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Design digest: Barriers to design thinking

Our regular wrap up of trending topics in UX, UI and digital product design.

Welcome to the Design Digest – our regular wrap up of the issues, trends and themes affecting UX, UI and digital product design. This issue, we’re discussing some of the frictions and barriers that design leaders can face when trying to embed design thinking into an organisation, as well as some tactics for getting the board on-board with a design-led approach.

In 2018, McKinsey studied 300 publicly listed companies to investigate their design practices. Those that scored highest on their index “outperformed industry benchmark growth by as much as two-to-one,” with higher revenue growth and returns to shareholders.

It’s no surprise that design-led companies are so successful when you consider how central customer experience has become to business performance in recent years. Building deeper, empathetic customer relationships starts with putting them at the heart of the business, and design thinking provides a framework to drive a customer-centric approach.

As designers, our natural approach to product design is to start with the user; how do we solve their problems and add value to their lives? Design thinking is a solution-based approach to solving problems and ensures we are building products with empathy for users, asking the right questions to avoid bias and assumption. It encourages collaboration and a drive for action and learning, whilst providing a common language for organisations to talk about innovation and problem solving.

"By now most executives have at least heard about design thinking’s tools - ethnographic research, an emphasis on reframing problems and experimentation, the use of diverse teams, and so on - if not tried them. But what people may not understand is the subtler way that design thinking gets around the human biases (for example, rootedness in the status quo) or attachments to specific behavioural norms (“That’s how we do things here”) that time and again block the exercise of imagination."

Jeanne Liedtka, ‘Why Design Thinking Works’, HBR

All these are values that can easily be overlooked in traditionally run organisations, making it difficult for design leaders to influence behaviours and drive change. Top performers “understood that design is a top-management issue, and assessed their design performance with the same rigour they used to track revenues and costs,” explains the McKinsey study. “In many other businesses, though, design leaders say they are treated as second-class citizens.

So, what are some of the common barriers design leaders face when trying to implement design thinking? And how might they overcome them? Well, I’m glad you asked…

Barrier one: Lack of a user-centered approach

As designers, we naturally put the needs of our users first, but that isn’t always the case organisation-wide. Without clear, documented principles that define how what you do and who you are benefits your users, it’s far too easy to be driven by blind assumptions.

The main principle of design thinking is to empathise for our users and the problem we are trying to solve. As the Interaction Design Foundation explains, “Empathy is crucial to a human-centred design process such as design thinking, and empathy helps design thinkers to set aside his or her own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into their users and their needs.

The easiest way to develop a user-centered approach across an organisation is, unsurprisingly, to spend more time listening to users. That doesn’t just mean running a few customer interviews at the start of the product development process, or sending out the occasional NPS survey; product teams should be consulting users at every stage of the product lifecycle.

Design leaders can strengthen their approach by teaming up with customer-facing departments – customer support, account management and research are all great places to look for allies – in order to champion the voice of the user within the business. Continually surfacing customer feedback by collating and sharing insights will naturally inform and support user-centered product design decisions.

Barrier two: Siloed team structures

Traditional companies often come with traditional operating structures, organising people into departments based on roles or titles. It’s an old-fashioned model, and one that can make it difficult for people to share knowledge and skills across departments, resulting in silos.

This structure is especially painful for designers, as quality product design relies on supporting detail from other teams and collaborative efforts towards success. When a designer feels isolated, this often leads to a poor end-user experience.

Central to design thinking lies not only finding the right problems to solve, but also solving them with the right people. It’s an all inclusive process that involves creating cross-functional, empowered teams. IBM list diverse, empowered teams as one of the core principles of their approach to design thinking; “By empowering people with different skill sets, backgrounds and perspectives to bring their unique points of view to the table, we generate more breakthrough ideas faster.

By definition, cross-functional means ‘multi-disciplinary’. That means product, UX, engineering, marketing and other relevant teams working together to deliver value.
Even if your business believes they are working in an “agile” environment, often that actually translates as various departments working on a mixture of outputs/outcomes and the odd stand-up here or there. This is not a cross-functional team.

True cross-functional teams have shared goals and common objectives, but more importantly, they’re also empowered to define and direct how they achieve those goals. That can be a difficult shift if you’re used to operating in traditional, hierarchical structures.

One trick is to start small; get a few like-minded employees on board with a small internal task and adopt the principles of design thinking by working in a cross-functional team to show what can be achieved. It’s an approach Bhavesh Vhagela, VP Products at Callsign, refers to as building a ‘rebel alliance’; “If you don’t have the backing of the organisation yet, and you can’t spend the money… find people who have the same cause as you and start to build a rebel alliance. Purposely slow things down in the hopper to free up space for your team to think.”

Barrier three: Chasing perfection

Often, innovation projects lose momentum and are considered failures based on the notion that they didn’t find the perfect solution. Companies that aren’t used to the design thinking approach are often looking for polished, launch-ready products and platforms, and it can be difficult to sell something that’s still a work-in-progress to a board that wants to see an all-singing, all-dancing final version.

Design thinking is bedded in an iterative approach, taking the agile principles of launching small and often, testing and learning at every stage, and refining as you go.

It’s an approach that can be applied to solving this problem itself – what’s the smallest concept or project you can work on to build a case for a more agile approach? Think about how you can break down performance milestones and success indicators into smaller chunks, as well, alongside breaking down the project tasks and deliverables. If you can be clear on what the waymarkers are, rather than the final destination, it’s much easier for senior stakeholders to see and appreciate the journey you’re taking.

Read next

Enterprise Design Thinking, IBM

A great overview of IBM’s approach to design thinking and the principles which underpin it.

The Design Thinking Playbook, Michael Lewrick, Patrick Link & Larry Leifer

An actionable guide to help you challenge your current mindset, with tools to help you adopt a design thinking approach.

The business value of design, McKinsey

Interesting study on the link between design leadership and business performance.

Why Design Thinking Works, Jeanne Liedtka

Insights and lessons from a seven-year study on design thinking.

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