I’m a big fan of ethnographic design and design thinking. However, I have lived through many fads and the "right" approach to design will never be found, it is some blend of intuition, smarts, guts and ambition that doesn’t follow a well worn path.
So here is my simplified flow chart for successful designs:
Yes, a lot is missing but the missing parts are particular to a specific industry, application, market etc. Just imagine arrows going all over this chart, backward, forward, up and down. Design is not a neat line with an arrow head on it. You do not ideate and then prototype. You do not develop empathy and then define. You are mixing these together in a blender until the words and arrows are ripped to shreds and what remains are dangling participles and confusion as to how you got to the point you are at. While there can be system and structure -- there is a place for mind maps, affinity diagrams, experience maps and all the tools of the professional designer. But they are your tools, not mandates. Do you always use a spoon when you eat dinner?
Understanding the user and other stakeholders can be derived using tools ranging from ethnography to economics. You are seeking not only what they want but what they could want. The biggest design advances are when a product or system is developed that satisfies a user need that is not yet fully recognizes. Who would imagine we would be sticking giant rectangles into our pants pockets or flying in airplanes to get on cruise ships?
Money is important too, it drives commercial design. I love working in the void of market forces but these are ideas that live in sketch books and never see the stores. I paint too…. Of course the financial environment isn’t just determining what the market will pay but how the market could grow.
Breaking down the stakeholder portion into another oversimplified infographic gives the following. Note the neat lines: