The Basics of Design Thinking

Modern businesses and technologies have become extremely complex–interacting with them can easily alienate those they are meant to help. People need help making sense of them. Specifically, people need their

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interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple,
intuitive, and pleasurable.

This requires the systems of business and technology to be flexible, adaptable, approachable, and responsive to the needs of the people who use them. Success depends on it. This means they have to be outward looking instead of inwards looking. They have to fulfill the emotional needs of the people they provide services to. 

Here is where “Design Thinking” comes in; thinking of your products and services from a customer’s perspective.

customers perspective

Why “Design Thinking”?

To understand why design thinking might be suited to this task, it is important to make a distinction between “design” and “design-centric culture”.

Usually when one thinks of design what comes to mind is “aesthetic” and “craft”. In short, this thinking stops at technical execution as its highest goal. It prioritizes the designer. Its focus is not on what people want and need.

“Design-centric culture” on the other hand transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles (that are collectively known as “design thinking”) to all people who help bring ideas to life.

To understand further the idea of design thinking, let’s consider the following:

  1. Business, creative, social enterprises and systems exist
    to fulfill a certain human need (i.e. your customer’s need). 
  2. A human need is something people–a client or a community–dearly want.
  3. Human need gives rise to systems and enterprises
    whose aim is to fulfill it.
  4. Successful systems and enterprises understand that fulfilling
    human need requires that need to be at the center of all activity, and goes beyond
    making profit.

Design Thinking is a Mindset

Before we delve into the definition of design thinking, these are ten points that we must understand:

  1. Design thinking is a mindset. And your goal is to develop a design thinking mindset.
  2. Design thinking is a solution-based approach to
    solving problems.
  3. Design thinking is a human-centered
    creative problem solving mindset, that focuses on providing solutions to human
    need. Human-centered is the key term. A design thinking mindset sees all problems
    whether business, social, global, creative, legal, medical etc. as human
  4. In design thinking, all solutions are designed with human need in mind.
  5. Designing a solution that fulfills a particular human
    need requires the problem to be fully understood in scope and scale.
  6. When a problem is ill-defined we end up having
    limited knowledge of its scope and scale. As a result we come up with
    inadequate solutions that only amount to stop-gap measures.
  7. Design thinking is a hands-on human-centered creative
    problem solving approach, that requires collaboration between people from across multiple disciplines, each contributing vastly different ideas (and no idea is outrageous) then narrowing down the ideas to possible solutions. In design thinking “going it alone” results in failure.
  8. Design thinking requires us to question how we have
    always solved problems and adopt fresh approaches to problem solving. This
    involves going beyond what is initially apparent and using multiple strategies that
    have not been considered before to define and redefine the problem. Multiple
    alternative solutions are considered and simulated before settling on the solution
    that best meets a particular human need.
  9. Prototype, prototype, prototype, test it on the real user.
  10. Design thinking allows room for failure. It recognizes that it’s rare to get things right first time. Companies like Apple leverage failure as learning, viewing it as part of the cost of innovation.

Ask Yourself

Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • What is “human need” and how does that drive everything we do?
  • What human
    need is your business fulfilling?
  • Who
    benefits from problems you are solving?
  • What
    ingrained patterns of thinking define your problem solving approach and
    how do you recognize and challenge them in order to develop new ways of
    seeing, understanding and solving problems?
  • What
    human-centered techniques do you utilize in solving the particular human

5 Stages of Design Thinking 

When a business adopts design thinking it becomes a design-centric organization that fosters a design-centric culture that follows and applies a set of principles collectively.

According to the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, there are five stages of Design Thinking as show in the diagram below. It is important to understand that these stages are not linear. And design thinking is not a linear process. 

Image source Interaction Design Foundation Website Interaction-designorg
Image source: Interaction Design Foundation

Let’s take a closer look at the five different stages of design thinking.

1. Empathize

“Both Tom and David Kelley have stated that Design Thinking begins with empathy. Designers should approach users with the goal of understanding their
wants and needs, what might make their life easier and more enjoyable
and how technology can be useful for them.” —Wikipedia

This stage focuses on users’ experiences, especially emotional ones. Empathy allows design thinkers to set aside
his or her own assumptions about the world in order to gain understanding of users and their needs. 

2. Define

Put together information you have created and gathered during the empathize stage. Analyze observations and synthesize them in order to define the core problem. Come up with a problem statement expressed in terms of human need by making use of emotional language (words that concern desire, aspirations, engagement and experience).

3. Ideate

Ideation is the generation of ideas using your understanding of:

  • your users and their needs from the empathize stage
  • analysis and synthesis of your observations to come up with a human-centered problem statement during define stage

During this stage you think outside the box. No idea is too outrageous. In fact, the solution may came from the most unlikely of ideas. It is important to come up with ideation techniques that will help you generate as many ideas as you possibly can. 

4. Prototype

The best ideas generated during ideation are turned into something concrete. Here designers create scaled down versions of the product, or features of the product.

“At the core of the implementation process is prototyping: turning ideas
into actual products and services that are then tested, iterated, and
refined. A prototype helps to gather feedback and improve the idea.” —Wikipedia

Prototypes are not final. They are supposed to be messy.
They are not perfect. They are an exploration of an idea.

5. Test

In short: get out, put the prototype in the users’ hands and get their feedback. What worked? What did not work? What was their emotional response to the prototype? How did they feel? How did they react? Observe their facial expressions? Listen to what they think works. Listen to what they say will make it better. Use the results generated in this phase to redefine one or more problems, to zero in on the problem areas like functional flaws that the users identified, and to gain a deeper understanding of the users. Alter and refine the prototype, rule out problems then go out and test it again.  


Design thinking is a non-linear non-sequential process. Each stage can be conducted in any order, parallel or even concurrently with each other.

Design thinking does not settle on the obvious and conventional solutions. They may seem efficient in the short run, but in the long run lead to inflexibility, stagnation and frustration to the user. 

In design thinking, how the real users think, feel and behave is the key to finding a human-centered (user-centric) solution.

Further Reading

These include useful resources for yourself, and sources that were consulted during writing of this article.

  • Design Thinking comes of age by Jon Kolko
  • Harvard Business Review September 2015
  • 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process by Rikke Dam and Teo Siang
  • Design Thinking Wikipedia

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