Design plays a crucial role in a product’s success. A product that fails to meet its customers’ needs cannot be successful on the market. In order to increase chances of success, more and more companies are focusing on human-centered design—they put the end user at the heart of product design and evaluate every design decision according to the user’s needs and wants. Design thinking is one type of human-centered design methodology that enables companies to solve design challenges in innovative ways. 

This article will describe the design thinking methodology and walk you through each step of this methodology.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a methodology that attempts to solve complex problems in a creative and user-centric way. Core features of the design thinking methodology include:

  • Focus on end-users. The end-user plays a key role in the design thinking process—all key product design decisions are evaluated according to the end user’s needs and wants.
  • Solid problem framing. Rather than accepting the problem as given, designers explore the problem space to find a root cause of the problem. The insights they gain can help designers reinterpret the given problem.
  • Creating tangible solutions. Convey design solutions using sketching and prototyping as opposed to presentations and slide decks.

Who can participate in design thinking?

Design thinking is focused on collaboration between designers and users; but does it mean that only designers can participate in this process? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s recommended to invite colleagues from various disciplines to participate in design thinking because it can produce a range of ideas. Different perspectives on the problem will ultimately lead to better solutions.

Does design thinking work only for digital products?

No. Design thinking is a universal methodology that works equally well for physical and digital design. No matter what you design, whether it’s a digital app or a physical chair, design thinking allows you to set your assumptions aside and build products tailored specifically for your users’ needs.

Five phases of the design thinking process

The five-stage design thinking model was originally posited by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school). The design thinking stages are:

  • Empathize. Understand the problem of the user for whom you are designing.
  • Define. Form a problem statement.
  • Ideate. Generate creative solutions to this problem.
  • Prototype. Build a tangible representation of this solution.
  • Test. Validate this solution with your target audience.
The five phases of the design thinking process are to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
The five phases of the design thinking process are to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Image credit D.School.

Empathize

The design thinking process starts with empathy. In order to design user-centered products and services, you need to understand who your users are and what they need. To achieve this goal, product designers immerse themselves in the context of the problem. During this phase, designers observe and engage with real users or people who represent the target audience.

Try these useful techniques to empathize with users:

  • User interviews.During user interviewers, interviewees are asked to tell a story about the last time they experienced the problem. The answer will help product creators understand how people currently solve the same or similar issues.
  • Contextual inquiry. This is a technique of immersing yourself in your target users’ physical environment so you can see how they interact with an existing product and gain a deeper personal understanding of the problems they face.
  • Empathy map. An empathy map is a visualization tool used to summarize what a product team knows about its user. It describes what the user says, thinks, does, and feels. This information leads to a better understanding of the target audience.

As you continue developing empathy for your users, focus on the emotional part of interactions (how do products make users feel?). Emotions play a tremendous role in how we think about products. When users develop positive associations with products, they are more likely to continue using them. That’s why it’s essential to collect emotional responses (both positive and negative) that test participants’ experience when performing a particular task in a product.

Define

At this stage, we analyze the qualitative and quantitative data we obtained during the empathize stage to draw insights from it. This information will be used both to define a problem statement and guide the ideation process. Clear problem statements will guide the product team throughout the design process—those statements will help you understand what features and functions your users need in order to solve their problems.

Try these useful techniques to help define the problem and guide your process:

  • User journey analysis. A user journey is a visual depiction of the trip the user takes across the solution. The user journey considers the steps that a user takes as well as their feelings, pain points, and moments of delight. User journey analysis will help you to identify key pain points in a journey.
  • How might we techniqueTry rephrasing questions by adding “How might we…” at the beginning. The phrase “how might we” followed by a particular pain point can encourage team members to think more about problem space.

To help you define the problem, take a human-centered approach. For example, if you redesign an online book subscription service and need to acquire new users, do not define the problem as, “We need to increase the percentage of teenage readers by 30%.” Frame it from the user’s perspective: “Teenagers need to have affordable access to educational literature in order to learn more about the world.”

Ideate

Ideation, or generating ideas, is a phase in which you go from understanding problems to exploring solutions. The ideas that are identified will be prototyped and tested with people who represent your target audience.

Try these useful techniques during the ideation phase:

  • Worst Possible IdeaWorst Possible Idea is an ideation method where team members purposefully seek the worst solutions. This technique can stimulate free thinking.
  • SketchingSketching is a fast and efficient way to visualize your ideas. You don’t need to be a skilled artist to create sketches. As long as you can draw boxes and arrows, you can communicate your ideas to other people.

During this stage, do not judge the ideas. When it’s time to generate ideas, you should give yourself and your team creative freedom. The more ideas you generate, the better. Don’t judge technical feasibility or quality of your ideas in this step.

Prototype

Prototyping allows you to turn ideas generated in the previous phase into tangible artifacts that can be tested later with real users. Most of the time, you start with low-fidelity prototypes (prototypes that convey the basic idea of the intended solution) and move towards high-fidelity as you get more user feedback.

Try these useful techniques during the prototyping phase:

  • Paper prototyping. Paper prototypes can help you quickly build and validate your design hypothesis with minimal effort. Build rough paper prototypes to find what’s working and what’s not.
  • High-fidelity digital prototypingHi-fi prototypes are great for validating user flows and identify areas that require further attention. You can collect more detailed feedback using hi-fi prototypes.

Consider the following during this stage:

  • Do not limit yourself only to one prototype. Prototype multiple solutions to understand which one performs better.
  • Create a library of common elements. Use a design system manager to create a library of common UI elements and try to reuse them as you design individual screens. This approach will help you achieve visual and functional consistency in your design.
  • Think about technical feasibility and business viability. At this stage, you need to rely on data informed decision making—use qualitative and quantitative data to evaluate your design solutions against the technical feasibility and the business viability.
Design thinking compares what is desirable from a user’s point of view with what is both technologically feasible and business viable.
Design thinking compares what is desirable from a user’s point of view with what is both technologically feasible and business viable. Image credit IDEO.

Test

The goal of this phase is to understand what parts of your design are effective and which are not. During the testing phase, a product team gives a prototype to test participants and encourages them to complete some common tasks with it. Testing will give a product team a clearer understanding of how real users interact with a product, what problems they face, and how they feel.

Try these useful techniques during the test phase:

  • Moderated usability testingYou conduct a series of testing sessions with your solution so you can get feedback from people who represent your target audience. Moderators can ask clarifying questions and collect more detailed feedback from participants (i.e., why exactly do test participants act the way they do).
  • Focus groups. Focus groups are typically small groups of people (six to nine participants) who come together to review and discuss a particular solution. Focus groups are great when you have a specific topic you want to explore (say, understanding how user onboarding makes users feel). Here’s how to conduct focus groups.

Consider the following during this stage:

  • Learn how to critically evaluate design. Constructive criticism is a way of giving feedback that provides specific, actionable suggestions. It’s the best way to provide feedback on design solutions. Here’s how to critique product design or website.
  • Focus on minimizing cognitive load in UX. Cognitive load is the amount of brainpower that users have to invest in order to interact with your product. The more cognitive load users need to invest, the less enjoyable a product experience becomes. Testing should help you to identify areas that can cause a high cognitive load.

Design thinking isn’t always a linear process

It is important to mention that the five phases of the design process defined above are not always sequential. In many cases, it’s a highly iterative loop. Depending on the needs of a project, individual steps can occur in parallel, or the product team can move between phases as they design a product.

Embrace the iterative nature of the product design process. It’s rare to design a perfect solution right from the start. A very common situation happens when insights acquired at later stages can influence decisions made in earlier stages. For example, when a testing phase reveals new information about user behavior, the team might want to run another brainstorming session and based on insights from the session, they may decide to design a new prototype.

As you make new discoveries, you might need to revisit the previous stages.
As you make new discoveries, you might need to revisit the previous stages. Image credit NNGroup.

Understand people you design for

The goal of design thinking is to design with real users in mind. Designers gain an intimate understanding of people who will use their product and offer a solution that satisfies their needs. The success of organizations like IDEO proves the fact that when the design thinking process becomes an integral part of organizational culture, the organization starts to foster creativity, collaboration, and innovation.