Design Thinking sounds like one of those things that should come naturally to designers. As a matter of fact, it is all about how design, or more specifically innovation, does not come naturally. It requires a careful strategy, a commitment to helping people and a holistic mindset.

What is design thinking
What is Design Thinking and how does it work? Illustration by OrangeCrush.

To get results that work, designers and their clients have to put their stock in what they can control—unlike designer talent or good taste—and their approach in how they think about design is something they can control. In this article, we’re going to go over how Design Thinking works and how you can apply it to your projects. And before you know it, you’ll be using Design Thinking without even thinking about it.

What does Design Thinking mean?

Design Thinking, sometimes referred to as human-centered design, is both a philosophy and strategic approach: it is a way of framing design as the solution to specific, human problems and a defined process for creative innovation.

The process of thinking through and solving a problem
Illustration of the problem solving process. By fritzR

At the same time, Design Thinking is literally a frame of mind, and pinning it down with a singular definition in many ways defeats its purpose. The key takeaway is that a concern with how design will practically improve a customer’s life at every step of the design process is essential Design Thinking. In short, Design Thinking really means thinking like a customer.

The term was popularized by IDEO and its CEO Tim Brown, though they insist that the concept is bigger than any one person or agency. Similarly, it is not strictly limited to design but can be applicable to all sorts of industries and even for personal life goals. What is important is that you use Design Thinking toward creating solutions wherever they are needed.

The purpose of Design Thinking

To innovate

Innovation is the key objective of Design Thinking. The idea is that innovation does not come from aesthetics or the general advancement of technology: true innovation must serve a purpose and fill a void, even one the user was not aware of. Instead of leaving innovation up to subjective factors like luck or good taste, Design Thinking provides measurable means of achieving it.

Illustration of various user avatars
By Nandatama

To focus on the user

While a human-centered approach might seem obvious—the whole point of a design is for people to use it, after all—too often it is easy for designers to be led by their own assumptions and past experiences. They are, of course, only human themselves.

Design Thinking is merely a guide for keeping the end user at the heart of the design process, right where they belong.

To solve problems

Design Thinking focuses on delivering solutions to specific problems. This entails a deep understanding of problems and their causes, and in some respects, it goes even beyond the customer’s own description of their pain points. Design Thinking instead promotes clear-headed observation and critical analysis of the problem and how design can act as the solution.

To streamline production

Like many standardized processes for production, Design Thinking also speeds up efficiency through clear, focused guidelines. It gives designers steps to follow and ways of evaluating success. This in turn makes it much easier for designers to “fail fast” and iterate.

The five stages of the Design Thinking process

The Design Thinking process provides a reliable set of steps for designers to follow throughout their project. At the same time, because Design Thinking is a mindset, it is useful to think of these less as instructions and more as loose guidelines. There is no one right way to execute each step, and the steps can be repeated or completed out of order as needed.

1. Empathize

Human-centered design is dependent on the designer’s ability to observe and understand customers. While target audience research is commonly in the wheelhouse of marketing professionals, designers are the mediators between customers and their complaints. Without insight into either, a designer will be working in the dark.

Illustration of two children holding hands
By TP Art

So how does a designer get this insight? While market research can afford basic demographic information, designers must observe customers in live settings such as recorded user trials and A/B testing. Better yet, candid user testing, in which the user is not aware that they are being observed, can yield the most honest results.

After observation must come empathy, in which the designer uses emotion to interpret and understand what they are seeing. The key to empathy is a lack of bias—the designer must work to exclude their own projected assumptions when observing a customer. Context can be helpful here in understanding how problems fit into a person’s daily life, and UX designers often employ user personas to identify customers as actual people outside of their relationship to the product.

2. Define

In order to be human-centered, Design Thinking must aim to solve real problems for real people. This means that a problem must first be defined into a clear and concise problem statement. This gives designers a tangible goal to aim for and a means of evaluating success and failure.

Logo design of an owl detective
By lemahijo

But defining a problem can be a problem in and of itself. The obstacles users face are often complex and contain other tangential issues happening simultaneously—in other words, symptoms of a larger problem. Designers must go beyond these symptoms to discover the underlying causes.

One key technique for doing so is the Five Whys, in which you present a problem and repeat the question “why?” multiple times to get to the essence of what has gone wrong.

A problem statement identifies the barrier between the current reality and the ideal future. In addition to being accurate and descriptive, a problem statement must be actionable. This means the blame should not lie in factors outside of the designer’s control, such as there not being enough hours in the day. At the same time, designers must avoid solution bias. It is tempting to start generating ideas about how to solve the problem at this stage, but premature solutions can dilute the understanding of the problem in its purest form.

3. Ideate

Ideation is the phase in which you and/or your team generate solutions to the problem statement. You should spend the time to come up with as many possibilities as you can rather than going with your first idea, commonly the most unimaginative. It is also important that you document every idea, even the ones you feel sure are unlikely to work.

Logo design of a frog character thinking on a stool
By Ehsan Mehranvari

There are several techniques for coming up with ideas. A few popular ones include group brainstorming, mind mapping, role playing, sketching and even a straightforward list. Customers themselves are usually more than happy to share their own solutions for defective products on social media and in forums, and these are perfectly legitimate sources of ideation. However you ideate, it is generally recommended to do so over multiple sessions. This allows all participants to avoid burnout and return to each session refreshed.

Once you have a solid stack of ideas, it is time to deliberate and sort them into yes, no and maybe piles. Be sure to keep your ideas on hand, as you may need to try out alternatives in the next step.

4. Prototype

A prototype is a quickly built, barebones test version of the final product. You can think of the prototype phase as a more hands-on version of the previous step.

Mascot illustration of an inventor bunny
By sSpark

Like the ideation phase, you should create multiple prototypes and do so quickly to give yourself options and find out whether your ideas hold water.

Prototypes are important because they allow you to construct the solution and see how it might work without spending time and money developing a finished product. Doing so prematurely is likely to end up a waste of resources because many ideas that sound great on paper are not so in practice.

To create a prototype, you can use a number of tools from pen and paper to software. What matters is that you are able to create an accurate enough representation of how the product will work in as short a time as possible.

5. Test

Testing involves putting your prototype (or in some cases a finished product) in front of actual users to evaluate how well you have solved their problem. In many ways, this phase is a microcosm of the entire Design Thinking process: you must employ empathy while observing test participants, you must redefine problems they encounter, you must ideate and prototype even more solutions, and test again.

Stylized illustration of scientists at work
By Natalia Maca

The other side to the coin here is gathering meaningful feedback. What we mean by “meaningful” is that you must decide whether the feedback you’re getting represents individual tastes and temperaments or a shared problem. Doing so requires testing a wide and diverse sample of people.

Testing usually involves a facilitator who administers tests and records the results. Some common methods of usability testing include focus groups, surveys and heat maps. Furthermore, A/B testing is a great option for trying out slightly different versions of similar designs to fine-tune the best result.

Design Thinking is only the beginning

Design Thinking is a process for achieving creative innovation by focusing on the customer’s needs. But it does not generate innovation all on its own. At the end of the day, it is a roadmap, and getting to the destination depends on the designer. It is also less of a straightforward guide and more of an ongoing process, one that requires practice, iteration and dedication.

When all is said and done, if you are truly committed to developing a great product, you’re going to need great Design Thinking and a great designer.

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