Return to site

We now need to go beyond design thinking with 'design fiction'

There has been an increased demand for design thinking in businesses over the last few years. I have run dozens of workshops, face-to-face and now virtual, on design thinking and how to apply it. Design thinking is creative problem solving with empathy at its heart to join the dots between providers and suppliers. It has five key stages: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. The key to design thinking, as opposed to other similar and overlapping methodologies, is the emphasis on empathy with the end user/consumer/customer. What do they really need, want and expect?

In the current situation of COVID-19, empathising has never been more important, but it has also never been more difficult. How do you anticipate what will be the needs, wants and expectations of your audience in the so-called ‘new normal’?

This is where design fiction can help as it is more suited to the unpredictable future that we all face. Design fiction is a design practice that overlaps with design thinking, but explores not just future products and services, but also the context in which they might exist. It is much better suited to the times in which we find ourselves, as can be shown by looking at the 5 stages of design thinking:

  1. Empathy, that key component of design thinking, needs to be projected into the future to anticipate future needs, wants and expectations. But today’s empathy may not help tomorrow’s requirements. We need to imagine alternative situations and new social interaction rituals.
  2. The problem to be defined is uncertain, so questions are now more appropriate than answers. Design fiction encourages provocative questioning. 
  3. Ideas need to be freed of the many assumptions we might have made about how our businesses work and what our audiences want. In an uncertain world we need to question everything. Ideas need to be freed. Brain storming won’t cut it. Imagination freeing will.
  4. Prototyping needs to be a holistic process, not just looking at proposed solutions, but creating a richer contextual setting and narrative.
  5. Testing will be best served through fictional storytelling, placing our ideas in future scenarios. This will raise further questions and create further provocations, refining the ideas to a range of scenarios, including preferred scenarios. Putting measurements and metrics in place is key to quantification and response.

In writing my future fiction novel, Blinky’s Law, I had a lot of fun imagining a society in a longer term future. Within its pages are new ideas about how we might interact with the world around us when emerging technologies have played out - such as motavatars, personalised time and super-smart fridges. The ideas are not the focus of the book, they form part of the background to the story. The same should be true when imagining a nearer future. With design fiction, the newly designed thing or process should be seen in its overall context not just plonked into our current reality, otherwise it could just turn out to be another shiny gadget or fad.

Design fiction will help us make the right decisions today that will play out in the uncertain tomorrow.

If you’d like to learn more about design fiction and how to apply it, do get in touch

Martin Talks


Add paragraph text here.