Design Thinking Fans, It's Time to talk about Causation and Correlation.

Causation and Correlation in Design Thinking

Let me see. You and your peers (or say students) have been able to identify a problem through empathy, or some other framework. Also, your ideation went swimmingly and the project went into prototyping with enthusiasm. Yet, coming out are projects and innovations that take some effort to celebrate, are not long lasting and are soon to be buried by time.

Sound familiar?

Well, you may be the victim of good intensions and hard work that was, sadly, lacking in rigor. The rigor we seek in our DT initiatives and projects is made better with a careful evaluation of causation. To take steps towards our desired rigor, I first recommend knowing the difference between causation and correlation, then it’s time to set up your design thinking process to accommodate for a study of causation. People will sometimes react poorly to their proposed causation ideas being critically evaluated or dismissed, so anticipating unsavory reactions and preparing for the worst is important. Finally, it’s time for you to be prepared for a greater front loaded work and be ready to celebrate true success!

You can identify a problem well, while having failed to identify the true cause of the problem.

What is correlation and causation anyhow?

If you want to take a quick dive into causation vs. correlation, please click here or here or here for the best and shortest youtube videos to help get you up to speed and then return to this article.

Correlation is different than Causation!

Generally, causation is establishing what the relationship is of a correlation. Sometimes there is no cause (say eating ice cream and forest fires are not related) and sometimes there is a relationship, say good grades and self-confidence.

The relationship between good grades and self-confidence does have a correlation, but to understand what is happening, we need to understand the reason for the cause, often first established as a direction. Using our example, which is more likely to be true, “self-confidence leads to good grades” or “good grades leads to self-confidence?” One of these is right (good grades –> self-confidence) and that directional meaning is a critical understanding of causation that impacts everything that comes next, your ideation/brainstorming, your prototyping and testing are all going to be completely different depending on what you determine the cause of receiving good grades and having self-confidence are related. In fact, your project’s success hinges on knowing the cause of the problem you seek to fix.

Finding Causation in Design Thinking

Establishing causation takes place during Step 2, Collecting Information and is a critical step to your self-study. Step 1, Define the Problem (Verification vs. Validation) is your chance to evaluate WHAT is wrong and Step two is your chance to consider what information you have about WHY the problem is the way it is, its causes. This is deep thinking requiring an exceptional effort in many cases.

There is a real human element of this that needs to be confronted when searching for causation. We are all prone to guess at and want to stick to the most rational reason for a correlation and sharing that with peers only to be wrong is a real embarrassment. Preventing embarrassment can be done with good planning and facilitation of your design thinking process. Consider pre-advertising your protocol by where participants will know that brainstorming/ideation will be followed by or pared with rigorous discussions.

Skills and Strategies to evaluate causation

  • We’ve defiantly established a correlation, but now let’s test possible causes.
  • How can we test for the cause we think we have identified?
  • When dealing with human data and results, how are we considering and including conversations about race, class, gender and do we have a representative group that can evaluate these concerns well enough?
  • What research needs to be done until we have enough knowledge about how causation might work out?
  • We have our correlation and have tested our causation, time to share our results to stakeholders who can help us interpret the findings.

You are now front loading your team’s work, communicate that clearly.

Front loading your work is to place a greater empathisis on the early design stages to shorten and make more clear the latter stages. It is more efficient and will create greater success in the long run by defining your problem and collecting information as thoroughly as possible before you brainstorm your first idea. THIS ISN’T HOW SCHOOLS OPERATE and that is why I highly suggest you communicate to your colleagues and faculty where time and resources will go in this process you are designing and why you have done that.

Workflow in schools often truncates defining and collecting information with an almost immediate jump into brainstorming. Communicate your intentions clearly before you begin. Something like, “we will save time and energy defining the problem as clearly as possible and collecting information to determine causation by not flipping back and forth between brainstorming poor solutions and returning to the first two steps over and over. If we work smart, we can work effectively.”

Spending some time discussing correlation & causation along with an overview of the design process you will use helps give your team a clear understanding of what they are to do and why. That clarity will increase group trust in the process and will then allow for greater participation.


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