Design Thinking vs the Logic of Scientific Inquiry

At the outset it is worth noting that both Design Thinking (DT) and the Logic of Scientific Inquiry (LOSI) are frameworks and open to interpretation. This means that when comparing them we need to pick a particular conception of what they represent, possibly a ‘typical’ process, to the extent of course, that that’s possible. The other point of note is that, other that certain very specific tools or techniques, e.g. for generating ideas, DT attempts to be completely self-sufficient. LOSI, however, at least in the organisational context, needs to be operationalised using an implementation approach such as Action Research. So in this comparison we consider DT against LOSI/AR, i.e. the conceptual LOSI, operationalised using AR.

Let’s start with the motivation for an engagement that requires DT or LOSI/AR. Both DT and LOSI/AR are intended to address practical issues in organisations. While there is no reason for either framework to be used in any situation, DT appears to have been used more for meeting an unmet customer need, whereas LOSI/AR appears to have been used more to address issues within the organisation. Further, the trigger for LOIS/AR is more than just the issue; it is also a sense that something remians to be explained – Peirce’s ‘irritation of doubt’. This is important, as we shall soon see.

The first step with both DT and LOSI/AR in addressing the issue is an exploration of the problem. For the group using DT this could be direct feedback from the stakeholders or observation. A typical technique is to ‘walk a mile’ in the stakeholders shoes, to simulate the stakeholder’s journey. There is a reason why DT requires this. The DT group typically doesn’t include the stakeholder. With LOSI/AR there is no separation. The LOSI/AR group are the stakeholders. Another difference is that for the group using LOSI/AR this step involves the development of a conceptual framework that can be used to explain why the issue has come to be and refused thus far to go away. There is also an explicit requirement with LOSI/AR for the group to surface and question unarticulated assumptions and include diverse perspectives as a way to manage cognitive constraints.

Once the gap has been identified, the DT and LOSI/AR groups take different paths to come up with an intervention. The DT group uses a variety of brainstorming techniques to come up with a set of features that a minimally viable product (MVP) must have. This step can involve the generation and refining, and possibly rejection, of a number of ideas, till the group agrees about the features of the MVP. The LOSI/AR group, taking a more ‘rigorous’ approach, starts this step with the articulation of a hypothesis to the best explanation, a plausible explanation for the situation based on the conceptual framework. Then follows a process similar to DT in the generation and evaluation of a range of interventions. However, the evaluation is specifically based on the hypothesis to the best explanation and what the group predicts will be the outcomes of the interventions, again based on the conceptual framework.

Once the MVP has been specified, the DT group produces the prototype and makes it available to the customer, who then starts interacting with it. While this is happening the DT group observes the customer interacting with the MVP or seeks their feedback. The LOSI/AR group implements the intervention whereupon the organisational environment begins to change in response. Like the DT group, the LOSI/AR group also makes and records observations. So this step is roughly comparable.

What happens next in the two groups is again a little different. The DT group takes the observations and stakeholder feedback to come up another version of the prototype for the next cycle of testing by the customer or stakeholder. The LOSI/AR group engages in a formal process of reflection, incorporating double- and triple-loop learning, to make adjustments to the conceptual framework. The group then comes up with an adjusted hypothesis to the best explanation and goes through the steps of coming up with alternative interventions and picking the most appropriate one based on predicted outcomes.

Both the DT and LOSI/AR groups repeat these cycles till the issue is addressed or the stakeholder need is met. In this respect the two approaches are similar in that neither expects the stakeholder to be completely satisfied or the issue to be completely resolved. All that is required is the gap or issue is reduced to an acceptable level.

We can now look at the differences between the approaches. One difference, as we have noted is that with LOSI/AR there is no separation between the agents and the stakeholders. They are both part of the group. There is however, a much important difference.

DT doesn’t require an explanation for the gap or issue, the group simply goes ahead and develops the prototype. The advantage is that this is a simpler approach, but when closer examination reveals a weakness. Since there is no effort to develop a conceptual framework, it is difficult to take the learning from one DT project to another, unless the situations are very similar. This is a problem because, as we have seen before, it is very unlikely that we find two identical situations. If there is any difference between the situations we are then again faced with the ‘butterfly in the Amazon’ problem, i.e. where do we draw the boundary between salience and irrelevance? With LOSI/AR there is an explicit need to resolve the ‘irritation of doubt’, to develop a conceptual framework that explains the issue. When the issue is resolved, that explanation can then be taken to another situation to inform the development there of the hypothesis to the best explanation.

Some personal reflection is in order here! I am much more familiar with LOSI/AR than with DT and so it is possible that in my comparison I have done DT an injustice. I am looking forward to hearing what you think…

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