Intro to the Design Thinking Process

by Jonathan Silk

What is design thinking? From my experiences at Pepperdine University and the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute also known as the “” this is a working definition — “Design thinking is way to enable collaborative interdisciplinary thinking to solve problems.” This is accomplished through the iterative design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

The composition of the design team is critical to its success. It is important that it is a cognitively diverse team, comprised of people who think differently. Innovation is an outcome of a process. Innovators are people. Design thinking focuses on the innovators.

Design thinkers start from a different place. They challenge the status quo and change the question. They do not start with analysis of the problem; they start with an assumption that they might not yet know what the real problem is, and gain insights thru empathy by conducting ethnographic, human-centered, research.

The five steps of the Design Thinking Process (from Stanford

Empathize. Empathy is the foundation of a human- centered design process. To empathize we focus on the end user and observe, engage, and immerse in their experience. This accomplished by interviews and with prototypes, etc.. It is important to empathize with the end user in their environment not yours. That means no focus groups. We gain insight from empathy.

Define. The define step is when we unpack and synthesize our empathy into compelling needs and insights, and scope a specific and meaningful challenge. The two goals of the define mode are to develop a deep a deep understanding of your users and the design space and, based on that understanding, to come up with an actionable problem statement, the point of view (POV). The POV should be a guiding statement that focuses on specific end users, and insights and needs that were uncovered in empathize mode. More than defining the problem to work on, the POV is a unique design vision that is crafted based on discoveries during the empathy work.

Ideate. The purpose of ideation is to transition from identifying problems to exploring solutions for the end user. This mode is where the team aims to generate radical, design alternatives. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes, also known as “flaring.” The goal of ideation is to explore a wide solution space, which is both a large quantity of ideas and a diversity among those ideas (why cognitive diversity of team matters). The key to ideation mode is to defer judgment for ideas, “generate and then evaluate.” Team leaders need to be aware of when they are in idea generation mode and evaluation mode. The two tasks should be kept separate and only mixed intentionally when it is time to apply selection criteria. In team ideation sessions, no one is in control. There are no experts. Because no one is in control you get to place you never expected — big new ideas. To keep an innovation mindset we must separate the two. People making new connections and new ideas, takes the team to a new place and potential breakthrough idea.

Prototype. prototyping is taking the ideas and explorations out of our heads and into the physical world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form- a wall of post-it notes, role-playing, a space, object, interface, or storyboard. Prototypes are most successful when the design team, users, and others can experience and interact with them. Early explorations can have rough prototypes that support iterations and allow the team to learn quickly and investigate a lot of different possibilities. The goal of the prototype is to learn more about the user, not validate our idea. What we learn from the interactions between the end users and the prototype can help gain deeper empathy, as well as shape successful solutions. Fail cheaply through iteration.

Test. testing the prototype is a chance to get feedback on the proposed solution. Through iterations we refine solutions to make them better, and continue to learn about the end users. We should prototype with confidence like we know we are right.

Implementing the design thinking process in organizations is a way to ensure that leaders identify the right problems to find solutions for. It all begins with empathy and gaining understanding of the end user. The benefit of design thinking is BREAKTHROUGH SOLUTIONS.


Jonathan is an entrepreneur, innovator, experienced leader, and coach with a proven record of leading and developing others to perform at higher levels and improve their overall effectiveness. He has a passion for learning and developing others to improve as leaders. Jonathan brings lessons from over 25 years of experience leading in U.S. Army Infantry, Cavalry, and Armor units in a wide range of assignments, to include leading soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. He is a decorated veteran and a recipient of the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. Jonathan served as a faculty member at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY before transitioning from the Army in 2015. He is a certified Executive Coach and operates his own leadership coaching business. Check out his website here: