What Is Design Thinking? Definition and Stages

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design thinking

What Is Design Thinking?

Have you ever wondered how some products just seem to work so well for people while others miss the mark? The process of design thinking is what allows teams to develop solutions that meet real human needs. Design thinking focuses on understanding the people you’re designing for through empathy and iterative testing with end users.

Definition Design Thinking:

Design thinking is a person-centered and user-centered approach to product design that promotes problem-solving and innovation. Design thinking starts with customer empathy – a way of understanding the customer’s needs, expectations, problems, and desires by genuinely resonating with their feelings. 

After this, the design process unfolds in stages such as prototype testing, user research, product improvement plans, etc. Since the design process is non-linear and circular, it is called the design thinking cycle. 

Design thinking starts by observing people in their natural environments to understand their needs and pain. For example, when developing a new kitchen appliance, a designer would visit homes and watch how people cook. This helps uncover subtle behaviors and frustrations that people may not openly express. Armed with these observations, design teams then synthesize their findings to define the core problem they want to solve.

From there, ideas are brainstormed to envision creative potential solutions. Each concept is unique in this divergent thinking phase. My favorite part is when teams make quick prototypes from cardboard or 3D modeling programs to get early versions in people’s hands. They ask for feedback to learn what’s working and what’s not. This prototype-test-learn cycle is repeated numerous times until the best solution emerges.

In summary, design thinking is a process that puts people at the center of problem-solving through observation, idea generation, and iterative feedback. It results in innovative solutions that truly fit how people live and work.

What Is the History of Design Thinking? 

Some experts say it started in the 1960s when Buckminster Fuller, an American from MIT, created a systematic approach to examining the design and solving issues. 

Around the same time in Scandinavia, a model called ‘design-by-doing’ came into being, where mock sessions and scenarios were used to collaboratively design products from the target users. 

Fast forward to the next three decades. In the 1990s, there was a bloom of service design. The service design required its users to overcome complex issues that were modern with a user-centric approach. 

In addition, in 1992, Richard Buchanan published an article called ‘Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.’ This introduced design as an approach to solving intricate problems with a holistic perspective. The design thinking we know today results from years of development in this domain.

What Are the 5 Important Stages of Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a well-established field now that you can even earn a degree in! It is used by organizations and industries all over the world. 

Though its application can differ from place to place, design thinking generally proceeds in 5 main stages. They are as follows: 

Stage 1: Empathy towards users

Customer empathy in itself is a vast area to explore. You can read about it here. Precisely, it helps your business to be more user-centric and build the product by keeping the target audience or the ultimate customer in mind. 

Thus, the product designers have to think about all of the aspects such as who the customers are, what is their needs, what’re their problems and how can they solve them, how will the customer benefit from the product, and what value will it add to their daily life. 

Sometimes, the product design team may feel confident about their customer knowledge. But is that true?  

It is essential to validate and back your assumptions up with some meaningful research to find out. And research isn’t merely observing customers but actively interacting with them and exploring the issues together. Creative thinking tools such as empathy maps, six thinking hats, insights surrounding user thoughts, etc., can assist.  

Only define the problem once; if you know the user well enough, empathize with them. 

Stage 2: Define the problem

The last stage of fostering customer empathy can be cumbersome since you may have to interview, observe, take notes, make user journey maps, etc. 

Now,  this stage enables you to put forward and organize all the information you collected from the previous stage. 

Your problem should be framed to address the user’s concerns and not what your organization thinks is the user’s concern. A thin line between these two needs to be understood well. 

To help you with the same, you can use the perspective from a different point of view – for instance, your users and your organization’s perspectives. This will help to bring three aspects together – the user, their needs, and your insights through the research. 

Stage 3: Brainstorm ideas

Once the problem has been defined, you’ll need to analyze how to solve it. This can be done using “How might we…” sentences to frame your thoughts. 

However, before you go ahead with anything, you must start by exploring all your options to foster innovation, creativity, and divergent thinking. 

In this stage, you are likely to explore something undeniable or totally out of the way! But remember that you should consider unique solutions first. 

The end of this phase is usually seen with several ideas and opportunities on the plate to be prototyped and taken into testing. 

Stage 4: Create a Prototype

The idea you have come up with in the previous stage can seem like that of  Archimedes screaming, ‘Eureka!’ You could find it hard to let go. 

However, remember that not all ideas are practical enough to implement, so it becomes crucial to try them out first. Prototype is the stage that exactly helps you do this. 

The prototyping stage lets you use mock-up trials of the product and learn what works and what doesn’t work instead of waiting for the product to launch to the market

In this stage, the prototype is distributed among team members and stakeholders if necessary. The objective is to point out the flaws based on ergonomics, practicality, functionality, cost of production, and ideas that can make it through the last and final stage.

Stage 5: Test your idea 

Your methodology for testing the ideas depends on who your target audience is and what you are building for them. 

Make sure your trials are carried out based on user research and controlled settings. The internal bias and judgments must be kept as bay as possible. 

The testing stage is only to improve your product and make it the best version for the launch. Do not hesitate to fail and test new things. 

It’s okay to realize that you might have to start again from the first stage because your idea did not work out. Your feelings of disappointment are valid. However, do not forget to cheer yourself up by looking at the greater good that is upcoming for your business. 

A side note: 

Though these stages are explained systematically here, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the businesses have to proceed in the same sequence of order. Taking the non-linear route or anything that suits your organizational individuality is okay. 

For instance, your team might prefer to ideate and empathize simultaneously and then define the problem. Similarly, it is likely that you return to the empathy stage when you are ideating and come across additional user pain points, etc. 

What Are the Advantages of Design Thinking?

As you have read so far, design thinking prioritizes the needs of the ultimate user at the very core of this process. Hence, it increases the chances of customers picking up and using the product, making it commercially successful. 

If you’re wondering whether learning design thinking is worth your time, here are some of the top advantages it can bring:

  • It improves collaboration. Working across disciplines like business, engineering, and social sciences prompts new perspectives that spur better outcomes. The process also strengthens team bonds and communication.
  • It reduces risks. Validating concepts with end users before making significant investments helps save money on flops. You discover any dealbreakers or significant issues at the small-scale prototype stage.
  • It increases user loyalty and uptake. Because the final solution was designed specifically for target users’ needs, people are more inclined to use—and keep using—what you created.
  • It builds strategic thinking skills. Learning to observe behavior, synthesize insights, and ideate creative solutions bolsters one’s ability to tackle complex challenges from any industry. These are robust career-advancing competencies.
  • Additionally, since it goes through five stages of fostering customer empathy, understanding the user’s issue, ideating solutions, testing, fine-tuning, etc., this empowers the development team with valuable customer feedback.

In summary, design thinking leads to happier users, more innovative products and services, faster time to market, reduced risks, and improved strategic planning and collaboration abilities for businesses. It’s a win-win for both companies and customers.

As you have read so far, design thinking prioritizes the needs of the ultimate user at the very core of this process. Hence, it increases the chances of customers picking up and using the product, making it commercially successful.


What is the design thinking approach?

Design thinking is a person-centered and user-centered product design approach that promotes problem-solving and innovation. It happens in five stages: fostering customer empathy, understanding the user’s issue, ideating solutions, prototyping, and testing. This empowers the development team with valuable customer feedback.

What is the top advantage of design thinking?

Design thinking prioritizes the needs of the ultimate user at the very core of this process. It gives the product a lot of commercial potential.

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