January 23, 2022


Areas Where Design Thinking Doesn't Work

Design thinking is a systematic, human-centric approach to problem solving. It involves thinking about the relation between the product and humans as opposed to the product itself. According to Tom Kelley, former General Manager of IDEO, the key components of design thinking are empathy, experimentation and storytelling.

In simpler terms, design thinking is a problem solving technique that works with complex problems involving human emotions. It works best in scenarios when both the problem and solutions relatively unknown. A key component of this process is to observe and gain insights from users/customers, explore possible solutions, test and iterate continuously.

Image Credits

However, when a problem doesn’t necessarily require solving for humans, design thinking is not very valuable. Some of those areas are fundamental research, disruptive innovation and improvisation (jugaad).

Let’s explore these areas in a little more detail.

Fundamental Research (Basic/Pure Research)

Fundamental research or basic/pure research does not produce results with immediate practical applications. It is driven by curiosity and the desire to expand knowledge in an area. Applied research, being the opposite, aims to solve a specific problem.

For instance, space exploration, research done by CERN scientists and engineers etc.

With fundamental research, there are no customers involved. There is no motivation to capture market share. There are no insights that can be gained and used to solve problems for customers/users.

‘Basic research is what I am doing when I don’t know what I am doing.’
– Wernher von Braun

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation is a term coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. As the name suggests, it is aimed at replacing the existing practices, products or services.

Formally, Harvard Business School defines disruptive innovation as the process by which a smaller company, usually with fewer resources, challenges a larger company. Eg. Chrome owning the browser segment from Internet Explorer, Oppo/OnePlus against Samsung and Apple in the low-cost smartphone segment.

Customers are usually happy with the existing services. Listening to customers for their feedback and insights may not help in innovation. For instance, the invention of cars, the touchscreen iPhone etc. Design thinking can be introduced after the innovation for incremental improvements over time.

Improvisation (Jugaad)

Jugaad refers to a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way. Still, this process involves some elements of design thinking like prototyping, testing and iterating.

The goal is to design good enough solutions that solves a problem in the short term. Such solutions rarely ever scale, and rarely involve incremental improvements with the help of user insights. Terming it as design thinking may be a bit of a stretch.

This image probably sums up the ingeniousness of “Jugaad” the best way it can be done. The clock does its job.

This image probably sums up the ingeniousness of “Jugaad” the best way it can be done. The clock does its job. Image Credits.


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