Unlocking Design Thinking

Step by Step

Greg Kulowiec
7 min readJul 9, 2018

My summer workshop series on Design Thinking is over, and with a few weeks to reflect on the experience, ideas, participants and process I want to share this post for anyone currently using or thinking about exploring Design Thinking as a process for their classroom. One morning in each workshop, we considered arguments against using Design Thinking & it’s use in education. Along with those arguments at the end of each session we reflected on any future challenges we may face in schools and classrooms when using this model with educators and students. There was a consistent trend that emerged: while the model is helpful for identifying and solving problems, there is no process embedded in the model itself.

Essentially the question became, how does one effectively “design think?”

To break this down one step further and make it relevant for design thinking in classrooms, are there specific scaffolds and supports we can put in place or are there process we can include in each phase of the model to have greater success? Can we make this model more accessible to students that haven’t engaged with this process before?



Asking students to engage in this process can pose a challenge because they likely haven’t taken this approach towards information gathering in a classroom setting in the past. In this setting, what do we mean when we tell students to empathize with a person or community? Can we convey the purpose of this phase of the model clearly enough to have success with the entire process?

Empathy Mapping: This simple tool can help students unlock the power and potential of the entire model by giving them a structured process to engage in this phase. (Version 1.0 / 1.0 with Goals and Version 2.0)

Empathy Map 1.0 from the Nielson Norman Group

Why empathy mapping? In short, it allows students to make sense and categorize the information they are gathering from another complex person or group. Of course some of the ideas will overlap and it may be challenging to distinguish between what one thinks and feels. More importantly, it can help us gain insights into the actual experience of the person or community we are working with. The empathy map may highlight inconsistencies from one quadrant to the next and allow our students to better empathize with both the goals and conflict present within the experience those we are attempting to empathize with.


With ample information gathered, phase two asks design thinkers to define the problem or frame what they are attempting to identify and solve. This can be challenging because students may not have acquired the language necessary to clearly articulate the problem and more importantly how they attempt to define it to the world. However, a scaffold can be put in place here to make this phase of the process more effective: “How Might We…”

Before reading further, I must publicly thank Dan Ryder who first exposed me to this concept. (NOTE: More on the HMW process HERE, HERE and HERE)

The “How Might We” approach is best explained in this excerpt from the Harvard Business Review:

It’s not complicated: The “how might we” approach to innovation ensures that would-be innovators are asking the right questions and using the best wording. Proponents of this increasingly popular practice say it’s surprisingly effective — and that it can be seen as a testament to the power of language in helping to spark creative thinking and freewheeling collaboration. (Source)

While the HMW statement process can also be used in the ideation phase, I find it to be helpful in the define phase for two reasons:

  1. It provides a clear structure for students to distill the information gathered in the empathy phase and turn it into one statement.
  2. It allows students the freedom of looping back to reconsider their statement and restart the process if ideation, prototyping and testing isn’t quite hitting the mark.

Over the past few years of leading workshops on design thinking, I have developed a HMW activity that can easily be integrated into a design thinking process in the classroom as well.

After completing the empathy phase and gathering needed insight, students should be able to define what aspect of the end user’s experience they can attempt to improve. Line 1 might be filled in with ideas such as: happiness, joy, efficiency, calmness, etc… Line 2 is the person or group in which we are designing for. Line 3 should likely be left blank at this point as the group has not worked through the ideation phase yet. This blank line requires the students to return to the define phase to complete the design statement. Line 4 with: if there are constraints (imposed by the environment, end user, teacher, time, etc…) they can be listed in line 4.


The next two phases might be the most critical and are no less challenging than the previous two. I look at ideation and prototyping this way:

Ideation — explore an idea and problem on a horizontal plane. All ideas are welcome, can connect to other ideas or be broad jumps to completely new approaches to solving the problem.

Prototyping — explore one proposed solution from the ideation phase in a vertical plane. Focus in on that one proposed solution and create as many variations as possible within the context of that one solution.

But, the challenge here is to help students engage the ideation phase, to help them generate an exceptional number of ideas, both big and small, where all new ideas are welcome and reasonable. Consider using Visible Thinking Routines from Project Zero and in particular, their creativity routines.

The Creative Questions Routine from Project Zero

While the creativity routine above asks users to brainstorm a list of ideas and questions about an object, we can employ this creativity routine to the ideation phase of the design thinking process. With the problem statement already generated, students can use the questions in step 2 of the thinking routine to consider every perspective and approach to solving the problem as it has been defined. In this instance, it is quite possible that students can be more creative in their approach to problem solutions because they are provided with the language to think creatively about their problem.


Without fail in any design thinking workshop that I facilitate, prototyping is associated with physical construction. This is not to suggest that prototyping isn’t or can’t be physical construction, but we also should not put constraints on this phase of the process as it can limit the potential of the entire model. Consider providing a broader perspective of prototyping for students that allows for non-physical prototypes, storytelling about their prototype as well as physical construction if appropriate. For an extensive overview of the prototyping process, check out this video from the edX Course, Design Thinking for Leading & Learning.

What I really appreciate about this video is the context it provides for the importance of storyboarding and storytelling in the prototyping phase. Without a story, how can students develop a full sense of how their proposed solution will solve the problem? With a story of interaction between the end user and the proposed solution, potential pitfalls to the proposed solution may emerge and design or solution enhancements may emerge from the process. Further, the simple suggestion to limit student materials during the prototyping phase to toddle size crayons or thick markers is a helpful tip. Often, when provided with material or design constraints, there is greater opportunity to think creatively because of the inability to get distracted by limitless possibilities, details and small granular thinking.


More outstanding advice comes from my EdTechTeacher colleague Justin Reich via the edX Course mentioned above. There are clearly time constraints when engaging in any project type work in the classroom. Yet, the process of testing is critical to a successful design. Consider the suggestion made by Justin & Meredith at the 49 second mark where they suggest honing in on one particular aspect of the design during the testing phase. If time is a constraint (which it likely is), having students identify the specific type of feedback they are looking for can be helpful for two reasons.

  1. The student designers are critically evaluating their design prior to testing.
  2. The feedback provided will be targeted and helpful.

Another helpful approach to gathering targeted feedback in the testing phase is to use a feedback loop protocol that was designed by the Buck Institute for Education and one that I typically use in PBL workshops. The feedback loop or tuning protocol provides constraints on the parties involved to create an effective and efficient process for gathering feedback from a third party. The protocol is outlined in this Edutopia post and is specifically designed for feedback in school environments, but can be applied to the Test phase of design thinking by slightly adjusting the language. Consider the framework below which is adapted from the tuning protocol in the Edutopia post:

Tuning Protocol Adapted for Design Thinking Testing

My intention with the post was to provide additional resources to use within the big, open and complex process of design thinking. Good luck & let me know in the comments how you have implemented the process in your school or classroom…



Greg Kulowiec

Technology Director: Triton Regional Schools The Kulowiec Group: Principal /Lead Learner