Thursday, July 12, 2018

Design Thinking is Hard on the Brain

In a new article published in Research-Technology Management (When Cognition Interferes with Innnovation:  Overcoming Cognitive Obstalces to Design Thinking), my colleague Allison Butler and I offer one plausible explanation for why many individuals struggle with the design thinking process. We argue that design thinking is "hard on the brain."   In developing our argument, we draw upon six years of work in curriculum design, teaching, and research on design thinking - including the creation and execution of Bryant University's IDEA program (an intense, three-day design thinking experience that all 850+ first-year students undertake each year).   

We believe that all individuals have the capacity to be creative, yet we often think, reason, and process information in ways that hinder our ability to innovate. Our brains are wired to operate as efficiently as possible, which is ideal for making our way in the world in daily life, but an impediment to successful design thinking.  The article examines the cognitive obstacles at each stage of the design thinking process, and we offer strategies for overcoming these impediments.  

For instance, we describe how our tendency to engage in top down processing when we observe a situation can cause us to miss important details about user behavior.   Moreover, we explain how inattentional blindness and confirmation bias afflict many people trying to conduct field research and empathize with users.  During the ideation stage of the design thinking process, fixation becomes a significant problem.  People get stuck on ideas within a particular category during the brainstorming process, and they fail to generate a sufficiently diverse range of concepts and solutions.   Finally, during the prototyping and testing stage, a number of cognitive obstacles impede our ability to learn, adapt, and iterate effectively.  For instance, our tendency to rationalize our own failures as due to external circumstances rather than internal causes (the fundamental attribution error) prevents us from using feedback effectively to iterate and improve our solution.   Similarly, the sunk cost effect means that we often find ourselves throwing good money and effort after bad, rather than abandoning solutions that receive negative user feedback. 

How do individuals overcome these obstacles?   That's the key contribution of our article.  Based on our work with many students and practitioners, we describe countermeasures to address these cognitive obstacles.  The article offers a number of such strategies.  One of my favorite is the notion of engaging in parallel rather than serial prototyping.  We draw upon research that shows how parallel prototyping can help people avoid fixation and premature convergence on one type of solution, and it can help individuals receive and utilize user feedback more effectively.   For an in-depth explanation of each our countermeasures, I hope you will take a look at the article.  

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