Put the user at the center & save time with design thinking

Tania Cruz
Jun 3, 2016 · 6 min read

When designing from scratch or trying to innovate an existing concept, business, or project, you should always keep the user at the center. You want to design and develop something people really need, want and will use. Simply put, if you don’t put the user at the center, you’ll spend years building something no-one will probably use. You might never even end up launching. One approach to designing and innovating with the user at the center is by applying the design thinking approach.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.” — Tim Brown, president and CEO. The process aims to bring together different experiences, opinions and perspectives towards a problem to then design, test, and quickly develop innovative products and services that are aligned to the needs of the user.

Many companies such as Nike, Apple, Marriott, and Pepsi are using design thinking to accelerate innovation to improve and transform their products and services and are even creating whole departments dedicated to it. In an interview with CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi explains that her focus is on design thinking as it is what’s driving innovation for the company. In hospitality, Marriott International formed an Insight, Strategy + Innovation team to innovate their company through breakthrough concepts. Take a look at Marriott’s Travel Brilliantly ideas and projects. Not just companies, but even the U.S. government is using design thinking to innovate their services through programs such as their Presidential Innovation Fellow and the 18F.

The process involves 5 sophisticated steps: observe, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Observe/ Empathize

During this step you will focus on developing a deep understanding of the problem and learn and empathize with the audience for whom you are designing for. In doing so, you could start the process with customer discovery by performing ethnographic research, and interviewing customers or potential users. As Steve Blank said “get out of the building”, go talk to real people before you write a line of code. If you don’t talk to potential users, you’ll be telling yourself what you want to believe not what your users really need. To gain meaningful insights you could create online surveys combined with secondary research. It is very important to get as familiarized as quickly as possible with current user’s needs, competitors, gain industry knowledge, and statistics. After you have a significant amount of information about the potential users and a deeper understanding of the problem, you should move to the “define” step.

Resources/ tools: quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic and secondary research, customer discovery, interviews, surveys, etc.
Time: 2–4 weeks


During this process the idea is to synthesize the findings from your empathy work to form a users’ point of view. You could use persona creation to help you understand the context of users and to gain a clearer picture of the pain-points. The persona creation should be based on your research and understanding on what are the user goals, needs, and interests. Each persona should be a representation of a user. In building personas, it is useful to use journey mapping and touchpoints to get a visual overview story of the entire experience. The goal of this step is to define the user’s feelings, motivations and questions for each of the touchpoints. If during the define process you realize that more information is needed, you should quickly go back to the observe step.

Resources/ tools: persona creation, journey mapping, storytelling, touchpoint
Time: 1–2 weeks


After you get a very clear picture of the user’s needs, you should start brainstorming and coming up with creative solutions to the user’s problems. During this step, you will explore a wide variety of possible solutions, allowing you to step beyond the obvious and explore a range of ideas. Brainstorming is critical to the generation of solutions, as such everyone in your team should be engaged to participate and collaborate with their ideas. See how to keep everyone engaged while brainstorming. After you brainstorm a couple of solutions, you can combine journey mapping with each of the personas to ideate possible solutions. At the end of this step, you should have one or a few solutions catered to your user’s needs. If you don’t, then go back to define. If needed, go back to observe and repeat the process.

Resources/ tools: brainstorm, journey mapping
Time: 1–8 weeks


At this point, you have one or a few concrete solutions to your user’s needs. During this step you will design and build one or various prototypes to test the possible solutions. The importance of this step is to transform your ideas into a physical form so that people can experience and interact with them and in the process, you can learn and develop more empathy. In building your first prototype you could use a wide variety of resources ranging from storyboards, sketches, low coast physical prototype, to a simple version of a digital platform. The goal is to visualize how your solution might work and interact with the users. You will continue developing more sophisticated prototype versions as your continue implementing the design thinking process.

Resources/ tools: sketching, invision, Keynote, Wordpress, programming, physical materials, etc.
Time: 1–12 weeks


During this step, you will test the possible solution(s) with real users. This is the step when you return to your users to test the solution and engage in an innovation cycle to improve your prototype.

Resources/ tools: in-person or digital interactions
Time: 1–2 weeks

Final Thoughts
Notice that after the design process begins, you could go back and forward between steps as needed. Repeat the process as many times as you need to, and don’t forget to launch a simple version of the product for your audience to interact with it. When guiding innovation with design thinking, you will always go back to asking the users, re-building for the user, re-testing with the users, and re-launching the product. Airbnb launched 3 times before becoming a $25 billion dollar company. The process should not take too long. Go through the design thinking process and don’t take longer than 6 months before putting something in the hands of people. The design thinking process will help you to move fast, fail fast, and learn fast; to ultimately save a lot of time.

Have you used the design thinking approach before?

Originally published at Tania Cruz: Design Strategist.

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