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ATD Blog

Is Design Thinking Debunked?

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser promises to clean up just about any mess. But the reality is different; it works on some things but not all things. In the TD world, we consider learning experience design (LXD) the “magic eraser,” because its design thinking framework can produce amazing solutions and an optimal learner experience. But it does not deliver perfect results every time, either.

For example, the title of my book with Laura Fletcher, Design Thinking for Training and Development: Creating Learning Journeys That Get Results, could deceive readers into believing that design thinking is bulletproof. But it has its problems and, increasingly, its critics. This year, MIT Technology Review published an article outlining the primary criticisms of the framework’s efficacy, Design Thinking Was Supposed to Fix the World. Where Did It Go Wrong. It’s a worthy read. The bottom line: The promised results of a design thinking approach don’t match the hype.

The article also explores these major critiques of the design thinking framework:

Even though its first step is “empathize,” practitioners do little of it. Worse, practitioners’ own backgrounds can perpetuate social inequities.

This is a serious charge. The article notes that designers—not the users impacted by a solution—are at the center of the process. Users are mostly relegated to being info providers, and the interviewers and observers often have no lived experience or background that matches the users’. The article further notes that those leading design thinking processes are usually external consultants who are well-educated, Western, and White. This means they often do not share the lived experiences of those they design solutions for. Consequently, they frequently end up devising overly simplistic solutions.

Unfortunately, I concur that a version of this happens a lot in TD. This is less a failure of the framework and more a refusal to truly do what’s required to gain perspective and build empathy. Ideally, teams are supposed to be cross-functional and varied. Empathy gets built over time and with great effort. It requires recognizing biases and examining them. Too often, we treat perspective-gathering as a check-the-box activity, limiting the gathering process to those with TD expertise.

The counterbalance: Recognize that you do not have to be the only information or insight gatherer. With some upfront planning, you can involve a variety of people rather than only those with TD credentials. Avoid the temptation to gather info from them and then talk about them to stakeholders. Instead, consider how to let the learners themselves gather and review varying perspectives and identify overarching insights from these perspectives. Position yourself as a process guide rather than as the data-gathering expert. If stakeholders refuse to fund the perspective-gathering process adequately, acknowledge that you cannot use a design thinking approach and your solution will be business-centric rather than learner-centric.

As constructed, the design thinking process places minimal emphasis on implementation and tends to oversimplify many problems.


The original design thinking model doesn’t include an “implement” step. Consequently, the ideas that come out of a design thinking approach can be unrealistic to achieve or maintain at scale. This quote stands out from the article: “Years in, ‘innovation theater’— checking a series of boxes without implementing meaningful shifts—had become endemic in corporate settings.”

Further, the article points to attempts to use design thinking to resolve massive social problems and the naivete of design thinking practitioners thinking they can step in—with no expertise in the issues—and devise solutions. Racism and sexism are the two problems offered as examples. A quick sprint followed by a small pilot project will not correct generations of inequities. As the article notes, “Many big problems are rooted in centuries of dark history, too deeply entrenched to be obliterated with the touch of design thinking’s magic wand.”

Cultural beliefs and practices cannot be changed with a single solution or within a short span of time.

Organizations comprise systems as well as people. Culture problems are usually complex and can’t be “fixed” with any single solution. While there are design thinking tools that may be useful in helping an organization gain insight into its cultural challenges, there is no quick ideation and prototyping session that will lead to simple solutions.

The counterbalance: First, use a robust performance model such as the Wile Performance Model to categorize the insights your design team is gathering and see where they fit within the model. When you document and visually map out the potential root causes of a problem, you avoid oversimplifying your solution or crafting a completely inappropriate solution. (Refer to Chapter 2 of my book for more on this.)


Second, follow the framework showcased in my book, which places heavy emphasis on both implementation and evaluation, unlike the historical design thinking model. Section 4 focuses on how to craft an actionable implementation and evaluation plan to drive a focus on implementation.

Additionally, these four principles remain accurate guideposts and practical ways to apply design thinking philosophies within TD:

1. Recognize learning as a journey. People don’t learn from events; they learn from an experience that begins with noticing a need to learn and only ends when they can consistently integrate learning into their performance. The book has a tool to help map out this entire journey, which helps identify the many things that must happen beyond the creation of the learning event or tool itself to get results. It’s honest and serves as a useful way to open stakeholders’ eyes and start a conversation about the complexity inherent in building and implementing a solution.

2. Get perspective. Glean perspective from both learners and stakeholders so you can apply the next principle. Don’t think of getting perspective as a one-and-done activity. To address your potential blind spots, consider how you involve the learners in perspective-gathering and data analysis. Let them use their voices and experiences to craft insights for the design team rather than just serving as information-givers.

3. Find—and mind—the sweet spot. Don’t just get perspective at the design stage; refer to that perspective as you develop and refine your solution. Include stakeholders and learners in early testing as well as late-stage testing to ensure you stay inside the sweet spot. In our book, we offer concrete ways to involve learners throughout the design journey instead of just at its launch.

4. Prototype before you refine. The traditional design thinking framework includes prototyping. But it often doesn’t progress to refinement or to a multi-tiered pilot process, which I advocate. Business stakeholders often want to skip iteration and piloting. It’s your job to explain why this iteration matters and how it saves money in the long term.

About the Author

Sharon Boller is president and chief product officer of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc. (BLP), a learning solutions firm she founded in 1995. Sharon has grown BLP from a single-woman sole proprietorship to a $3M+ company with 30 team members. Under Sharon’s direction, BLP created the Knowledge Guru™ learning game platform. Knowledge Guru is the recipient of numerous industry awards, including the coveted Brandon Hall Gold award for best innovation in gaming and technology (2014). BLP has also produced a wide array of other award-winning learning solutions. They earned Brandon Hall awards for best advance in sales training, best use of games and simulations for learning in 2014. They've earned numerous Horizon Awards as well. 

Sharon frequently speaks on game-based learning and learning design topics at the local and international level for eLearning Guild, ATD, CLO, Training Magazine, and other industry groups. She is also the author of numerous articles on game-based learning, learning science, and instructional design, as well as a book featuring team building simulations and games, Team Training. She also has an authoring credit for one of the chapter’s in Dr. Karl Kapp’s book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Field Book.

1 Comment
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Great points here. One mistake I've seen repeatedly within attempts at design thinking is asking for input from people who already value learning (especially formal) as a way to gain job skills - asking technical trainers/SMES for input, but they often bring their own L+D skewed viewpoints to our L+D skewed viewpoints, resulting in training that doesn't fit what the end user actually wants or needs. I like to ask the grumpiest, anti-training person for their opinions - it can hurt, but it helps!
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