Is pattern-based thinking the new design thinking?

Design thinking has had quite a decade.

The methodology, popularized by the design consulting firm IDEO, sets out to solve problems—all problems, not just design-related—with user-focused solutions, just like UX designers do.

This design-centric way of thinking has gone mainstream in the last 10-12 years, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Design thinking has its flaws: it takes time and commitment, it’s not an intuitive process, and some non-designers are turned off by its name alone. It’s not an easy sell.

Design thinking has its flaws: it takes time and commitment, it’s not an intuitive process, and some non-designers are turned off by its name alone.

Good thing it’s not the only user-centered solution for business problems. Meet pattern-based thinking. In this post, we’ll compare design thinking and pattern-based thinking and explore some of the key differences separating the two methodologies.

A brief history of design thinking

Design thinking is a problem-solving process based on interaction with real users—as opposed to research or personas. When implemented correctly, it takes you on a live journey through how users or consumers actually engage with a product—not how you think they should.

Design thinking differs from traditional UX research because, while UX research focuses on, you know, researching a problem, design thinking emphasizes prototyping and iteration. The design thinking process includes a five day, five-step framework (known as a design sprint):

  1. Empathize: get to know the user and understand their needs and wants
  2. Define: gather your findings and draft a clear problem statement
  3. Ideate: begin brainstorming creative solutions
  4. Prototype: start creating MVP solutions
  5. Test: give your prototype to users and observe the results

It’s important to note that testing is rarely the end of the design thinking process. Design thinking is an iterative process, not a linear one, and you’re meant to go back and forth between steps and repeat as necessary.

You might find out through testing that you need a new prototype, or that you’ve been examining the wrong problem altogether. While these five steps are supposed to go in order, design thinkers also have to be flexible. Trust the process.

Where does design thinking fall short?

There’s no doubt that design thinking has left a positive impact on the worlds of design and business, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The five-day design sprint process leaves much to be desired. Some of its shortcomings include:

  • Design thinking can be a tough sell for nonbelievers. For non-designers, the phrase “design thinking” can feel more like a design fad than a tactic for solving real business problems. Having the word “design” in the name doesn’t help for buy-in from non-creatives.
  • We don’t always have time for design thinking. While the design thinking process is intended to save time in the long run, many teams don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to five-day (or longer) sprints.
  • The design thinking process can feel tedious. Starting from square one on every project—or every step of every project, for that matter—can be exhausting and time-consuming, and it’s not always necessary.
  • Design thinking isn’t a long-term solution. One of the major selling points of design thinking is its promise to find innovative solutions—but only for the problem you’re currently addressing. It doesn’t offer a framework for drawing on past experiences and solutions to address your current problem set. This is where pattern-based thinking comes in.

Pattern-based thinking: a culture-based approach for problem solving

If design thinking is all about breaking down preconceptions to start from scratch and build a uniquely new solution, pattern-based thinking is about seeing a problem and recognizing commonalities that it has with similar problems you’ve already faced. This allows you to draw upon and iterate on existing solutions, rather than starting from scratch, accelerating the problem-solving process while still leaving room for innovation and custom solutions.

Since pattern-based thinking is focused on improving your culture and problem-solving processes on a macro, long-term scale, it succeeds where design thinking falls short. It’s a paradigm shift, not a defined process, so it offers a long-term solution for a broad spectrum of problems.

The strengths of pattern-based thinking

  • While the design thinking process is effective for solving the problem at hand, pattern-based thinking uses past and present circumstances to solve present and future problems. The power of pattern-based thinking is in its efficient reuse of the knowledge and resources you already have, so you’re not starting from scratch every time you need to solve a problem.
  • Pattern-based thinking doesn’t need (much) buy-in. Pattern-based thinking doesn’t need the same buy-in that design thinking does because it’s embedded in your organization’s culture. It’s less of a process you need your team members to adopt, and more of a way of thinking your team gradually begins to see problems and processes through.
  • You’ll solve more than one problem at a time. Nothing is meant to be a one-off solution when it comes to pattern-based thinking. Connections between employees and teams become stronger, because they’re able to learn from each others’ work and experiences. When one team finishes a cycle or sprint, they’ll come out with more than just the end product, but a library of issues solved throughout the process. Being able to learn from other teams’ experiences and build on their solutions makes for a more innovative, connected group.
  • Pattern-based thinking removes steps of the process, rather than adding them. There isn’t a step-by-step process to be followed, but pattern-based thinking is meant to influence all of the steps of your process. This means that, rather than ideating from scratch, you stop to consider what solutions have already been built that you can pull from. And when you do find a solution, you also include rationale for why it exists, and how it can be applied to particular situations.
  • Pattern-based thinking is a sustainable, long-term solution. By its definition, pattern-based thinking creates a shared language—including past, present, and future—by which you will solve problems. This shared way of thinking in patterns democratizes the process of building any product. Patterns are innate to the human experience, meaning everyone can recognize them, and everyone will be able to contribute to creating solutions in a meaningful way.

Is pattern-based thinking going to replace design thinking?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: no, because it doesn’t have to. Both methodologies have their place and both offer value to the companies that are able to implement them. Pattern-based thinking helps teams see problems quicker and get to solutions faster by operating with solutions they already know work—leaping steps in the design thinking process.

Design thinking is an empathetic, collaborative solution for solving one-off problems, but it demands access to resources (read: time) that many organizations don’t have. By rooting itself in an organization’s culture, pattern-based thinking will become an organizational norm—empowering us to design more successful solutions without adding steps to our processes.

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