Understanding the Basics of Design Thinking Will Change Your Life

Even if you’re not a designer

Jonathan Ely
Apr 4, 2018 · 8 min read

“The most secure source of new ideas that have true competitive advantage, and hence, higher margins, is customers’ unarticulated needs,” — Jeanne Liedtka

“I don’t know what you want from me!” I shouted at my boss as she set down her pen and stared at me. “I keep thinking this is the right direction to take, and you keep telling me I’m missing the mark, but you won’t say which mark I’m missing or how!”

Yes, my performance review was going well this year.

“What I want from you,” she replied, “is to do your job, so I don’t have to do it for you.”


Now for a little backstory…

My job, at the time of this particular story, was as the operations manager for a logistics unit within the US Air Force. I’ve had a number of jobs similar to this one in my career, but this was the one that taught me a couple of really important lessons and sort of got me looking for answers to questions that I ultimately resolved through a greater understanding of the principles of design-based thinking.

The issue that caused my complete and utter meltdown that day was a simple one, but one that had some pretty complex ramifications: Simply put, I sucked at identifying what the people who worked underneath me were struggling with on a daily basis. My job as the ops manager was to ensure that their work went as smoothly and orderly as possible, a job that I was consistently failing at because I didn’t understand the problems my coworkers were facing. I couldn’t do my job because I didn’t know what things needed to be done.

Seems simple enough, right? Just find out the problems that need solved, then solve them. But, as I learned that afternoon in my boss’s office, and as I’ve continued to learn since then through a more intentional study of the principles of Design Thinking (DT), if it were really that simple, everybody would be doing it. And very few people are actually doing it.

…And now back to the action…

After I managed to drag my bruised and broken ego out of my boss’s office, wishing I could just light my performance review on fire and say the dog ate it, I started to think about the bigger meaning of what had just happened.Specifically, I started to look at the question of what exactly were the problems I was supposed to be helping my coworkers resolve so they could do their primary tasks better, faster, and more cost-effectively? What “gremlins” as we say, was I supposed to be finding and eliminating from the system? And then the real question hit me:

Why didn’t I know what was really going on inside the organization?

See, everybody has problems. But very few of us actually take the time and mental effort to really dig down to the root of those problems. We slap some form of Band-Aid on the problem and act surprised when it resurfaces again a week later, still ugly, and still unresolved.

Dr. Jeanne Liedtka, one of the pioneers in the field of DT and business strategy, whose quote I started this post with, makes the point that one of the most powerful outworkings of applying DT processes to your business or profession is the ability to anticipate and address your customer’s unarticulated needs. This ability, of course, as I found out from talking to my own coworkers, applies equally well to our employees and coworkers.

Tapping into the unarticulated needs of those we interact with, whether they are clients or coworkers is the highest expression of workplace empathy possible.

The Basis of Design Thinking

Herbert Simon, in his landmark 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial, developed the concepts of what we now refer to as DT. Since then, numerous other works have been published detailing the concepts of DT, and how it relates to all manner of different business models. One of the most famous adherents to DT in the modern era is probably Apple, Inc. To see the way in which Apple was consistently able to target their customers unarticulated needs, ask yourself these questions:

· Did anybody know they needed an iPod before Apple created it?

· Did anybody know they needed an iPhone before Apple created it?

· Did anybody know they needed iTunes before Apple created it?

Apple’s genius during the early 2000s was not in creating new products that no one had ever heard of. There were dozens of cell phone manufacturers making quality cell phones before the iPhone landed. There were dozens of MP3 players on the market before the original iPod. Windows Media Player had been around for years before iTunes rolled out.

But, once Apple entered the arena, none of that mattered. Why? Because Apple understood the unarticulated needs (and in fact, you could even argue that Apple’s real genius was in creating a need for a product by releasing that product!) of its customers. How were they able to do this?

How can we solve a problem for our employees, customers, or clients in such a way that they don’t even know the problem exists until we appear with the solution?

The Five Phases of Design Thinking

Design thinking as a process is generally accepted to have five distinct phases of execution. Those phases are:

· Empathize

· Define

· Ideate

· Prototype

· Test

Looking at that list, it seems to a be a mix of skills from various disciplines. “Prototype” and “test” seem to be drawn from the lexicon of engineering and product development, whereas “empathize” and “ideate” come from a more psychological, social methodology. And therein lies the true brilliance of Design Thinking:

Think of it as either a human solution to an engineering problem, or an engineering solution to a human problem.

Phase 1 — Empathize

Empathizing — the first step in the five phases of DT — immediately sets DT apart from most of the other business models out there. True, most business models strive to understand their ideal client’s needs and wants, but few do it from a relational point of view. This gets at the heart of what Simon Sinek talks about in his book Start With Why: That people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. For Apple, that meant understanding the desire of their customers to be a part of something. They weren’t buying i-Stuff because it was the best, they were buying it because of the reasons behind WHY Apple made it. In an era when the corporate world was turning its back on customer relations, and focused more on profits than on value, Apple was able to communicate a different mission and mindset, which allowed their sales to skyrocket.

Phase 2 — Define (the problem)

Once we understand the unarticulated needs of others through authentically empathizing, it’s time to define the problem. As Rikke Dam and Teo Sang put it: “ You should seek to define the problem as a problem statement in a human-centred manner.” Once again, we are looking at a human solution to an engineering problem, or vice versa, so this emphasis on human-centered solutions is key to every subsequent phase of DT.

Phase 3 — Ideate

Most business models would place brainstorming somewhere near the beginning of the problem-solving process. In DT, it’s squarely in the middle. Ideation, the process of coming up with potential solutions to your customers’ unarticulated needs, can only take place after those needs have been identified through empathy, and the problem defined. Do we solve the problem through a product, or a relationship, or a service? Is it through expanding our business model to include other forms of retail or consumer service? In the case of my job as an operations manager, the unarticulated needs that I wasn’t meeting for my fellow workers were to be found in the way I was focused on problems, and not on them personally. I felt like, if nothing was going wrong, there was nothing for me to do. What was going on underneath the surface, and what I was failing to do, was to spend time with them, to learn their processes to the point that I could spot potential problems before they actually became problems. Again, this human-centered approach must take into account, above all else, the experience of the user, whether customer, employee, or client. As Jon Kolko writes, “The focus on great experiences isn’t limited to product designers, marketers, and strategists — it infuses every customer-facing function.”

Phase 4 — Prototype

Prototyping doesn’t necessarily have to involve models, or scaled-down products. Prototyping also applies to non-physical solutions as well, in terms of how we construct frameworks to solve problems. Obviously, there are times when physical prototyping is important, but the overarching goal of prototyping is to apply solutions in a controlled environment, to allow for testing, the fifth phase.

Phase 5 — Test

The final phase of DT can sometimes (But not always!) be the simplest. Since DT doesn’t flow in a strictly linear fashion between stages, there are times when prototyping leads back to ideation, and when defining the problem actually requires more time spent empathizing to reassess the customer’s needs. Because of this frequently recursive nature, by the time we arrive at the final phase of the DT process, sometimes testing merely confirms the last step in our solution. Other times, it can restart the entire process from the beginning. The importance of being able to move fluidly throughout all five phases is one of the hallmarks of Design Thinking.


Business models move in patterns. The pendulum swings back and forth between a process-oriented approach and a human-oriented approach depending on the era in which we live. It is my belief that Design Thinking represents probably the best current amalgam of both process and people. It works to explain increasingly complex technical problems in an increasingly complex technological society. Yet, it also satisfies the timeless nature of humanity, and avoids the pitfalls of earlier business models which sought to reduce the human element to the point of being extraneous. At the end of it all, whether we are talking about coworkers, or customers, the one thing they all have in common is that they are people looking for solutions to their problems. Solving the problem without addressing the people, or focusing on the people without truly resolving the problem will only lead to frustration, alienation, and failure. Being able to provide a solutions-based approach to problems, rather than a problems-based approach to problems (recursive style thinking found in too many Industrial Age business models) will guarantee greater chance of lasting implementation and effectiveness of whatever problem we’re solving.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 312,921+ people.

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Jonathan Ely

Written by

Writing about life, leadership, money and business. https://linktr.ee/Thinkist

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +682K people. Follow to join our community.

Jonathan Ely

Written by

Writing about life, leadership, money and business. https://linktr.ee/Thinkist

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +682K people. Follow to join our community.

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