What is Design Thinking

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a user-centered design philosophy that has grown to prominence out of Stanford University's d.school. One of the primary features of design thinking is that it centers around users, how they feel, what they need, and how they do what they do. A key differentiator of design thinking to other innovation strategies is more than just the user centeredness — rather, it is the fact that it is not driven by a strategy but that the strategy falls out of the process to ensure that your strategy matches with your customer needs and wants. This will help guarantee that your product-development strategy is in line with the needs of your customer rather than looking for customers to fit your product line.


Let's take a look at how the design-thinking process works. In its general form, it is a five-stage development process that flows through stages of (1) empathy, (2) defining, (3) ideation, (4) prototyping, and (5) testing. The first steps of design thinking are where the user centeredness of the philosophy really comes out: We empathize with our users and define their problems before we ever begin dreaming up solutions. Although design thinking has five stages, it is important to understand that there are no hard lines between them; rather, all stages slightly overlap, and you will most likely iterate across all stages to produce a great design.

You can take those five stages and put them in two simpler phases — namely, (1) observe and understand and (2) ideate and refine. The stage of observing and understanding comprises the empathy and define stages — and this is one of the keys to design thinking. Before you build a solution, you must find, understand, and define the problem your design will solve. Another key insight you will take away by empathizing (the first step!) is that any constraints are discovered and defined during this observe and understand phase. By performing this step first, you reduce the iterations needed during the final design of a product, enabling you the time needed to find areas to add real value to your customers that competitors may miss if they start at the ideation stage. 

The second phase, ideating and refining, comprises the ideate, prototype, and test phases of design thinking. Once you understand the people, systems, and environment that will be interacting with your design, as well as a fully defined problem and a set of constraints to solve, you will be on the path to generate the ideas to solve your problem. All three stages of this phase should be accomplished in an iterative fashion and should not be performed separately or completed entirely until you are nearing a final design. 

So Why Design Thinking?

So why should you be utilizing design thinking for your innovation management? Simple, it reduces costs and ensures that your innovation has a market. Innovation can be difficult and expensive, by utilizing the design thinking methodologies you reduce failures and expenses by ensuring that what you develop has a user and fills a need.

There are a number of ways to discover problems, and probably even more on how to define the solution. Design thinking is agnostic on how you discover the problem and how you develop the solution, its goal is to lay down a methodology that can be adopted for any situation. But at the same time it remains structured enough to ensure that you can successfully, repeatedly, innovate with the same set of tools.