Exploring “Design Thinking” using the notion of a Frame of Reference


This is a short piece aimed at the curious. Someone who’s been exposed to Design Thinking workshops and would like to know a little bit more about just why it works. While it’s helpful to have experienced a design thinking workshop, the lack of exposure can be compensated for by a little imagination.

The Lens

The tool used in this post is the notion of a Frame of Reference. A frame of reference is a complex schema of unquestioned beliefs, values and so on that we use when inferring meaning. If any part of that frame is changed then the meaning that is inferred may change.

A person’s frame of reference is always subject to change. Any new insight, belief or value adopted by a person has the potential to change their frame of reference. While it is far more likely that changes to an individual’s frame of reference are minor, there is always the potential for a fundamental shift in perspective (for example, anyone who’s ever said “I found out about X and it turned my world upside down”).

Some useful links about the Frame Of Reference
Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453-458.

Problem Solving – Solo vs Teamwork

Using the extremely simplistic model that a person is T-shaped from a skills and expertise perspective (awareness of a broad range of topics and in depth expertise of a specialist area), when a person tries to solve a problem on their own, they’re typically thinking at the limits of their expertise. A bit like the red ellipse in this sketch…

Any new insights they come up with are also likely to also be in the red ellipse, meaning the associated changes to their frame of reference will also be minor at best.

Contrast this to how a collaborating team operates. With the same models, each person in the team is thinking at the limits of their knowledge, but the main difference is that they’re also sharing their insights across the team. This usually means that the changes to an individual’s frame of reference can be significantly greater, as it can be influenced by new insights that they simply would not be able to derive by themselves.

You think differently when you’re in a team

Your Focus Areas Change

A significant part of a good design thinking workshop is a focus on the customer. It’s imperative to build a strong empathic relationship with your customer. Capturing those insights as personas or empathy maps is common. Using the same visual language of T-shaped skills and expertise, the insights that the team derives can be represented as follows

You think about different things when you focus on your customer

If done well, the red T will contain the values, priorities, pain points, motivations etc of the customer. By integrating these insights into the frame of reference of the team members, the ideas that they produce would, almost automatically, have a much better alignment with real customer value and customer priorities.

You Have More Time

Design Thinking workshops have a natural double diamond pattern, with alternating phases of divergent and convergent thought processes.

However, as a participant going through this structure (especially someone who “already knows what needs to be done, they just want to get on with it”) this can feel extremely slow and frustrating.

This “slowness” does have benefits. The main one is that it gives the insights floating around the team much more time to work its way into an individual’s frame of reference and change how they think. In other words, it prevents participants from leaping to conclusions. While there’s nothing inherently wrong about “heading straight to the answer”, the solutions you develop using this type of strategy are not innovative, as by definition you’ve come up with them before. By maximising the opportunities to change your frame of reference, you increase the likelihood that your solutions are much more innovative.

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