Design Thinking and Coaching: A Match Made in Heaven

 Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

As a user experience consultant and designer, I’ve been living the values of design thinking for many years. Some of these – design with, not for; lead with empathy; seek inspiration to inform innovation – are ones that have come easily to me (like a one-sport athlete, these muscles are very strong). Others – like showing my work early and building to think – have required consistent practice and a lot of creative confidence.

After many years practicing design thinking methods and approaches, I now can’t separate how I work from how design thinking works; it’s just part of my muscle memory.

When I decided earlier in 2018 to put my career on a new path and commit to coaches training, I assumed I’d be starting from scratch and building up entirely new muscles. And sure, there are a lot of new coaching skills that I’ve begun to strengthen and will need years to master. But what’s surprised me most is how similar, and also complementary, design thinking and coaching really are. Let me explain:

Design thinking is an approach to innovation and problem solving that begins with understanding people’s lived experiences, continues with creative ideation and experimentation, and ends with implementing an improved solution that delivers a higher-quality experience or outcome.

Coaching is an approach to designing a life of fulfillment that begins with understanding who we are and what matters to us, continues with creative exploration of possible options, and ends with making resonant choices that are grounded in our new clarity of purpose and potential.

See what I mean? It’s like a match made in Heaven (at least in my version of Heaven!). In fact, the similarities run even deeper than that.

Start with Humans



At their core, design thinking and coaching are both all about people. As designers and coaches, our “come from” is always curiosity – going deep in our learning and exploration of other people’s experiences, understanding what they value, and unpacking the pain points they face each day. This learning, of course, is in service of developing empathy for them.

As a coach, I believe that everyone is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. This means that each of us has our own inner wisdom or compass that can show us the way – but only if we listen for it and respect what it tells us. My job, then, is to help you find and access this compass.

One of the most powerful “side effects” of this perspective is that I have to self-manage my own assumptions or limiting beliefs that (as a regular person) I also carry around with me. In order to fully serve you, I have to let go of my own BS and show up fully for you and your goals.

As a designer, I also carry this belief – and I take it one step further. Not only do I need to put down my own assumptions but I need to check my ego, that voice that tells me I know what’s going to be best for another person and their needs. It means I must become an even better listener, observer and co-creator to get to a solution that works for you, not me.

Another thing I love about design thinking and coaching? Our ability to rely on our intuition to find what resonates. Sure – data is a crucial part of any decision or design. But an over-reliance on data can sometimes obscure our ability to tap into what we intuitively know to be true. Taking a chance, trying something out based on what we’re sensing, connecting to the ethereal, abstract stuff that makes us human beings – all of this makes me a better coach and a better designer.

Playful, Intentional Experimentation

I remember the first time the word “brainstorm” was used in my coaches training – my jaw just about dropped on the floor. As a designer, brainstorming is something I happen to know a lot about. But what place does it have in coaching?

It all begins with imagining the future state we desire. How can we know how to fix a problem if we can’t envision what will be better about living without it? Whether this is envisioning how to resolve a user’s pain point, or what life will look like when we have a job we love – we have to start with what’s aspirational and inspirational about the future state we’re working towards.

At this point we’re sitting squarely in the land of divergent thinking and idea generation. Just like in design thinking, in coaching we go broad and imagine all of the different possibilities – not just for things we could do (quit my job, ask my partner to move in, call my mother), but also how we want to feel and be in that moment (empowered, connected, supported). Just like in design, these “guiding principles” then become the barometer for how we measure the resonance and potential of the ideas we’ve generated

And just like in design, the more people and perspectives a coaching client can invite into their process, the better. Collaboration, inclusion and diversity all work in service of our goals as designers and coaches.

Achieving Meaningful Results and Having an Impact

Of course an idea is only as good as its impact. Whether I’m working in a coaching conversation or a design thinking project, I know the key to getting an idea off the ground is to design small experiments that help us learn about what works, refine what doesn’t, and repeat. Just like I wouldn’t suggest you launch an entirely new product without testing it, I also wouldn’t recommend that you quit your day job and become a yoga instructor without first going to a yoga class! It’s all about bite-sized prototypes that help us learn and iterate.

In this way, learning itself is a worthwhile goal in both contexts. The same could be said for failure. When we break our work into small pieces, we de-risk our process and make the cost of failure much lower. Along the way we get smarter about what works – both because of the data we collect and the intuition we develop.

In the end, many of us share the primary goal of making a positive impact on the people around us, on our communities, even on our world. And whether I’m wearing a hat that says “User Experience” or “Coach,” my job is to support you and the journey you’re on to get there.

For the first time in my life, I can say I really love what I do, and I firmly believe it’s because I now see how these two elements in my life – design thinking and coaching – can be fully integrated and work in partnership together. It really is a match made in my Heaven!

Curious about what this might look like inside your organization? Get in touch to talk about how I can support you to understand what matters to your team and the audiences you’re trying to reach, and then design an action plan to achieve your goals and targets.