How to Develop an Empathic Approach in Design Thinking
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Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.
In his 2009 TED talk, Design Thinking pioneer Tim Brown discusses Design Thinking’s value in solving extremely complex challenges.
In user experience (UX) design, it’s crucial to develop and refine skills to understand and address rapid changes in users’ environments and behaviors. The world has become increasingly interconnected and complex since cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon first mentioned design thinking in his 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial, and then contributed many ideas to its principles. Professionals from a variety of fields, including architecture and engineering, subsequently advanced this highly creative process to address human needs in the modern age. Twenty-first-century organizations from a wide range of industries find design thinking a valuable means to problem-solve for the users of their products and services. Design teams use design thinking to tackle ill-defined/unknown problems (aka wicked problems) because they can reframe these in human-centric ways and focus on what’s most important for users. Of all design processes, design thinking is almost certainly the best for “thinking outside the box”. With it, teams can do better UX research, prototyping and usability testing to uncover new ways to meet users’ needs.
Design thinking’s value as a world-improving, driving force in business (global heavyweights such as Google, Apple and Airbnb have wielded it to notable effect) matches its status as a popular subject at leading international universities. With design thinking, teams have the freedom to generate ground-breaking solutions. Using it, your team can get behind hard-to-access insights and apply a collection of hands-on methods to help find innovative answers.
Hasso-Platner Institute Panorama Ludwig Wilhelm Wall, CC BY-SA 3.0
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Hasso-Platner Institute Panorama
Ludwig Wilhelm Wall, CC BY-SA 3.0
The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka the d.school) describes design thinking as a five-stage process. Note: These stages are not always sequential, and teams often run them in parallel, out of order and repeat them in an iterative fashion.
Stage 1: Empathize—Research Your Users' Needs
Here, you should gain an empathetic understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, typically through user research. Empathy is crucial to a human-centered design process such as design thinking because it allows you to set aside your own assumptions about the world and gain real insight into users and their needs.
Stage 2: Define—State Your Users' Needs and Problems
It’s time to accumulate the information gathered during the Empathize stage. You then analyze your observations and synthesize them to define the core problems you and your team have identified. These definitions are called problem statements. You can create personas to help keep your efforts human-centered before proceeding to ideation.
Stage 3: Ideate—Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas
Now, you’re ready to generate ideas. The solid background of knowledge from the first two phases means you can start to “think outside the box”, look for alternative ways to view the problem and identify innovative solutions to the problem statement you’ve created. Brainstorming is particularly useful here..
Stage 4: Prototype—Start to Create Solutions
This is an experimental phase. The aim is to identify the best possible solution for each problem found. Your team should produce some inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product (or specific features found within the product) to investigate the ideas you’ve generated. This could involve simply paper prototyping.
Stage 5: Test—Try Your Solutions Out
Evaluators rigorously test the prototypes. Although this is the final phase, design thinking is iterative: Teams often use the results to redefine one or more further problems. So, you can return to previous stages to make further iterations, alterations and refinements – to find or rule out alternative solutions.
Overall, you should understand that these stages are different modes which contribute to the entire design project, rather than sequential steps. Your goal throughout is to gain the deepest understanding of the users and what their ideal solution/product would be.
Design consultancy IDEO’s design kit is a great repository of Design Thinking tools and case studies: http://www.designkit.org/
To keep up with recent developments in Design Thinking, read Design Thinking pioneer Tim Brown’s blog: https://designthinking.ideo.com/
To learn how to engage in Design Thinking, check out our course “Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide” – an excellent guide to get you started on your own Design Thinking projects: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-thinking-the-ultimate-guide
Here’s the entire UX literature on Design Thinking by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into Design Thinking with our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .
Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?
Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.
The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!
This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.
Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.
That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.
You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight them on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or your website.