Jennifer L. Phillips, Ph.D.

Hi. I'm Jenny Phillips, a strategy and ethics advisor.

In other words, I help people do the right things. 

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The problem with design thinking.

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Last weekend, the Guardian published an essay that had me singing a hallelujah chorus: Technology Is Driving Us to Distraction, from James Williams, former Google-r and Oxford-trained philosopher. You probably know where I stand on digital distraction (it's the worst) and the importance of thinking critically about whether our devices are actually helping us (they often don't).

Today, however, I want to talk about design thinking, specifically Williams's observation that "the technology industry wasn’t designing products; it was designing users." 

This suggests a serious problem with design thinking.

Design thinking is an approach to product design that centers users, anticipates their needs, and meets them. David Kelley at design powerhouse IDEO first wielded it as a business tool. From the horse's mouth: "Design thinking utilizes elements...like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want."

Sounds OK, right? Not so fast.

Williams turns design thinking upside-down by contending that much so-called "user-centric" design actually prioritizes the metrics of business success over the metrics of human success. By this logic, tech and other companies use design thinking to render users more profitable, not to genuinely address their needs. When this is the case, design thinking serves the business, not the consumer. In fact, when you look closely, you can read this between the lines of Kelley's description.

The problem is not that design thinking contains this danger, but that we apply it uncritically. 

Silicon Valley has evangelized design thinking as an elegant solution with great potential for good. Yet, the whole of human history - from Prometheus to the sledgehammer to social media - begs us to be more critical.

Innovations amaze us, transcend limits, and promise beautiful change. However, even as innovations deliver on their promises, they often also cause unintended harm. Prometheus: Chicago 1871, forest fires, and countless other disasters. The sledgehammer: Kathy Bates in Misery! Social media: election meddling, online bullying, and organized neo-facism. Just to get started...

Don't me wrong; I'm not a technophobe. Many things coming from Silicon Valley indeed have potential for good - and that's great, really. However, an innovation's value to humanity is ultimately extrinsic, not intrinsic.  A technology or business process should be measured by its actual, realized impact on the world, not an imagined "goodness." This is true even when marketing copy flows like water and investors drool over revenue projections. Eyes on the prize, people!

So...what can you do?

If you are a consumer: 

  • Don't take companies at face value when they claim to use design thinking to serve you. Ask whom that design really helps. Think critically about your most important needs.
  • Choose purposefully whether to participate and to what degree. Be smart about your tech consumption.

If you are a designer, a developer, or otherwise use design thinking as a tool: 

  • Don't assume that "user-centric" equates to "ethical." When you see posts, articles, books, etc. on the democratization of design thinking, perk your ears up. Pay attention and, when appropriate, amplify folks tracking, questioning, and reporting on these issues. 
  • Ask frequently: Which users are we centering here, and who are we excluding? Do the needs we identify actually merit innovation, or are they bogus -- either superficial or manufactured? How can we build robust ethical thinking into our process, from early-stage design to market? What channels exist for dissent when concerns arise? 
  • Leave organizations that aren't up to the challenge of doing this work ethically.

If you are a business owner or senior management:  

  • You have a responsibility to make sure that your org's reason for being is just. That it actually adds meaningful value to our societies, humanity, and the Earth.
  • Don't approve strategies that employ resources - human, financial, technological, or natural - to create harm, whether intentional or incidental.  If you begin to see this writing on the wall, for the love of Pete, change course. 
  • Know that, while good intentions are lovely, actual outcomes matter more, especially when organizations scale. What's more, these high standards apply not only to your ends, but also to your means of achieving them. (I KNOW. It's a lot. That's why you earn the big bucks.)

Ultimately, the net that matters will not be found on a profit and loss statement.

What matters most is the net to human dignity, to our relationships, to the social fabric that binds us in peace, and to the Earth that homes and nourishes us. Design thinking will not automatically generate this kind of net, although perhaps - more carefully applied - it can become a truly useful tool. 


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