What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?
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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.
To keep up with recent developments in Design Thinking, read Design Thinking pioneer Tim Brown’s blog.
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.
You don’t need any certification to practice design thinking. However, learning about the nuances of the methodology can help you:
Pick the appropriate methods and tailor the process to suit the unique needs of your project.
Avoid common pitfalls when you apply the methods.
Better lead a team and facilitate workshops.
Increase the chances of coming up with innovative solutions.
IxDF has a comprehensive course to help you gain the most from the methodology: Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide.
Anyone can apply design thinking to solve problems. Despite what the name suggests, non-designers can use the methodology in non-design-related scenarios. The methodology helps you think about problems from the end user’s perspective. Some areas where you can apply this process:
Develop new products with greater chances of success.
Address community-related issues (such as education, healthcare and environment) to improve society and living standards.
Innovate/enhance existing products to gain an advantage over the competition.
Achieve greater efficiencies in operations and reduce costs.
Use the Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide course to apply design thinking to your context today.
A framework is the basic structure underlying a system, concept, or text. There are several design thinking frameworks with slight differences. However, all the frameworks share some traits. Each framework:
Begins with empathy.
Reframes the problem or challenge at hand.
Initially employs divergent styles of thinking to generate ideas.
Later, it employs convergent styles of thinking to narrow down the best ideas,
Creates and tests prototypes.
Iterates based on the tests.
Some of the design thinking frameworks are:
5-stage design process by d.school
7-step early traditional design process by Herbert Simon
Head, Heart and Hand by the American Institution of Graphic Arts (AIGA)
The 5-Stage DeepDive™ by IDEO
The “Double Diamond” Design Process Model by the Design Council
Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) by Frog Design
The LUMA System of Innovation by LUMA Institute
For details about each of these frameworks, see 10 Insightful Design Thinking Frameworks: A Quick Overview.
IDEO’s DeepDive™ methodology involves the following steps:
Understand the market/ client/ technology and constraints.
Observe real people in real situations.
Visualize new-to-the-world concepts and ultimate customers.
Evaluate and refine prototypes.
Implement new concept for commercialization.
IDEO’s DeepDive™ is one of several design thinking frameworks. Find out more in 10 Insightful Design Thinking Frameworks: A Quick Overview.
Béla H. Bánáthy, founder of the White Stag Leadership Development Program, created the “divergence-convergence” model in 1996. In the mid-2000s, the British Design Council made this famous as the Double Diamond model.
The Double Diamond diagram graphically represents a design thinking process. It highlights the divergent and convergent styles of thinking in the design process. It has four distinct phases:
Discover: Initial idea or inspiration based on user needs.
Define: Interpret user needs and align them with business objectives.
Develop: Develop, iterate and test design-led solutions.
Deliver: Finalize and launch the end product into the market.
Double Diamond is one of several design thinking frameworks. Find out more in 10 Insightful Design Thinking Frameworks: A Quick Overview.
There are several design thinking methods that you can choose from, depending on what stage of the process you’re in. Here are a few common design thinking methods:
User Interviews: to understand user needs, pain points, attitudes and behaviors.
5 Whys Method: to dig deeper into problems to diagnose the root cause.
User Observations: to understand how users behave in real life (as opposed to what they say they do).
Affinity Diagramming: to organize research findings.
Empathy Mapping: to empathize with users based on research insights.
Journey Mapping: to visualize a user’s experience as they solve a problem.
6 Thinking Hats: to encourage a group to think about a problem or solution from multiple perspectives.
Brainstorming: to generate ideas.
Prototyping: to make abstract ideas more tangible and test them.
Dot Voting: to select ideas.
Start applying these methods to your work today with the Design Thinking template bundle.
For most of the design thinking process, you will need basic office stationery:
Pen and paper
Whiteboard and markers
Print-outs of templates and canvases as needed (such as empathy maps, journey maps, feedback capture grid etc.) You can also draw these out manually.
Prototyping materials such as UI stencils, string, clay, Lego bricks, sticky tapes, scissors and glue.
A space to work in.
You can conduct design thinking workshops remotely by:
Using collaborative software to simulate the whiteboard and sticky notes.
Using digital templates instead of printed canvases.
Download print-ready templates you can share with your team to practice design thinking today.
Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology that helps teams better identify, understand, and solve business and customer problems.
When businesses prioritize and empathize with customers, they can create solutions catering to their needs. Happier customers are more likely to be loyal and organically advocate for the product.
Design thinking helps businesses develop innovative solutions that give them a competitive advantage.
Gain a competitive advantage in your business with Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide.
Herbert Simon’s 1969 book, "The Sciences of the Artificial," has one of the earliest references to design thinking. David Kelley, founder of the design consultancy IDEO, coined the term “design thinking” and helped make it popular.
For a more comprehensive discussion on the origins of design thinking, see The History of Design Thinking.
Some organizations that have employed design thinking successfully are:
Airbnb: Airbnb used design thinking to create a platform for people to rent out their homes to travelers. The company focused on the needs of both hosts and guests. The result was a user-friendly platform to help people find and book accommodations.
PillPack: PillPack is a prescription home-delivery system. The company focused on the needs of people who take multiple medications and created a system that organizes pills by date and time. Amazon bought PillPack in 2018 for $1 billion.
Google Creative Lab: Google Creative Lab collaborated with IDEO to discover how kids physically play and learn. The team used design thinking to create Project Bloks. The project helps children develop foundational problem-solving skills "through coding experiences that are playful, tactile and collaborative.”
See more examples of design thinking and learn practical methods in Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide.
Innovation essentially means a new idea. Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology that helps teams develop new ideas. In other words, design thinking can lead to innovation.
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Cognitive Science building at UC San Diego. by AndyrooP (CC-BY-SA-4.0)
Pseudo-commands to illustrate how line-by-line text editing works. by Charlie42 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Human-Centered Design is a newer term for User-Centered Design
“Human-centred design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, and usability knowledge and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.”
User experience expert Don Norman describes human-centered design (HCD) as a more evolved form of user-centered design (UCD). The word "users" removes their importance and treats them more like objects than people. By replacing “user” with “human,” designers can empathize better with the people for whom they are designing. Don Norman takes HCD a step further and prefers the term People-Centered Design.
Design thinking has a broader scope and takes HCD beyond the design discipline to drive innovation.
People sometimes use design thinking and human-centered design to mean the same thing. However, they are not the same. HCD is a formal discipline with a specific process used only by designers and usability engineers to design products. Design thinking borrows the design methods and applies them to problems in general.
Design Sprint condenses design thinking into a 1-week structured workshop
Google Ventures condensed the design thinking framework into a time-constrained 5-day workshop format called the Design Sprint. The sprint follows one step per day of the week:
Learn more about the design sprint in Make Your UX Design Process Agile Using Google’s Methodology.
Systems Thinking is a distinct discipline with a broader approach to problem-solving
“Systems thinking is a way of exploring and developing effective action by looking at connected wholes rather than separate parts.”
— Introduction to Systems thinking, Report of GSE and GORS seminar, Civil Service Live
Both HCD and Systems Thinking are formal disciplines. Designers and usability engineers primarily use HCD. Systems thinking has applications in various fields, such as medical, environmental, political, economic, human resources, and educational systems.
HCD has a much narrower focus and aims to create and improve products. Systems thinking looks at the larger picture and aims to change entire systems.
Don Norman encourages designers to incorporate systems thinking in their work. Instead of looking at people and problems in isolation, designers must look at them from a systems point of view.
In summary, UCD and HCD refer to the same field, with the latter being a preferred phrase.
Design thinking is a broader framework that borrows methods from human-centered design to approach problems beyond the design discipline. It encourages people with different backgrounds and expertise to work together and apply the designer’s way of thinking to generate innovative solutions to problems.
Systems thinking is another approach to problem-solving that looks at the big picture instead of specific problems in isolation.
The design sprint is Google Ventures’ version of the design thinking process, structured to fit the design process in 1 week.
There are multiple design thinking frameworks, each with a different number of steps and phase names. One of the most popular frameworks is the Stanford d.School 5-stage process.
For more details, see The 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process.
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.
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