
  3. The Hawthorne effect is a type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed. The result is that the respondents form an interpretation of the experiment’s purpose and unconsciously change their behavior accordingly.

To combat these inherent biases, we need to practice the art of self-awareness. By reminding ourselves of these biases, we can often pre-empt or catch ourselves falling into their traps. An additional fail-safe is preparing another team member to serve as a check and balance on the researcher.

While just about anyone can have a conversation, not everyone can effectively carry out an empathy interview and glean insight. The payoff, if done right, can be invaluable. But if the interviewers are not properly prepared to design, conduct, and analyze customer research, the findings can be misguided at its best and utterly misleading at its worst. Spotting important patterns in truth is art and science; but the deliberate practice and experience of the interviewer in design is absolutely essential.

To borrow from Socrates’ analogy, if you put the ship’s wheel in the hands of any willing sailor, you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up on the rocks.


Daniel Seewald is a Contributing Columnist and Senior Director of Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer.