Experience is top of mind for companies across many verticals, and for good reason—user experience is expected to replace price and product as the key brand differentiator by next year. Delivering remarkable experiences requires thoughtful experience design (XD)—driven by a human-centric approach to solving problems.

When we talk about human-centric approach, we think about design thinking, that becomes more and more widely used. We talk about how we should create solutions with users in mind, talk about their thoughts and feelings, make empathy maps and put a lot of stickers on the wall – but we often exclude one the most important things, the actual user. Empathy should be built on real user experiences, pains and frustrations, not on our assumptions about them. DT is a great approach to find better, more effective and creative solutions to problems — but only when it’s done right. Problem-solving without having internal and external facts and perspectives will inevitably result in failure, regardless of how many stickers you will use on the way. Ensuring truly optimal experiences requires DT to be coupled with critical thinking and real research data. This means moving beyond the developer’s and designer’s perspective and experience to include first- and third-party data that provides an accurate picture of the customer mind.

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Critical thinking
Too often, DT is driven by the imaginations and biases of those empowered to solve a problem. This approach is counter to critical thought, which includes rational, skeptical, and unbiased evaluation of factual evidence.

Without unbiased, critical thought, DT is ineffectual—it becomes a design process where all ideas are good ones, and best intentions overshadow best practices. DT without real research data and critical thinking is exemplified in a 2010 international case study where a South African company sought to solve pervasive clean water issues for tribal villagers. 

Plight of the PlayPump
The would-be benefactors of potable water originated the concept of providing fresh water to women and children in Africa by way of a “merry-go-round” playground pump system. The PlayPump was designed to solve two problems: provide a vital water supply and offer a recreational experience for children. Initially, the idea was widely applauded and supported financially.

In hindsight, we know the PlayPump failed because proper consideration wasn’t given to the culture served. African children had no historical reference (or inclination) to push or jump onto a spinning wheel, or hold on until the momentum stopped. Additionally, using child’s play as a means of manual labor raised ethical questions. Consequently, fixtures went unused and, in many cases, villagers removed the PlayPumps in favor of the original water pumps that had been replaced.

This is a clear example of how design thinking—even driven by the best intentions—can and will fail when it is based on assumptions and one’s own experience without involving the individuals who will be using the solution and ensuring proper testing of the solution. All facts (cultural, environmental, and more) must be considered.

Take it one step further
Main stages of design thinking are well known: empathize, define, ideate, experiment, and evolve. There might be a different number of steps and different names, but the idea is simple – before you jump to a solution you need to understand who are you creating this solution for and what pains and challenges do they have, then you ideate with a cross-functional team that can provide wide ranges of perspectives, and finally you validate your solution by testing it with users. There is no question that critical thinking is used in the design thinking process. What must be ensured is that at each stage, critical thought is given outside of the context and focus of creating the solution from the developer’s and designer’s inherently limited perspective. Let’s look at how this applies to each of the five stages of DT.

By definition, empathy is the sharing of another person’s state of mind and emotions. Proper time and resources must be given to research, collecting all relevant data, and applying critical thinking to fully understand those who are to be served by a solution. If a team cannot relate to the customer’s state of mind, empathy is impossible. In the case of PlayPump, designers had compassion for thirsty villagers, but no understanding of their environment, cultural differences and day-to day life.

Insights collected during the empathize stage are applied to form a problem statement. All too often we start ideating a solution before we made sure that what is actually being solved is the right problem. We have to make sure that we address the root-cause of the problem, not just its symptoms. All too often this is also expressed from the company’s point of view, rather than the end-users’. Critical thought must be given to ensuring relevance and benefit to the customer first. With PlayPump, using children to manually pump water in a playful way may have been cost-effective (vs. solar-powered pumps for example), but failed to work as the children did not behave as expected. Ultimately PlayPump generated criticism due to its cultural and ethical insensitivity.

Critical thinking is vital at this stage to ensure out-of-the-box ideation that goes beyond new and creative ways to solve a problem. While the ideation stage is intended to be inspirational and collaborative, it is far too easy to become distracted in the process and lose sight of the empathic and well-defined vision. Once the idea of using playground equipment to pump water was agreed, it is likely the company focused on what type of play equipment was best suited—with no pause to consider the possible missteps prior to this stage of the design process.

Critical thinking is especially present during prototyping. It is easy to get blinded with one’s own solution and become over-protective trying to prove that solution is right, rather than actually validating if it really is. By including real users in testing and staying unbiased, team will achieve a more efficient and robust experimental process. Acceptance, improvements, and even rejections must be driven by user experiences to determine solution constraints and challenges. Clearly villagers were not included in the process to determine the PlayPump prototype’s efficacy.

This iterative process is driven by critical thinking. Failing fast and learning on experiment results is key to great solution. The experimenting stage redefines, informs, and drives changes and refinements. Here, critical thinking—based on perpetual learning—is applied to understand how end-users think, behave, and feel in order to (re)empathize and optimize the experience. Learnings drive the non-linear DT process back to defining problems to be solved.