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Abstract and Figures

Differences in knowledge backgrounds hinder the work of cross-functional teams by making knowledge integration more difficult, especially when the teams are confronted with novelties in new product development (NDP) projects. Boundary objects are attributed to a mediating capability. While design artifacts are often used to facilitate communication in design thinking (DT) projects, their significance for collaborative problem-solving in cross-functional teams is still unknown. Addressing the gap, we analyze why particular artifacts turn into boundary objects and how these boundary objects can be used in practice to facilitate problem-solving during the NPD process in DT projects. Building on the results of semi-structured interviews with representatives of five DT project teams, we illustrate the insights that boundary objects afford into the practices of stakeholder integration. Our work can help shed new light on the phenomenon, especially concerning the coordinating potential of design artifacts in DT projects. After discussing these insights, we outline directions for future research. We conclude by noting the managerial implications of our findings.
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Christoph Gerling
Hasso Plattner Institute, University of
Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
Anna Bosch-Herterich
University of St. Gallen, St. Gallen,
Danielly de Paula
Hasso Plattner Institute, University of
Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
Thomas Haskamp
Hasso Plattner Institute, University of
Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
Falk Uebernickel
Hasso Plattner Institute, University of
Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
Hasso Plattner Institute, University of Potsdam
Design Thinking and Innovation Research, Building E-1-3.01
Prof.-Dr.-Helmert-Str. 2-3, 14482 Potsdam
Differences in knowledge backgrounds hinder the work of cross-functional teams by
making knowledge integration more difficult, especially when the teams are confronted
with novelties in new product development (NDP) projects. Boundary objects are
attributed to a mediating capability. While design artifacts are often used to facilitate
communication in design thinking (DT) projects, their significance for collaborative
problem-solving in cross-functional teams is still unknown. Addressing the gap, we
analyze why particular artifacts turn into boundary objects and how these boundary
objects can be used in practice to facilitate problem-solving during the NPD process in
DT projects. Building on the results of semi-structured interviews with representatives of
five DT project teams, we illustrate the insights that boundary objects afford into the
practices of stakeholder integration. Our work can help shed new light on the
phenomenon, especially concerning the coordinating potential of design artifacts in DT
projects. After discussing these insights, we outline directions for future research. We
conclude by noting the managerial implications of our findings.
Many teams are confronted with situations where their members have not worked
together before, represent different fields of knowledge, have to solve complex problems
with new task requirements, have fluid team boundaries and temporary membership and
have to finish their work quickly due to time pressure (Dougherty, 2001; Edmondson &
Nembhard, 2009; Majchrzak et al., 2012; Van Der Vegt & Bunderson, 2005). Especially
in the field of new product development (NPD) and innovation, effective collaboration
and knowledge sharing in cross-functional teams are considered pressing challenges
(Carlile, 2002; Kimble et al., 2010; Wang & Wang, 2012). For instance, authors suggest
challenges in communication due to different viewpoints or knowledge background
among involved actors, which in turn may constitute a barrier to innovation (Bechky,
2006; Boland & Tenkasi, 1995; Dougherty, 2001). This is particularly evident in design
thinking (DT) projects (Skogstad & Leifer, 2011) due to the multidisciplinary nature of
DT teams.
Design thinking is a concept that promises increased innovativeness through a more user-
centered approach to innovation (Brown, 2008). Considering that successful DT projects
require the involvement of various stakeholders in the innovation process to leverage
complementary skills through multidisciplinary teams (e.g., designers, managers,
developers) (Mahmoud-Jouini et al., 2016), boundary objects (BOs) play an important
role in bridging knowledge domains. The concept of BOs describes an entity (i.e.,
abstract or physical artifact) that facilitates communication and understanding among
different communities of practice by providing a common reference point (Wenger,
2000). While design artifacts are often used to facilitate communication of cross-
functional teams in DT projects, research on how and why they turn into boundary
objects is still in its infancy (Kernbach & Svetina Nabergoj, 2018). To address that gap,
this study aims to analyze why particular artifacts turn into boundary objects and how
these boundary objects can be used in practice to facilitate communication in DT
projects. This leads to the following two research questions:
RQ1: How are design artifacts used to facilitate communication between different
stakeholder groups in DT projects?
RQ2: Why do particular artifacts turn into boundary objects during the DT process?
To explore the boundary spanning capabilities (how) of design artifacts, semi-structured
interviews with representatives of five DT project teams were conducted. The projects
aimed at developing digital solutions. Next, to understand why these artifacts turn into
boundary objects, eleven semi-structured interviews with participants of the different
involved stakeholder groups were conducted. Then, the interviews were analyzed based
on the lens of affordance theory (Gibson, 1979; Norman, 2013). Affordance theory
analyses a type of relationship between an object and a user, which identifies possibilities
that objects offer to humans, taking the abilities and objectives of the user into account
(Markus & Silver, 2008; Norman, 2013; Strong et al., 2014).
By applying the concept of boundary objects and affordance theory, this study (i)
identifies a set of relevant boundary objects and their spanning capabilities for digital
solutions in a DT context, and (ii) analyses affordances that stakeholder groups derive
from the identified set of boundary objects. This study is among the first efforts to
explore the boundary-spanning capability of design artifacts and their affordance in the
context of DT projects. We identify four use practice scenarios that exploit the
characteristics of artifacts in the context of DT. Further, we highlight the facilitating and
inhibiting factors of the affordance actualization. From a managerial perspective, this
study can guide practitioners on how to use boundary objects to facilitate communication
and collaboration during new product development in DT projects.
The paper is organized as follows. We start by introducing the research background of
design thinking, boundary objects, and affordances in the context of collaborative
problem-solving. We then outline the design of the in-depth case study and provide
information about the case set-up. After elevating the results, according to the research
goals stated above, we discuss the insights and limitations of our research. We conclude
with implications for future research and managerial action, taking that our work offers
for understanding collaborative work.
In order to investigate the influence of stakeholder perspectives on the boundary
spanning capabilities of design artifacts, the DT approach is reflected as a project. The
stakeholder groups considered and the associated challenges result from the project
structure. The project context determines the following theoretical considerations.
2.1 Understanding Design Thinking
Design thinking (DT) is a human-centered approach that promises to help teams to
create desirable products while ensuring technical feasibility and economic viability
(Brown, 2008). In doing so, design artifacts are used for augmenting collaborative
problem-solving abilities (Goldschmidt & Smolkov, 2006; Larkin & Simon, 1987;
Tversky & Suwa, 2009) and facilitating collaboration and co-construction of knowledge
(Dove et al., 2018; Eppler, 2004; Sibbet, 2010; van der Lugt, 2005).
Design involves "changing existing situations into preferred ones" (Simon, 1969). In
general, DT teams use four principles in design activities (Gaskin & Berente, 2011;
Wiesche et al., 2018). First, design is generative in the sense that it involves the creation
of novelty (e.g., the "artificial"). To create novelty, design requires the creation of new
knowledge or learning in a variety of design-related disciplines (Avital & Te’eni, 2009).
Second, design is iterative, as each newly created artifact is subjected to a test, which thus
influences subsequent design decisions. The DT teams examine their design hypotheses
and subject them to a variety of tests that include requirements, constraints, assumptions,
cognitive schemata, or multiple perspectives (Wiesche et al., 2018). The design emerges
as a result of the process (Carlgren et al., 2016). Third, these nested generation test cycles
occur in conjunction with representations and design artifacts themselves (Wiesche et al.,
2018). The DT team investigates alternatives and iterations across representations and
learns about both the problem and the solution (Dorst & Cross, 2001). Fourth, design
activity is complex because it inevitably and unpredictably leads to unexpected paths
(Wiesche et al., 2018). The DT team uses various strategies, including hierarchical
decomposition of design (Simon, 1969) or comprehensive description of the design
situation (Checkland, 1981), to address these complex design activities. Design thinkers
simultaneously construct the problem space while navigating the solution space (Wiesche
et al., 2018). Although there are many formulations of design thinking principles, most
views are represented in these four principles (Gaskin & Berente, 2011; Simon, 1969).
Moreover, there are many DT models in the literature. For instance, the model developed
by Uebernickel et al. (2015) depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Marco-process of design thinking (Uebernickel et al., 2015)
Hereafter, the explanations of the model are based on Wiesche et al. (2018). In the
beginning, the DT teams are provided with some basic instructions on the idea of the
procedure, the design challenge, and team building activities. In the next step, the teams
perform need finding and explore the design space. This is an ongoing phase in which the
teams collect, synthesize, and use available information about their design challenges.
Next, critical functions are extracted from the problem area that needs to be integrated
into the final solution. The dark horse phase explicitly shifts the solution search outside
of what can normally be considered reasonable. As a result, the DT teams often
encountered successful solutions that were previously considered too "crazy" to use or
implement. In the funky phase, the most successful parts of the previous phases are
connected, and low-resolution prototypes are built (Wiesche et al., 2018).
The functional phase includes the first concrete preview of the ultimate solution that
integrates working functions. During the X-is finished phase, a key functionality the
"X" is fully implemented and tested. This functionality should consider the core of the
ultimate prototype. The final prototype phase includes the solution to one or more
important identified requirements and provides the experience of using the real product
(Wiesche et al., 2018). Within these phases, an iterative cycle of five steps is
continuously iterated (Hehn et al., 2018; Vetterli et al., 2016). The (current) definition of
the problem is followed by the discovery of unarticulated user needs, which then
influence the brainstorming process to develop new ideas. Prototyping and testing of
these ideas make it possible to learn to what extent the targeted requirements have been
met, which allows a new, more precise problem definition that restarts the cycle. The DT
methodology offers a variety of different elements that can be used at each step of the
process (Wiesche et al., 2018).
Reflecting DT as a project, challenges are threefold. First, DT, as a creative project
requires people from different backgrounds with different functions and distinct thought-
worlds (Dougherty, 1992). Considering the diversity of all stakeholders involved,
efficient and effective communication and knowledge exchange is a concern (Eppler &
Kernbach, 2016; Graff & Clark, 2019; Häger et al., 2015). The formation of a consistent
perception of the domain, requirements, project goals, individual team roles, and the
design process itself is challenging. Especially the creation of a common understanding is
an ongoing process that is built and rebuilt through the interaction of team members
(Clark & Brennan, 1991).
Second, DT, as a project, does not exist on its own. Providing the resources, the project is
carried by one or more organizations and has more or less clear boundaries with its
stakeholders. This results in integration or handover challenges (Beyhl et al., 2013; Häger
et al., 2015). On the one hand, design artifacts have to be transferred to internal or
external customers. On the other hand, idea generation is often separated from the
implementation (Beyhl et al., 2014). Third, DT, as a creative project, is a time-limited
endeavor. Especially after the end of the project but not only afterward, the emergent
nature poses a challenge for traceability (Gotel & Finkelstein, 1997). Tracking the project
path proves to be difficult (von Thienen et al., 2015). Much knowledge is not
documented at all and remains implicit, which poses the risk of information loss during
the process (Hehn et al., 2018). This conflicts with the need for transparency all
stakeholders understand what is being done and how certain ideas were generated (Häger
et al., 2015).
2.2 Boundary Objects
Knowledge sharing across boundaries is challenging in NPD and significant within DT
project teams. Particular problems in communication arise due to different viewpoints or
knowledge backgrounds among involved actors, which in turn may constitute a barrier to
innovation (Skogstad & Leifer, 2011). Design artifacts can take on a common reference
point during the course of DT projects and turn into boundary objects (BOs). In this
sense, BOs enable “representing, learning about, and transforming knowledge to resolve
the consequences that exist at a given boundary” (Carlile, 2002, p. 422).
In the mediation and translation of social and conceptional worlds, Carlile (2002)
identifies three different types of knowledge boundaries. First, the syntactic boundary
refers to a lack of common syntax between different stakeholder groups and the resulting
language differences (Carlile, 2002). E.g., to express novel ideas, designers or managers
may have to develop a new vocabulary that is difficult to communicate to developers.
Second, the semantic boundary refers to differences in interpretation between different
stakeholder groups (Carlile, 2002). E.g., designers and developers often have inconsistent
interpretations of the desired product qualities. Third, the pragmatic boundary refers to
different viewpoints of stakeholders rooted in different interests (Carlile, 2002). E.g.,
managers and technical experts may have different views on how to implement a
function, as the managers are interested in low development costs, and developers are
interested in technical elegance.
BOs are defined by their capability to serve as bridges between overlapping social and
conceptual worlds (Dougherty, 1992). Anchored in these worlds and thus meaningful,
they create the conditions for collaboration, while their flexibility of interpretation means
that they do not require "deep sharing" (Nicolini et al., 2012, p. 614). This is based on the
understanding that the boundary spanning capabilities of an object relates to its
properties. In particular, an object is abstract when it represents ideas in ambiguous,
rudimentary or generic terms, but is concrete when it represents ideas in unambiguous or
specific terms. An object is plastic if it can be adapted to situational requirements, and an
object is robust if it cannot be adapted to situational requirements (Star, 2010).
While early research focused on objects and their properties (Carlile, 2002, 2004), other
studies draw attention to what people do with objects, i.e., practices (Levina & Vaast,
2005; Nicolini et al., 2012). The latter studies show that objects only unfold their
boundary spanning capabilities if they are meaningfully incorporated into working
practices. Therefore, objects do not automatically enable the transfer, translation or
creation of knowledge. They have to be appropriated to the situation of the actors (Levina
& Vaast, 2005). In addition, according to Huber et al. (2020), the usage of BOs can have
various desirable effects. For example, objects can facilitate the transfer and translation of
knowledge (Carlile, 2004), the balancing of interests (Levina & Vaast, 2005), the
coordination of expertise (Barrett & Oborn, 2010) and the overcoming of cultural
differences (Barrett & Oborn, 2010), the realization of a vision (Boland et al., 2007), the
communication of design ideas (Boland et al., 2007) and joint problem solving
(Ewenstein & Whyte, 2009).
Doolin and McLeod (2012) argue Star’s (2010) revised conceptualization of BOs objects
is compatible with the ontological foundations of socio-materiality and they reformulate
the use of design artifacts as a socio-material practice. In line with Huber et al. (2020),
two implications of their work are particularly relevant for our research. First, object
usage practices are highly context-sensitive, i.e., "a [BO] may be performed differently
across multiple sites, times, practices and participants, with varying effects" (Doolin &
McLeod, 2012, p. 571). This calls for research in novel contexts with unique and even
extreme properties to better understand the nature of object usage. Second, the usefulness
of a BO in bridging different boundaries of knowledge is neither completely determined
by its material properties nor by the intentions of the people who use the object but
results from the "constitutive interweaving of the two" (Doolin & McLeod, 2012, p. 573).
This requires research that explicitly recognizes two roles of object properties, i.e., how
different object properties afford different usage practices and how these usage practices
in turn form object properties (Doolin & McLeod, 2012). DT, with its pronounced
penchant for the visual and material, offers the unique opportunity to answer these calls
by providing new context-specific explanations. In the sections that follow, then we
mobilize the theoretical lens of affordances in order to develop new insights into the role
that design artifacts perform in the interplay stated above.
2.3 Affordances
Anchored in the objective to explore what boundary objects afford knowledge
mediation and translation between DT stakeholder groups, we ground our research in the
theory of affordances. Originated in ecological psychology, it traces back to the logic that
animals recognize the possibilities that objects in their environment offer to them
(Gibson, 1977). As widely adopted in different domains (Hartson, 2003; Kreijns et al.,
2004; Seidel et al., 2013), we build on the concept of functional affordances, i.e.,
possibilities for goal-oriented action afforded to specified stakeholder groups by objects
(Markus & Silver, 2008). Therefore, this relational concept has to be seen in the context
of (1) a stakeholder with his capabilities and goals and (2) the material properties (e.g.,
characteristics) that the design artifact provides. Herein, functional affordances are
objective, i.e., they exist without being perceived and valued by a stakeholder in terms of
meaning and interpretation, and they are subjective, as a specified stakeholder group is
required “as a frame of reference” (Pozzi et al., 2014).
There are two main reasons why this theoretical lens is particularly well suited for this
exploratory research. First, taking up an affordance perspective allows us to investigate
the following: (1) the causal potentials of design artifacts and (2) the goals, motivations,
characteristics, and abilities of the stakeholders considered. Second, the relational
character of affordances is fruitful to shed light on the conditions under which the
creation, perception, and actualization of affordances takes place for different stakeholder
groups. This in line with the socio-materiality perspective on BOs reciprocal
relationship of object properties and use practices (Leonardi, 2011). Affordances are real,
in case they exist independently of the perception of the stakeholder (Gibson, 1977).
Previous research distinguishes between the emergence of action potentials (i.e., the
existence of an affordance for a particular stakeholder), their recognition (i.e., the
perception by the stakeholder) and their realization (i.e., the actualization by the
stakeholder, which can lead to certain effects) (Bernhard et al., 2013). The existing
possibilities for action that a design artifact offers certain stakeholders are neither infinite
nor always possible (Strong et al., 2014). In fact, depending on their abilities and goals,
the possibilities offered may be limited to certain stakeholder groups (Strong et al., 2014).
Stöckli et al. (2019) link the emergence, perception, and actualization of affordances to
the socio-material conditions. The decomposition into social (i.e., actors and structures)
and material (i.e., artifact characteristics and use practices) subsystems allow us to
understand why design artifacts become BOs for different stakeholder groups and why
The archetypes of perceived functional performance can be distinguished in two
dimensions (Savoli & Barki, 2013). First, perception changes with the goals and wishes
of the stakeholder under consideration. Secondly, stakeholders can perceive themselves
or artifacts as actors. The perception of value is influenced by many factors (e.g.,
available information) and includes the perception of non-existent value (Bernhard et al.,
2013). Perceived affordances can be actualized depending on the stakeholders’ agency
and influenced by factors such as the expected result or the perceived effort (Bernhard et
al., 2013). For a particular stakeholder, a particular design artifact can provide several
affordances. These affordances may be interdependent. The affordances may also be
considered at different levels, namely at different stakeholder group levels (Leonardi,
2012; Strong et al., 2014) (e.g., individual, group, organization) and from different design
artifact perspectives (Savoli & Barki, 2013) (e.g., conceptual or physical).
The empirical study, next, demonstrates how design artifacts turn into BOs. The
affordance lens can produce a level of understanding about the role of objects in
collaboration that the concept of BOs could not achieve when used in isolation. The
novel insights that derive from this juxtaposition of approaches make up the final part of
the paper, together with signposts for further research.
Building on the conceptual foundations pointed out before, this study aims to analyze
how design artifacts in DT projects turn into BOs and why. Striving to contribute towards
a better understanding of the boundary-spanning capabilities of design artifacts, we
inductively gain rich empirical data (Corbin & Strauss, 1990; Eisenhardt, 1989) from an
embedded multiple-case study to investigate the phenomenon of interest in its real-world
context (Yin, 2003). The cases derive from a university course where teams face a design
challenge provided by a corporate sponsor. Since we aimed to achieve generalizable and
robust results, we selected cases that were mainly replications (Yin, 2012), i.e., projects
that took place in the same social structure of the university course.
3.1 Case setting
Five DT projects developed as part of a master’s course in a university context were
selected. The five DT projects were selected based on the premise of similarity
(Eisenhardt, 1989). For instance, project duration (8 months), a digital technology-related
problem definition, and a multidisciplinary team configuration (mainly master students
from management, design, computer science, and engineering). Each project was
composed of the following stakeholder groups (i) design team, (ii) corporate sponsor, (iii)
external developer and (iv) teaching team. The design team acted as the primary
stakeholder group by being in the center of the relationship and in close contact with all
the other stakeholder groups. The interaction among the actors occurred in four distinct
modes with respective boundaries. Figure 2 illustrates the boundaries among the
mentioned stakeholder groups involved in the design thinking projects.
(1) Intradesign team. The design teams consisted of students from two universities. In
this study, the design team from the selected university is called “local design team”,
whereas the design team from the second university is called “partner design team”. The
entire team is referred to as the design team. The local design team met several times a
week for personal work sessions. The interaction with the partner design team was based
on a weekly conference call. Depending on the geographical distance, several real
working meetings took place during the course of the project. The design teams had little
or no experience in using DT to create design artifacts. However, they shared the same
level of coaching support from the teaching team who are experienced DT experts to
identify needs and artifacts to address their problem.
(2) Design team corporate sponsor. Every design team had a liaison with a corporate
sponsor, comparable to an internal customer relationship. An exchange took place weekly
via conference call and every two months personally in a workshop. The corporate
sponsor of each team was responsible for indicating the challenge that each team would
work on during the eight months of the project. (3) Design team external developer. If
certain programming skills were required that were not available within the team, the
teams were free to work with one external service provider. (4) Design team teaching
team. The teaching team consisted of two professional DT coaches and met weekly with
each project team to discuss the current project status and potential next steps. The
teaching team is responsible for coaching the design teams. For that, they followed the
design thinking approach discussed in Section 2.
Figure 2: Boundaries among stakeholder groups involved in a design thinking project
3.2 Data Collection
To address our research questions, we obtained data from three sources of evidence
consisting of course-related documents (SoE1), card sorting (SoE2), and semi-structured
interviews (SoE3). In total, eleven semi-structured interviews with five students, four
corporate sponsors, and two teaching assistants were conducted in the timespan of March
and April 2019. All interviews were recorded and transcribed right after conduction. To
further disclose the interview process, all interviews were conducted either in German or
English, depending on the native tongue of the interviewee to increase the expressiveness
of their statements. Due to large distances, all interviews were conducted using online
video chat software (i.e., Skype and Zoom). Miro (previously known as RealtimeBoard)
was utilized for card sorting as a method for knowledge elicitation (Barrett & Edwards,
1995). Table 1 illustrates how members of the different stakeholder groups are related to
the five selected projects, and also the duration of the interviews.
Table 1: Sources of evidence according to stakeholder groups
Embedded case (project)
1:07:52 h
1:29:23 h
1:08:14 h
1:10:34 h
1:24:08 h
0:39:39 h
0:33:47 h
0:29:29 h
0:21:06 h
A, C, E
B, D, E
0:33:01 h
0:40:14 h
The interviews were composed of two rounds. The first round of interviews aimed at
investigating how design artifacts turned into BO during the projects from the design
team perspective. In this way, members of the design team sampled purposefully
according to their availability and willingness to participate (Spradley, 1979). We started
with structured questions to record the personal background of the interviewees.
Grounded in open-ended questions, the interviewees were asked to name and describe
objects they perceive as boundary spanning. The concept of BOs was described in the
natural language of the interviewees as it is rather abstract and thus not intuitively
understandable. During the interviews, participants were asked to play a card sorting
exercise (SoE2), which consists of pre-labeled cards, each displaying artifacts derived
from course-related documents (SoE1). In particular, incorporating card sorting activities
into in-depth interviews has proved as a research approach to gain an understanding of
how participants understand and organize concepts (Conrad & Tucker, 2019). The
participants were then asked to assign all artifacts they consider as BO to the respective
stakeholder group, where the object serves as important boundary-spanning means
(multiple answers possible). Hereafter, they were asked to select three objects per
stakeholder group they considered as most useful in terms of their boundary spanning
capability. Finally, these objects were discussed in regard to their affordances. While the
concept of affordances itself was not introduced to the participants, they were asked for
specific use cases of each object and why they consider it as especially useful. As
affordances are mostly perceived unconsciously, participants are likely to have
difficulties articulating why they used certain objects and why these objects have been
especially useful. Therefore, laddering was applied as an interview technique to elicit
information which are otherwise very difficult to obtain (Miles et al., 2014; Reynolds &
Gutman, 1988). The interviews lasted between 67 and 89 minutes. The interview guide
was discussed within the teaching team and pre-tested in a pilot interview.
The interview guide for the second round of interviews was prepared based on the
information gathered during the first round of interviews with the design team. The
second round of the interviews aimed at testing the pre-identified BOs (three objects per
stakeholder group) with stakeholders that are not part of the design team. The following
modes of interaction were considered (1) design team - corporate sponsor, and (2) design
team teaching team. Only two design teams collaborated with external developers, and
these could not be accessed. For that reason, this group was excluded. All interviewees
from the second round were asked the same questions as the first group concerning their
personal background. Following a detailed introduction of the context and objective of
the study, the interviewees were asked regarding their perceived affordances of the three
selected BOs. Similarly to the first round of interviews, laddering (Miles et al., 2014;
Reynolds & Gutman, 1988) was applied again as an interview technique to elicit in-depth
insights on the perceived affordances. After discussing the pre-selected BOs in detail, the
participants were asked if and why they consider any other artifact as especially useful in
terms of their boundary spanning capability at the interface to the design team. The
interviews lasted between 21 and 40 minutes.
3.3 Data Analysis
According to the principles of grounded theory, the analysis of the data started at the
same time as the data collection. The analysis is based on the coding of the collected data
(Lawrence & Tar, 2013). In order to analyze the collected qualitative data, all recorded
interviews were transcribed literally (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). While all transcripts were
written in the original language (German or English), the coding is subsequently carried
out in English. According to the guidelines of Corbin and Strauss (2008), an open coding
technique was performed for this study. During the process of open coding, in which the
data is broken down and grouped into codes (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), initial concepts
and relevant information regarding perceived affordances were identified. All interviews
were coded line by line (Glaser, 1978), using the software NVivo to assist in the coding
and analysis of the data.
Embedded in five DT projects carried out in a comparable social and organizational
context of an university course, our research particularly analyzes design artifacts that
turn into BOs concerning four stakeholder boundaries. The boundaries represent the four
modes of interaction, as depicted in a triangle in Figure 2. How and why these artifacts
turn into BOs is illustrated by providing information about the use practice context.
Usage practices refer to how project stakeholders use an object in specific situations
(Levina & Vaast, 2005), i.e., in our work, the different activities and actions through
which DT project stakeholders interact with design artifacts. The use practices are
derived from the Stanford Design Thinking process, as described in Section 2. Based on
the card sorting results, only artifacts that have been attributed boundary spanning
capabilities by at least four design team members are considered. These artifacts include
stakeholder maps, personas, sketches and scribbles, feedback grids, low-fidelity
prototypes, high-fidelity prototypes, and final documentation. Further artifacts are
highlighted in the DT use practice context.
4.1 Boundary objects and their spanning capabilities
In line with Huber et al. (2020), our conceptualization of the design artifact as BO
adopts the broader concept of artifacts in a DT environment and recognizes the ubiquity
of artifacts in this context: The artifact is not a single object, but a multitude of
simultaneously existing, related objects (Nicolini et al., 2012). Due to their social
materiality, design artifacts are open for a wide variety of interactions. In this study,
however, we identified common use practices in the context of DT projects in an
educational setup in the form of use scenarios that explain how design artifacts turn into
BOs. According to the criteria of Star (2010), on a superordinate level, four patterns of
use practices were identified. The interrelation, which we have adapted to the context of
DT and illustrated in the form of a matrix, is shown in Figure 3. Here the boundaries are
to be understood as fluid. More specifically, the identified use practices can be
considered (1) to create knowledge collaboratively, (2) to validate knowledge, (3) to
assess knowledge, or (4) to deliver knowledge.
Figure 3: Boundary object use scenarios in the field of DT (axis division based on Star, 2010)
Collaborative knowledge creation. Observations, empathic feelings, and tacit
knowledge tend to be chaotic or unstructured (Glen et al., 2015, p. 201). In order to create
a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), it is, therefore, necessary to find ways
to extract and visualize the knowledge and to search for themes and patterns. Herein,
visualization and sense-making activities are important for organizing, framing, and
reframing shared knowledge. In this regard, especially within the design team, sketches,
and scribbles are considered particularly valuable (#01, #02, #03, #04). They helped to
identify overlapping or divergent ideas (#1), promoted a shared understanding of ideas
under discussion (#01, #02), and were reference points for further discussion (#1). As
these are abstract and plastic artifacts so that they can be adapted flexibly and
dynamically as knowledge develops. Design teams face periods of indeterminacy and
equivocality (Welsh & Dehler, 2013). Abstract and plastic artifacts help to deal with the
ambiguity as they move from the design challenge through the design space exploration
phase. The abstract nature of the artifacts can turn into concreteness as the teams gather
more information they can make sense of. The abstractness may not subside until patterns
begin to emerge, and promising ideas take form as concrete prototypes (Brown, 2009).
Knowledge validation. While design teams progress through the DT project, they
engage in a series of validation cycles (Dorst & Cross, 2001). For instance, the creation
of artifacts includes developing low fidelity prototypes to facilitate dialogue with the
stakeholders, observing reactions and interacts with the prototypes, and learning from this
process to confirm or invalidate the assumptions underlying the prototype creation,
leading to the development of new knowledge (Glen et al., 2015). Especially, artifacts
that are concrete and plastic are used to examine and test design hypotheses from
different points of view. To a certain extent, they also support knowledge decomposition.
In that line, plastic artifacts serve primarily for the internalization of knowledge and to
bridge borders between the design team on the one side and corporate sponsor or teaching
team on the other side (#01, #02, #03, #04, #05). For example, low fidelity prototypes
promoted the insight generation from different knowledge backgrounds (#04). They
supported manifestation for feedback (#01, #02, #03, 04, #14). One corporate sponsor
stated: “Those things make the work [tangible] because there is a lot of vagueness around
what is happening [...] it makes things concrete. That is the big word here" (#08).
Knowledge assessment. Due to the attachment in a project-bearing structure, the design
team needs to report about resources used and the progress made. In the context of DT,
this can be regarded as internal proof of viability and feasibility. Viability and feasibility
must be formally addressed and subjected to feedback (Glen et al., 2015). This involves
the movement from understanding “what wows” to understanding “what works” (Liedtka
& Ogilvie, 2011, p. 21). Given the formal context, the artifacts used for this purpose are
robust but still rather abstract. These artifacts make fewer assumptions about the ability to
predict the final outcome, allowing for flexible experimentation, assumption testing, and
reduced cost of failure. In earlier phases, communication had included gathering
information from outside of the team, intense interaction within the team, and soliciting
feedback. In the final phase, the design teams demonstrate the ability to confidently
present their decisions regarding business viability (Glen et al., 2015). Especially one-
pagers were mentioned here to make knowledge accessible for the corporate sponsor and
teaching team (#01, #02, #03, #04, #05). The one-pager supported the communication of
key activities and learnings for every phase (#01, #06). As they were "short, straight to
the point, and simple to read" (#14) and exchanged on a regular basis, the design team
thought it is more useful to share the project process with the corporate sponsor than the
documentations submitted in the middle and at the end of the project (#01). Further, the
corporate sponsors valued one-pagers' ability to have something they can share with
third-parties not involved in the project (#01, #09).
Knowledge delivery. At the end of the project, the knowledge must be made usable so
that it can be processed without further explanation. Artifacts that are concrete and robust
can be used directly by the recipient for knowledge consumption, as far as the artifacts
themselves allow it. The knowledge is made available to the recipient in an easily
processable way. In the context of the educational multi-stakeholder setup, especially
high-fidelity prototypes and final documentation were assigned to this class of artifacts.
They are handed over to the corporate sponsor and teaching team in the final phase of the
project (#01, #02, #03, #04, #05). The “external” stakeholder can only use the
functionalities that are given to them directly and perceive additional information
provided by the final documentation. The interviews pointed out the documentation
enabled them to communicate the whole project journey (#02, #06, #07) and reasoning
behind the final solution in an amount of detail they were not able before (#01, #04, #13).
Moreover, the corporate sponsors perceived the final documentation not only valuable in
the context of the project but also as means to leverage learnings for subsequent projects
(#06, #07). In addition, the final prototype promoted the "imaginative power [of] how
[the] final product could look like” (#09). To conclude, artifacts become BO if their
characteristics match the needs or objectives of the stakeholders. The relationship is
further explored under the lens of affordances.
4.2 Affordances according to stakeholder groups
Interpreting design artifacts through the lens of affordances reveals further
characteristics of their boundary spanning capability. Boundary objects entail forms of
physical and social materiality, which are relevant to stakeholders and endure across time
and place (Leonardi, 2012). However, to obtain meaning and effects from boundary
objects requires their enrollment in practices embedded in the social structure of the
projects (Orlikowski & Barley, 2001). To understand why artifacts, develop boundary
spanning capabilities between different stakeholders, the analysis of affordance provides
a revealing approach. Defined as the possibilities for goal-oriented action provided by an
object (Markus & Silver, 2008), a closer examination of the perceived affordances can
shield light on the motives of the stakeholders. For this paper, the final documentation is
analyzed. Our research reveals affordances and constraints in the context of DT projects.
In the following, these affordances and constraints are explained by providing empirical
evidence from the actualization context. It is in the nature of affordances that design
artifacts offer different opportunities to different people. Since the final documentation is
only relevant for the stakeholder design team, corporate sponsor, and teaching team, the
elaboration will be limited to them.
Perceived boundary spanning capabilities. First, the final documentation is used for
capturing experiences and sharing with third parties that have not been directly involved
(#02, #04, #06, #07). Furthermore, the final documentation is utilized for communicating
the reasoning behind decisions taken during the course of the project (#2, #4). In
particular, boundary-spanning capabilities were perceived by exchanging a number of
details that could not be shared before. Aside from attracting attention to the project
(#04), the final documentation is used as a reference point to look up learnings made
during the project (#06, #07). Second, boundary-spanning capabilities include
manifestation for feedback (#07). For instance, based on the documentation, the corporate
sponsor and the teaching team had the opportunity to ask questions about the general
course of the project and the final prototype. Third, the final documentation is used for
gaining a holistic overview (#01, #13) and a basis to evaluate the projects' quality. Lastly,
it was used to dispel doubts among corporate project sponsors (#02).
Constrains. First, constraints emerged from the information complexity of the final
documentation. The stakeholders perceived high media processing efforts compared to
artifacts of lower information density such as one-pagers, while the richness of usable
information was limited for some stakeholders. One design team member even doubted
the final documentation "is just too comprehensive to be actually read" (#01). Second, the
design teams faced constraints from the limited perception of use cases of the final
documentation. They did not consider the affordance that the corporate sponsors could
make use of the documentation also after the project is finished (#02, #04). Third, the
design team members perceived constraints in one-time unidirectional communication.
They perceived exchange on a regular basis (e.g., via one-pager) more useful than
submitting documentations in the middle and at the end of the project (#01). Fourth,
design team members and corporate sponsors perceived constraints due to its mediating
nature. They highlighted the essential role of personal communication and interaction to
encourage close collaboration (#05, #06, #07). Company visits and other face-to-face
meetings are perceived as very important from both.
Still, stakeholders may or may not realize the perceived boundary spanning capabilities.
In fact, the perceived value decreased according to the level of involvement. Our results
suggest that understanding an individual's boundary-spanning actualization requires the
socialmatrial context (Leonardi, 2012), which compromises facilitating (+) and impeding
(-) factors. Figure 4 summarizes the factors according to the artifact and social
Figure 4: Facilitating and inhibiting context factors (in analogy to Stöckli et al., 2019)
Artifact subsystem. As elaborated above, the final documentation is part of a larger
artifact system. The stakeholders make use of it at the end of the project. An artifact
landscape with many possibilities to exchange knowledge beforehand impedes partially
the actualization of boundary spanning capabilities (#06, #08). This goes along with
alternative artifacts that offer similar affordances, e.g., one-pagers and insight statements
(#03, #06). Artifacts that were more frequently used during the course of the project
served as reference points for communication (#01, #04). Comparisons also include low
fidelity prototypes. These more plastic artifacts supported a bidirectional sharing of
information and promoted interactive discussions between the two parties. Especially,
design team members thought it is more useful to share the project process with the
corporate sponsor than the documentations submitted in the middle and at the end of the
project (#01). In contrast, the robust and concrete nature of the final documentation
promoted the sharing with third parties not involved in the project (#06, #09). The
material context of the artifacts, in turn, goes along with the use practice environment.
Performing use practices in the context of DT that offer boundary spanning capabilities
inhibits team members’ willingness to contribute to the final documentation. For
instance, insight statements and hot reports containing direct quotes that serve as a basis
for argumentation. One corporate sponsor added, "they brought us this consolidated voice
of the customer and put certain decisions in place when our internal business users were
not ready to believe the answers that the [design] teams were bringing in front of us.”
(#08). Finally, face-to-face communication inhibits the actualization of the final
documentation’s boundary spanning capabilities. The interviewees have highlighted the
essential role of personal communication and interaction to encourage close collaboration
(#05, #06, #07).
Social subsystem. The stakeholders are part of a wider social subsystem. The final
documentation, as well as high fidelity prototypes and one-pagers, were identified to
facilitate knowledge sharing with third-parties not involved in the project (#06, #07, #09).
One corporate sponsor even stated that content-wise the one-pager does not include any
new information for him as he is in close contact with the team anyway (#09). Instead,
they were perceived as facilitating factors to attract attention to the project within the
company (#04). Further, the documentation was used for the assessment of the quality of
the project (#12), which can be considered as facilitating and inhibiting. On the one hand,
the documentation bridges knowledge boundaries by providing a measure for the
assessment of different thought worlds. On the other hand, the main purpose is not to
exchange knowledge in a collaborative manner. Overall the asymmetry of the balance of
power should be considered as an inhibiting factor. Artifacts such as the final
documentations are used partially politically instead of simply bridging gaps in
knowledge. Moreover, insight statements and hot reports facilitated corporate sponsors'
and teaching team's empathy with potential users through enhancing a shared
understanding of respective needs and requirements. Besides, one-pagers are considered
as facilitating factors to balance knowledge gaps regarding the methodology of DT itself
by promoting understanding of the DT methodology and sharing their knowledge with
other parties within the company. Finally, we found work practices that facilitate
alternative ways to exchange knowledge and inhibit the use of boundary objects. For
example, weekly meetings and company visits with face-to-face exchange were
mentioned here (#05, #07, #07).
Implications for research. We address calls for research on context-specific
explanations of artifact use practices (Doolin & McLeod, 2012; Huber et al., 2020;
Marheineke, 2016) by elaborating how and why artifacts turn into BOs in the
environment of DT projects. On a higher level, the identified use scenarios can be
considered (1) to facilitate sense-making and collaborative problem solving, (2) to gain
feedback and validate assumptions, (3) to make knowledge accessible and tangible for
third parties, (4) and to provide applicable knowledge.
Our results reveal that rather abstract and plastic artifacts such as sketches and scribbles
are used for organizing, framing, and reframing information and to make sense out of it
collaboratively. These artifacts are therefore mainly used to meet the challenge of
different worlds of thought (Dougherty, 1992) by enabling the creation of a common
understanding of people from different backgrounds with different functions. Rather
concrete and robust artifacts are utilized to share knowledge with third parties not
involved in the project and to extract learnings from the project after it is completed.
Thus, that type of artifact is more likely actualized to tackle hand-over challenges and the
temporal constraints of a project. Even though DT is supposed to promote empathy and
open communication between the various stakeholders, the results of our study indicate
that stakeholders prefer robust artifacts in a power asymmetry.
Drawing on the need for an object to be locally useful to act as a successful BO (Star &
Griesemer, 1989), the results reveal that design artifacts become BOs because of their
affordances the various options for action offered to the parties involved (Gibson,
1979). Affordance theory, therefore, offers a useful construct for the discovery of object-
user relationships (Wang et al., 2018) and promotes an understanding of why certain
design artifacts are perceived as BOs from the perspective of the stakeholders involved.
Reflecting on the emergence and actualization of affordances (Bernhard et al., 2013;
Pozzi et al., 2014; Stöckli et al., 2019), allows us to infer from the subsets of the
perceived services of individuals a larger set of the existing services of an object. The
decisive factor for an artifact to become a BO-in-use is that it has been found to be
locally useful by the individuals interacting with it.
Implications for practice. Practitioners who create and use design artifacts during DT
projects, should mitigate the identified constraints and inhibit socio-material context
factors while enhancing facilitating factors. Design team members and project sponsors
and supervisors should consider the use of scenarios and trajectories by supporting these
practices and preventing the identified constraints as well as inhibiting context factors.
For instance, abstract and plastic artifacts such as sketches and scribbles help to deal with
the ambiguity as the team moves from the design challenge through the design space
exploration phase. The abstract nature of the artifacts can turn into concreteness as the
team gathers more information they can make sense of. More robust and concrete
artifacts are beneficial to communicate to and defend against third parties not involved in
the project.
In summary, the contributions of our research are twofold. The effectiveness of a design
artifact as a boundary object depends on the use practices as well as the variation and
goals of the stakeholder who interacts with the artifacts. However, we identified four
patterns of common use practices in the context of DT projects in an educational setup in
the form of use scenarios that explain how design artifacts turn into BOs. Specifically, we
showed which practices of using a design artifact result in team members tackling
different challenges of DT projects. Moreover, we unpacked the dual role of object
properties for the effectiveness of these practices empirically by showing (a) how
variations in object properties can enable different use practices in DT that exploit these
differences, and (b) how object properties are preferred by different stakeholders when
knowledge boundaries are bridged beyond the project. Examining the role of artifacts
through lens of affordances allowed us to see that the role and function are perceived
differently according to the goals and motives of the stakeholders. Thus, the same artifact
can be in the center or recede into the background. The pluralistic perspective allows for
a better understanding of sources of conflict and possible issues in collaborative problem-
Nevertheless, our results must be viewed in light of its limitations. First, the selected
educational cases and interviewees possibly share behavioral and perceptual traits that
may not be representative. However, the conditions were similar to those within
companies. Project sponsors posed challenges. In analogy to dedicated design thinking
teams, the teams worked on the cases. Similar to project managers, the teaching team
members reviewed the teams' performance regularly. Second, the number of eleven
interviews across three stakeholder groups seems to be insufficient to generalize the
results. Third, the nature of knowledge boundaries between the stakeholder groups was
not considered in detail. Fourth, the artifacts mainly regarded are not DT-specific due to
the self-selection procedure. Thus, future research in a pure corporate environment with a
larger sample size with a focus on the nature of knowledge barriers is needed.
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... In the following, we will describe and discuss how we gathered the (meta-)requirements and derived the design principles as well as features, relevant for the development of the design pattern cards. The main insights are illustrated in Figure 3. [50] Deriving Requirements from Literature. We gathered requirements from literature fundamental to the development of the EDA navigator. ...
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As more and more organizations reach the limits of their internal capabilities to deal with the challenges induced by digital transformation, they are increasingly forced to seek external digitalization opportunities. In particular, small and medium enterprises are affected by this due to their limited human and financial resources. Currently, there is a lack of overview of options considering limited internal digital capabilities and resources. Thus, we choose an action design research approach to develop an external digitalization activity navigator. As a result, we derive five design principles for successful navigation and 30 activities, which are presented as design pattern cards. Our work can help practitioners and scholars alike to structure external digitalization activities.
... While design artefacts are often used to facilitate communication their value and usage in CPs is still unclear. In particular, a longer observation period is required (Gerling et al., 2020;Huber et al., 2020). To address that gap, our research combines the concepts of CPs and BOs to identify the boundary spanning capabilities of the utilized objects and gaining a holistic understanding of when and how they can contribute to overcoming the challenges that multi-stakeholder collaborations are presented with. ...
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As more and more organizations are reaching the limits of their internal innovation performance, they are increasingly forced to seek external innovation opportunities through inter-organizational collaboration forms, such as creative projects. These collaborations require both efficient and effective forms of communication since a common understanding is required for success. Differences in knowledge backgrounds hinder the collaboration of multiple stakeholder groups by making knowledge integration difficult, especially when they collaborate for the first time. Boundary objects are attributed a mediating capability. While design artifacts are often used to facilitate communication, their value in promoting multi-stakeholder collaboration is not yet fully understood. Addressing the gap, we analyze when artifacts turn into boundary objects and how they promote interaction between stakeholder groups. Building on the results of an in-depth case-study, we illustrate the insights that boundary objects provide for stakeholder integration. After discussing these insights, we outline directions for future research and practice.
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Bridging knowledge boundaries among project team members is essential to prevent delays or complete failure of software development projects. Prior researchers have reported that software prototypes can be used to help bridge knowledge boundaries between team members in traditional software development settings, yet their use in an agile development setting remains unexplored. Agile development centers the interactions between team members on emerging representations of the prototype whose properties are prone to change over time. Therefore, we conducted an in‐depth study of an agile development project to enhance our understanding on how software prototypes are used as boundary objects in a distributed team setting. Our analyses of team member interactions during 46 virtual meetings that took place over a period of 6 months revealed four different prototype use practices (exemplifying, contrasting, relating, framing) that were effective in bridging syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic knowledge boundaries. We also provide empirically grounded evidence of how variations in object properties can afford different use practices, how the use practices take advantage of these properties, and how object properties are reshaped through these use practices as different types of knowledge boundaries are bridged. These findings bear important implications for research on prototypes as boundary objects in software development in particular and boundary object use in general.
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As our world is getting increasingly servitized and digitized, innovation is no longer bound to physical products. Customer experience and innovative services have become the new imperative for business success. Design Thinking is becoming a valid approach for service innovation in the digital age. However, a profound understanding of “how” Design Thinking contributes to service innovation is still missing. We show this by conducting a Delphi study which includes 14 Design Thinking experts across different company sizes and industries. As a result, we demonstrate consensus on 59 highly relevant methods for service innovation allocated to the respective Design Thinking phase. This is the first study to provide a comprehensive view on Design Thinking methods for service innovation. We enhance the understanding of Design Thinking and lay the foundation for further investigations into the service innovation process. Practitioners receive guidance from our findings for applying those methods.
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Universities increasingly incorporate multidisciplinary design projects into their curriculum to better prepare their students for the labor market. In these projects, student team members of various disciplinary backgrounds develop new product or service concepts for organizational partners. This structure enables students to learn not only from the interaction with the content and lecturer, but also from communication with other team members. Little is known, however, about the relative effectiveness of specific communication modes on improving student learning outcomes in these interactions. This study examines the effect of three important communication modes—metaphors, visualizations, and narratives—on reported learning from other members. A total of 64 students working on two large multidisciplinary design student teams participated in this study. Survey results indicate that perceived learning increases through awareness and use of metaphorical communication, beyond previously supported effects for narratives and visualization. We conclude with implications for the way information is represented and structured within multidisciplinary design student teams, and future research directions.
Purpose Qualitative researchers and information practitioners often investigate questions that probe the underlying mental models, nuanced perspectives, emotions and experiences of their target populations. The in-depth qualitative interview is a dominant method for such investigations and the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how incorporating hybrid card-sorting activities into interviews can enable deeper participant reflections and generate rich data sets to increase understanding. Design/methodology/approach Following a review of relevant literature, the case illustration presented is a grounded theory study into the student-researcher information experience with personal academic information management. This study uses hybrid card sorting within in-depth, semi-structured interviews, a unique adaptation that extends multi-disciplinary awareness of the benefits of card-sort exercises for qualitative research. Findings Emerging from diverse fields, ranging from computer science, engineering, psychology and human–computer interaction, card sorting seeks to illuminate how participants understand and organise concepts. The case illustration draws largely on methods used in interaction design and information architecture. Using either open or fixed designs, or hybrid variations, card-sort activities can make abstract concepts more tangible for participants, offering investigators a new approach to interview questions with the aid of this interactive, object-based technique. Originality/value Opening with a comprehensive review of card-sort studies, the authors present an information experience case illustration that demonstrates the rich data generated by hybrid card sorting within qualitative interviews, or interactive interviews. This is followed by discussion of the types of research questions that may benefit from this original method.
We investigate the way Post-It notes support creative design team practice, focusing on how they function as cognitive externalisations that, through grouping activities, support categorisation qualities associated with semantic long-term memory. We use a multimodal approach, drawing on ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, which places gestures and interactions with Post-It notes on a similar footing to speech and text. This highlights the role of these interactions in the situational context, as the design team shape and are shaped by them. Following Dix and Gongora (2011), we identify four overlapping functions: informational, formational, transformational and transcendental. We then examine the emergence of concepts and themes through grouping individual Post-It notes, showing how they might be considered nodes in an emerging semantic network.
Different design thinking activities result in a multitude of analog as well as digital artifacts. These capture the working results and are employed as a medium to communicate and preserve the embodied design decisions, observations and insights. When engineers or design thinkers want to revisit particular design activities, the information captured by the latest artifacts typically handed over or maintained are not enough. In addition, earlier artifacts, their context, dependencies between artifacts, the design rationale and other related details would be required. However, this information is often hard or impossible to recover if it was not systematically captured and documented. In the first year of our research project we therefore studied how to organize the design artifacts and their dependencies in a cost-effective manner to be able to retrieve information for engineers who have to realize the results. This includes an understanding of the actual challenge concerning documenting during design thinking. © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014. All rights are reserved.