Debunking Design Thinking Myths - Coe Leta Stafford, Co-Managing Director, IDEO U

Debunking Design Thinking Myths


Coe Leta Stafford, Co-Managing Director, IDEO U

Myth: Brainstorming doesn’t work or has had its run.

Reality: The value of brainstorming isn't just about generating ideas – it’s about cultivating positive dynamics in a team, including optimism and collaboration.


Myth: Design Thinking is only for designers.

Reality: That’s a bit like saying exercise is only for athletes. Design Thinking is a mindset and set of skills that can be practiced by anyone seeking to be more creative in his/her approach to solving problems.


Myth: Just following a process will lead to results.

Reality: Mindsets matter most. If you don't have the right mindset, the process won't work. For example, you can't practice empathy, without actually being curious.


David Schell, VP Innovation & Design, Pearson

Myth: Design Thinking is the job of a specific team, typically called that.

Reality: It's not a team, it's a culture. It's the responsibility of the entire team (product, design, dev). I've seen many places that have a single team with that remit, and most of them have struggled because they are outside of a product team (for example) and therefore always ancillary to their efforts and it's seen as a one-off.


Myth: Design Thinking is easy. Or, I've done it once, took a course, or had the basic training, all good right?

Reality: In most cases, no. There's a lot more soft skills needed to identifying user needs, observation, conducting interviews, ideating, prototyping and testing that have been underplayed in all of the Design Thinking hype out there.


Jennifer McLennan, Senior Director Design & Development, Marriott International

Myth: One of the biggest myths is that Design Thinking is for creative people.

Reality: Not true – most people are problem solvers and Design Thinking is really about solving the problem.  But rather than applying a band aid, Design Thinking allows businesses to solve real customer challenges and apply real solutions that can enhance the business in ways people never thought of.


Myth: The other myth I would add is that Design Thinking is a linear process to be followed. 

Reality: I would say for complex challenges – yes.  However, in other cases, you can pull tools and tricks from the process to assist in solving small customer focused problems.  I liken this to empathy maps.  Just listening to a customer and mapping it against some of your challenges can open your eyes to a quick fix you might not have seen before had you not really sat and listened to your customer.


Joni Saylor, Design Principal, IBM Design Practice

Myth: One of the biggest myths about Design Thinking is that it is a practice that's best left to designers alone.

Reality: Design Thinking is a 21st century business skill, to be leveraged by everyone. Design Thinking isn't fluffy and it doesn't slow a team down. When engineers, marketers, designers, business leaders, and other professionals leverage the practice as whole teams, they are in position respond to the speed and competitiveness of today's markets with empathy, insight, and breakthrough ideas.


Jose de Francisco Lopez, Design Director, Human Factors Engineering, Nokia Software

Myth: Every once in a while, I get involved in thought provoking discussions where the emphasis on empathy and emotional design leads to statements promoting that we (designers) can make magic happen. In that context, there are no tangible metrics that we can use to engineer the “x-factor”…or are there?

Reality: My experience is that it is worth intersecting art and data science for the X-factor to surface and to be shaped. The quality of Human Centered Design (HCD) can be pondered with a mix of correlated “success factors.” This entails defining capability models determined by qualitative and quantitative insights, which inform sought after outcomes and, therefore, our design efforts. More specifically, we can assess degrees of: (a) usefulness, (b) consumability, (c) usability and (d) affectivity levels in living labs. In our discovery journey we pay attention to the differentiated value of (e) specific improvements upon a given baseline and, better yet, unveiling (f) new capabilities and experiences that did not exist before. Last but not least, the ultimate measure of success is defined by users’ acceptance criteria, which translates into adoption and engagement rates democratizing good design.


Kathy Davies Lecturer & Managing Director, Stanford University Lab

Myth: Many people consider Design Thinking as primarily an ideation practice. They invariably picture post-its and brainstorming.

Reality: In fact, a critical step in Design Thinking is the distillation of observations and insights from needfinding into frameworks and perspectives that leads to an actionable problem.  The key is the move from the EMPATHY step to the DEFINE step. In order for marketable innovation to take place, the ideation must take place around a problem rooted in real human need.  All too often I hear people say that "design thinking is a waste of time."  They are thinking about the ideation process, which in isolation can feel frivolous and silly. When a problem is well framed, ideation is focused and can yield insights that spark innovation.  Sometimes the real secret sauce to Design Thinking is reframing the problem in a way that allows innovation, not coming up with crazy ideas in a brainstorm.


Myth: Implementing Design Thinking at your company is simply about teaching your team the process. 

Reality:  In fact, effective use of Design Thinking requires a culture shift.  It is critical that a culture of trust and psychological safety exist for Design Thinking to take root and thrive.  This means there must be room in the schedule and in the definition of personal job success for iteration, ambiguity, change, and failure.  If members of the team do not feel safe taking risks, it is very difficult to innovate.  We talk at Stanford about the importance of "warming up" before ideation sessions to quiet the judging brain and engage creativity. But beyond that, creating a culture of collaboration and respect can set the stage for greater success in most meetings. There are a number of ways to do this, from creating physical spaces that cue creativity and risk tolerance, to check in practices at the start of meetings to foster human connection before diving into the detail of the task at hand. When the team trusts one another and is willing to fearlessly iterate together through success and failure - this is the foundation of successful Design Thinking. The intangible cultural cues cannot be underestimated.



Vinod Varma, VP Customer Experience & Product Strategy, American Express Global Business

Myth: While Design Thinking is quite interesting, it is one of the many qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the user needs. Many firms introduce this as a training program and continue doing things the old way.

Reality: The reality is that it is far from that. Design Thinking is a mindset and a way of working. It fundamentally changes the way people think about the end user and how they meet end user needs.


Wendy Castleman, Founder, Developeople UX

Myth: I think that one of the most pervasive and potentially destructive myths is that having breakthrough ideas (even ones vetted through prototyping and feedback cycles) is sufficient.   

Reality: Design Thinking can inspire new directions, new approaches and new mindsets. However, it cannot accomplish change without action.  Companies often try to do Design Thinking outside of their everyday work. However, ideas do not become reality without implementation, and implementing brand new things requires changing the way that things are done, including the culture of the organization that is attempting the change.  It isn't until Design Thinking is part of getting things done that it will be possible to really accomplish the innovations that we are seeking to create.


What would you say is one of the biggest myths about Design Thinking and what is the reality?  Let us know via Linked-In or Twitter