Design thinking is a user-centric approach to problem-solving and is often employed by companies to overcome complex challenges by innovative means. This is especially true when it’s applied to problems that are not well-defined or unknowable. This guide will cover everything you need about design thinking. We’ll discuss its origins, why it is considered a valuable tool, and the five stages that make up the design thinking process.
What is the Design Thinking Process?
A design thinking process has five main steps empathize, ideate, define, prototype, and test. It’s important to remember that the design thinking process is not always linear. Any one of the five steps could lead to an idea or result that would require a repeat of an earlier step. This is why the design thinking process is sometimes referred to as a nonlinear iterative one.
Origin of the Design Thinking Process
Although the term design thinking was coined by Tim Brown in the 1990s, its roots can be traced back to the 1940s-1950s when psychologists were studying the methods and development of creativity.
Design theorists Horst Webber and Melvin Rittel coined the phrase “wicked problems” in 1973 to describe complex, difficult-to-define problems that could not be solved using conventional methods. This laid the foundation for design thinking and other alternative solutions.
In 1991, almost twenty years after the original IDEO an international consulting firm was established. IDEO has been credited for bringing design thinking into the mainstream.
By the beginning of the 21st Century, has become a popular design thinking with multiple books have been written on the topic, and courses are taught on design thinking at prestigious universities such as Stanford.
Design thinking is still a popular method used by many of the most influential and largest companies around the globe, such as Apple, Samsung, Nike, and others.
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Top 5 Stages of Design Thinking
Design thinking is a methodology that consists of five key steps: empathy, define (define), ideate (ideate), prototype (prototype), and test.
Stage 1: Empathy
Empathy is the first step in the design thinking process. This stage is when design teams put aside their biases to better understand real users’ needs, often through direct observation.
Design thinking is a phase that requires a high level of empathy. How can you solve a problem for a user if you do not know who they are and what their wants are? Empathy is a bridge that creates a connection between designers and their target users. This emotional bond facilitates deep insights into the user’s needs, which are at the core of human-based thinking.
Some of the tools and methods that are commonly used in conducting user research include:
- User Interviews: Speak to users to understand their problems and gain an understanding of their perspectives.
- Questionnaires and Surveys: These can help you identify your users and their current opinions, problems, and needs.
- Observation: Watch how users interact and engage with the product. Observe how they behave to get a better understanding of their feelings and thoughts.
- Empathy Map: An interactive tool that visualizes the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a user.
Example: Imagine that you own a boutique fitness center and want to increase the retention of members. In the phase of empathy, you’d talk to current and former members. You could ask for feedback about what members liked or didn’t like. You could observe how members interact with different equipment or facilities. What makes them happy or unhappy? What frustrates them? You will keep making these observations until your understanding of the members’ needs and wants is complete.
Stage 2: Define
Second, define the problem. Designers analyze data collected during the previous phase to define and identify the problem with a concise and clear problem statement.
The problem statements are important because they describe the problems that the audience is facing and the solutions to those challenges. This ensures that the user’s viewpoint is kept in mind (rather than the company’s) and that the human-centered design approach is used during the entire design process.
The following tools are commonly used in the definition phase:
- Data Analysis: Use the data collected during the empathy phase to identify and define a user’s problems.
- The “5 Whys Method”: A technique of interrogation that is iterative and used to find the root cause for a problem.
- Build User Personas: Using the data you gathered during the empathy phase, create an archetype to represent the needs of your audience.
Example: Let’s use the same gym scenario as above. We’ll analyze all the data we have collected from our users and observations to find out why some people keep their memberships and others do not. We try to identify common complaints, and we look for pain points or unmet needs. We create a problem definition based on our analysis. This will define the issue with the biggest impact on retention.
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Stage 3: Ideate
Designers begin to explore possible solutions during the ideation phase. The ideas that are generated in this stage can eventually be turned into prototypes and tested with your audience.
Remember to leave judgments at the door during the ideation stage. The design teams should not worry about technical details such as budget constraints or feasibility. Think creatively and outside the box to come up with as many innovative solutions as you can. There are no bad ideas.
Ideation techniques that are commonly used include:
- Brainwriting: Write all your ideas down on a piece of paper and then pass it on. The person you give the paper to will develop your ideas and then pass them on. The team continues this process until the time limit has been reached.
- Sketches: It is an easy way to visualize your ideas quickly without spending much time. Sketches can be a powerful tool for ideation if they can effectively communicate your thoughts to the rest of your team.
- Round Robin Brainstorming: A two-step collective approach to brainstorming, which begins with a “How Might We?” prompt and then develops the idea using a circular iterative process similar to that of brainwriting.
- Mind maps and Flowcharts: An illustration and visualization tool which shows how ideas are connected, makes it easier to classify and detects patterns.
- SWOT analysis: Used for identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and external opportunities (SWOT) in an idea.
You can use the following example: Based on feedback from users, you identified that the main reason members don’t renew their memberships is that there aren’t enough exercise machines available. You gather your team and brainstorm ideas during the ideate stage. There is no such thing as a bad idea. Consider all possible solutions to this problem.
Stage 4: Prototype
In this stage of design thinking teams create prototypes based on the ideas that they developed in the previous phase. The prototypes do not have to be final products. Prototypes are not meant to be delivered but rather convey a solution. Sketches and models are examples of prototypes. They’re scaled down versions of the products created during the concept stage.
Prototyping is a great way to determine if your product idea will work and if it is technically feasible. It can also reveal what challenges will be faced in bringing the product to life.
Some of the most common tools and techniques for ideation include:
- Wireframes: Low-fidelity prototypes illustrating the visual layout of a product or interface.
- Low-Fidelity prototypes: These can be used for expressing broad concepts or ideas. They are inexpensive, quick and relatively simple. Low-fidelity prototyping requires little design expertise.
- High-Fidelity prototypes: Realistic design that looks and operates close to the final products.
Walkthrough: Task-specific approach for determining the usability and usefulness of a prototype.
Examples: You may decide to move machines on opposite sides of a gym if you believe that users are using adjacent pieces of equipment simultaneously to perform “super sets”. This will prevent users from using multiple machines simultaneously. The first prototype you create is a rough drawing of the new floor plan and the location of the machines. You can prototype the design as many times as you need based on feedback received from your staff.
Stage 5: Test
Testing is a phase in the design thinking process that involves real users and real feedback from real users. Participants are asked to test prototypes during this phase. The design teams will observe the participants’ interactions with the prototypes and collect feedback.
Testing is the best way to find out what’s working and what isn’t. Remember that design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process. This applies to testing as well. Changes to the product may be needed based on feedback from users. You may need to restart testing or go back to previous stages in order for these changes. The feedback from user testing could also lead to new solutions or insights.
Testing tools that are commonly used include:
- Usability Test: Testing Tool that measures the usability of an interface with a target group.
- Beta launch: Release your prototype to a small group of users in order to test usability, find bugs and determine whether your product meets the needs of your users.
For example, rearrange the exercise machines to see what customers think. Does it solve the problem for the user? Does it cause new problems for different users or groups? Ask gym members for feedback: Are they satisfied with the new arrangement or not? Re-evaluate the design stages based on feedback from users.