February 19, 2020

What is Design Thinking?

To put it simply, design thinking is a solution-based approach for solving difficult problems. Design thinking is an iterative process to understand the user, challenge your assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative solutions that might not be obvious with our first look at the problem.

The core of design thinking is a profound interest in understanding our users. This interest is kindled through observation of and empathy for the user. Design thinking forces you to ask a lot of questions: questions about the problem (or what we think is the problem!), our assumptions, and the implications of those assumptions and our solutions to the problem. Design thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are not well defined.

Design thinking techniques are not only useful to designers, but also in other areas of business including sales, customer service, development, and management. Just because you don’t have “designer” in your title, doesn’t mean that you can’t participate in and benefit from the design thinking process.

While I describe the “steps” of design thinking below, please be aware that it is not a linear process. You could empathize with the user, define the problem, ideate many solutions, and then go back to asking the user more questions, before moving on to prototyping and testing. Depending on the results of your tests, you may need to go back to make sure the problem is defined correctly or to come up with more solutions to prototype and test.

The “steps” or modes of design thinking:

  • Empathize with the user
  • Define the problem
  • Ideate many solutions
  • Prototype select solutions
  • Test the prototypes

Design Thinking

Empathize with the user

The first “step” of the design thinking process is to empathize with the user so you can understand the problem you are trying to solve. During this “step” there is a lot of research done, including user interviews and observation, consulting experts, analyzing the competition, reading literature, and more. At the end of this “step,” you want to have developed an understanding of the users, their needs, and the problems that the development of a particular product or service will alleviate.

Define the problem

During the define “step,” you put together the information you have gathered during the empathize “step” and analyze it. You are trying to distill all of the data into a core problem or problems.  You can’t solve a problem that isn’t defined. You want to define the problem in a user-centered way. For example, instead of defining the problem in terms of fulfilling the needs of the company, you define the problem in terms of the user’s needs.  If your product or service only meets the needs of the company and not the users, you’ll have an expensive product that no one can or wants to use.

Ideate many solutions

Now that you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to start generating ideas. There are a ton of techniques to help you ideate many, many solutions including brainstorming, which most people are familiar with along with others like braindumping, challenging assumptions, worst possible idea, and SCAMPER. While brainstorming, braindumping, challenging assumptions, worst possible idea are great at the beginning of the ideation phase and can be useful for generating a lot of solutions, SCAMPER is a method used to innovate on an existing product or service. The SCAMPER acronym stands for:

  • Substitute
  • Combine
  • Adapt
  • Modify
  • Put to another use
  • Eliminate
  • Reverse

Prototype select solutions

After you’ve generated a lot of ideas, you now will create prototypes to test your solutions. The prototypes don’t have to be fancy and can be made out with paper and pencil. Fancier prototypes can be created with tools like Adobe XD, Invision, and Sketch. If you have several solutions to test or aren’t sure about which solution is your best option it is best to stick with pen and paper. However, electronic prototypes are easy to collaborate on and to share with others. The prototype “step” is about experimentation. You want to be able to share your solutions with your team, other departments, or even small groups of users during the testing “step.”

Test the prototypes

The prototype must be rigorously tested to determine if it the best solution for the defined problem. The results during testing often influence the next steps as you often have to go back to one of the previous “steps” for further refinement.


Whether you are a designer or not, is there a way to bring design thinking into your organization? What kind of problems are your users facing that a design thinking approach may help?

Do you have any questions about design thinking? or are you interested in working with me on a project? Feel free to contact me.

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