Design Thinking should be more than Just Sticky Notes

It seems like sticky notes are invading offices around the world, taking over doors, tables, windows, and walls. Some companies are even converting every available surface into makeshift boards, claiming that they’re doing it for the sake of “promoting design thinking and agility.” It’s become quite the global sensation, purported to be able to solve any challenge thrown its way.

Except sticky notes doesn’t necessarily mean design thinking.

If using sticky notes made a person a design thinker, then we’d all be design thinkers. After all, who hasn’t used these squares to remember to buy groceries or jot random scribbles?

But how did we get to this point? I don’t think it’s a problem with the original process in and of itself; it’s certainly proven itself to be effective, despite its detractors. Instead, I believe that people are looking at design thinking all wrong.

For one thing, it’s not a ‘magic’ method that will transform a company’s culture in a snap. Unfortunately, those who don’t fully understand the ideology think that they got the basics down. They then turn around and market the distorted version of the process to the rest of the world, like a bad game of pass the message. And it goes on and on…

All of this is the result of making only surface level observations without digging deeper into what actually makes it all tick. We need to take a step back from the walls of colorful squares and ask: what is design thinking? It’s such an abstract term, it’s no wonder why some people can’t seem to put their finger on what it means.

So what does it mean?

First, you need to capture a user’s journey and figure out their problems. Next, you have to find patterns, then create or question an assumption to solve the problem. Using this information, you develop a better way of doing things. That could mean a better process, product, user journey, or way of working. Then you do it over and over again until you find the perfect solution.

Nowhere does the process say you can just write ideas on sticky notes and you become a ‘design thinker’. That’s because being good at design thinking has nothing to do with the surfaces you write on. Design thinking should be more than sticky notes. Sadly, many do not truly understand the true meaning, nor do they know how to actually put it into practice where it actually makes a difference.

You can scribble on a bunch of post-its or draw up your thoughts on an iPad. Either way, both are just tools that you can use to capture and give a concrete form to your abstract ideas.

Regardless of the tools used, the core process still doesn’t change: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and repeat. You could even say it’s less about design and more about thinking.

But there’s also an argument to be made about treating the process as a rigid workflow, rather than a guideline that can be tweaked as seen fit. For example, iterations are indeed part of the process, but should only be done if needed. There’s no point to iterating only for the sake of iterating ‘because the process says so.’

That’s why design thinking isn’t easy. You have to implicitly understand why what and when you’d have to execute or repeat certain parts of the process. Indeed, to master it, one must be able to understand the underlying dynamics of the method as well as continually practice it.

Instead of finding the best surface to write on, work on the skills you need for the design thinking process. Get good at creative brainstorming and see the world from new perspectives. Learn to be humble enough to set aside your preconceptions and start with a blank slate. Put the plan into action and keep going until you finally find the answer your users are looking for.

There’s a reason it’s called design thinking: it’s about thinking. I’d say that includes the thoughts and experiences of the designers.

Even if it’s gotten a bad reputation due to misuse, I think design thinking is still worth saving. When done right, it can certainly inspire us to come up with solutions to even the most challenging of problems.

If your business really wants to take advantage of the design thinking process, it’s time to pull the spotlight away from inanimate pieces of paper and start focusing on what really matters: the people you’re designing for.


Author: Philipp Kristian Diekhönera global TEDx speaker, entrepreneur, and author of The Trust Economy