Nov 22

When should you NOT use Design Thinking?

Before we can arrive at the answer to this question, let us start with a working definition of Design Thinking. Simply defined, it is a human-centred approach to solving problems. At its core, Design Thinking involves 3 simple steps.

  • Empathize: You understand your users in as much depth as you can – about what they need, want, expect, aspire for, like, dislike, and so on.
  • Ideate: You generate multiple solutions to address the needs of your consumers by solving their problem.
  • Experiment: You try out various ideas/solutions in small ways to see how effectively they solve the problem as well as how achievable the solutions are.

If we were to ask you to identify 3 scenarios from your current work where you could apply a Design Thinking approach, you would be able to do it in a jiffy. Instead, if we were to ask you to identify 3 scenarios where you wouldn’t use Design Thinking, you would probably feel stumped.

But answering this question will help you and your team members in two ways :

  1. Crystalize your understanding of Design Thinking
  2. Understand when you can use it to add value to the problem at hand.


Take a look at the 4 scenarios below :

  1. Setting up a new school in a village
  2. An ultra-rich client wants to renovate her new bungalow
  3. Reducing the patient waiting time in a veterinary clinic
  4. Improving the sensitivity of a wearable health device
Setting up a new school in a village
Reducing the patient waiting time in a veterinary clinic
An ultra-rich client wants to renovate her new bungalow
Improving the sensitivity of a wearable health device
In which of the cases would you choose to use a Design Thinking approach. Before reading on note down your answers on a piece of paper or on your phone. Are you ready? At this juncture, let us introduce you to the concept of ‘wicked problems’. First defined by HorstW.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, in a 1973 article in Policy Sciences magazine, a wicked problem is a social problem which is extremely interconnected in nature.[1] Reflect on a problem that you are currently working on. How do you know that you have a wicked problem at hand? Put it to a test with the following checklist :
  • It is very hard to understand where to begin
  • It is very unique in nature
  • The solutions to one part of the problem will probably have an impact on other parts of the problem
  • It’s open-ended; we cannot arrive at a set number of solutions
  • There is no right or wrong solution; only better or worse

The above are just a few of the characteristics of a ‘wicked problem’. Some classic examples of wicked problems are as follows :

  • Reducing poverty
  • Controlling pollution
  • Improving literacy


Even in business, strategy, and design, we come across wicked problems which often share the characteristics highlighted above. Design Thinking is very useful when it comes to approaching wicked problems because it helps us to tackle unknown and ambiguous problems in a human-centric way. The iterative nature of design thinking allows us to generate many ideas in a brainstorming session and adopt a hands-on approach to prototyping and testing.

Sounds like too many words? We thought so. Let us test it with its applicability on the 4 scenarios we shared earlier.

  1. Setting up a new school in a village.

Would you use a Design Thinking approach to solve this problem?

A : Setting up a new school in a village is truly a wicked problem. The success would depend on a lot of interdependent factors, such as:

  • Major occupation and average income levels
  • Availability of qualified academic and non-academic staff
  • Availability of utilities such as clean drinking water, electricity, and so on
  • Distance of the village from the nearest major town
  • Willingness of the village’s residents to participate in the maintenance of the school
  • Alternate sources of financial assistance such as grants and donations

Without empathizing with the needs of the villagers and the prospective students, any solution would be short-sighted and would not have a lasting impact.

  1. An ultra-rich client wants to renovate her new villa.

A : If the client has very specific ideas for the renovation of her new villa – such as the use of a specific material, certain fixtures and furnishings, or certain designs, it would not help to use a Design Thinking approach. The problem may be complicated and the client may be demanding – but it does not fulfil the criteria of a wicked problem. Rather, the consultant here can use a set of industry best practices, understand this specific customer’s demands and deliver as per the requests. Of course, if the consultant chooses to cater to many such ultra-rich clients for business reasons, it would benefit from the use of a Design Thinking Approach to develop an optimized process that can maximize profits while ensuring enhanced customer satisfaction.

  1. Reducing the patient waiting time in a veterinary hospital.

A :  Consider the following interdependent factors in a veterinary hospital :

  • The types of animals being catered to, ranging from canine to exotic
  • Complex range of health issues and their related diagnosis and treatments
  • Emotions of the pet-parents bringing their animal companions to the hospital
  • Availability of the latest technology to treat complex veterinary issues
  • Considering the possibility of animal abuse
  • Dealing with emergency cases of rescued animals

All of these factors are sufficient for us to conclude that we have a wicked problem in hand. Any small change in one part of the operations/ process would have a multifold impact across. It would help to use a Design Thinking approach and start by deeply understanding the needs of the patients, pet-parents, and the hospital staff and then exploring various solutions and their impact on the waiting time and any other key metric tracked by the hospital.

  1. Improving the sensitivity of a wearable health device

A : While the problem here would have its technology-related challenges, it is not an open-ended problem. Design Thinking might not add much value because the outcome is predetermined and the solution will be arrived at by using largely an engineering-based approach. If, however, the manufacturer of the wearable device wants to find new applications for the device, that problem may benefit from a Design Thinking approach.

To summarize, choose to use a Design Thinking approach when the problem at hand is highly ambiguous, outcome is unknown and it ticks several conditions of a wicked problem. Where the human-centred and iterative approach of Design Thinking will help and the human-centred iterative focus on Design Thinking will help you arrive at more holistic solutions.

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