5 common mistakes when applying Design Thinking

5 common mistakes white looking for waste
Design Thinking is a very popular approach among those working in innovation or design areas. Its concepts are simple and practical and it is a very useful tool when developing new products or services. However, I would like to share with you 5 common mistakes that should be avoided in order to create truly innovative solutions.

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Introduction to Design Thinking

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”

– Tim Brown, CEO de IDEO

Design Thinking does not attempt to break paradigms, nor to question any other design or problem-solving methods. It rather proposes a different way to face situations of high uncertainty and ignorance of what is intended to be achieved and how to achieve it. Or when all known means have been used without good results.

Above all, Design Thinking helps ensure that we build, create, and deliver something that the client truly values ​​and wants to have. Something that Lean methodology had already taught us.

The Design Thinking process follows 5 stages:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Being a very simple process, this innovation tool has been widely expanded, sometimes leading to a superficial use of the methodology. In this article, I want to share some recommendations, or rather warnings, when applying Design Thinking.

Mistake # 1: Falling in love with the solution

Design Thinking proposes 5 steps that must be carried out sequentially and then repeated, in order to generate iterations that lead to an innovative solution. However, many times the designer’s infatuation with a solution leads to skipping stages and overlooking the problem or opportunity that the client or stakeholder has.

A good design should not only satisfy its creators, but must, fundamentally, bring a solution to the final user.

The Design Thinking journey is simple:

  • What does the customer need?
  • What problem do we solve for him/her?
  • How do we solve this problem for him/her?
  • Did the prototype solve his/her problem?
  • What can we learn and improve for the next cycle?

Mistake #2: Obsessing over understanding the current customer

Understanding who the customer is is the main key to this methodology and that is fine. The problem is that in the effort to understand the current customer, we often forget that people change and also do the requirements and desires of our customers.

Empathy Maps and Customer Journeys are extremely valuable tools, but when applying them we must not forget that we are not designing for today, but for the future. It is not enough to understand who our current client is, but who it will be. We need to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and think:

  • What does he/she want? What does he/she value?
  • Who will he/she be?
  • What will he/she value in the future?

Mistake #3: Believing that we think like the client, without really knowing him/her

Routine and comfort often lead us to design from a meeting room. Even if we use a lot of operational and survey data, nothing replaces:

  • seeing (gestures and reactions),
  • listening (what he/she says and what he/she doesn’t say),
  • perceiving (the client’s emotions)
  • understanding under what circumstances he/she sees, hears,  and feels


It is not about thinking like the customer or being a customer (although this could help a lot). We must understand that, from our privileged position, we will never be able to experience fully and naively as he/she does. And that, what we believe to be the voice of the customer is nothing more than a skewed version of reality. The goal is to minimize this bias as much as possible.

In 1985, John Guaspari made it clear in his book I know it when I see it. It is not about asking the customer if the product will meet his/her expectations, “he will know it when he sees it.” The customer needs to see, touch, and taste. We must bring this experience closer to him/her and make sure that we really include the client in the process and not a representative (this is a very common mistake of Product Owners who use Agile methodology).

Mistake # 4: experimenting without learning

Iterations are a trend nowadays. Agile, Lean Startup, Design Thinking, all these methodologies propose to quickly test the idea in order to validate it with the client.

But what is often forgotten is that the goal of experimentation is to achieve real and naive learning. And to achieve this, it is fundamental to understand clearly what we aim to learn:

  • What is the value hypothesis we are trying to validate?
  • What learning must be achieved?


And, to learn, the ego must be left aside. Experience shows that when it seems that everything is under control, that there is no error to find, nothing to correct or invent, the unexpected appears.

Design Thinking demands understanding that the client will question the unquestionable, suggest the unthinkable, and make us feel incompetent. That is the key moment of learning. Those who react without explaining or justifying will be the successful ones. It is not about arguing or spending hours and hours analyzing. It’s about experimenting and validating ideas with results.

Mistake #5: Brainstorming without discipline

We have all applied brainstorming at some time, but few people follow its rules. It is a very useful technique when it comes to thinking about possible solutions, but by itself, it is not enough to innovate. Brainstorming needs to be supplemented not only with discipline but also with other methods. Some examples:

  • exploring extremes (for example, increasing the speed of something that is already fast, or increasing something that is already very big, or understanding what the most fanatic of the product values ​​and what the biggest detractor hates).
  • changing who does it (for example, instead of having the customer perform a process, have the supplier do it),
  • exploring the evolution of technology, scenarios, and trends,
  • using customer and non-customer stories,
  • pretending to be another company (from another field or sector) and trying to do it the way it does it.


From my point of view, Design Thinking is a very valuable innovation technique not so much because of the method it proposes, but because of the place it gives the client in the creation process. It is about putting the customer at the center, understanding him/her as best as possible, looking at the problem from various angles, experimenting, validating and learning in agile cycles.

Thinking different things is not the same as being creative. If what is said and done is different but does not contribute to solving the problem, that is not creativity. And just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. To innovate is to create new solutions that solve a problem for the customer in the best possible way.

Author: Raúl Molteni

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