Design Thinking: A Step-by-Step Guide

If you’re interested in any of the design fields or work in the business world, you might already be familiar with design thinking. If you're newer to the field you might have no idea what this concept is. In this post we'll dive into design thinking to explain what it is and how it's used.
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If you’re interested in any of the design fields or work in the business world, you might already be familiar with design thinking. Both an ideology and a process, this method was born out of the constant need for innovation. Since the 1960s, companies have increasingly incorporated Design Thinking into their processes. Google, Apple, Uber, and Airbnb are just a few of the organizations that credit the power of Design Thinking for their success. 

Despite this, many still only have a vague understanding of the concept. If you aspire to work in any type of product or design role, mastering Design Thinking is an excellent skill to have on your resume and portfolio—and you will utilize it throughout your career.  In this article, we’re breaking down what exactly Design Thinking is, each step you’ll encounter in the process, and why it’s so important to all types of businesses. 

Design Thinking Defined: What Is It?

Design Thinking is an ideology and a process that attempts to solve complex problems with a user-centric focus. Sounds simple, right? It’s meant to be. This process, which evolved from the architecture, engineering, and business fields is designed to apply to any subject area or creative ideation.

To understand the process, we start at the end. Design Thinking produces results that are practical in nature. Solutions should be technically feasible, economically viable, and desirable for the user. These three work in tandem to create a “human-centric solution.” In other words, it’s tackling a problem from a user’s perspective with a designer’s mindset. 

What sets this technique apart, is its ability to solve “wicked problems.” This term refers to challenges with interdependent factors that might seem impossible to solve at first glance. Wicked problems have no definitive formula and one can never know when they’ve reached a truly final solution. On a global scale, we can imagine a wicked problem as something like climate change or poverty. In the business world, examples would be any undefinable challenge they face that never truly goes away, like achieving sustainable growth or maintaining a competitive advantage.

Now that you understand the nature of a Design Thinking human-centric solution and the type of problems it can solve, let’s dive into the principles and phases of the process in greater detail. 

The Four Principles of Design Thinking

Two of the major advocates for design thinking (they literally wrote the book on it) are Christoph Meinel and Harry Liefer of Stanford University. They have laid out four principles that help users understand the process. Keep in mind that this can apply to the literal design of a physical or digital product or the design of a strategy, like a company’s growth plan. The principles they’ve outlined are:

  • The Human Rule – All design activity is social in nature, and therefore any innovation should come from a “human-centric” point of view.
  • The Ambiguity Rule – Ambiguity is inevitable. This rule emphasizes the unavoidable importance of experimenting at the limits of your knowledge.
  • All Design is Redesign – Technology changes, of course, but basic human needs remain unchanged.
  • The Tangibility Rule – Building tangible prototypes is a vital part of communicating ideas.

The Five Steps of the Design Thinking Framework

Anyone studying this technique is familiar with the five-step process outlined here. Applying each of these steps is paramount to completing the Design Thinking process.

1. Empathize – You must put yourself in your customers’ shoes to identify and address the problem at hand. At this stage, designers should cast aside any assumptions about what problem they think they’re solving and consider all possibilities as they travel inside the mind of the consumer. Remember: people, not technology, are the drivers of innovation.

At this stage, designers might conduct qualitative research, like focus groups, observational studies, or use tools like an empathy map

2. Define – Using the information gathered in stage one, the designer creates a problem statement, captured clearly in human-centric terms. Nailing down a user’s specific frustration and how you intend on addressing it is key to this phase. The statement should balance allowing space for creativity while remaining specific enough to provide guidance and direction.

At this stage, designers employ theme clustering to build their problem statement

3. Ideate – Now comes the brainstorming. It’s time to collect as many ideas as possible that could potentially address the unmet needs you’ve identified. This stage allows for out-of-the-box thinking and focuses on quantity over quality so any path to innovation is considered! From there, the designers will move into an evaluation stage, where ideas are clarified and narrowed down.

At this stage, a team uses guided thinking and brainstorming techniques like bodystorming, reverse thinking, and mind mapping.

4. Prototype – It’s all about trial and error. Using scaled-down versions of the product or systems, the team identifies which of the possible solutions is the best fit for solving the identified problem. These prototypes should be realistic representations, but still require less effort so multiple ideas can be tested, and room is left for feedback and improvement. The main goal here is to have something tangible that can be tested on real users.

Depending on the product type, designers utilize any number of prototyping tools at this stage. This could be as simple as a paper model or involve digital prototyping software like Adobe XD and InVision

5. Test – It’s time for your work to hit the real world. At this stage, prototypes are shown to your user base to garner feedback on whether or not it solves their problem. Using an iterative cycle, refinements are made to the prototype as suggestions for improvement roll in. This brings the process back to its human-centric roots, as it’s ultimately about the people who will use the product. 

Once again, designers will often use quantitative and qualitative research methods at this phase, asking users to complete surveys or leading guided observations or focus groups. 

If all these steps go well, you’ll end up with a sustainable solution that delights your users! Keep in mind, that although these steps seem to follow a linear progression, the process does NOT have to be linear. Design Thinking allows for the team to loop back or revisit phases as you discover more information about your users and their needs. 

What is the Purpose of Design Thinking?

Given what we know about Design Thinking, why do we see companies apply it so often? How can this relatively simple process be so beneficial in business, educational, and personal contexts? We’ve outlined a few of the proven reasons why DT can be so important in tackling problems of all types.

  • “Middle Ground” of Problem Solving – Organizations can easily get bogged down in data and analytics, or shoot too far for “pie in the sky” solutions that have no chance of working or turning a profit. Design Thinking is somewhat of a “healthy middle ground” using a mixture of data-driven insights and emotion and intuition to solve problems. 
  • Innovative Solutions – Perhaps the most obvious benefit, Design Thinking can lead to discovering previously unknown pain points and help surface solutions that wouldn’t previously be considered. 
  • Fosters Creativity – By its nature, the process encourages team members to think outside the box and challenge their previously held assumptions. Investing in this type of culture in an organization can lead to a highly successful growth mindset. 
  • Ambiguity Made Clear – Consumers often have a hard time verbalizing problems or don’t even know what problem they need solving. The way this process encourages consumer behavior at all stages aims to remove ambiguity from the equation and identify human-centric concrete solutions. 
  • Efficient and Effective – From a business perspective, Design thinking has a proven ability to reduce product time to market. Instead of going in a research circle, the process guides designers efficiently through the prototype and testing phases. 
  • The Cost Factor – Numbers don’t lie. Design Thinking can save a business money and improve return on investment. Take IBM as a case study, which calculated that their Design Thinking practices yielded a 300 percent R.O.I. 
  • Customer Retention – Every company wants to think they’re customer-centric, but not all of them can walk the walk. The user-centric approach boosts customer engagement and ensures your base will come back for problem-solving products again and again. 

How is Design Thinking Related to UX/UI Design? 

If you’re familiar with the UX/UI field or work in a position like UX Research or Product Management, some of this is likely sounding familiar. There are a lot of similarities between the user experience (UX) design process and Design Thinking. After all, they both center around users and involve similar stages like prototyping and testing.

However, distinctions can be made between the two. Design Thinking is often completed on the wider strategy level. At this stage, the company is exploring solutions within business feasibility or working to define user problems. This might mean bringing in stakeholders across the organization, including from the C-Suite. By the time the UX team is engaged, a product has likely been identified, and they are more engaged with bringing ideas to life and ensuring usability, accessibility, and aesthetic elements. 

Overall, Design Thinking is one aspect of the UX toolkit. UX professionals will use this and other methodologies to craft excellent products and user experiences. 

Applying Design Thinking to Your Tech Career

As you can see, Design Thinking can be implemented across any profession or business vertical. From a complex coding challenge to a graphic design quandary, there are no limits to how one may use this technique. If you’re interested in learning more about the adjacent UX/UI field or how to build a design career, we’ve compiled some resources from our site below! 

Check out our best practice guides for acing your technical resume and technical interview.

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