Unpacking the most critical component(s) of Design Thinking

Greg Kulowiec
Jun 19, 2018 · 4 min read

When I first came across the concept of design thinking I was completely and utterly confused. I didn’t understand why a model to identify and solve problems began with empathy. At the time, I couldn’t even recall the last time I had heard the word empathy used in context. After a few years of exploring the concept, leading workshops for schools & using the model myself I am happy to say the first step in the model now makes sense.

To be fair, I don’t know if it is logical to rank and identify the most critical component(s) within the larger framework of Design Thinking. Each aspect of the model is dependent upon the rest. However, there are some insights into two of the phases that I would like to expand on a bit in this post.

Time to Unpack Empathize & Prototype…


I would be foolish to suggest that I completely understand this phase and all fo the complexity it entails. Dynamics of communities, cultures and prior experience of the student can make it challenging to empathize with another community. In fact, this lack of life experience and educational background is one of the main criticism I have come across against using Design Thinking in the classroom (read more about that criticism here). Certainly, a younger student doesn’t have a foundation of information or knowledge that an adult has acquired. However, I don’t think that is absolutely an obstacle to having said student observe a situation, gather information and identify a problem from a unique perspective. Might it be that the younger student needs a bit of scaffolding to get there, certainly. This is where the very helpful Project Zero’s Visible Thinking routines can be quite helpful. Consider giving a student a creativity routine to help them examine a scenario by changing a variable or two…

Creativity Routine from Project Zero

What could be most helpful when student’s are engaged in the empathy phase of Design Thinking is to provide a framework to help them collect information about the community they are working with. Having come across empathy mapping resources and then using them in Design Thinking workshops, the structured and scaffolding empathy maps provide has resonated with teachers who are both experienced and new to design thinking.

Empathy Map 1.0 via the nngroup.com

Version 1.0 of the empathy map (read more here) is a great start for students that are tasked with gathering information about one or multiple people in a community. The key idea is that the information is non-sequential and the student has to differentiate between thoughts, feelings, action and words. When painting a bigger, non-sequential picture of the target community, students can ideally have a framework to define the problem that exists but hasn’t been identified yet. Version 1.1 also adds an element of “Goals” to the bottom of the 1.0 map that provides another layer of complexity and thoroughness of the mapping process. If you are interested in expanding the process of empathy mapping, check out the 2.0 version here.


This might be the most striking insight I have experienced after digging into and using the Design Thinking model over the past few years. Typically, I experienced the prototyping process focusing on a physical construct. In some instances it was lo-fidelity or in many instances technology of some sort (3d printers, littleBits, etc…) were being used. It is often unclear why the technology is being used and I wonder sometimes if students are prototyping with various instances of technology because they have made an intentional decision or because the resource is available and in the room. What is most important to keep in mind however is an idea I learned about from an edX course created by my colleague at EdTechTeacher, Justin Reich. My perspective on prototyping was always physical creation. Consider the ideas presented by Yasmine Kotturi in the video below:

What I find to most helpful in thoroughly understanding and unpacking the prototyping process is the idea that prototyping can take place in phases. Starting with lo-fidelity (large crayons & markers on paper) prototyping to limit the ability to focus on the granular details, students can focus on big picture thinking. Then, shifting to storyboarding allows students to tell the story of interaction between their device and the end user and how that device or prototype can solve the problem that was previously identified. Then, the implementation of technology in the hi-fidelity phase makes complete sense. There is intention, need and purpose behind the use of technology.

What are your thoughts on the Design Thinking process?

Greg Kulowiec

Written by

Instructor & Creator for EdTechTeacher (edtechteacher.org), husband, dad to 2, iOSdj and former History Teacher. Half of the So We've Been Thinking Project.

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