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The Key Principles And Steps Of The Design Thinking Process

Emily Stevens

If you’ve heard of Design Thinking, you may know that it’s an ideology concerned with solving complex problems in a creative, user-centric way. But what does Design Thinking look like in action? What does the process actually entail?

In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the Design Thinking process—including where it comes from, why it’s so valuable, and what it’s used for. We’ll then explore the five stages of the Design Thinking process in detail.

We’ve divided our guide into the following sections. Feel free to skip ahead using the clickable menu!

  1. What is the Design Thinking process?
  2. What is the value of the Design Thinking process?
  3. Where does the Design Thinking process come from?
  4. What are the five steps of the Design Thinking process?
  5. How can I become an expert in Design Thinking?

Ready to learn all about the Design Thinking process? Let’s go.

1. What is the Design Thinking process?

Before we can understand the Design Thinking process, it’s important to get to grips with the ideology behind it—that is, Design Thinking. In simple terms, Design Thinking is a methodology that aims to tackle highly complex problems. Complex problems—otherwise known as “wicked” problems— are those that are difficult to define and cannot be solved using standard methods and approaches. They are the opposite of “tame” problems, which can be solved by applying a tried-and-tested algorithm or logic. Let’s explore wicked vs. tame problems in more detail now.

Wicked vs. tame problems

Let’s imagine you’re holding a dinner party for six people. You’ve picked out a recipe for potato soup and you’ve bought all the necessary ingredients. At the last minute, one of your guests asks if they can bring three friends along; you now need enough potato soup for nine people! Fortunately, this problem is easily solved: you’ll simply multiply the quantities of each ingredient on the recipe in order to make more soup.

This is an example of a tame problem. Based on what you know about cooking, and by applying some simple math, you are quickly able to find a solution. Wicked problems, on the other hand, have no known solution or algorithm. In fact, the more you try to solve a wicked problem, the more problems you expose!

Unlike our “tame” dinner party conundrum, wicked problems don’t have a final solution. Things like climate change, poverty, and world hunger are often-cited examples of wicked problems; they need to be tackled from multiple angles, and rather than looking for a single answer, they require a response that anticipates how the problem might evolve and mutate.

Wicked problems are everywhere in business, too. Whether it’s reinventing an entire business model, trying to maintain your startup culture as the business grows, working out how to please a new customer group, or resolving conflict between different departments—none of these scenarios has a simple, tried-and-tested solution. They are complex, wicked problems that require Design Thinking!

Design Thinking fosters an outside-the-box approach, with huge emphasis on creativity, innovation, and the needs of the user. The Design Thinking process is used to apply the Design Thinking ideology to real-world, wicked problems. It offers a solution-based approach to problem-solving. Unlike problem-based thinking, which tends to fixate on obstacles and limitations, the Design Thinking process is all about outcomes. It provides a non-linear series of steps that you can follow to come up with innovative, actionable ideas. You can learn more about solution-based vs. problem-based thinking in our comprehensive guide to Design Thinking.

Now we know what kinds of wicked problems we’re up against, let’s see what the Design Thinking process looks like in action.

A group of designers sticking Post-it notes on a wall

The Design Thinking process in action

The Design Thinking process can be applied to many different contexts—it’s not just about developing the next digital product. Nor is it limited to design teams; more and more businesses are using Design Thinking as a way to foster innovation on a companywide scale.

This list of five big organizations winning with Design Thinking explains how companies such as iBM, MassMutual, and Fidelity are “drawing on design thinking frameworks to jolt innovative ideas” and “drive bottom-line business outcomes.”

But what does the Design Thinking process actually look like in action?

One way to apply the Design Thinking process is through a Design Thinking workshop. If you have a specific problem you want to tackle, a dedicated workshop will take you through each step of the Design Thinking process—from building empathy and defining the problem, right through to prototyping and testing ideas—usually over the course of a few days or a week. As a designer, you might invite your colleagues from other departments in order to harness a diversity of ideas. Design Thinking workshops aren’t just for designers, though; all teams can use, and benefit from, this creative approach to problem-solving.

Aside from dedicated workshops, Design Thinking can also be an embedded process—an overarching framework that informs how you make decisions and devise certain strategies. Rather than going through the entire Design Thinking cycle in one sitting, you might choose to focus on just one element—such as getting to know your target audience (be it external customers or internal stakeholders) or conducting user tests. In this sense, the Design Thinking process can be used to build a general culture which emphasizes putting the user first, collaborating in order to innovate, and testing early and often.

What is the goal of the Design Thinking process?

However you choose to implement the Design Thinking process, the goal is the same: to approach complex problems from a human perspective. The Design Thinking process fosters creativity, innovation, and user-centricity, helping you to come up with actionable solutions that are:

  • Desirable for the user;
  • Viable for business;
  • Technologically feasible.

The Design Thinking process puts the needs and requirements of the user first. The first stage of the process is dedicated to building empathy with your target users and getting to understand their needs, expectations, and behaviours.

Next, you’ll focus on coming up with ideas which are quickly turned into prototypes and tested on real users. Inherent to the Design Thinking process is the early and frequent testing of your solutions; this way, you can gather feedback and make any necessary changes long before the product is developed.

In a nutshell: The Design Thinking process enables you to find innovative solutions to complex problems, driven by the needs of the target user.

2. What is the value of the Design Thinking process?

We’ve touched upon the goal of Design Thinking and how it can be applied to real-world, wicked problems. Before we delve into the key steps in the Design Thinking process, let’s consider the value that Design Thinking brings.

Here are just some of the benefits of the Design Thinking process:

  • The Design Thinking process teaches people how to innovate and problem-solve: While most of us are programmed to solve problems that readily present themselves, we’re not necessarily inclined to go looking for problems. Design Thinking encourages creative problem-solving; it pushes you to redefine the problem space and seek out the challenge that’s really worth solving. This is especially useful in a business context—whether it’s designing a competitive digital product, optimizing internal processes, or reinventing an entire business model.
     
  • The Design Thinking process fosters teamwork and collaboration: As explained by the HPI Academy, “innovations and answers to complex questions are best generated in a heterogeneous team of five to six people.” The Design Thinking process brings multidisciplinary teams together, breaks down silos, and encourages people to collaborate and challenge their assumptions.
     
  • The Design Thinking process offers a proven competitive advantage: Design-led companies have been shown to consistently outperform their competitors. As already mentioned, the aim of the Design Thinking process is to come up with solutions, products, or services that are desirable for the user, economically viable from a business perspective, and technologically feasible. This user-first approach coupled with early and frequent testing helps to minimize risk, drive customer engagement, and ultimately boost the bottom line.


So: Design Thinking is a tool for creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. Not only does it help designers to come up with ground-breaking products; it also fosters a culture of innovation and user-centricity at every level of business.

Before we consider the five stages of the Design Thinking process, let’s take a look at where the Design Thinking process comes from.

A collection of paper prototypes on a desk

3. Where does the Design Thinking process come from?

Design Thinking has become something of a buzzword in recent years, but it’s an approach that has actually been evolving since the 1960s. Let’s explore the history of the Design Thinking process with a brief timeline.

1969: Herbert Simon and “The Sciences Of The Artificial”

In 1969, American sociologist and psychologist Herbert Simon published an article which is said to have laid the foundations for Design Thinking. In The Sciences Of The Artificial, Simon set out seven key steps for using design as a creative approach to problem-solving. This seven-stage model is highly reminiscent of the five-stage process commonly used today.

1973: Horst Rittel and “wicked problems”

Another key figure in shaping the Design Thinking process as we know it today is design theorist Horst Rittel. In the 1970s, Rittel coined the term “wicked problems” to describe complex problems which are tricky to define, have no set number of potential solutions, and tend to be symptomatic of another problem.

1991: The birth of IDEO

In the early 90s, international design and consulting firm IDEO was founded. IDEO is often hailed as one of the most instrumental figures in bringing Design Thinking to the mainstream. The IDEO Design Thinking model divides the process into three key phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

1992: Richard Buchanan and “Wicked Problems In Design Thinking” 

Richard Buchanan, another design theorist, connected Rittel’s wicked problems to Design Thinking in the early 90s when he published Wicked Problems In Design Thinking. 

2005: Design Thinking as a university subject

In the early 2000s, Design Thinking started to be introduced as a course at university level. A notable leader in this field was the Stanford School of Design (or the d.school) which began teaching Design Thinking in 2005.

This is just a handful of events that have contributed to the Design Thinking process as we know it today. You can learn more about the origins of Design Thinking in this comprehensive timeline written by design expert Jo Szczepanska.

Now we have an idea of where the Design Thinking process comes from, let’s consider what exactly the process entails.

4. What are the 5 steps of the Design Thinking process?

The Design Thinking process can be divided into five key steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

The 5 steps in the Design Thinking process

When considering the five steps of Design Thinking, it’s important to remember that it’s not a linear process. Although we talk about the process in terms of sequential steps, it’s actually a highly iterative loop. With each phase, you’ll make new discoveries which may require you to revisit the previous stages.

With that in mind, let’s consider the five key stages of the Design Thinking process in more detail.

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

1. Empathize

The Design Thinking process starts with empathy. In order to create desirable products and services, you need to understand who your users are and what they need. What are their expectations in relation to the product you’re designing? What challenges and pain-points do they face within this context?

During the empathize phase, you’ll spend time observing and engaging with real users (or people who represent your target group)—conducting interviews, seeing how they interact with an existing product, and generally paying attention to facial expressions and body language.

As the first step in the Design Thinking process, the empathize phase encourages you to set your assumptions aside. Armed with first-hand insights, you’ll be able to design with real users in mind. That’s what Design Thinking is all about!

Learn more: What Is Empathy In Design Thinking? A Comprehensive Guide To Building Empathy For Your Users.

2. Define

In the second stage of the Design Thinking process, you’ll define the user problem that you want to solve. First, you’ll gather all of your findings from the empathize phase and start piecing them together. What common themes and patterns did you observe? What user needs and challenges consistently came up?

Once you’ve synthesized your findings, you’ll formulate what’s known as a problem statement. A problem statement—sometimes called a point of view (POV) statement—outlines the issue or challenge that you will seek to address.

As with anything in the Design Thinking process, the problem statement keeps the user in focus. Rather than framing your problem statement as a business goal—“We need to increase gym membership among over-50s by 30%”—you’ll frame it from the user’s perspective: “Over-50s in London need flexible, affordable access to sports facilities in order to keep fit and healthy.”

By the end of the define phase, you will have a clear problem statement which will guide you throughout the design process. This will form the basis of your ideas and potential solutions.

Learn more: How To Define A Problem Statement: Your Guide To The Second Step In The Design Thinking Process

3. Ideate

The third stage in the Design Thinking process consists of ideation—or generating ideas. By this point, you know who your target users are and what they want from your product. You also have a clear problem statement that you’re hoping to solve. Now it’s time to come up with possible solutions.

The ideation phase is a judgement-free zone where the group is encouraged to venture away from the norm, to explore new angles, and to think outside the box. You’ll hold ideation sessions in order to generate as many ideas as possible—regardless of whether or not they’re feasible! For maximum creativity, ideation sessions are often held in unusual locations.

Throughout this stage of the Design Thinking process, you’ll continuously refer back to your problem statement. As you prepare to move on to the next phase, you’ll narrow it down to a few ideas which you’ll later turn into prototypes to be tested on real users.

Learn more: What Is Ideation In Design Thinking? A Guide To The Most Important Ideation Techniques

4. Prototype

In the fourth stage of the Design Thinking process, you’ll turn your ideas from stage three into prototypes. A prototype is essentially a scaled-down version of a product or feature—be it a simple paper model or a more interactive digital representation.

The aim of the prototyping stage is to turn your ideas into something tangible which can be tested on real users. This is crucial in maintaining a user-centric approach, allowing you to gather feedback before you go ahead and develop the whole product. This ensures that the final design actually solves the user’s problem and is a delight to use!

Learn more: Step Four In The Design Thinking Process: Your Complete Introduction To Prototyping

5. Test

The fifth step in the Design Thinking process is dedicated to testing: putting your prototypes in front of real users and seeing how they get on. During the testing phase, you’ll observe your target users—or representative users—as they interact with your prototype. You’ll also gather feedback on how your users felt throughout the process.

The testing phase will quickly highlight any design flaws that need to be addressed. Based on what you learn through user testing, you’ll go back and make improvements. Remember: The Design Thinking process is iterative and non-linear. The results of the testing phase will often require you to revisit the empathize stage or run through a few more ideation sessions before you create that winning prototype.

Learn more: User Testing: A Guide To Step Five Of The Design Thinking Process

A man sitting at his desk looking at a laptop

5. How can I become an expert in Design Thinking?

With all this talk of the Design Thinking process and just how valuable it is, you might be wondering how you can learn more about Design Thinking and eventually start applying it to your own work.

A good place to start is user experience (UX) design—the practice of creating user-friendly products and services that solve a real user need. Indeed, UX and Design Thinking often go hand-in-hand; many of the key principles and steps of the Design Thinking process are also critical to UX, such as building empathy through user research, creating prototypes, testing on real users, and continuously iterating. Learning the essentials of UX will help you to better understand how Design Thinking fits into the development of real-world products and solutions. Our one-month course in UX Fundamentals provides a comprehensive introduction to Design Thinking, and shows you how to apply the first stage of the Design Thinking process to a real-world problem.

We also recommend checking out this excellent collection of resources for getting started with Design Thinking, provided by the d.school (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University). If you’d like to learn more about putting the Design Thinking process into context, you’ll find a comprehensive guide over on IDEO.com.

As we’ve seen, the Design Thinking process can be applied to all areas of business. It’s a tool that can be used by anyone, in any department, to foster innovation and find creative solutions to complex problems. Whether you’re a designer, a teacher, or a CEO, the Design Thinking process will transform the way you think, collaborate, and come up with ideas.

If you’d like to learn more about Design Thinking and user-centered design, check out the following articles:

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Emily Stevens

Emily Stevens

Managing Editor at CareerFoundry

Originally from England, Emily moved to Berlin after studying French & German at university. When she’s not writing, she can be found travelling, hula-hooping or reading a good book.