4 common challenges and pitfalls in design thinking

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 17, 2023
Two women looking at a laptop computer.
4 common challenges and pitfalls in design thinking
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 17, 2023

Traditional problem-solving is straightforward. Identify a problem, come up with potential solutions, and implement those solutions. 

But what if you need to take a step back and re-identify the problem or look at it with a different approach? How are you balancing end-user and stakeholder desires? Will it cost your team more time and money if you have to go back to the drawing board?

Design thinking is a versatile problem-solving framework that you can use for virtually any challenge or project. The five stages of design thinking — Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test — help your team overcome the ambiguity of problem-solving. It encourages teams to collaborate with each other to come up with the best solution for complex problems.

However, if your team hasn’t mastered or fully committed to each one of the steps, you may encounter problems that make it harder to reap the benefits of design thinking. 

Here are 4 common challenges that teams face when implementing design thinking practices.

1. Lack of in-depth user research 

Design thinking is human-centered. The empathy stage in design thinking is meant to give you an in-depth understanding of your end user or customer. It’s an essential step for coming up with solutions that will work specifically for your customer so you can optimize the user experience. 

Some teams skim over — or skip entirely — the empathy stage. But you can’t get into the minds of your user and help them solve a problem if you don’t know them. Conducting research can help you minimize investment risk to your company, find emerging trends in your industry, and identify pain points for your audience.

Teams that gloss over this step may have a hard time making connections between their users’ pain points and how they can solve them.

To get the most impact from the data and information you collect, create a plan for understanding and mapping how users feel. Empathy mapping helps you identify and visualize your target audience. Your goal is to find out what your users say, do, think, and feel. 

Make sure you have a plan that does the following:

  • Identifies what info you’ll gather, e.g., questions to ask, demographics, preferences
  • Establishes how you’ll get info, e.g., surveys, focus groups, general research
  • Describes where you’ll gather info, e.g., in person, review forums, Reddit, social media

Use Mural’s Empathy Map Canvas template to make the most of your research efforts. Have all team members use the same map so you can come together after research is complete and draw conclusions about the information and data you’ve collected.

The Empathy Map Template from Mural
The Empathy Map Canvas template from Mural. Get started today with a Free Forever account.

2. A company culture that doesn’t foster collaboration

Design thinking requires intentional collaboration. Some remote teams struggle with this because hybrid and remote collaboration is inherently more difficult. Studies show  that employees can feel disconnected from their company and coworkers. More than half of employees in one such study said they feel remote work “hinders tasks that require internal/external collaboration.”

Learn more: Why hybrid collaboration is harder than you think

If your company culture doesn’t foster collaboration or invest in cultivating its employees’ collaboration skills, then collaborating throughout the design-thinking process may be challenging. Companies that struggle with siloed departments don’t have standards or precedents that facilitate working together. Or maybe your company is remote but doesn’t have enough tools (or the right tools) to make collaboration work.

As a manager, you can help leadership and other company stakeholders see the value in design thinking. If you’ve used design thinking to solve a problem in the past, show them your process so they can see that it works. Help them understand that it can yield better solutions, so they buy in and equip your teams with the tools and resources you need. 

Show leadership the benefits of design thinking. If the process has worked for you before, share a case study with your leadership team. A case study or similar type of example can demonstrate how design thinking works differently and more effectively than traditional problem-solving.

Related: How IBM used Mural to scale design culture globally

3. Inability to adjust to a non-linear process

Design thinking lends itself to flexibility by enabling teams to go back and forth between stages to solve problems. With traditional problem-solving, on the one hand, teams think that once they finish a step, they move on to the next. And they don’t or can’t go back to previous steps. Design-thinking methodology, on the other hand, encourages a non-linear approach and often involves going through stages “out of order.” 

For example, if a team gets to the prototype stage and realizes they have a better idea, they can go back to the ideation stage without wasting resources or time because they’ve built this agility into the plan and budget. The design-thinking process enables teams to explore multiple options to solve a problem rather than sticking to a poor solution and trying to make it work.

If your team is struggling to take advantage of the nonlinearity of design thinking, set a timeframe and plan for each stage. Make your plan as flexible as possible, knowing that one stage may take longer than another and that you may have to go back to a stage. Assign responsibilities early on and get insights from team members about how long their tasks could potentially take based on their skills and experience.

When you’re making a plan, consider these components for each stage:

  • Resources available to you, e.g., number of team members, budget, tools, knowledge
  • Skill sets and experience of team members involved
  • Number of tasks to complete 
  • Difficulty level of tasks to complete 

4. Not letting go of a bad idea

It’s easy for team members to get attached to a product or idea they poured their hearts into. But sometimes, a product or an idea gets to the testing phase only for you to realize it won’t work and you need another solution. Your team has worked hard to get it here, and it’s understandable that they want to keep working on it. Instead of digging your heels in, focus on creating the right solution for your users.

Be transparent and up front with your team. Set expectations with all team members about the iterative nature of the process. It’s important to help team members avoid getting too invested in one singular idea. As they work through the different stages of design thinking, encourage them to explore multiple possibilities and avenues rather than just one. 

Learn more: The double-diamond framework can help teams embrace the non-linear nature of co-design.

Perfectionism and attachment are roadblocks to the design-thinking process and are also counteractive to adaptability and agility. If a solution won’t work, it’s better to go back to the drawing board so you can come up with one that does work for your users. 

It’s important to be able to move on quickly and adapt rather than try to make something that won’t work, work. A big part of the ideation phase in design thinking is challenging assumptions and thinking outside of the box.

Try the double diamond technique for your next innovation project

The double diamond is a visual representation of the design process, outlining each step and action across the four steps: discover, define, develop, & deliver. Using the diamond visual, this technique shows where teams should diverge and converge throughout the design thinking process.

Sign up with a Mural Free Forever account and get started with the Double Diamond template.

Dive head first into design thinking 

The only way to make the design thinking approach more effective is by trying it, realizing what went wrong, fixing it, and repeating the process. If you want to practice, choose a low-risk, simple problem that you’re currently working through, whether it’s internal or external. Work through each phase, going back and forth as needed. 

As you work through the design-thinking process, check out a few Mural templates built for design thinking and human-centered design use cases. In addition to the empathy map, you can also use the persona profile template to better understand your target market. Or our roadmap template to plan out the process and delegate tasks.  

Sign up today with a Free account and get access to hundreds of templates to help you work through all your problem-solving efforts.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.