GuidesProduct developmentWhat is the design thinking process?

What is the design thinking process?

Last updated

19 April 2023

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Design thinking traces its origin to the late 1950s when Professor John E. Arnold of Stanford University wrote Creative Engineering, a text establishing the four areas of the design thinking approach. Since then, design thinking has become increasingly popular in other fields, including business, music, art, and literature.

But what exactly is design thinking? 

In a nutshell, it's a non-linear and iterative approach that aims to understand user needs and create innovative and practical solutions. The process focuses on delivering desirable, technically feasible, and economically viable results that meet human needs. The approach ensures that the results translate into functional products or processes that organizations can afford to implement.

Why is design thinking so important?

Design thinking believes that creating innovative solutions requires embracing a designer's mindset and facing the challenge from the user's perspective. The process outlines the steps to actualize an idea, from building user empathy to developing ideas and creating prototypes.

Design thinking is critical because it is user-centered. Putting the users at the center of the problem-solving process ensures the solution meets their needs and addresses their pain points. It also generates practical and feasible solutions. 

Due to its iterative nature, teams can quickly prototype and test their ideas and collect feedback and insights along the way. This creates a practical and feasible solution to implement.

In the realm of user experience (UX) design, design thinking is crucial. It helps designers develop and refine their skills to address quick problems in users' environments and behaviors. By reframing problems in user-centric ways, designers can establish what's most important for users and create solutions that meet their needs.

Design thinking also enables better UX research, prototyping, and usability testing. This allows designers to unearth new ways to achieve users' needs, making it an essential tool for organizations across industries looking to solve client problems using their products and services.

What are the principles of design thinking?

Design thinking involves both principles and processes, but focusing on the principles can help us better understand the process. There is a range of principles across various mindsets and methodologies, so we'll cover several principles in this article to ensure understanding without using jargon or focusing on a specific number.

At the core of any design process should be usability, with an end goal of equity, flexibility, and intuitiveness for the user. To achieve this, we must consider learnability and perceptible information during the process. It's important to recognize that users will make mistakes, so we should aim for a certain tolerance for errors and make the process as low-effort as possible.

To fully understand the context of the problem we are trying to solve, we should consider the approach and physical space where the users will be utilizing the solution. Ultimately, the number of principles is less important than keeping these considerations in mind throughout the design thinking process.

The five phases of the design thinking process 

Below are the five design thinking process stages:

Phase 1: empathize – Research users' needs

The first stage focuses on user-centric research. During this phase, you engage with your target audience to understand their problems. Experts can help you explore the area of concern to empathize with the users. 

During this stage, you can also consider immersing yourself in your audience's physical environment. This will allow you to get a deeper and more personal understanding of the problem and know their experiences and motivations.

Problem-solving and user-centered design processes require empathy as they allow design thinkers to put aside their own assumptions and gain real insights into what the users need. This phase aims at painting a clear picture of your users, their needs, and the expectations that your solutions must meet.

Phase 2: define – State users' needs and problems

Define stage involves organizing and analyzing the data you collected during the first stage to define a clear core problem statement. The problem statement outlines the specific problem you will address and guides the entire design process moving forward. Therefore, it gives you a fixed goal to concentrate on and helps the team to always have the user in mind. 

Define the problem statement in a user-centered manner and not as per your wish or need of the organization. Further, the statement should clearly describe the problem while providing specific guidance and direction. Sometimes it’s helpful to include a measurable metric within the problem statement to pair better with a similar measurable success metric. 


Problem statement: “Only 15% of students enrolling in the fall semester ever complete the online process, significantly impacting counselors' time in administration work and students' overall success rates.”

Success statement: “Increase student enrollment completion rate from 15% to 50% by two months after the first release date. Decrease the hourly workload of administrators helping students enrollment by 10%.”

Phase 3: ideate – Challenge assumptions and generate ideas

During the ideate phase, designers are ready to come up with ideas. They have a clear problem statement and can now generate as many solutions as possible. This phase gets the team thinking outside the box and finding new angles. Instead of focusing on the quality of the idea, the team focuses on quantity, thus more likely to free its mind and bump into innovative solutions. 

Some ideation techniques to use include the SCAMPER method, Crazy Eights, and “How Might We…” statements. Using these techniques at the beginning of the ideation stage helps expand the problem space.

Phase 4: prototype – Create solutions

The design team has narrowed the idea down to choose a few. It is now time to convert them into prototypes or inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the concept or product you want to test. The prototyping phase gives you something tangible to be shared and tested on real users. 

As an experimental phase, the aim is to establish the best possible solutions for each issue identified during the previous stages. Prototypes can take paper models, interactive digital models, or other forms, depending on what you are testing. 

When building prototypes, have a clear goal and know exactly what you want the prototype to represent. Implement the best solution within the prototype.

Phase 5: test – Try the solutions out

Testing the prototypes on representative or actual users. It enables you to see where the prototype functions well and where it requires improvements. User feedback can help you adjust and improve the product before investing resources to develop and implement the solution.

Designers or evaluators run user testing sessions where they observe the target users and how they interact with the prototype. One can also collect technical feedback about the feasibility of building, giving a better idea of resources and timelines. The ultimate goal is to deeply understand the product and its users.

Pivoting to a design thinking-first approach

The design thinking approach is not an easy plug-and-play. Organizations must treat it as a transformation that helps the company solve problems from the outside in. Here's how to pivot to a design thinking first approach:

Ensure everyone gets design thinking knowledge

All information about design thinking must reach everyone in the organization. Team members from different levels and departments should participate in the training. It helps spread information in an accessible manner and also builds momentum. 

Where this isn’t possible, it’s important to give lower-level teams an upper-level champion, even if the upper-level management may not be directly involved. That is so, if a new and innovative idea is generated, it is given the necessary support and resources to be built and ultimately invested realistically to reach its target audience and market.

Develop and apply new skills

Developing problem-solving skills via design thinking is not enough. One must learn to convert them into real business outcomes. Design thinking training should be applied to practical learning with in-the-business problem-solving. It helps employees apply new skills back on the job, the business achieves its goals, and morale improves through action-oriented projects.

Support new behaviors

Innovation goes beyond generating new ideas. Leaders should foster an environment where the team members have the motivation to embrace these new ways of working. Offering a clear framework or process that a team can follow will give the team the space and time to validate new skills, thus maximizing the impact of new behaviors. 

Design thinking as an iterative and non-linear process

Design thinking brings to life innovative and feasible solutions to problems based on how real users feel, think, and behave. The centered design process has five core stages, and all serve as a guide. But due to the iterative and non-linear nature of the process, product managers and their teams can perform these stages in any order.

Based on the data they may receive back, teams can test and integrate repeatedly until a metric is hit. They then circle back to ideation or perhaps redefine users’ problems if new discoveries determine they are more pertinent.


How does design thinking differ from UX design?

Design thinking and user experience design aim to create effective and innovative products and services that meet users' needs. But while design thinking offers the frameworks and mindset for understanding the user's needs and developing creative solutions, UX design focuses on the specific techniques and methods for creating user-centered solutions.

What are some real-world examples of design thinking?

Popular real-world applications and examples of design thinking include the redesign of the London Underground map, the design of the Apple Macintosh, and the development of the Toyota Production System. All these design thinking examples used the design thinking process. 

What are some reasons why design thinking does not succeed?

Design thinking often fails due to the wrong mindset, unrealistic expectations, lack of vision, and impatience. To ensure the success of design thinking, it must be aligned with the organization's culture and values, or it may be vulnerable to office politics or self-serving interests.

Remember, the user should always break the tie. In addition, businesses need to establish realistic expectations and maintain a clear vision and persistence to see a concept through to fruition.

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