Design thinking is an iterative process of design-based activities to solve problems in a collaborative, human-centered way. It forces teams to think differently about the people who have those problems, challenge their assumptions about what a great solution looks like, and validate that their solutions really solve the problems identified.
When teams are trying to solve problems, they often start brainstorming solutions — or building them — right away. Design thinking says that’s not good enough. First, you need to spend more time understanding your users. Once you think you have a solution, you need to validate your solution by testing it with the people who will use them.
At a high level, the design thinking process begins with gathering a group of diverse people who can help you explore your chosen problem area. First, you learn about the users and their needs. Next, you narrow your focus to a specific problem to solve. Finally, you brainstorm options, then develop a quick-and-dirty solution and test it with your target users.
If your solution passes the test, you can then proceed to building the full solution with the confidence that you’re going to build it right the first time.
Why Is Design Thinking Popular?
Design thinking has made a huge impact in Product Management for several reasons. First, it forces teams to pull users into the design process, which promotes more empathy for and understanding of those users. Whether you’re creating a new product or improving an existing one, teams build up assumptions about users—who they are, what their problems are, and what they desire. Design thinking forces teams to engage with users and come to a common understanding of their needs, while dispelling inaccurate opinions and assumptions.
Second, design thinking helps to increase the likelihood of building the right product on the first try. Too often, teams ship a product, then learn that it doesn’t solve their users’ problems. When that happens, not only do you lose time in the market to your competitors, it’s extremely expensive to fix, and takes considerable time and effort from your design and engineering teams. The design thinking process insists that we find a quick and inexpensive way to test our solutions with real users before we commit to building the complete product. The earlier that we catch problems with our proposed solutions, the faster and less expensive it is to correct them.
Third, design thinking challenges us to imagine bolder and more diverse solutions to users’ problems. Many teams suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to addressing user needs. They get hung up on questions such as, “What can we do?” or “Do users really want that?” The techniques of design thinking help you find bigger, transformational solutions—the kind of solutions that you couldn’t find if you went straight into building new products.
In short, design thinking reduces the risk of building the wrong thing and helps you find better solutions faster, saving time and resources.
The Design Thinking Process
The design thinking process has five stages:
- Empathize by engaging with your users
- Define your users’ problem and needs, and articulate your insights
- Ideate solutions by challenging your assumptions and creating innovative ideas
- Pretotype a lightweight solution to your problem
- Test solutions with actual users
Design thinking is an iterative process; you might go through the five steps a few times before finding the right solution. For example, you might test a lightweight solution and learn that users aren’t satisfied with it. What should you do? Go back a few steps and find another approach. You can ideate new solutions to build, or you can empathize with your users more and find new insights to ideate on.
Before you begin, here are a few tips to improve your design thinking sessions:
- Product management should take the lead. One person should facilitate the process. Just because it has “design” in the name doesn’t mean it’s a UX process.
- Recruit a diverse group of people to participate. At a minimum, include a UX person and an engineer. Also, get coworkers from sales, support, marketing, or other teams whose members regularly interact with your users.
- Keep managers and executives out of the room. Their ideas could edge out ideas from other members of your design thinking team.
- Set expectations. Because this is an iterative process, set expectations with management that it may take a few attempts to find a solution that users value.
Now let’s take a look at each step in more depth.
The goal of the Emphathize stage is to have a deep, shared understanding of users and their problems. Assumptions are the mother of bad solutions, and the best way to dispel those assumptions is to spend time with people and learn how they think and feel.
First, identify the right people to understand. Be sure you understand the market segment that the product is intended to serve, as well as typical users and other stakeholders (for example, purchasers or technology influencers) from that segment.
The easiest way to build empathy is to talk to users and critical stakeholders. Interviewing them is a great way to learn about their needs.
Other methods of building empathy include observing people in the context of their problem, interviewing experts on the problem, or trying out your users’ experience with the problem for yourself. Once you have a clear idea of who your users are and what their problems are, you’re ready to proceed.
In the Define stage , you analyze and synthesize the information you learned while empathizing, and work to create a common definition of the target users and their problems. This step is essential for successful ideation.
Tools such as personas and empathy maps can help distill your interview notes into actionable insights. With those observations, you can create two or three “How Might We” questions, that frame the users’ challenges in a concise and specific manner.
Once the users and the problems are well-defined and everyone understands the design challenge from your “How Might We” questions, it’s time to begin ideating solutions to the problem. As a best practice, brainstorm ideas individually, then share them as a group. When you share, look for opportunities to combine or break apart ideas.
Keep the flow of ideas healthy and positive. Prioritize quantity over quality—at first. Stay at a high level with your ideas; don’t dive into the details. Refrain from criticizing or evaluating ideas too soon. Once you have a lot of ideas, narrow the list to the top three, then pick one solution to focus on. A good way to decide on the solution is to use “dot voting.” Give everyone three votes that they can put on three ideas. After you’ve decided on a single idea, you’re ready to go on.
Now it’s time to “build” the solution to this problem. A good pretotype is something that requires little to no effort to create. A pretotype is different from a prototype, which is a test of a solution’s feasibility—that is, your ability to build it successfully. Many pretotypes require no development at all.
For example, if your solution is a new software product, you can create a concierge pretotype, where a human provides the service. If users like it, then building the software version of that service is a good bet.
Another pretotype example is to create a landing page. Put up a web page that explains your idea, and give users a way to sign up for more information via email. Once the page is complete, start driving traffic to it via ads and email campaigns. It requires a little development, but it’s far less effort than actually building the complete product.
Design thinking isn’t finished until your pretotype passes the test with real users. Decide on the criteria for a successful test, then put the pretotype in front of users to see if it does its job. The test criteria you choose will depend on the type of pretotype you made.
If the test was successful, congratulations! Users really value the solution, and you can feel confident moving into production knowing that users will value the full version of this product. If your test was not successful, it’s time to iterate. Based on what you learned from the test, jump back to an earlier phase of the design thinking process, and try something different.
For example, if you conducted a concierge test for a service, a potential test could be asking participants if they would pay $10 a month for the service. If half said “yes,” the test was successful. If you made a landing page test, the conversion rate of visitors to signups would be an indication of how valuable this solution is for its users.
If the test is not successful—for example, if only 20% would pay for the service—you have to make a choice. Do you keep moving forward? Do you go back a few steps in the design thinking process? Have a thorough discussion with the entire design thinking team to decide on next steps.
Design Thinking Examples
Many well-known companies have used design thinking to create amazing products. The most famous practitioner of design thinking is IDEO, and in this TED talk, designer Paul Bennett describes some of the insights he has learned by embracing user empathy and testing out lightweight solutions to problems.
Another great example of design thinking in action comes from Nordstrom. In one week, they collaborated as a team, empathized with their users, created a solution, tested it with actual users, and iterated based on feedback. (Note the use of design mockups on paper—it’s a great example of a pretotype.)
Design Thinking Tools
To learn more about the five stages in the design thinking process — including identifying the right problems, conducting empathy interviews, brainstorming solutions, and generating great pretotypes — check out 280 Group’s Digital Product Management course, which covers each step in detail. Design thinking is just a part of what you’ll learn in that course’s comprehensive overview of the best practices for building modern digital products .