XXII.5 September-October 2015
Page: 66
Digital Citation

Design thinking and UX: Two sides of the same coin

Dirk Knemeyer

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Over the past decade, design thinking has emerged as a boardroom buzzword promising innovation, quality, and the possibility of accelerating a progressive business agenda. At the same time, user experience (UX) has become a mission-critical consideration for companies in every industry, and of every shape and size. While many of the thought leaders in design thinking and UX overlap between the two communities, the impact of design thinking is often at a more strategic level on par with the so-called Big 5 business-consulting firms. Meanwhile, UX has struggled to gain a level of influence and respect peer to that of the product and development organizations with which it works. Not only are design thinking and UX not operating and being thought of similarly, they have precious little influence on each other. Given the desperate need for the impact of design thinking and better UX, how is this possible? And what can be done to create synergy and leverage between them?

back to top  Insights


While both design thinking and UX as we think of them today began in academia, they surfaced as first-order business concerns within a decade of each another. UX came first, cresting in an enduring way with Donald Norman's use of the term as part of his title, user experience architect, at Apple Computer in 1993. From there it took root in Silicon Valley and led to a revolution of design and UX during the 1990s. While it took some more time for the term to spread across the country and permeate businesses across industries, by the early 2000s the discipline was firmly entrenched in the better software companies in Silicon Valley.

Design thinking's impact came about a decade later, in the early 2000s, the rubric being strongly promoted as an outgrowth of IDEO's latest thought-leadership sally. Wrapped together with a broader "innovation" message, design thinking caught fire. Progressive and heady designers joined together with the new breed of liberal arts problem solvers, particularly ethnographers and anthropologists, to help design thinking spread like wildfire. Whereas UX developed systematically in the bubble of Silicon Valley, design thinking rode the trend of innovation and Web 2.0 to make its way into boardroom conversations straightaway.

On the surface, design thinking and UX have little in common. The former is management consulting for creatives, while the latter focuses on better products and services. Yet, take a closer look at them both, and they share quite a bit. While design thinking is popularly recognized as the combination of user observation, analytics, and synthesis thinking, in reality what defines it is the process, which looks suspiciously like that associated with UX (from Wikipedia):

  • Define
  • Research
  • Ideation
  • Prototype
  • Choose
  • Implement
  • Learn

The similarity in process betrays their shared roots. IDEO may not call itself UX, but the things it does often fall into the same problem spaces being dealt with by UX. In fact, Norman himself is currently a fellow at IDEO! Design thinking and UX are more modern, contextualized-in-technology versions of the same practice of the old modernist design gurus like Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Buckminster Fuller. The difference is they are splitting the strategic and open-ended from the tactical and bounded.

In fact, the modern design thinking community has deep roots in the UX community that preceded it. The Overlap Conference, the first explicit peer-to-peer design-thinking conference, was conceptualized and organized by UX thought leaders. UX and design thinking seem like two sides of the same coin; the first is the more tactical and build-oriented manifestation, whereas the latter is the more strategic and conceptual manifestation. That they are represented by wholly different terms that are generally not seen as being related perhaps contributes to the great discrepancy in how they both function in the professional environment.

back to top  Design Thinking in the Boardroom

Perhaps the greatest success achieved by design thinking to date is not its impact in actual application but the ease with which it was accepted into the boardroom. In a case of fortuitous timing—being the right thing, in the right place, at the right time—design thinking became the shorthand way of explaining the serial ability of Apple to massively innovate, create new product categories—and most important of all—create massive amounts of shareholder value during a meteoric stock rise in the mid-2000s. It also helped that design companies like IDEO and Frog Design, which were already trying to make inroads into management consulting and gain more C-level influence, were part of the early wave behind the concept. But it was not just those two venerable consultancies: Much of the design intelligentsia was latching onto design thinking as a way to explain and sell their higher-level strategic value, moving up from ink and pixels to a position of near-gurudom as the trend caught on.

It is surprising and unfortunate that design thinking—so strongly rooted in the actual doing of design and UX—has been largely de-yoked from its more tangible and productive origins.

To be sure, like its close cousin management consulting, design thinking has had an inconsistent track record in actual implementation. Big ideas, truly insightful ideas, often don't get past the stage of hand-waving, with the executive suite bobbing their heads in agreement. Sometimes implementation is a reality but the ideas and/or strategy are flawed and the impact is not what was hoped for. In addition, the reality is that there was only one Steve Jobs. The myth that design thinking as a new way of doing business could fulfill the dreams of so many CEOs around the world—"We want to be like Apple"—is ultimately exposed as just that: a myth. There is a reason why Apple was special in its first decade in business, as well as through the first decade of the 21st century: It benefitted from a unique visionary. No amount of creative methods and design process can replicate that.

Of course, design thinking has also had many successes, such as at GE and P&G over the past decade, ranging from full implementation plans that created important innovations to teaching new creative skills and ways of thinking to executive teams, making them individually and collectively more effective. The bottom line is that design thinking quickly gained and later maintained boardroom acceptance, even as the impacts from its deployment proved on balance to be no more effective than other comparable investments, such as more traditional management consulting.


back to top  UX in the Trenches

Whereas design thinking made its way directly to the C-suite, UX often came into companies via the sewer, scratching and clawing for every inch. Initially debuting in software and hardware contexts where engineers and other team members had done the work via intuition, particularly in the early days UX had to fight for space, respect, and budget. Non-technology companies were often introduced to UX via the marketing or IT department as a new and progressive way to make better websites. This subjected UX to an entirely different brand of turf warfare. Regardless of the origin story, today UX is acknowledged and accepted within companies of all sizes and stripes, having impact across the product, service, and marketing organizations to varying degrees.

Now don't let that fool you into thinking UX has climbed out the other end and assumed a place of full respect comparable to that of engineering, or service, or marketing. Far from it. UX remains shunned, with limited C-level presence and typically no centralization of effort despite having presence across a company, and a much more difficult time securing budget compared with engineering, marketing, and other more traditional and established departments.

There is a cognitive bias called anchoring. Long used as a negotiating technique by the savvy, it is better understood in the science of human expectations. Anchoring taps into the power of first impressions and is a big reason why UX continues to struggle for respect and place. According to anchoring theory, because UX entered into the picture as an upstart that was slow to get traction, it will be exceedingly difficult for it to be seen as, for example, highly strategic consideration at the board level. It's nothing against UX—the human mind just works that way, biased to classify things at or around how they are first presented to them.

back to top  Bringing the Ends Together

Putting on my—let's just call it design—hat, it seems clear the best thing that could happen for everyone involved would be to synthesize design thinking and UX into one thing. In the process, UX could influence design thinking by putting significant creationary resources at the disposal of the big picture thinking and C-suite initiatives. Design thinking could serve as an elevator for UX, helping it to attain a true peer relationship with other functional areas within a company while giving it a channel into top-level strategic decisions.

Of course, it's easy to say what should happen; it is another matter to actually do it. Going back to the concept of anchoring, it is unlikely that a field called user experience will ever be recognized as a top-level strategic consideration. Besides, the branding experts who came up with the phrase weren't doing themselves any favors: UX does not lend itself to being a peer with, say, strategy or finance. To avoid inventing a new phrase, I propose we go back to the future with a classic: design. Already safely accepted in the C-suite via design thinking, design also has a 100-year tradition of thought leadership and the creation of magical things going for it. Now, assuming we're going into this effort as design, here are some specific suggestions.

Top-down approaches:

  • Federate UX, along with other design-related instantiations elsewhere in the organization, into one central design organization. Depending on your org chart and company culture, this could be highly centralized or just loosely joined. The important thing is that they are all seen as part of the same thing that...
  • ...has explicit representation on the organization's C-level. Establish a chief design officer with someone from a UX background. This is perhaps the crucial step. If there is no C-level presence, there is unlikely to be the opportunity to create the galvanizing effects of design thinking benefitting from tighter integration into the deeper organization, or up-leveling the on-the-ground execution from a crisper view into the strategic leadership.
  • Orient UX as a peer within the areas in which it operates, such as being a peer to engineering within product development. Too often in companies, UX falls within those budgets and authorities and thus naturally gets second best. Part of up-leveling UX specifically and design in general is putting it on equal footing with technology.

Bottom-up approaches:

  • C-level design influence, such as the sort of design thinking consulting we think about today, should inherently and explicitly require tendrils into the broader design organization to include UX. Along with reinforcing UX as a higher level concern, it enables the more theoretical work to benefit from the "getting it done" inherent in applied UX.
  • UXers should proactively demonstrate more strategic and big-picture thinking within their narrow contexts of function. Good companies enable the best ideas to surface, particularly if they are truly linked to the business objectives. Stretching yourself to think and work at a broader and more influential level can show the organization the greater potential that you and UX have to offer.
  • UXers should work on making cool stuff. Engineers have done a great job with this in the era of Arduino and Raspberry Pi. One of the most powerful things about design is making something new and inspiring where before nothing at all existed. Tinker with the latest and greatest; show the degree to which you and UX can affect a wider strategic set of concerns.

back to top  The Future is Ours to Make

It is an unfortunate fact of history that UX emerged in a way that categorized it as something that is typically "doing based" and provides service to other better-funded concerns. Similarly, it is surprising and unfortunate that design thinking—so strongly rooted in the actual doing of design and UX—has been largely de-yoked from its more tangible and productive origins, left to operate as a more temporal concern as likely to disappoint as to make substantial change. By reframing the situation and bringing the two ends together in the middle, we have the potential to make powerful and meaningful change within the organizations that employ us while expanding our own reach and potential in highly productive and synergistic ways. Indeed, it is the very essence of the left-brain-meets-right-brain thinking that catapulted design thinking into the boardroom to begin with.

back to top  Author

Dirk Knemeyer is a social futurist working on solutions for large-scale social problems. He is also a founder and current chairman of UX consultancy Involution Studios and a board member at Rosenfeld Media. He has given presentations at TEDx conferences and the Humanity+ event, along with more than 50 UX and design events. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

@Andreas (2015 11 14)

Thank you Dirk for the idea of bringing UX and design thinking together. But it would be helpful if you defined the term “user experience”. Because actually I see no big difference between user experience design/interaction design/user centered design and design thinking apart from the environment where it is used: design thinking for management, user experience for products. See also this talk by Dan Saffer:

@Jamal Nichols (2016 07 22)

I really enjoyed your breakdown of the differences between design thinking and UX, and how cognitive biases and branding led to UX having such a hard time being accepted to have equal footing. It echoes perfectly my experience after working in the industry since 2005.

I think we should drop UX completely and rebrand ourselves in a different way.