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Can design thinking challenge the scientific method?

The scientific method has long reigned as the trusted way to test hypotheses so as to produce new knowledge. Shaped by the likes of Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and Ronald A. Fisher, the idea of replicable controlled experiments with at least two treatments has dominated scientific research as a way of producing accepted truths about the world around us.

However, there is growing interest in design thinking, a research method which encourages practitioners to reformulate goals, question requirements, empathize with users, consider divergent solutions, and validate designs with real-world interventions. Design thinking promotes playful exploration and recognizes the profound influence that diverse contexts have on preferred solutions. Advocates believe that they are dealing with “wicked problems” situated in the real world, in which controlled experiments are of dubious value.

The design thinking community generally respects science, but resists pressures to be “scientized”, which they equate with relying on controlled laboratory experiments, reductionist approaches, traditional thinking, and toy problems. Similarly, many in the scientific community will grant that design thinking has benefits in coming up with better toothbrushes or attractive smartphones, but they see little relevance to research work that leads to discoveries.

The tension may be growing since design thinking is on the rise as a business necessity and as part of university education. Institutions as diverse as the Royal College of Art, Goldsmiths at the University of London, Stanford University’s D-School, and Singapore University of Technology and Design are leading a rapidly growing movement that is eagerly supported by business. Design thinking promoters see it as a new way of thinking about serious problems such as healthcare delivery, community safety, environmental perseveration, and energy conservation.

The rising prominence of design thinking in public discourse is revealed by these two graphs. (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: “Design” became the dominant term in 1975, as shown by data displayed in the
Google Books Ngram Viewer by Ben Shneiderman.
Figure 2 Use of the term “designer” in articles in The New York Times has increased since 1975. Created using http://chronicle.nytlabs.com.
Figure 2: Use of the term “designer” in articles in The New York Times has increased since
1975 by Ben Shneiderman. Public domain via NYT Chronicle.

These two sources both appear to show that after 1975 design took over prominence from science and engineering.

Scientists and engineers might dismiss this data and the idea that design thinking could challenge the scientific method. They believe that controlled experiments with statistical tests for significant differences are the “gold standard” for collecting evidence to support hypotheses, which add to the trusted body of knowledge. Furthermore, they believe that the cumulative body of knowledge provides the foundations for solving the serious problems of our time.

By contrast, designing thinking activists question the validity of controlled experiments in dealing with complex socio-technical problems such as healthcare delivery. They question the value of medical research by carefully controlled clinical trials because of the restricted selection criteria for participants, the higher rates of compliance during trials, and the focus on a limited set of treatment possibilities. Flawed clinical trials have resulted in harm such as when a treatment is tested only on men, but then the results are applied to women. Even respected members of the scientific community have made disturbing complaints about the scientific method, such as John Ioannidis’s now-famous 2005 paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”

Designing thinking advocates do not promise truth, but they believe that valuable new ideas, services, and products can come from their methods. They are passionate about immersing themselves in problems, talking to real customers, patients, or students, considering a range of alternatives, and then testing carefully in realistic settings.

Of course, there is no need to choose between design thinking and the scientific method, when researchers can and should do both. The happy compromise may be to use design thinking methods at early stages to understand a problem, and then test some of the hypotheses with the scientific method. As solutions are fashioned they can be tested in the real world to gather data on what works and what doesn’t. Then more design thinking and more scientific research could provide still clearer insights and innovations.

Instead of seeing research as a single event, such as a controlled experiment, the British Design Council recommends the Double Diamond model which captures the idea of repeated cycles of divergent and then convergent thinking. In one formulation they describe a 4-step process: “Discover”, “Define”, “Develop”, and “Deliver.”

The spirited debates about which methods to use will continue, but as teachers we should ensure that our students are skilled with both the scientific method and design thinking. Similarly, as business leaders we should ensure that our employees are well-trained enough to apply design thinking and the scientific method. When serious problems need solutions, such as healthcare of environmental preservation are being addressed, we will all be better served when design thinking and scientific method are combined.

Featured image credit: library books education literature by Foundry. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Tom Ritchey

    The perceived dichotomy between what is referred to here as the “scientific method” and “design thinking” is spurious. Both of these “methods” are, and always have been, present in science. Using the “likes” of Bacon, Galileo and Fischer (all reductionists) to situate the concept of “scientific method” is hugely misleading – if not to say naive. Where are the “likes” of design thinking scientists like Kepler, Leibniz, Riemann and Einstein?

    The real dichotomy in science concerns how the basic procedural methods of analysis and synthesis are applied, i.e. the former working from effects to causes, the latter from causes to effects. A good example of this is the work of great mathematician (actually a mathematical physicist) Bernhard Riemann, where he demonstrates what he calls the “poetry of hypothesis” as a creative scientific design method.

    See e.g. “Analysis and Synthesis: On Scientific Method based on a Study of Bernhard Riemann”, at: http://www.swemorph.com/pdf/anaeng-r.pdf.


    Tom Ritchey

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