Design Thinking versus Business Architecture and Process Improvement

Design Thinking, according to this MIT course, is a powerful process of problem solving that begins with understanding unmet customer needs”.

According to the Interaction Design Foundation Design Thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it”.

So, the promoters of Design Thinking essentially say that Design Thinking is a creative process that leads to innovative solutions.

But what is “Creative Thinking then? Creative people have the ability to devise new ways to carry out tasks, solve problems and meet challenges”.

Design Thinking seems to be perhaps a narrower case of Creative Thinking. Since creativity is highly prized, they all offer us courses on creativity and Design Thinking… today.

IDEO, a pioneer in Design Thinking, further states that Design Thinking utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence”.

Comments are worth here. There is nothing new about employing empathy (i.e. putting yourself in the customer’s shoes to feel the world in the same way) and experimenting. Problem solving and development activities already do that implicitly.

The fact that IDEO’s Design Thinking dismisses lightly historical data and instinct (the word they would probably want to use is intuition) seems off to me. After all, by ignoring historical data and intuition we effectively discard the past experience and our built in cognitive process, i.e. intuition.

Design Thinking claims to arrive at “innovative solutions”. But, since innovation means in Oxford’s definition, “a new method, idea, product” this may not always be the case, the aim or even a requirement because nobody can guarantee innovation.

The fact that DT “draws form the designer’s toolkit” means little as well, since any profession should “draw” from its own toolkit or method. Anyway, what is this Design toolkit composed of? There is indeed a Design Thinking process that generally emphasizes empathizing with the users, ideating around the problem, prototyping and experimenting with solutions. But we all do that anyway when solving a problem or developing a thing.

Yet, since approaches such as empathy, problem solving, prototyping, experimenting are quite common for a development process, they are not adding much value to the Design Thinking definition.

What is left of the Design Thinking then?

Let’s look at the Design Thinking name alone. It sounds like applying the Design methods to a business development. But that does not say much because what is Design Thinking , apart from this common process? Design Principles?

In Art & Design, there is a variable and a debatable number of Design Principles. But they are only remotely connected to Design Thinking since Design principles were defined mostly as: “line, shape, color, value, texture, form, and space”.

Besides, where was the “Design” paradigm adopted from, IT development process and Architecture, art, or possibly, industrial or product design?

Industrial design (ID) is the professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer. From

Since in practice Design Thinking is applied for the optimisation of a business flow and its interfaces taking into account the human factors and indeed the business aims, Industrial Design seems to offer a closer to home definition so far.

And last, but not least, Ergonomics is the discipline that looks pretty much the same as the Design Thinking of Today. However, surprisingly, Ergonomics is not mentioned often or at all in the Design Thinking literature I perused. Perhaps because Design Thinking pretends to be the creative side of a solution development process while Ergonomics is declared and is a scientific discipline.

Yet, check out this good definition of Ergonomics:

“Human factors and ergonomics is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the design of products, processes, and systems. Wikipedia“.

“Human factors and ergonomics (commonly referred to as human factors) is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the (engineering and) design of products, processes, and systems. The goal of human factors is to reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety and comfort with a specific focus on the interaction between the human and the thing of interest…

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design to optimize human well-being and overall system performance”.

Design Thinking in fact appears like a revival of the Ergonomics discipline in this era of automation and digital progress, because, Design Thinking is a way to design and improve processes by considering human behavior and expectations.

However, since Design Thinking is a Business Process optimization activity after all, it becomes an element of BPM. But even if Design Thinkers consult the business specialists, the DT practitioners are not trained in Business Process Management modelling and languages or in more precise disciplines like (Lean) Six Sigma quality procedures that use statistics. Six Sigma: is a disciplined, statistical-based, data-driven approach and continuous improvement methodology for eliminating defects in a product, process or service. … Once the current performance of the process is measured, the goal is to continually improve the sigma level striving towards 6 sigma“.

The Design Thinking practitioners focus only on the customer oriented processes and human factors rather than the statistical optimization of the manufacturing or production processes.

“Design” as a phase in a capability development process

There is also the interpretation of Design as a phase that follows the architecture phase In a new capability or product development process. In Zachman’s, for instance, the system architecture model (logical) is followed by the technology design model (system design some would say physical). See

Since both Business Architecture and Design Thinking have rather vague and wide-ranging definitions, it is hard to think they have having nothing in common. Yet, at first blush, it is hard to find anything in common between them.

We have to look through the thick cloud of fuzziness to find the relationship, if any.

Design Thinking addresses business process improvement from a human factor point of view rather than modelling the enterprise in a blueprint format.

Still, Design Thinking utilizes neither system, software design methods and languages such as IDEF, BPML, OOD, structured design, the good TOGAF… nor Architecture Principles, Design Thinking. Hence Design Thinking is nothing like Business and/or Enterprise Architecture.

After all, architecture is defined as the structure of a system and its diagrammatical description.

But when “architecture “is used to denote an architectural style it might come closer to the meaning of Design in some cases.

In the end, Design Thinking is not seen as part of an Enterprise or Business Architecture development process such as Zachman’s Design row.

In conclusion

It seems that Design Thinking, no matter how much we argue, is Ergonomics applied to business flows optimization and has nothing to do with Enterprise or Business Architecture.

But Design Thinking does not include ergonomic methodology even if it is looking at a process from a human factors point of view.

But after checking this paper out:

“Design Thinking is… the concept that one can apply the kind of thinking designers employ when solving problems to business related or work system optimization. Instead of ordinary decision-making methods, designers resource to iterative processes. This translates into nonlinear reasoning and creative thinking. Thus, according to Design Thinking theory, we can apply innovative schemes and creative actions in the course of carrying out any kind of project, or even business venues…”.

I conclude that Design Thinking is an enterprise problem solving approach that aims to apply a (Product, Industrial…) Design process (empathy with customer, prototyping, experimenting, iterations…) to enterprise customer processes. In short, DTers do Process Design the same way they would do Product Design.

Yet, the Design Thinking “techniques” are hard to quantify. If Design Thinking does not offer a framework to guarantees results, can you trust them with an endeavour? A common process alone does not ensure results. After all, Design Thinking comes closer to Art than Science. Design, like art can be taught to a certain extent, but the act of Design depends almost completely on the individual creating it. Design Thinking addresses innovation, creativity everyone in today’s world regards as a differentiator, but can we really talk about a Designer Enterprise as we talk about Designer Jeans? Perhaps Design Thinking needs a more solid basis in Ergonomics and BPM techniques to employ standard languages and diagrams for modelling and measuring processes.

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Adrian Grigoriu

Adrian Grigoriu

Adrian Grigoriu is an executive consultant in enterprise architecture residing now in Sydney, Australia, former head of enterprise architecture at Ofcom, the spectrum and broadcasting U.K. regulatory agency and chief architect at TM Forum, an organization providing a reference integrated business architecture framework, best practices and standards for the telecommunications and digital media industries. He also was a high technology, enterprise architecture and strategy senior manager at Accenture and Vodafone, and a principal consultant and lead architect at Qantas, Logica, Lucent Bell Labs and Nokia. He is the author of a few books on enterprise architecture development available on Amazon and published quite a few articles. Read Adrian’s blog here.
Adrian Grigoriu

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2 responses to “Design Thinking versus Business Architecture and Process Improvement”

  1. Dale Brethower and I made similar points in our recent PIJ article.

  2. There is a wonderful series on Netflix called ABSTRACT that examines Design in a multitude of fields. I think that in the arena that you are looking at – BPM, IT Architecture, et al., the focus starts with UX design and then runs it down to business process design, systems design, data design, network design… IMHO

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