Design Thinking & Enterprise Architecture - Introduction

What can enterprise architects learn from design thinking?

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There are a variety of topics that are seeing a surge of interest in the Enterprise Architecture community at the moment, and at least two of them have a direct synergy. First, you have business transformation (and its variant, digital transformation) and the role that enterprise architecture could or should play in it. Second, there’s been some interesting talk over the past couple of years about what the crossover might be between design thinking and enterprise architecture. Debating an answer to the second has the potential at the very least to assist with the first.

So, as someone who has had personal experience with design thinking and enterprise architecture for the next few posts that I write here will explore the very real question of what enterprise architects, and architects in general, can learn from design thinking.

Let’s start by defining what design thinking is, although like enterprise architecture, it’s a term that doesn’t have a universally agreed definition. Oh alright, let’s start by going to the Wikipedia page – “Design thinking is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result.” I would say this definition misses one point – in every incarnation where I’ve encountered it, the solution created is something that a private actor could do – a service or product, free, or paid. Although, governmental entities can use it, the same as government-owned companies exist, and in fact government has been a significant user of design thinking.

There’s a variety of specialist design thinking consultancies out there, and of course the larger consultancies have started taking an interest in it. There are also local enthusiast groups in cities around the world, and ‘hackathon’ events where people come together to apply design thinking to problems. My favorite of these is the Global Service Jam, which I’ve participated in a couple of times.

The most commonly proposed approach to design thinking is the methodology that came out of the Stanford University design school, or d-school for short. This outlines a five step process:

  • Empathize - work to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing.  Do this through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in their experiences
  • Define - process and synthesize the findings from your empathy work in order to form a user point of view that you will address with your design
  • Ideate - explore a wide variety of possible solutions through generating a large quantity of diverse possible solutions, allowing you to step beyond the obvious and explore a range of ideas.
  • Prototype - transform your ideas into a physical form so that you can experience and interact with them and, in the process, learn and develop more empathy.
  • Test - try out high-resolution products and use observations and feedback to refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine your original point of view.

Now, to quote the phrase ‘no silver bullet’ has become almost a cliché in architectural circles, but like most clichés, it’s because the situation is so common. Design thinking is not magic; it has limitations. First of all, it is expressly about defining and refining products and services that address a particular problem. It may be that a better approach is to change the environment so that the problem no longer exists. The emphasis on group exercises risks the emergence of groupthink, a problem hardly unique to design thinking. Last of all, the reliance on prototyping and feedback is more art than science – people can only express problems and feedback in terms that they themselves know. Henry Ford famously said that if he had asked his customers what they needed, they would have said “a faster horse”.

These caveats aside, the strength of design thinking is it provides enough structure to get ‘unstuck’ when trying to find a way to solve a given problem. Now that we’ve examined the context of design thinking it’s time to look at how design thinking techniques might be used for Enterprise Architecture.

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