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Design Thinking

Design Thinking Phases || image source: interaction-design.org

Design thinking is a human-centered and collaborative approach to problem-solving that is creative, iterative, and practical. In this guide, we’ll give you a detailed definition of Design Thinking, illustrate exactly what the process involves, and underline why it matters: What is the value of Design Thinking, and in what contexts is it particularly useful.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an approach used for practical and creative problem-solving. It is based heavily on the methods and processes that designers use (hence the name), but it has actually evolved from a range of different fields — including architecture, engineering, and business. Design Thinking can also be applied to any field; it doesn’t necessarily have to be design-specific.

What is the Design Thinking process?

The Design Thinking process is progressive and highly user-centric. Before looking at the process in more detail, let’s consider the four principles of Design Thinking as laid out by Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design at Stanford University, California.

The Four Principles of Design Thinking

The human rule: No matter what the context, all design activity is social in nature, and any social innovation will bring us back to the “human-centric point of view”.

The ambiguity rule: Ambiguity is inevitable, and it cannot be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in being able to see things differently.

The redesign rule: All design is redesign. While technology and social circumstances may change and evolve, basic human needs remain unchanged. We essentially only redesign the means of fulfilling these needs or reaching desired outcomes.

The tangibility rule: Making ideas tangible in the form of prototypes enables designers to communicate them more effectively.

Based on these four principles, the Design Thinking process can be broken down into five steps or phases, as per the aforementioned Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design at Stanford (otherwise known as d.school): Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

Empathize -

Empathy provides a critical starting point for Design Thinking. The first stage of the process is spent getting to know the user and understanding their wants, needs, and objectives.

In this stage, you should identify:

Customers’ Insights: The deep motivations that make them behave or act as they do.

Customers’ Needs: What could be really useful for them?

Define -

The second stage in the Design Thinking process is dedicated to defining the problem. You’ll gather all of your findings from the empathize phase and start to make sense of them.

In this stage you should identify:

List all the conclusions reached in the previous stage.

Start defining potential solutions for them.

Ideate -

With a solid understanding of your users and a clear problem statement in mind, it’s time to start working on potential solutions. The third phase in the Design Thinking process is where creativity happens, and it’s crucial to point out that the ideation stage is a judgment-free zone! Designers will hold ideation sessions in order to come up with as many new angles and ideas as possible. There are many different types of ideation techniques like brainstorming and mind mapping.

In this stage you should:

Start figuring out different approaches that could fulfill your customers’ requirements.

You should also ensure:

Being optimistic but realistic.

Don’t lose the focus on the customer.

Prototype -

The fourth step in the Design Thinking process is all about experimentation and turning ideas into tangible products. A prototype is basically a scaled-down version of the product which incorporates the potential solutions identified in the previous stages.

In this stage you should:

Build feasible final products for your customers.

You also must ensure:

Fulfill the customers’ requirements.

Guarantee a solid working final prototype.

Test -

After prototyping comes user testing, but it’s important to note that this is rarely the end of the Design Thinking process. In reality, the results of the testing phase will often lead you back to a previous step, providing the insights you need to redefine the original problem statement or to come up with new ideas you hadn’t thought of before.

In this stage you should:

Distribute your final prototype among potential customers and receive feedback.

Go back to a certain stage (if required by the customers) in order to improve the final product.

Purpose of Design Thinking -

Now we know more about how Design Thinking works, let’s consider why it matters. There are many benefits of using a Design Thinking approach — be it in a business, educational, personal, or social context. First and foremost, Design Thinking fosters creativity and innovation. As human beings, we rely on the knowledge and experiences we have accumulated to inform our actions. We form patterns and habits that, while useful in certain situations, can limit our view of things when it comes to problem-solving. Rather than repeating the same tried-and-tested methods, Design Thinking encourages us to remove our blinkers and consider alternative solutions. The entire process lends itself to challenging assumptions and exploring new pathways and ideas. Another great benefit of Design Thinking is that it puts humans first. By focusing so heavily on empathy, it encourages businesses and organizations to consider the real people who use their products and services — meaning they are much more likely to hit the mark when it comes to creating meaningful user experiences. For the user, this means better, more useful products that actually improve our lives. For businesses, this means happy customers and a healthier bottom line.

“Wicked problem” in Design Thinking -

Design Thinking is especially useful when it comes to solving “wicked problems”. The term “wicked problem” was coined by design theorist Horst Rittel in the 1970s to describe particularly tricky problems that are highly ambiguous in nature. With wicked problems, there are many unknown factors; unlike “tame” problems, there is no definitive solution. In fact, solving one aspect of a wicked problem is likely to reveal or give rise to further challenges. Another key characteristic of wicked problems is that they have no stopping point; as the nature of the problem changes over time, so must the solution. Solving wicked problems is therefore an ongoing process that requires Design Thinking! Some examples of wicked problems in our society today include things like poverty, hunger, and climate change.

Benefits of Design Thinking at work -

Integrating Design Thinking into your process can add huge business value, ultimately ensuring that the products you design are not only desirable for customers but also viable in terms of company budget and resources.

Significantly reduces time-to-market: With its emphasis on problem-solving and finding viable solutions, Design Thinking can significantly reduce the amount of time spent on design and development.

Improves customer retention and loyalty: Design Thinking ensures a user-centric approach, which ultimately boosts user engagement and customer retention in the long term.

Fosters innovation: Design Thinking is all about challenging assumptions and established beliefs, encouraging all stakeholders to think outside the box. This fosters a culture of innovation that extends well beyond the design team.

Design thinking methodology in action: Case study –

Problem Statement — Executives at the Eye Hospital wanted to transform the patient experience from the typically grim, anxiety-riddled affair into something much more pleasant and personal. To do this, they incorporated Design Thinking and design principles into their planning process. Here’s how they did it:

Empathize –

First, they set out to understand their target user — patients entering the hospital for treatment. The hospital CEO, managers, staff, and doctors established that most patients came into the hospital with the fear of going blind.


Based on their findings from the empathize stage, they determined that fear reduction needed to be a priority. Their problem statement may have looked something like the following: “Patients coming into our hospital needs to feel comfortable and at ease.”

Ideate –

Armed with a deep understanding of their patients and a clear mission statement, they started to brainstorm potential solutions. As any good design thinker would, they sought inspiration from a range of both likely and unlikely sources.

Prototype –

In the prototyping stage, the team presented the most promising ideas they had come up with so far to those in charge of caregiving at the hospital. These teams of caregivers then used these insights to design informal, small-scale experiments that could test a potential solution and see if it was worthy of wide-scale adoption.

Test –

The testing phase consisted of running the aforementioned experiments and seeing if they took off.

The Outcome –

By adopting a Design Thinking approach, the Eye Hospital were able to get to the heart of their users’ needs and find effective solutions to fulfill them.


Image source: interaction-design.org




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