Design Thinking

Your constantly-updated definition of Design Thinking and collection of topical content and literature

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What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process which seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. The method consists of 5 phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test and is most useful when you want to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Why Is Design Thinking so Important in Today’s World?

Over recent decades, it has become crucial to develop and refine skills which allow us to understand and act on rapid changes in our environment and behavior. The world has become increasingly interconnected and complex, and design thinking offers a means to grapple with all this change in a more human-centric manner.

Design teams use design thinking to tackle ill-defined or unknown problems (otherwise known as wicked problems) because the process reframes these problems in human-centric ways, and allows designers to focus on what’s most important for users. Design thinking offers us a means to think outside the box and also dig that bit deeper into problem solving. It helps designers carry out the right kind of research, create prototypes and test out products and services to uncover new ways to meet users’ needs.

The design thinking process has become increasingly popular over the last few decades because it was key to the success of many high-profile, global organizations—companies such as Google, Apple and Airbnb have wielded it to notable effect, for example. This outside the box thinking is now taught at leading universities across the world and is encouraged at every level of business.

Design thinking improves the world around us every day because of its ability to generate ground-breaking solutions in a disruptive and innovative way. Design thinking is more than just a process, it opens up an entirely new way to think, and offers a collection of hands-on methods to help you apply this new mindset.

In his 2009 TED talk, Design Thinking pioneer Tim Brown discusses Design Thinkings value in solving very complex challenges.

The Five Stages of Design Thinking

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, commonly known as the d.school, describes design thinking as a five-stage process. It’s important to note these stages are not always sequential and designers can often run the stages in parallel, out of order and repeat them in an iterative fashion.

The various stages of design thinking should be understood as different modes which contribute to the entire design project, rather than sequential steps. The ultimate goal throughout is to derive as deep an understanding of the product and its users as possible.

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

  1. Stage 1: Empathize—Research Your Users' Needs
  2. The first stage of the design thinking process allows you to 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 like design thinking because it allows you to set aside your own assumptions about the world and gain real insight into users and their needs.

  3. Stage 2: Define—State Your Users' Needs and Problems
  4. In the Define stage, you accumulate the information you created and gathered during the Empathize stage. You analyze your observations and synthesize them to define the core problems you and your team have identified so far. You should always seek to define the problem statement in a human-centered manner as you do this.

  5. Stage 3: Ideate—Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas
  6. Designers are ready to generate ideas as they reach the third stage of design thinking. 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.

  7. Stage 4: Prototype—Start to Create Solutions
  8. This is an experimental phase, and the aim is to identify the best possible solution for each of the problems identified during the first three stages. Design teams will produce a number of inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product (or specific features found within the product) to investigate the problem solutions generated in the previous stage.

  9. Stage 5: Test—Try Your Solutions Out
  10. Designers or evaluators rigorously test the complete product using the best solutions identified in the Prototype phase. This is the final phase of the model but, in an iterative process such as design thinking, the results generated are often used to redefine one or more further problems. Designers can then choose to return to previous stages in the process to make further iterations, alterations and refinements to rule out alternative solutions.

The Origins of Design Thinking

Both the industrial revolution and World War II pushed the boundaries of what we thought was technologically possible. Engineers, architects and industrial designers—as well as cognitive scientists—then began to converge on the issues of collective problem solving, driven by the significant societal changes that took place at that time. Design thinking emerged, or should we say converged, out of the muddy waters of this chaos from the 50s and 60s onwards.

Cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon was the first to mention design thinking as a way of thinking in his 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial. He then went on to contribute many ideas throughout the 70s which are now regarded as principles of design thinking.

From the 1970s onwards, design thinking started to combine the human, technological and strategic needs of our times and progressively developed over the decades to become the leading innovation methodology it is today. Design thinking continues to gain ground across a wide range of industries and is still explored and enhanced by those at the forefront of the field.

Learn More About Design Thinking

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 Beginners Guide” – an excellent guide to get you started on your own Design Thinking projects: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-thinking-the-beginner-s-guide

Literature on Design Thinking

Here’s the entire UX literature on Design Thinking by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Featured article

5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process

5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process

Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It’s extremely useful in tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by understanding the human needs involved, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, by creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and by adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing. Understanding these five stages of Design Thinking will empower anyone to apply the Design Thinking methods in order to solve complex problems that occur around us — in our companies, in our countries, and even on the scale of our planet.

We will focus on the five-stage Design Thinking model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school). d.school is the leading university when it comes to teaching Design Thinking. The five stages of Design Thinking, according to d.school, are as follows: Empathise, Define (the problem), Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Let’s take a closer look at the five different stages of Design Thinking.

1. Empathise

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The first stage of the Design Thinking process is to gain an empathic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. This involves consulting experts to find out more about the area of concern through observing, engaging and empathizing with people to understand their experiences and motivations, as well as immersing yourself in the physical environment so you can gain a deeper personal understanding of the issues involved. Empathy is crucial to a human-centered design process such as Design Thinking, and empathy allows design thinkers to set aside their own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs.

Depending on time constraints, a substantial amount of information is gathered at this stage to use during the next stage and to develop the best possible understanding of the users, their needs, and the problems that underlie the development of that particular product.

2. Define (the Problem)

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

During the Define stage, you put together the information you have created and gathered during the Empathise stage. This is where you will analyse your observations and synthesise them in order to define the core problems that you and your team have identified up to this point. You should seek to define the problem as a problem statement in a human-centred manner.

To illustrate, instead of defining the problem as your own wish or a need of the company such as, “We need to increase our food-product market share among young teenage girls by 5%,” a much better way to define the problem would be, “Teenage girls need to eat nutritious food in order to thrive, be healthy and grow.”

The Define stage will help the designers in your team gather great ideas to establish features, functions, and any other elements that will allow them to solve the problems or, at the very least, allow users to resolve issues themselves with the minimum of difficulty. In the Define stage you will start to progress to the third stage, Ideate, by asking questions which can help you look for ideas for solutions by asking: “How might we… encourage teenage girls to perform an action that benefits them and also involves your company’s food-product or service?”

3. Ideate

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

During the third stage of the Design Thinking process, designers are ready to start generating ideas. You’ve grown to understand your users and their needs in the Empathise stage, and you’ve analysed and synthesised your observations in the Define stage, and ended up with a human-centered problem statement. With this solid background, you and your team members can start to "think outside the box" to identify new solutions to the problem statement you’ve created, and you can start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problem. There are hundreds of Ideation techniques such as Brainstorm, Brainwrite, Worst Possible Idea, and SCAMPER. Brainstorm and Worst Possible Idea sessions are typically used to stimulate free thinking and to expand the problem space. It is important to get as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of the Ideation phase. You should pick some other Ideation techniques by the end of the Ideation phase to help you investigate and test your ideas so you can find the best way to either solve a problem or provide the elements required to circumvent it.

4. Prototype

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The design team will now produce a number of inexpensive, scaled down versions of the product or specific features found within the product, so they can investigate the problem solutions generated in the previous stage. Prototypes may be shared and tested within the team itself, in other departments, or on a small group of people outside the design team. This is an experimental phase, and the aim is to identify the best possible solution for each of the problems identified during the first three stages. The solutions are implemented within the prototypes, and, one by one, they are investigated and either accepted, improved and re-examined, or rejected on the basis of the users’ experiences. By the end of this stage, the design team will have a better idea of the constraints inherent to the product and the problems that are present, and have a clearer view of how real users would behave, think, and feel when interacting with the end product.

5. Test

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Designers or evaluators rigorously test the complete product using the best solutions identified during the prototyping phase. This is the final stage of the 5 stage-model, but in an iterative process, the results generated during the testing phase are often used to redefine one or more problems and inform the understanding of the users, the conditions of use, how people think, behave, and feel, and to empathise. Even during this phase, alterations and refinements are made in order to rule out problem solutions and derive as deep an understanding of the product and its users as possible.

The Non-Linear Nature of Design Thinking

We may have outlined a direct and linear Design Thinking process in which one stage seemingly leads to the next with a logical conclusion at user testing. However, in practice, the process is carried out in a more flexible and non-linear fashion. For example, different groups within the design team may conduct more than one stage concurrently, or the designers may collect information and prototype during the entire project so as to enable them to bring their ideas to life and visualise the problem solutions. Also, results from the testing phase may reveal some insights about users, which in turn may lead to another brainstorming session (Ideate) or the development of new prototypes (Prototype).

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

It is important to note that the five stages are not always sequential — they do not have to follow any specific order and they can often occur in parallel and be repeated iteratively. As such, the stages should be understood as different modes that contribute to a project, rather than sequential steps. However, the amazing thing about the five-stage Design Thinking model is that it systematises and identifies the 5 stages/modes you would expect to carry out in a design project – and in any innovative problem-solving project. Every project will involve activities specific to the product under development, but the central idea behind each stage remains the same.

Design Thinking should not be seen as a concrete and inflexible approach to design; the component stages identified in the illustration above serve as a guide to the activities that you would typically carry out. In order to gain the purest and most informative insights for your particular project, these stages might be switched, conducted concurrently and repeated several times in order to expand the solution space, and zero in on the best possible solutions.

As you will note from the illustration above, one of the main benefits of the five-stage model is the way in which knowledge acquired at the later stages can feedback to earlier stages. Information is continually used both to inform the understanding of the problem and solution spaces, and to redefine the problem(s). This creates a perpetual loop, in which the designers continue to gain new insights, develop new ways of viewing the product and its possible uses, and develop a far more profound understanding of the users and the problems they face.

The Origin of the 5-Stage Model

In his 1969 seminal text on design methods, “The Sciences of the Artificial,” Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon outlined one of the first formal models of the Design Thinking process. Simon's model consists of seven major stages, each with component stages and activities, and was largely influential in shaping some of the most widely used Design Thinking process models today. There are many variants of the Design Thinking process in use in the 21st century, and while they may have different numbers of stages ranging from three to seven, they are all based upon the same principles featured in Simon’s 1969 model. We focus on the five-stage Design Thinking model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school).

The Take Away

In essence, the Design Thinking process is iterative, flexible and focused on collaboration between designers and users, with an emphasis on bringing ideas to life based on how real users think, feel and behave.

Design Thinking tackles complex problems by:

  1. Empathising: Understanding the human needs involved.
  2. Defining: Re-framing and defining the problem in human-centric ways.
  3. Ideating: Creating many ideas in ideation sessions.
  4. Prototyping: Adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping.
  5. Testing: Developing a prototype/solution to the problem.

References & Where to Learn More

Course: Design Thinking - The Beginner's Guide:
https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-thinking-the-beginner-s-guide

Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd Edition), 1996: https://monoskop.org/images/9/9c/Simon_Herbert_A_The_Sciences_of_the_Artificial_3rd_ed.pdf

Gerd Waloszek, Introduction to Design Thinking, 2012: https://experience.sap.com/skillup/introduction-to-design-thinking/
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Learn more about Design Thinking

Take a deep dive into Design Thinking with our course Design Thinking: The Beginner's 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?

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.

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.

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