When writing an article about Design Thinking, I hit on the question of how Design Thinking differs from other design disciplines, such as interaction design and my own domain, UI design (which regrettably and confusingly comes in many guises and has many names). Initially, I had planned to publish my thoughts and observations spurred by the question at the end of my article. But this would have made an already long article even longer. Not only for this reason but also to keep the more personal style of discussion, it is probably more appropriate to offer my thoughts and observations in the form of a UI Design Blink. I will start it with a prelude contrasting two somewhat oversimplified “archetypes” of interaction design and UI design.

Prelude: UI Design Versus Interaction Design

In several articles (see, for example, here), I have discussed the different kinds of designers. I have observed that many interaction designers still adhere to the model of the “genius designer” or “artist designer” and do not follow, or even reject, a user-centered design approach. A “prototypical” interaction designer might teach and work at an art school or university and, together with students, build exploratory artifacts that are meant to provoke or enlighten users and to stimulate critical thought. Designers of user interfaces for software (UI designers, for short) on the other hand, have a strongly user-centered point of view. They feel and act as user advocates, and often follow a research-oriented approach in their work. User and task constraints are not the only constraints on their designs. On the one hand, international norms and UI guidelines, which are different for each platform and application, and at each company, limit their “creativity” severely. On the other hand, their designs are also confined to the options that the underlying technical platform makes available. All this makes me feel that working as a UI designer lies somewhere in the middle of a continuum between art (or design in the sense mentioned above) and science, specifically in the realms of craft or engineering, and leading to a mindset that definitely differs from that of a “real” designer. *) Please note that some of the people who I would call UI designers call themselves interaction designers. In the end, everything is some sort of interaction design: In the case of the UI designers that I speak of, it is human-computer interaction (or computer-human interaction), while in the case of the “general” interaction designers it can be any kind of interaction between humans and designed artifacts.

Design Thinking Versus Other Design Approaches

Design Thinking brings the “designerly ways of working” from the world of design into the business world, and, as a general problem-solving approach, even to “any of life’s situations.” However, it differs from other design approaches by being user-centered and empirically-oriented: Design Thinkers observe users and their physical environments, confront them with prototypes, and feed the outcomes of their experiences back into the design. “Genius designers” would never do this; instead, they would confront or even provoke people directly with their designs. Some designers “throw” their designs at people and observe how they engage with the designs – they get empirical only “after the fact”. Thus, Design Thinking seems to build a bridge between more “designerly ways of working” and more “user-oriented ways of working”. Now, a natural question would be, “But what the heck is the difference between Design Thinking and UI design (or its siblings User Experience (UX) and User-Centered Design (UCD)) – aren’t both user-centered?”

Design Thinking Versus UX/UCD

Many people do equate Design Thinking with User Experience or User-Centered Design. This is, in my view, an oversimplification. In some ways, Design Thinking is much broader in scope than UI design, which in the end is a highly specialized design discipline, yet in others it is much narrower in scope. By “broader in scope” I mean that Design Thinking is a general problem-solving methodology, which is particularly suited to generating a large number of new ideas. It can rightfully be regarded as a creativity method and as an approach to spurring innovation. Being a general problem-solving methodology, Design Thinking can not only be applied to the design domain itself, but also to any problem, particularly if it is ill-defined. By “narrower in scope” I mean that Design Thinking by primarily being a creativity method cannot cover the wealth of methods and tools that UX/UCD has to offer in the course of the software development process. UX/UCD is based on the research discipline Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), which looks back at a history of developing empirical, user-oriented methods of more than 25 years. The methods used in UX/UCD form a mix of more scientifically-oriented tools and “best practices” that practitioners have developed in the field. Among these are tools that allow you to measure the ease of use and other characteristics of applications quantitatively and qualitatively. KPI studies, for example, provide reliable and reproducible numerical results that can be generalized over a wide range of software applications and also allow you to track improvements over time. Design Thinking methods, on the other hand, focus on spurring creativity and supporting experimentation, and not so much on providing “hard” results. But because Design Thinking is user-orientated, there is a natural overlap with UX/UCD methods, particularly early on in the design process when the problem is defined and later when ideas, that is, potential solutions, are tested by users (see also my article on Design Thinking for a side-by-side list of methods). This simple difference gives you some idea of the broader scope of UX/UCD: Several years of university study are required if you want to take up a UI-design-related profession, while Design Thinkers are trained in courses ranging from one day to one semester. One might say that the first is a profession, while the latter is a “mindset” – an important one, I would like to add. Finally, while there is some overlap in UCD and Design Thinking methods, UX people approach the same problem very differently from designers: UCD people appear to be more serious, are method-oriented, and analytical, and are often perceived as the “design police” who spot design and guideline errors, while Design Thinking people are more playful and experimental, and highlight the “creative” aspects when looking for ideas – and in the end solutions.

Outlook

In the recent past, some designers have bemoaned the limitations of traditional HCI methods. The Internet and mobile devices have created new usage contexts, where “users” no longer seem to have goals or perform tasks (Janet H. Murray therefore speaks of “interactors”). Designers have to “go out into the wilds” to understand these contexts, but the methods currently available no longer fit. A more playful, creativity- and artifact-oriented approach like Design Thinking may come to the rescue and offer methods that are more appropriate in such “wild” contexts.

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