Design Thinking Process (Let’s Break It Down)

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Lydia Chamberlain
February 25, 2020

You’ve likely heard about design thinking, or even used it in practice without knowing. It has been a force of nature for the last 30 years influencing companies and swaying their processes so that they can be more in-tune with their users and approach problems from a more structured perspective.

So, what is this magical concept of design thinking? Let’s break that down today.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is thinking through and understanding problems from a holistic, human-centered perspective.

It’s structured as a non-linear set of phases that are meant to guide you towards innovative solutions by way of iteration.

Ultimately, Design Thinking challenges your usual patterns of problem solving using distinct phases to guide you through a design-centered approach.

Pioneers of Design Thinking

In the modern day, there are a number of influential figures that helped shape what we understand as Design Thinking today.

Although nowhere near an exhaustive list, it’s important to get a taste of the history and the people behind such a human-centered movement.


Partner Emeritus and Executive Design Director at IDEO

One of the original pioneers of IDEO, Jane is now Partner Emeritus and Executive Design Director at IDEO. She’s led the effort to create many of IDEOs design tools and resources, while fostering a strong design culture at IDEO for all these years.


Joined IDEO in 1987

Tim Brown is Chair of IDEO, and is a huge practitioner of design thinking. He’s spoken on global stages, including for TED talk (See his talks Serious Play and Change by Design)


Founder of ThinkPublic

The core of Deborah’s work is co-designing – involving those in need to aid in the process of idea generation and solutioning. Her company ThinkPublic is aimed at Service Design, targeting social issues to make a positive influence.


Co-founder of IDEO

David Kelley is a pioneer in the modern industry. He is both the co-founder of IDEO and Standford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.School), the very creators of the 6 phases of Design Thinking.


Founder of MakeTools

Currently an Associate Professor at Ohio State University, Liz Sanders is also the founder of MakeTools – a company based on generative research and design. She’s been a part of many design tools and methodologies that we use today. Her list of clients include some of the biggest companies in the world (Apple, Coca Cola, AT&T, and more).


Design Theorist

Horst coined the famous term “Wicked Problems” – ongoing problems with no clear right and wrong solution. Wicked problems are a huge catalyst for the conception of Design Thinking, which is aimed to tackle these kind of tricky conundrums.

Who Can Use Design Thinking?

The beauty of design thinking is that it can be applied to a vast array of industries and teams.

You don’t need to be a designer to think like a designer. That’s the key – Design Thinking is a practical, problem-solving methodology that is meant to be utilized by designers and non-designers alike.

Why Use Design Thinking?

Design Thinking helps break us away from normal patterns of thought, so that we can approach problems from unique angles.

By following certain methods within design thinking, we are forced to consider the larger context in which problems exist – who the problem is for, why the problem is occurring, and where does this problem fit in the larger scope of the issue.

The 6 Phases of Design Thinking

Concept created by Stanford’s d.School

There are a number of ways to lay out the core principles of Design Thinking. However, you’ll find the 6 phases created by Standford’s d.School to be the status quo.

The big thing to remember is that these phases do NOT have to be linear. In fact, phases may happen in parallel, backwards, forwards, and back again – the design process is not a clear cut pathway.


“Every great design begins with an even better story.” – Lorinda Mamo

You’ll often find that Empathizing is the key foundation to the following phases. Without understanding the problem, the people which are affected by the problem, and the context in where it exists, you will struggle to follow the other phases in design Thinking.

Do in-depth ethnographic research. Interview, Observe, read, and evaluate in the context of your problem. Keep asking questions, and document all of your findings.

The goal is to understand so deeply that you can see the how’s and why’s of the frustrations in the user. After all, the big-picture task is to make things easier, more joyful, and more efficient.


“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.” – Hans Hoffman

After research and data gathering, you’re bound to end up with loads of information.

Begin to find ways to organize and sift through the data. Use UX design methods to help you on this task (Card Sorting, Competitive Analysis, and Journey Mapping to name a few).

The goal is to uncover themes and patterns by working alongside teammates through a variety of workshop exercises. Soon, areas of trouble and potential innovation will begin to show through.

The goal is to understand so deeply that you can see the how’s and why’s of the frustrations in the user. After all, the big-picture task is to make things easier, more joyful, and more efficient.


“Nail the basics first, detail the details later” – Chris Anderson

After the problem as been solidly determined, now you’re off to the races.

Rapidly create a plethora of solutions, as many as you can in your allotted time frame. Make sure they are actually targeting the problem you had defined, and the people you are solutioning for.

It’s good to get out all the ideas – good and bad. Without both, you cannot adequately measure the delta, where the most favorable solutions exist.

Remember there is no 100% RIGHT answer. Design is a tricky balance of business goals, human goals, and product goals. It is always evolving by nature.


“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

Narrow down your potential solutions, and then act on them.

It’s imperative to create prototypes that can actually get into the hands of users – whether they are polished or not.

Don’t waste development effort in building real products before testing all of your potential ideas. That is the beauty of design thinking – rapid iteration, where data and careful testing will help lead you to the best answer for your problem.

Prototypes can come in many forms – paper, digital, story-based, physically acted out – depending on your problem’s original format, your media may be different.


“It’s about catching customers in the act, and providing highly relevant and highly contextual information.” – Paul Maritz

Ultimately, the true test of your solution is by testing it with your users.

There are lots of methods by which you can test your prototypes (Usability Testing, A/B Testing, Eye-tracking, Keystroke tracking).

Whatever method you choose, make sure you prepare diligently for your user testing. Keep your tests consistent, and focus on specific aspects of your design for easier data collecting. You can easily overwhelm you and the user if you throw everything at them at once.

Benefits of Design Thinking

Companies utilizing design thinking can build stronger relationships with their clients and internal teams.

By setting the foundation of your problem or project with a healthy layer of iteration, solutioning, and deep thought, you’re much less likely to encounter huge pitfalls later on in your project.

If nothing else, look at the largest, most successful companies that have already utilized design thinking. For example Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft all invest deeply in design.

*Invision 2019 Report

Number of companies design is helping evolve

*Invision 2019 Report

of fortune 500 list design as their #1 Priority

*Design Management Report

Over 10 years, design-centric companies saw this spike in share price

Proponents of Design Thinking

Major moguls of design expertise have already been utilizing design thinking as a core ethos. Their effort is obvious in the content they create.

Although Design Thinking has many variations and methods of usage, the results are pushing the boundaries of how we interact with the world today.


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