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Posted by: on Jun 28, 2016 | No Comments
Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments
By Stefanie Di Russo

I became aware of Stefanie Di Russo’s dissertation project through a Twitter conversation with some UX professionals. When the dissertation finally became available in early 2016, I downloaded it and read it when I had a chance—and now it’s the middle of 2016 and I’m finally able to review it.

The dissertation asks: how effective is Design Thinking for complex environments? As a design approach, DT has been portrayed as a way to approach wicked problems. Di Russo sought to (a) examine the history and development of DT, (b) conduct empirical work on DT in complex environments in order to generate new evidence; and (c) “explain the underlying mechanisms that enable emergent behaviors to occur in the design process, contributing knowledge and understanding on how to apply design thinking in complex environments.”

The result is really interesting.

Di Russo examines DT from the perspective of critical realism, which “accepts a view of reality that is stratified, generating knowledge through causal analysis”; generates knowledge “by stratifying levels of reality, to ‘dig’ through observable and unobservable events in order to uncover underlying causal mechanisms that influence and affect the object of phenomena”; and “uncover[s] causal mechanisms that allow for explanatory analysis.” This work is done through grounded theory methodology (p.6).

That work begins with the literature review, in which Di Russo traces key moments in design theory as well as the development of DT. This literature review itself is a significant accomplishment, laying out generations of design theory from the 1960s on—and exploring the disagreements and tensions in this field. Participatory design, service design, and human-centered design are briefly discussed as precursors to DT. DT is broken down into commonly discussed characteristics, along with cites to precursors for each characteristic (pp.39-40). Di Russo then synthesizes a typology of DT, striated into large-scale systems, systems and behavior, artifact and experience, and artifact (p.42).

Di Russo notes that DT’s definition has been ambiguous: “Ironically, when attempting to describe the designerly approach, the definition of design thinking becomes a wicked problem in itself, where answers seeking to describe the process, mindset and practice can only ‘satisfy’ rather than definitively resolve” (p.44). But “Design thinking and its core characteristics; multidisciplinary, iterative, rapid prototyping, human-centered, collaborative, visual and divergent thinking, are now seen as suitable for working with problems where the future is tangled and uncertain” (p.50).

But is it? Di Russo notes: “One of the fundamental weaknesses in the publicity that surrounds design thinking today is the lack of evidence supporting claims of its effectiveness” (p.55). Now that she has described DT’s characteristics through the literature review, she can undertake generating such evidence. Her main research question is: “What is the behavior of design thinking in complex environments?” (p.57).

In Chapter 3, Di Russo discusses her research framework, critical realism. I’ll briefly note that it is focused on relationships and (here) explored through grounded theory. Specifically, Di Russo conducted three case studies of DT in complex environments, including participant observation, semistructured interviews, and archival evidence. These data were then coded in Nvivo and clustered in Mural.ly. Data were then explored through constant comparison and triangulated.

Each case study is addressed in a separate chapter: a service design agency doing pro bono work (Chapter 4); the Australian Taxation Office (Chapter 5); and a decentralized open source platform, OpenIDEO (Chapter 6). Di Russo conducts a cross-comparison analysis across the three cases (Chapter 7), finding commonalities: ambiguity and uncertainty; large stakeholder and community networks; and a focus on intangible solutions. Yet themes from Case 3 (the open source platform) were inconsistent with those of the other two cases. Using Case 3 as a benchmark, then, Di Russo compares Case 1 and 2, generating several other commonalities (illustrated throughout with data from the cases). She notes pros and cons of DT for these cases, and adds:
this chapter concludes that design thinking operating externally to the project ecosystem and remotely in an open-source online environment has significant negative effects on the design thinking process. Thus, design thinking may be not readily or successfully translated to a remote online environment in order to design in and for complex environments. (p.253)

Chapter 8 reviews the characteristics of DT and the evidence that Di Russo has collected to support them. She then focuses on the question of implementation: “Many of the most common design thinking models have no implementation phase included as part of the process” (p.269).

Finally, Chapter 9 concludes in a very dissertationly way:
This dissertation is useful for design researchers, practitioners and students of design thinking for it solidifies a clear history and definition of design thinking, highlights potential behaviours unique to third and fourth order design practice, and guides knowledge on how to manage, research and apply design thinking in complex environments.

The dissertation is a solid piece of work, providing DT a more solid, systematic foundation than I’ve seen in other DT literature. And it methodically describes how to advance DT further. If you’re interested in DT or other design methodologies, check it out.