Now that Design Thinking is popular enough to be a known entity and even a buzzword, I’ve noticed that a fair bit of what is being shopped around as design thinking is simply user experience design, plain and simple.  Don’t get me wrong: I AM a user experience designer, and I have the utmost respect for a complex and mutli faceted field that has its roots in Human Computer Interaction, Graphic Design, and Ethnography.

If what you’re doing is product or even service development, then user experience design will transform the way you think, the way you work, and the way you deliver products and services.

User experience design follows a pathway that I have seen, recently and frequently, outlined as the path to Design Thinking and they aren’t the same.  Here’s how.

User experience design (UX) involves the following process:

  1. Empathize: understand your users’ needs through research, interviews, and observation.
  2. Develop personas: be able to describe the essential collection of characteristics, needs, desires, and constraints that describes your primary (and often secondary, tertiary) user.
  3. Map their experience: this might take the form of a user journey map, am empathy map.
  4. Sketch and then prototype a solution.  Make it a low fidelity, ugly prototype.  Make a few!
  5. Test with users.  6-8 will suffice.  Don’t validate assumptions but rather: seek to see where you got it really, really wrong!
  6. Learn, adjust, repeat.

So how is design thinking different?  It might help to outline the four levels of design (thanks to Peter Jones at OCADU for this thinking)

Design Thinking is what is needed to climb this ladder of design.  The standard three circles of Tim Brown (IDEO) might help here too.

UX helps us with the desirability part, the needs of people.  But to really nail the technological feasibility part, and the business viability part, we need to haul out more, bigger, better tools.  These tools are taken from the areas of strategic foresight and systems thinking.  These tools are what we need to understand desirability for the system of stakeholders (that might be the organization or even society at large).  To be able to co create, prototype, ideate with foresight and systems understanding requires a much broader toolset, and more people must be involved.

Design Thinking leads to systems-level innovation: transformative change at the organization or societal level, as opposed to product or process innovation which can SOMETIMES be the result of great UX.  But to be clear: even if the result of great UX is simply a far superior user experience of a product or service, that in itself is a huge competitive advantage.  It’s just not necessarily design thinking.