Taking on design thinking and business consulting

Two articles in the last few days took on the world of consulting.

Rebecca Ackermann in the MIT Technology Review wrote on how the shine of design thinking has worn off, even at IDEO (which declined to be interviewed for the article). In her long article, she criticized design consultancies that sell snazzy, time-constrained “design thinking” approaches where everyone can become a creative designer who can solve all kinds of challenges.

Henry Mance interviewed Mariana Mazzucato in the Financial Times on her new book The Big Con, where she lambasts business consultancies for having no expertise in the areas that they’re advising in, while increasingly carrying out core public sector functions, and preventing the development of in-house capabilities.

We at Experientia intentionally never positioned ourselves as a “design thinking” consultancy, as we found it – even at the beginning of its hype curve – to be a rather superficial approach to addressing complex problems. Over the years, the “design thinking” cycles have became ever more constrained, the research work ever more superficial, and the design work increasingly commoditized.

Instead, we have always prided ourselves on our human-centered design approach that helps companies and organizations to (re)design tools, services or even business strategies so that they are aligned with the actual behaviors and socio-cultural contexts of the people that will use them, and are relevant for their customers or users. That way companies and organizations avoid investing resources in tools, services or strategies that too few people engage with and will not expand to new groups of people.

This requires a professional, in-depth understanding of the context of the people that companies and organizations engage with: what they do, how they do it and when, what works well, where frictions occur, what they would like to do, etcetera.

Empathy is required, but definitely not enough. Nor is quick “touristy” observations. You have to get into people’s world, their place where they do the thing that you are interested in (their home, their office, their car, etc.). You have to map out their entire journey of their engagement with something and model the insights in a highly condensed high level format. This has to be conducted by staff that has a professional training in user research, anthropologists or people with a background in the humanities, who are knowledgeable about behavioral sciences, and who often work in collaboration with designers, and obviously with the client experts.

It also demands expertise in the industry field and business context that the company or organization is active in, as well as a humble collaborative approach with the organization’s internal experts through the creation of mixed consultant-client teams – an approach which could evolve of course into more structured partnerships.

Only by combining these two elements – the involvement of professional qualitative researchers and sector expertise strengthened by working with in-house experts – the consultancy will be able to develop real client value.

Companies and organizations have an excellent understanding of what it takes to implement a new (or redesigned) service, and what could block such implementation. They mostly don’t need consultants for that. What they do need support with is to make sure that these services are conceived to be relevant to their customers or users.

Update 13 Feb: see also this thoughtful Twitter thread by Jorge Camacho.