Common Challenges in Learning and Teaching Design Thinking

There's no doubt that learning Design Thinking encourages innovation, creativity and an ability to turn problems into opportunities. Yet becoming a skilled design thinker can take some experience. In understanding some of the common challenges, both students and educators will find themselves more prepared to tackle wicked problems.

Having taught Design Thinking to a large range of ages and cultures across universities, secondary schools and businesses, there are a few common challenges which typically occur, particularly towards the start of a designer's education. If you find yourself or observe students falling into these traps, encourage yourself/the class to step back. Sometimes revisiting where you're at in the design process and making sure sufficient divergent or convergent thinking has taken place can help steer you in the right direction.

Here are some of the common traps in design thinking:


Creating babies too soon


A very common mistake! One of the great parts of design is being able to go all out and think of fun, creative ways to tackle problems. Caught up in the enthusiasm and excitement of wanting to arrive to a final solution ASAP, many students find themselves creating an 'idea baby' way too soon. Upon reading the brief or listening to a client, many students will find their brains rapidly dreaming up some excellent* solutions and before you/they know it, an idea baby has been created. It's all too common for us to latch onto these babies (after all, they are ours), and make sure they grow up into healthy children. The problem is, in many cases, the baby is born before a strong understanding of the problem has been gained; before any research has taken place. Rather than doing observations, speaking to the target users and defining the problem, we have found ourself in the 'solution space' of the double diamond. Some students search for the right research in order to make their idea baby seem appropriate, but this is a very backwards approach.

If you find this happening, make sure the idea is sketched down into a journal and it can then be come back to at a later phase once conceptualisation begins!

*in many cases, these excellent solutions turn out to be far from that.


Making assumptions


How often do you find yourself judging other people? What they dress or how they talk may lead to a stereotype or assumption being made. How often have you found your assumption to be completely wrong?

In order to define or re-define a problem, it's highly important that we do the right type of research, make observations and refrain from speculation and judgement. 

All too often students make this error. Whilst in the 'problem space' of the design process, we tend to observe the world with our special glasses on; glasses which make us see the world through the filters of our paradigms, life experiences and previous lessons.

Whilst researching, remove the lenses through which you see the world. If you feel like an assumption has been made, set out to challenge that by doing further research or speaking to/observing more people. One of the keys to tackling the problem well is through strong research!


Trophy prototyping


As a child, it wasn't uncommon for many of us to spend hours gluing together model planes or cars to then proudly sit them on our bookshelf alongside our collection of trophies or favourite books. A large portion of us would have played with Lego, sometimes spending a full day building a house or castle to then have to reluctantly pull it apart days or weeks later.

When it comes to rapid prototyping, many students find it challenging to build a 'quick and dirty' prototype (perhaps drawing on their previous experiences?) in order to prove a concept or particular element of their design. Rather than taking a piece of cardboard and quickly sticking it together for testing, many students spend hours shaping a piece of foam, sanding it, painting it and admiring it. These 'trophy prototypes' (many of them will end up on that trophy bookshelf) are then brought to class to discover that they could have gotten the same feedback from a model which could have taken them 2 minutes to make.

Before modelling, ask yourself 'what exactly am I trying to test or prove with this prototype?' What is the quickest, cheapest method to get the feedback needed to prove an element of the concept? Does something even need to be built? Could various interfaces on a piece of paper be drawn for testing or perhaps doing some roleplay would get the feedback needed? This leads us to the next topic...


Improper testing


Once you've made a quick prototype, set up a roleplay or found another way to get feedback on your concept, it's time to test! Frequently students get caught up whilst testing for a number of reasons.

It's important to test concepts with the target users. If, for example, a glove has been prototyped to help those suffering from arthritis, make sure that the concept is tested with actual sufferers of arthritis! 

Testing concepts with a broad range of your target users (not just a couple of people) will help get clarification of ideas.

When seeking feedback from target users, open-ended questions which prompt the user to respond with detail instead of questions which prompt a yes/no answer are much more effective and in many cases can provide some of the strongest feedback/ideas during the process.

Good luck!

Tom Allen (of Strategic Design Consultancy Seven Positive) is an experienced educator and design strategist. He lectures at leading universities in entrepreneurship and design, consults in the field and has implemented successful programs and workshops into schools and tertiary education. Get in touch if you'd like to collaborate or learn more.