What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a design methodology which allows for a solution-based approach to problem solving. It is very useful when dealing with complex problems which are not well-defined or potentially even unknown, by understanding which human needs are involved, re-framing the issue in a human-centric way, coming up with ideas and analyzing them in brainstorming sessions, and by approaching prototyping and testing in a more hands-on manner.

It is often seen as “outside the box” thinking as designers attempt to find new ways of thinking which do not follow conventional problem-solving methods.

Design thinking focuses on improving products or services by analyzing and gaining a better understanding of how users interact with them and the conditions in which they operate.

Implementing design thinking means asking significant questions and challenging assumptions. One method of thinking outside the box is falsifying previous assumptions, that is making it possible to prove whether or not they are valid. After you have questioned and investigated a problem’s conditions, the solution-generation process helps produce ideas which reflect that particular problem’s constraints and facets.

Design thinking allows us to dig deeper, research, and to prototype and test our products or services in order to find new ways of improving them.

The need for design thinking

Businesses in the modern world are continuously pushed to find new and creative solutions to some of their most significant challenges. Surviving, let alone thriving, is more difficult than it has ever been in this global and ever flattening competitive marketplace where almost every industry is saturated with the latest efficiencies and tools of the trade.

With no vision or imagination, more traditional businesses have started suffering from obsolescence. With how quickly changes occur nowadays, big companies can quickly fall on the sidelines and have difficulty keeping up if they lack a culture of innovation. A new way of feeling, thinking, and operating has been emerging, and it is one which focuses on experiences where design plays the primary role.

Design thinking is a holistic process which is unmatched in its ability to solve complex problems through visual solutions. At its core lies the pursuit of new incremental or breakthrough innovations.

However, today’s innovations are not as easily uncovered by simply analyzing data and crunching numbers. Instead, design thinking attempts to shift problem-solving to be viewed with a holistic design eye, an analytical mind, and a distinctly human and empathetic touch – all ingredients which juxtapose humans and businesses. While chief designers have not always had a seat in the C-suite or in the boardroom, innovation itself is often a combination of both design and numerical justification.

That is likely why Roger L. Martin, former Dead at the Rotman School of Management, labeled the future of innovation as “design thinking” when he said that “The most successful businesses in the years to come will balance analytical mastery and intuitive originality in a dynamic interplay that I call design thinking.”

Design itself can speak words for us and it is both synergistic and scalable with almost every function, industry, or vertical. Looking at any problem through the lens of design allows us to look beyond the status quo of knowledge work and gain new insight for even the most difficult of problems.

The five stages of design thinking

Let’s look at the five-stage design thinking model as it is proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, also called d.school. d.school is the leading institute in design thinking. According to them, design thinking has five stages:

  1. Empathize – research users’ needs
  2. Define – state users’ needs and problems
  3. Ideate – challenge assumptions and create ideas
  4. Prototype – begin creating solutions
  5. Test – test your solutions

Remember that these stages do not necessarily have to be sequential, with many teams choosing to run them in parallel, out of order, and even repeat them.

1. Empathize

The first stage of the process is to gain an emphatic understanding of the issue you are trying to address. This means consulting with experts to get more insight through observing, engaging, and empathizing with people to gain a better understanding of their experiences and what motivates them, in addition to actually immersing yourself in their physical environments for deeper and more personal insights into the problems they are facing.

Empathy is crucial to human-centered design processes because it allows designers to disregard their own assumptions so they can better understand users and their needs.

Depending on your time constraints, this stage usually involves gathering a large amount of information to be used in the next stage and to ensure you have the best possible understanding of your users, what their needs are, and the problems with the product they are using.

Here are some tips for gaining a better understanding of both your users as well as stakeholders:

  • know what your business objectives are so you can define problems
  • hear what your stakeholders have to say so you can ensure accuracy and clarity
  • establish limitations by defining functional and technical requirements

Here are some tips for the research you should perform:

  • create empathy using personas
  • conduct ethnographic research to observe users in context
  • observe users’ workflows to identify pain points
  • use user stories and maps to outline goals

2. Define

During this stage, you put together every piece of information gathered in the first stage. You analyze everything and you synthesize the data so that you can successfully define every problem you have identified so far.

Keep in mind that you should not define the problem as something you want to accomplish or your company’s need. For example, instead of “we need to increase our food-product market share among teenage boys by 10%,” define the problem as “teenage boys need to eat healthy, nutritious food to grow and thrive.”

This stage helps designers gather great ideas for features, functions, and other elements which will allow them to solve the problems at hand, or at least give users the possibility of resolving the issues themselves with as little effort as possible.

The second stage also marks the progression to the third stage by asking questions which will later help you come up with ideas for solutions, such as “how can we encourage teenage boys to do something which benefits them and also involves our food-product?”

3. Ideate

In the third stage of the process, you are ready to start coming up with ideas. You now understand your users and their needs, you have analyzed and synthesized the data you have collected and have ended up with a human-centered problem statement. You are ready to “think outside the box” and find new solutions to the problem statement you have created, as well as find alternative ways to look at the problem.

There are numerous ideation techniques such as brainstorming, brainwriting, “worst possible idea”, or SCAMPER. Brainstorming and “worst possible idea” are generally used to encourage free thinking and expand the problem space.

It is important to try and get as many ideas or solutions as you can at the beginning of the ideation phase. You should employ other ideation techniques by the end of this phase to help with your investigation and testing your ideas, ensuring you find the best way to solve your issue or identify the elements you need to circumvent it.

4. Prototype

Your team should now produce several rudimentary and inexpensive versions of the product or features found within it so that you can investigate the solutions you came up with in the previous stage.

Prototypes can be shared and tested within the team, or they can also be shared with other departments or small groups of people outside the design team. Remember that this is an experimental phase, and your aim is to find the best possible solutions for the problems identified in the earlier stages.

Solutions are implemented in these prototypes and are investigated individually and either accepted, re-examined and improved, or rejected based on the users’ experiences.

By the end of the fourth stage, your team should have a better understanding of the product’s inherent constraints and its problems, as well as a better understanding of how your users behave, what they think, and how they feel when interacting with your product.

5. Test

During this phase, the product is thoroughly tested using the best solutions found during the prototype phase. It is the final stage of the model, but in an iterative process, the results from the tests are typically used to redefine the problems and provide more insight into how users behave, what they feel, and what they think when using the product. Alterations and refinements are still made during this phase to ensure the best possible solutions are implemented.

The non-linear nature of design thinking

The steps above may suggest a direct and linear process with one stage leading to the next one, but in reality, the process is much more flexible and carried-out in a non-linear manner.

For example, the design team could be split into different teams, each working on more than one stage simultaneously, or designers could be collecting information and prototyping throughout the whole process, enabling them to bring their ideas to life and visualize solutions for the problem. Additionally, the results obtained in the testing phase may reveal new insights on users, which may lead to another brainstorming session or developing new prototypes.

Remember, the five stages are not necessarily sequential, and you do not need to follow them in any specific order. In fact, they often occur in parallel and are repeated iteratively as needed. This means that the stages should be seen as different modes which contribute to the project, rather than as sequential steps.

The great thing about design thinking, however, is that it systematizes and identifies the five stages you would expect to carry out in a design project and in any problem-solving project. While each project will involve activities that are specific to the product being developed, the main idea behind each stage remains unchanged.

You should not view design thinking as a concrete, inflexible approach to design. Its stages are a guide to the activities that you would normally carry out in your project. To get the best and most informative insights for your specific project, you are free to switch these stages, conduct them at the same time, and repeat them however times it is necessary to get more potential solutions and identify the best possible one.

One of the highlights of the five-stage model is how knowledge that you have acquired in the later stages can be used as feedback in earlier stages, and this is where repeating stages come in. You are continually using information to get a better understanding of the problem and solution spaces, as well as redefine the problem. This leads to a perpetual loop where you continue to get new insights, find new ways of looking at the product and its possible uses, and get a more in-depth understanding of your product’s users and the problems they are facing.

Design thinking outlooks

CEO of Ideo and the person who coined “design thinking”, Tim Brown, said “It’s a methodology always in pursuit of unforeseen innovation, so reinventing itself might seem like the smart way forward. But in practice, design thinking is a set of tools that can grow old with us.”

As the modern world continues to advance, so will the practice of design thinking grow. As systems increase in complexity due to technological advancements, our need for simplicity grows as an even larger aspect of good design.

The duality of design thinking, its intuitive and at the same time analytical nature, will help you solve difficult problems in simple ways. It is based on these design-driven solutions that modern businesses will redesign and reinvent themselves in order to ensure their growth and prosperity in the future.

Businesses have begun adopting the process on a global scale and reaping the rewards. To differentiate yourself from your competition and create value, it may be best to start thinking about adopting a design thinking process for your company as well.