Design Thinking & the Scientific Mindset

It's an interesting exercise to think about the parallels and differences between design thinking and the scientific mindset that comes from years of research. Human centred design is a specific focus of design thinking, a creative approach to problem solving, that starts with the people you are designing for and ends with tailored solutions to meet their needs. It's also a very collaborative approach with teams working through all aspects of the problem from brainstorming initial steps to finding a solution. The qualities that make up a good design thinker are similar to the qualities that make a good researcher. Embracing ambiguity, being optimistic in the face of adversity, being comfortable with experimentation, learning as you go along, seeking inspiration in unexpected places, resilience, and learning from failure. 

"If you think about it, the whole scientific method, which is quite close to design thinking in many ways, is designed to learn true failure, an experiment which is a hypothesis, an experiement that you designed to test that hypothesis, and then an outcome from which you learn. More often than not those experiments prove that you didn't know what you thought you knew, and that process you've learned something unexpected.

– Tim Brown, CEO IDEO


Human centred design is very process driven; typically three phases are involved – Inspiration, Ideation, & Implementation. The process is inherently non-linear and seems to work incredibly well. It's particularly good at mitigating assumptions and biases that often lead to inappropriate solutions.  Astronomy research is conducted in a similar manner, although perhaps with less of a feedback loop prior to implementation – we tend to move on to the next thing very quickly, and conducted over a much longer time – typically years rather than  weeks and months.

There are similar notions between human centred design and astronomy research; wild creativity, a ceaseless push to innovate, a confidence that least to solutions we would otherwise never dream of. These are all typical characteristics of both, although I would argue that human centred design excels at the latter. Looking back at the evolution of the  US space program, human centred design has played an incredibly important role – although it wasn't called that at the time, nor would it have been evident as a particular thing.

In both cases there is sometimes an overwhelming feeling of madness more than method.

Failure is an inherent part of human centred design. As is creative confidence. The point is to out something out into the world and to use it to keep learning.

Human centred design starts from the place of now knowing the answer to the problem. Astronomical discoveries tend to fall into this category as well as research that leads to paradigm changes. Having said that more often than not, astronomical research suffers from preconceived ideas and biases, cherry picked results, and a desire to prove a particular hypothesis. 


Research tends to be heavily influenced by politics; tainted by preconceived ideas, theoretical and personal biases, and competition. While we strive to work towards the greater good, career ambitions often get in the way. Unfortunately empathy, which is central to human centred design, is often woefully lacking in research. We don't always focus on the people, nor do we ask the right questions. In many cases, our motivations are driven by budgets, a desire to be the first, and to do things because we believe in them and in doing so assume that they will be valuable to others.

In human centred design, empathy allows one to step into other people shoes, to understand their lives and perspectives, and to bring them along with you in the design process.