We live under the misapprehension that disruptive ideas come only from brilliant minds. In reality, innovations are the result of an intense process of research, testing, and continuous refinement. One thing’s for sure: Design Thinking teaches you to question everything and is best used when problems are unknown, ill-defined, or what Horst Rittel refers to as “wicked problems.”

Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving. L. Bruce Archer was the first to use the term “design thinking” in his book “Systematic method for designers,” published in 1964. He argues that design is "not merely a craft-based skill but should be considered a knowledge-based discipline in its own right, with rigorous methodology and research principles incorporated into the design process."

In other words, what was traditionally used in the later stage of product development focusing on aesthetics and functionality, is most useful as a process, an action, a verb, not a noun.

Stanford’s Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design describes Design Thinking as a 5 step process comprising: empathy with users, problem definition, ideation, implementation (prototyping) and testing. These steps can occur simultaneously and be repeated.

Design Thinking Process

1. Empathize

The design process starts with understanding the problem or the opportunity. Design Thinking is all about understanding customer needs and wants. Our purpose as design thinking professionals is to solve problems that make a difference in your customers’ lives. The role of empathy is significant in this process. You start by understanding why users do what they do, how they do it, how they think and feel about the world.

How do you find out what customers want? By looking at problems with a child-like curiosity and asking questions that might have obvious answers at first, but most certainly will yield unexpected results if the process is repeated. When you conduct interviews, try to identify needs, not potential solutions. Ask your subjects what they are trying to do and how they want to feel.

2. Define

At this stage, you analyze the information collected during the Empathize stage and establish what the core problems to work on are. Make sure you identify the correct issues and work your way to the idea generation phase.

3. Ideation

Alex F. Osborn, the Father of Brainstorming, writes in the book Your creative power that our thinking is mainly twofold, judicial and creative. We should balance our judicial mind (judgmental, analytical) with our creative mind (orientated towards the future, confident, able to make projections). In Design Thinking, we call this “convergent” and “divergent” thinking.

The ideation phase is a combination of convergent and divergent thinking. In convergent thinking, we encourage cross-disciplinary teams to generate as many ideas as possible. The focus is on volume, not on quality. Don’t judge ideas at this stage. Usually, the best ones rise to the top, while the less useful drop off early on. Create cross-disciplinary teams. Gather people with different backgrounds, artists, designers, engineers, business executives and ask them to write down everything that comes to mind. Brainstorming sessions should be exciting, high energy, collaborative, and experimental. That’s why IDEO describes Design Thinking as a method used to inspire creative confidence.

In the second part of the brainstorming session, apply convergent thinking, a process of synthesis, of turning ideas into insights that lead to solutions for improvement. At this stage, ideas start to take shape.

4. Prototyping

In this phase, you choose what ideas from the ideation sessions will be developed. Prototyping helps you present ideas, receive feedback and refine your product.

Prototyping and testing speed up the development process because it's an easy and cheap way to find out what works and what doesn’t. Incorporate the feedback and repeat the process until you create a product or service that’s ready to launch.

5. Testing

The sooner you put ideas into practice, the better. In Design Thinking, the tolerance for failure is high because you can test often, fail fast and at low costs. Whenever you conduct a user test, make sure to take into account the following things:

  • Test the prototype in an environment very similar to where it is typically used;

  • Don’t explain the product in too much detail, observe the user interaction with the prototype;

  • Try not to interact with the user during the test. 

Observe, ask questions, and allow users to compare with similar products. Be accurate in the process of gathering and analyzing feedback. And remember, this is an iterative process. Your prototype has to pass the tests of usability, feasibility, and viability.

All in all, Design Thinking is a fun, collaborative and easy way to engage with users at a deeper level, create meaningful participative experiences.

If you want to learn more about Design Thinking, check out this TED talk of David Kelly, the founder of Stanford Design School and IDEO.

The blog of Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, is a source of inspiration for anyone who wants to work with Design Thinking.