The Effect of Tools in Design Thinking

The Effect of Tools in Design Thinking

Design thinking rocks – and one way of improving your capacity for design thinking is to improve your skill at using different design tools. Here is a set of statements that flows from my work as a PhD researcher, as well as my experience as a project lead and UX specialist:

1) Design thinking is about solving complex problems by experimentally working through problems and solutions in tandem.

2) Tools and materials play a key role in design thinking – they support the exploration of problems and solutions.

3) We become great at design thinking by viewing problems as dilemmas that we then settle through our mastery of tools and materials.

4) Knowing why these tools and materials are great fits for the typical complex problems in a specific domain develops our ability for design thinking.

Statement 1 is pretty standard design thinking – a pretty hot topic, and one that I care deeply about. And I am firmly with Erik when he describes design as an “open, complex and highly non-linear process determined by the particular situation and governed by the designer’s judgment.” That is a great definition of design thinking, and one I think we could do well to adhere to, precisely because it views problems as complex (wicked) dilemmas rather than something with a set solution. That means that we need to explore design problems continuously throughout a design process.

Statement 2 flows from the observation that design “thinking” is never just about thinking: it is as much about drawing, sketching and building prototypes – and the reason we use these tools is that they might help us explore and break down the complexity of a problem. An example is user journeys, which is used to demonstrate the ways a user currently or might in the future interact with a product – by using this tool, we have a great way of exploring both the present flow of experience of our customers, as well as where it might be changed. So being able to do user journeys means that you are able to understand current user experience, and transform it.

Statement 3 points to a key issue for me recently: that one thing is that specific tools are great at specific things: user journeys and the flow of user experience for instance. Or sketching. But what matters as much is your competence with the tool, because your possibility of transforming a design problem is the sum total of the possibilities of the tool, and your ability to exploit those possibilities.

Statement 4 points to something very overlooked as well – that specific tools are typically created to solve specific problems. For instance the rise of user journeys was a response to a need for more elaborate ways of discussing the flow of experience of a customer – a focus on the experience rather than the usability. That means that if conditions change for your business, your old tools might not be the best fit anymore – or maybe a new tool has come out that fit the type of problems your business has better?

How do you improve your ability for design thinking then? You could:

a) learn a new tool that meets a type of problem you sometimes encounter. For instance I am going to take up some python and machinelearning soon, to enable me to use quantitative data to validate hypotheses that I have formulated based on qualitative insights

b) become better with a tool you already know – a friend of mine is a wizard using Photoshop, and his range of problem solving using that tool way surpasses mine.

c) do an 1 hour inventory on how and why your business use the tools you currently use: what problems do you encounter in your work practice, how does your current tools used allow you to solve them, and what challenges do you currently have? do these challenges stem from the lack of tools, the lack of competence with the tools, or something else entirely?

I was a project manager and UX specialist before doing a PhD in Interaction Design. My business and academic background gives me an expert knowledge of design thinking, involving users, UX tools and techniques, as well as a strong business sense that I couple with experience in balancing budgets and multiple stakeholder needs, creating value for everyone involved in a project. Read more >