Design Thinking Is Not Design

Hi guys, what’s up? Let’s talk Design Thinking. Sure, you’ve been thinking about it, so let’s put two other words on the table at the get-go. Here :

Products and Systems

Hey, I’ll put another word on the table for later. That’s Homo-Faber; but I’ll come back to that.

Thing 1: Products. That’s something that private enterprise specialises in. Things they think a “market” might want, need or value. They often use advertising to make potential customers want, or perhaps even “need”, some stuff that they will give good money (or borrowed money if needed) to get. There’s competitors in the mix, and they might be quick players: hard to beat. People’s feeling are involved, current trends and fashions. Producers try to get close to customers to “understand” what they are thinking. Product designers think that they can get into the minds of their buyers (it all revolves around selling stuff or else there’s no profit in it). A huge number of forces come into play, to speculate, innovate, persuade, sell and profit. That’s a very simple description of product development, but it’s all about profit. No profits is a really big problem for business, mainly because it’s fatal. No profits certainly means that the commercial activity is a failure, and you’re out of a job.

Thing 2: Systems. That’s something that all organisations do. Without systems things occur in an uncontrolled way, like the weather. Controlling events is essential to achieving predictable outcomes. Systems have obvious qualities such as inputs, processes, outputs, feedback loops and metrics. There’s a whole field out there called systems design and control, that’s been growing for several decades, but this has probably been an essential aspect of the evolution of Homo Faber. There’s that word. Why is there?

Homo Faber is Latin for “Man the Maker”: the concept of humans being able to control their fate and their environment through tools. In Latin literature this refers to the ability of man (that means all people of course) to control his destiny and what surrounds him: “Every man is the artifex of his destiny” (Homo faber suae quisque fortunae). Sounds weird sure, but Henri Bergson nailed it as the “faculty to create artificial objects, in particular tools to make tools …” We make stuff, and stuff that makes stuff. Products and systems. Head back to Thing 2 – systems.

Yes, systems may be products but it’s clear that the variables are seriously different. Products have customers, markets and produce money. Systems have users, processes and produce functions. We create products for other people (so that they will get personal value and give us money). We create systems (tools) for ourselves to get jobs done, make us more efficient (with less effort and smaller inputs) and effective, which means we create better outputs.

So here’s the Digital KoolAid. A bunch of self-styled geeks and ninjas, who are really public servants, have messed up the two words. In fact they stopped thinking there were two words. How’s that old saying : “to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail”. To a ninja geek everything looks like a product. Sure, everything in a “start-up” might look like an alpha, or a beta, or an iteration or a sprint. But government isn’t a start-up. That’s just Start-Up KoolAid in the public sector.  And the public sector doesn’t make products. It makes systems. It uses those systems to provide services. The people who receive the services are generally citizens (sure, it’s never 100 %simple). Citizens generally pay for services through the tax system. They never buy the system, but they sort of own it collectively, through the state that employs the public servants who provide the services using the systems …. Hey, you got it.

So the language of products is like, totally wrong when you put to into the public sector. There aren’t any customers. There is no market. There are no competitors. There are no products. There is no space for alphas, betas, iterations and all that Start-Up KoolAid. It’s just completely out of place. Government isn’t a start-up. It’s a system builder. It’s a system user and owner. It builds “stuff that matters” (Yo! geeks) that it uses to serve the public. That’s like, “public service”. Know what I mean?

Sure, there’s been a long struggle to get rid of public servants who actually do things for citizens, and force you to “self-serve”. That’s a whole other story (Maybe “Government as a Self-Service”).

So now you have it. Products and Systems. Similar – different – not the same language. Public Service and Private Business – different objectives – not the same words. Start-Ups and Government – hey! – different galaxies It’s about dumping the Digital KoolAid and building systems to serve the citizens who own them.


design thinking

Here’s a few words from an interesting blog on Design Thinking. read the rest here

Designer Peter Merholz of Bay Area firm Adaptive Path wrote scornfully: “Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation.” He didn’t mean this as a compliment. Instead, his point was that those extolling the virtues of design thinking are at best misguided, at worst likely to inflict dangerous harm on the company at large, over-promising and under-delivering and in the process screwing up the delicate business of design itself.

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