Why we should be removing ‘democracy’ from Design Thinking (and maybe Agile/Scrum processes too.)

Design Thinking circle-02

By Bob Glaser, UX designer

Design Thinking has been around for almost half a century. It has been used successfully for many of those years and yet, as it has gained significant momentum in the last decade, it has also been reformulated, varied, simplified, altered and ‘fixed’ by various purveyors. Many of these, for the purpose of repackaging and more importantly, reselling the concept as a training program or consultancy. Because of the breadth of design thinking, I’m assuming that the reader is already aware and likely in use of design thinking. Therefor, I will not go into a detailed description of design thinking.

One (of many) concepts that I have seen as a corrupting influence on outcomes is the input of democratic decision making into the process. Why is this corrupting (bad) to the success of the process. It is because it can have the effect of dismissing the very real positive outcomes of the process.


First, let us consider the process. For the sake of clarity, I’ll choose the Nielsen Norman Group’s descriptor of the process since it addresses it in an strightforward applicable way, rather than in a broadly conceptual way. (There are many other versions out there that are also suitable, including some of the original concepts which were well refined by Stanford School of Design which had simplified the original 7 steps to 5, but some are overly detailed for the purpose of this post, even though they are just as exposed to the democratic corruption.)

That process is simple in its semi-linear circular iterative process:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test
  6. Implement

The first 2 are the ‘Understand’ phase, 3-4 are the ‘Explore’ phase and finally 5-6 are the ‘Materialize’ phase.

Since the process combines the seemingly paradoxical pairings of logic with imagination, and systemic reasoning with intuition, it is susceptible to being adapted in a way that can defeat the purpose of the processes results through corruption.

When a group begins this process, they consider the user’s needs, the business’ resources/viability, and the technical feasibility/capabilities. They then follow the process and come up with potential solution(s).

The problem arises at this point.

This common error, is taking potential solutions and voting on them. The problem with this approach, is that it tends to cast the base concepts out the window in order to determine a solution. Sometimes the vote is determined by some constraints such as choosing low hanging fruit even though these are low on the priorities because of the fact that they are easiest to deal with. This is often followed by the idea of resource limitations that may be artificially imposed. This may be stated like this “We are only considering the solutions which can be accomplished in [time frame] (or some sort of similar artificially or arbitrary constraints. Then the group votes on solutions based on these constraints.

Since the purpose of this process is to determine the solutions that need to be addressed*, the results are corrupted by a democratic vote which dismisses the effective and hopefully innovative result. The use of intuition and imagination of the solution creation process is being carried into a realm concurrently with logic and empirical decision making. Design thinking is meant to use these empathetic concepts to help frame or reframe the problems and potential solutions with an approach that brings creativity to the process rather than just a methodical scientific method process alone, and thereby produces more innovative solutions. It should be noted that design thinking is simply one of many ways to help produce effective implementable solutions.

The vote may easily (or regularly) concatenate the solutions and therefore eliminate the best, ideal or most effective solutions from the standpoint of the user.

*Design Thinking is a solution perspective as opposed to the problem perspective of the scientific method.

How to deal with this democratic corruption?

This is fairly easy though often not popular because it requires a little extra effort. When the group is in the early stages of gathering information (Understanding phase) they should also be defining the requirements of acceptance. These requirements are what the solutions should be put into to filter the results that will be implemented. If one is determining the requirements of MVP (minimum viable product) then it should be easy to simply say that a solution is effective but not necessary for MVP while another solution is absolutely required for MVP. Then when it comes to the ones that may or may not make it, the same criteria are applied and instead of addressing the egos of the design thinking process participants (in the business/company), the results will address the needs of the users.

This is not a flawless approach, but it helps define requirements for solutions more effectively. If it doesn’t, then that lack of effectiveness becomes a solution issue for the next iterative round of the process.

I should note that this particular issue came to me in sprint planning meetings where what will be accomplished is not based on needs, but rather schedule first, then resources, then needs. In this scenario, “needs” are the first thing that gets dropped because it’s priority is wrongly demoted to last. Design thinking places it first, and if the democratic corruption doesn’t demote it, then it remains in the forefront where it should be.

I should also note that processes that are not user oriented (directly) can still be effectively addressed by design thinking by considering the indirect effects on people, of the process(es) being addressed.}


About rrglaser

Sr. UX Architect/director, with avocations in music, science & technology, fine arts & culture. Finding ways of connecting disparate ideas, facts, and concepts into solving problems. In the last 30 years, I have worked at (among others) various Ad agencies, Xerox, Pitney Bowes, Shortel, Philips (medical imaging R&D), CloudCar. I prefer to stand at the vertex of art, technology, culture and design since there is the where the best view of the future exists. "Always learning, since I can't apply what I haven't yet learned."
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