What Is the Design Thinking Process? (With a Definition)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 7 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Design thinking is a user-centric ideology focusing on resolving problems through creativity and innovation. It involves a five-step process that seeks to solve problems with solutions that are technically feasible, economically viable and user-friendly. Understanding the five-step design thinking method can help you deploy this problem-solving ideology in a professional environment. In this article, we discuss the five-step design thinking process, list several design thinking skills you can develop and share tips for improving your design thinking capabilities.

5 stages of the design thinking process

The design thinking process includes five stages and helps product development teams create products that are feasible, economical and user-centric. Compared to other problem-solving techniques, design thinking is a creative approach that seeks to identify user issues and determine product solutions that can resolve them. Below, you can explore the five steps involved in the design thinking process:

1. Empathise

When developing product solutions, you typically choose a specific demographic for interviewing and researching. For example, you might decide to develop a product that improves life quality in people aged over 70. You may interview and research this demographic to determine the common issues and challenges they experience. This is the empathise stage of design thinking. To empathise with someone typically means to consider and understand their emotions, feelings and unique circumstances. By empathising with an elderly demographic, you might discover one of the prominent challenges they experience is mobility.

Related: What Are Empathic Skills? (With Benefits and Steps)

2. Define

The second stage of design thinking is usually where this problem-solving technique differs from other techniques. In the define phase, you typically create a problem statement by defining the challenge that users experience. The definition of the challenge focuses on what the individuals experience rather than the problem itself. For example, a problem statement in a standard problem-solving process might be that individuals over 70 years old have limited mobility. A problem statement in design thinking might be individuals over 70 feel that they're missing out on fun activities and quality family time because they experience a lack of mobility.

3. Ideate

After defining the user-centric problem statement, you can begin brainstorming potential solutions with your design team. This is the ideation phase. It incorporates elements of divergent thinking, in that quantity of solutions is more important than quality. Quality is still important, but the design thinking method focuses on creative solutions rather than solutions that already exist. There are many ideation techniques and tools you can adopt. A popular method is usually to brainstorm using a mind-map visualisation. When brainstorming, you usually have a central node representing the problem statement, with potential solutions branching into different nodes.

Related: What Is Divergent Thinking? (And How to Develop This Skill)

4. Prototype

After ideating, you typically narrow the solutions to one that seems most viable and effective. The next step is to develop a prototype of that solution, whether it's a product or service. This prototype is usually an inexpensive and often scaled-down version of the solution. This means the prototype doesn't represent the final product. The purpose of a prototype is usually to create a sample solution without committing extensive resources to its development. This allows a business to evaluate a solution's technical viability, economic feasibility and user-friendliness without committing to a full production strategy.

Related: Innovation Skills: What They Are and Why They're Important

5. Test

If executives approve your prototype solution, the development phase can begin. During the development phase, you typically conduct extensive and continuous testing to ensure the solution is effective. This testing process can help you conduct a strength, weaknesses, opportunity and threat (SWOT) analysis. A swat analysis can be ideal for identifying areas of the solution that require improvements. It can also help you forecast potential variables that may develop into challenges. While the testing phase is the last step of the design thinking method, there are still more responsibilities and steps involved in a product's life cycle.

Related: What Is Quality Management and Why Does It Matter?

Design thinking skills to develop

Many professionals may adopt the design thinking approach when solving problems creatively. One professional who uses this creative-problem-solving approach is a customer experience designer. Below are some design thinking skills you can develop to improve your capabilities as a customer experience designer:

Creativity

Considering design thinking is a creative problem-solving technique, your creativity is arguably one of the most important skills to possess. Creativity as a skill usually refers to your ability to use your imagination to develop original ideas. You can apply these original ideas to problem statements when trying to brainstorm an appropriate solution. Creativity is often a primary skill contributing to your ability to think divergently and use the design thinking method.

Related: Creative Thinking: How to Start Thinking Creatively

Empathy

During the first phase of design thinking, you typically empathise with individuals to identify challenges and issues they experience. Empathy as a skill is your ability to identify, understand and sympathise with individuals and their unique circumstances. Empathy can be a helpful skill, as design thinking focuses on user experience and solving user issues. If you can understand a user's perspective, it can help you determine a potential solution. If you're empathetic, you can gain an in-depth understanding of individuals when conducting research or interviewing them.

Related: Emotional Intelligence In Leadership and Why It's Important

Problem-solving

Problem-solving as a skill is essentially an accumulation of other skills, including communication, creativity, analysis, research and empathy. You might define problem-solving skills as the ability to identify issues and ideate a reasonable solution. Problem-solving isn't necessarily a singular skill. For example, someone might be creative but lack problem-solving skills. Someone might also possess excellent analytical abilities but may struggle in applying data to real-world issues. Design thinking is a problem-solving ideology, so your abilities to identify issues and apply solutions can be crucial.

Research

During the empathise, define and ideating phases of design thinking, your research skills can be an excellent contribution to your skill set. Research skills usually refer to your capabilities in identifying credible sources, collecting relevant information and applying data to solve an issue or increase understanding of a topic. During the empathise phase, you can use your research skills to help you explore potential issues a demographic might experience. Research skills can also be helpful when identifying previous solutions to a similar problem that might have been unsuccessful or inefficient.

Related: Importance of Research Skills (With Examples and Tips)

4 tips for improving your design thinking capabilities

Below, you can explore four tips on how to improve your design thinking capabilities:

1. Become an expert

Becoming an expert isn't necessarily a requirement, but it can be extremely helpful when ideating solutions. If you're an expert in a field, you typically have extensive knowledge of existing products, processes and industry movements. This knowledge can save a substantial amount of time when researching viable solutions, as you may already have existing knowledge of past and present solutions. Your expert knowledge can also help you identify industry challenges and issues that can benefit from creative solutions.

2. Use software

Software applications can typically improve tasks and processes in most industries. They often have the capabilities to automate tasks, collect extensive data and make processes efficient. Software may facilitate your design thinking capabilities by improving your communication, research, collaboration, testing and design capabilities. Software may be an excellent tool for team-based ideating. When ideating, you might develop hundreds of potential solutions with team members. These solutions may require organising and reviewing. Software applications can typically help you conduct these tasks efficiently.

3. Collaborate when possible

Collaboration can be extremely beneficial when brainstorming potential solutions to an issue. Everyone typically has a unique method of thinking and observing. If you include team members in the ideating phase, you may gain unique perspectives about solutions to an issue. The design thinking method typically benefits from quantity rather than quality, so the more perspectives you involve, the more potential solutions you might discover.

Related: 14 Reasons Why Teamwork Is Important in the Workplace

4. Challenge your assumptions

An important part of the design thinking method is usually to challenge assumptions. You can develop unique perspectives and ideas about an established solution or topic by challenging assumptions. Just because society establishes an assumption doesn't mean it's correct or efficient. For example, before the invention of flying, it was an established assumption that the best international travel method was via ship. Many challenges and issues that society experiences may be because current products and services don't provide the right solutions. Challenging current products and services can help you develop creative solutions.

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