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Design Thinking

Published onMar 12, 2019
Design Thinking

The term design thinking has come to carry a very specific meaning in recent years, mostly associated with Stanfords Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Our interpretation differs as it relies more on contemporary design theory literature such as Bryan Lawsons “How Designers Think” (Lawson 2005), Henrik Gedenryds “How Designers Work” (Gedenryd 1998) or Bill Buxtons “Sketching User Experiences” (Buxton 2007). In particular, we see design as an open process, representing a stark contrast to the rationalistic and deterministic process models of traditional engineering.

For many students, design (thinking) bears a particular challenge to accept and understand. On one hand, they can deduce the value of good design from successful products on the market, with Apple being the obvious model example, for better or for worse. This creates an interest in design, insofar as they see it as a crucial element of their future work. On the other hand, to understand the consequences of the “wicked” nature of design problems (Rittel and Webber 1973) which questions the traditional problem solving strategies of informatics as well as engineering in general is more difficult to embrace. Our goal is to foster an understanding that most problems are not “given” or even defined apriori, but rather emerge from an interwoven process of problem solving and problem setting which requires a special way of thinking.

We start this chapter by picking up a thread we left dangling at the end of mathematical thinking, the critique of the simplistic conception of problem solving as a sequence of understanding, planning and executing. By taking a look at failed software projects we introduce the notion of »wicked problems«. We discuss how rationalistic problem solving approaches fail to take the central characteristics of wicked problems into account, and that treating a wicked problem as if it was a well-defined problem, is inviting failure.

We show some examples how products are often designed with what can be done with technology in mind, instead of what people need or want stages. A common experience many students share is how their parents or grandparents are overwhelmed by what is often called »media center« that has replaced the traditional VCR/TV combo. To better understand this crevice between product and user, we introduce Buxtons concept of the three mirrors of interaction as a taxonomy that amplifies the importance of different aspects of human-centeredness in design.

A short historical excursion revisits the NATO software engineering conference. At this meeting, alternative characterisations of informatics, for example as a design discipline similar to architecture, were rejected, effectively making computer science an engineering discipline (Hellige 2006). Consequently, the problems described (and, according to Hellige, dramatically overstated) in what was then called the »software crisis« became the central agenda of a new discipline that was to be grounded in engineering.

The better part of this chapter is dedicated to a portrayal of the discipline of human computer interaction. We spend considerable time to detail the nature of HCI. Some of the aspects discussed are it’s inter- oder transdisciplinary nature, shining a little light on the main disciplines involved; how HCI has been growing really fast, and how it’s relevance for product development has increased over the last decades, exemplified by the Honeywell User Experience initiative.; and how the methods of HCI design are tailored to deal with wicked problems. We show and discuss some examples of bad and good design in order to introduce not only central concepts such as simplicity and adequacy, but also negative traits such as featuritis, visual noise, and the overabundance of settings or preferences.

After this brief excursion into the practice of HCI design, we return to the concept of wicked problems to show that it’s definition implies that we let go of the rationalistic idea of design as problem solving. When the problem is wicked – and human-centeredness in design makes every problem become wicked – the problem definition cannot be given a priori. Instead, it emerges simultaneously with a solution through a design process that correspondingly cannot fully be known in advance. We introduce the concept of problem setting as the necessary counterpart to problem solving and show how these two approaches define design in a yin yang style.

Corresponding HCI design process models such as Lawsons concept of »Negotiation between problem and solution« (Lawson 2005, p47) or Gedenryds »Design as inquiry« (Gedenryd 1998, p71ff) are then introduced. This leads to a brief discussion of some of the theoretical frameworks HCI design is based on, such as embodied cognition, interactive cognition, situated design, or participatory design.

We close this chapter showing a few of the ways design thinking can go wrong, eg. how misunderstanding user centeredness can lead to a situation where core design decisions are delegated to users, which does little more than transfering the responsibility for the resulting (usually bad) design to those users.

Next: critical thinking

Calls for discussion

  • Where do you think we could improve this chapter? Are we missing essential bits?

  • We always appreciate ideas for exercises that can help students comprehend design thinking core concepts.

  • What are success stories of human centered design in informatics/CS/IT industry?

  • Simplicity plays a large role in design thinking, but has it’s merit in other areas, such as computational thinking. Do you know good examples for the value of simplicity from math or comp-think, or from other areas?


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