Is it time to evolve beyond Design Thinking?

As products and services become more complex, how can we evolve design thinking to meet the challenge of designing these new systems well?

As longtime practitioners, design thinking has served Screenmedia well in facilitating the creation of cutting edge and transformational digital solutions for our clients. But as products and services become more complex, more connected, we’re considering how we can evolve design thinking to meet the challenge of designing these new macro systems well?

The emergence of Product Thinking

From our early days we have been keen advocates and practitioners of design thinking, a methodology of design rooted in research and user insights that seeks to match user needs with business objectives. By lending a designer’s approach to innovation, design thinking generates more impactful solutions. Recently new flavours have begun to appear as enterprises seek to adapt to the challenges of the modern world. One of these emergent ideas, product thinking, is something that chimed with our own progression towards designing better products and services.

After many years of using design thinking in our projects, we have found ourselves augmenting and mixing in other methodologies to allow for the added scale and complexity needed for designing the more interconnected systems which drive change and innovation within the economy and society. Given that design thinking has been a central tenet of design in innovation-lead companies such as IDEO, Apple, and Philips for decades, it can be daunting to appraise as a methodology.

““Design thinking has been a central tenet of design in innovation-lead companies such as IDEO, Apple, and Philips for decades.””

Design thinking is valued because of the variety of ideas which it generates, it widens the scope of potential solutions to any given problem, leading to the chosen solution being higher quality.

Here lies one of the shortcomings of design thinking. When your focus is on delivering delightful experiences through great products, with design thinking it can feel like the purpose is to deliver ideas with the execution of the product being something to be figured out later. This is because design thinking places great importance in ideation. But for all the new ideas it brings up, is it true innovation if the ideas aren’t, or more accurately can’t, be executed?

Enter product thinking:

“"Designing and delivering great products requires a wide range of disciplines, and privileging designers over the other disciplines means that you are failing to unlock insight at earlier stages in the process."”

Getting all disciplines involved at earlier stages in the ideation and innovation process leads to more informed and more executable ideas making it to prototype stage. As Tim Malbon of Made by Many notes;

““taking fewer ideas forward and understanding the constraints at an earlier stage can lead to genuinely transformational ideas.””

It also leads to greater buy-in from all disciplines when they become more involved in the ideation of the product.

Product thinking isn’t different from design thinking, it’s a natural enhancement to it. Product thinking is still user centred, it still seeks to solve the real user problems, but it takes a more holistic approach. Getting other disciplines involved leads to other areas of business being considered, not just the end user. While good products need to solve the user problems, great products consider other elements of the business, ultimately increasing the sustainability and longevity of the product and its usefulness to users.

Thinking in environments

Given that the products being designed today are often not independent but exist within ecosystems and environments, consideration of the wider situation the product will function in is increasingly important. Technology is making its way into more and more areas; any industry is now fair game for disruption, and this increasing complexity requires joined up design to ensure a successful product. It’s this disconnect between a pure focus on end-user needs and the need for the product to also be useful and sustainable within its environment which product thinking seeks to address.

““Products being designed today are often not independent but exist within ecosystems and environments.””

Consider: a company may create a brilliant smart home product which elegantly solves a user need. But making it incompatible with any of the major smart home ecosystems such as Alexa, Wink or SmartThings, or choosing to build it with hardware which is uncommon and incompatible with the majority of other smart home devices will mean that its usefulness with the end user actually becomes limited. Consequent poor sales may end the company, and the users who did buy in end up with a bricked product.

By taking an end to end mentality and bringing in more disciplines earlier on, the environment which the product will end up being used in can be considered and accounted for. The product still ends up with that elegant solution to the user problem, but now its usefulness to the user is enhanced by being able to act better within its environment or ecosystem.

The benefits that this approach delivers to clients and their projects are tangible — more useful end products, more sustainable companies, and more rewarding experiences.

Screenmedia is a design and innovation practice and consultancy. Get in touch to find out how we can support you in becoming a more innovative company.


Director of Design

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