Last updated on | Design Thinking, FAQs

Design Thinking: Understanding the Method Behind the Idea

by Luís Gonçalves
design thinking

In a 2014 assessment handled by the Design Management Institute, the performance of design-led corporations like Apple, Nike, and Procter & Gamble exceeded that of the S&P 500 for the past decade by as much as 219%. Now many organizations want to learn design-based thinking – a distinct way that designers come up with solutions to problems.

When people are faced with a problem, their initial reaction is that they have to solve it. But a better question they should be asking is what they can do to help them understand the problem or situation better and how to move forward. This is where Design Thinking comes into play. When design principles are adapted to innovation and strategy, the odds of developing something worthwhile increases dramatically.

Understanding Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a method used by designers to figure out complicated problems and find the best solutions for their clients. A designer’s mentality is more focused on the solution than the problem. After all, a designer is geared to act and create a preferred future. The process calls on imagination, intuition, logic, as well as systemic reasoning to explore all possible options and to design the desired result that would give the end user the greatest advantage.

Unsurprisingly, many educators and corporate individuals are skeptical of Design Thinking and wary of how it can positively impact their system. But as Nigel Cross said in his book “Designerly Ways of Knowing,” one’s whole environment has been designed. He also stated that “Design ability is, in fact, one of the three fundamental dimensions of human intelligence.”

Art, design, and science are the triumvirate responsible for the cognitive abilities of humans. Art is all about finding the differences among similar things while science finds similarities among that which are different. Meanwhile, the design brings about inconceivable “parts” or situations to create a possible “whole” or solution.

Benefits of Using the Design Thinking Process

Design Thinking provides people with a novel and effective way of thinking about the things they question about in the world and the problems they usually face. It helps a person to step outside traditional methods and to discover new solutions to old problems. Sometimes it’s not even about solving a problem, but about finding a better way to do things.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, Design Thinking is not just for design-oriented and technology companies. Government agencies, health care, the financial sector and non-profit organizations can also benefit from it. In short, every industry would do well to take advantage of this fashion of thinking and enjoy the following benefits:

  •    Design Thinking Prioritizes the User

This method places a high priority on the end user. The aim is to design products and solutions that perfectly align with the users’ needs. Design Thinking is innately human-centric, which means solutions entail getting close to the user to see how they feel about the problem and how their lives and experiences can be improved.

  •    Process Influences Collective Expertise

By creating multidisciplinary teams and engaging numerous voices and experts, Design Thinking helps problem solvers break out of their niches or industries to influence collective expertise, experience, and knowledge. With numerous skills and philosophies involved, solutions become inclusive and flexible.

  •    Method Utilizes Empathy

Empathy is at the center of Design Thinking. Empathy is sometimes referred to as “understanding” or “discovery.” Regardless of the term use, it demands understanding and identifying with the needs and difficulties of the product user, the system used or the experience. Empathy is different from sympathy. Empathy is feeling for the end user.  Sympathy is merely acknowledging the feeling of your end user. Design Thinking thrives in the essence of empathy. Problem solvers put themselves in the shoes of the users instead of just referencing from the feedbacks provided to them.

  •    Design Thinking Tests Until Perfect

If empathy is the heart of Design Thinking, “design, test, and repeat” is its core mantra. This allows designers to have unexpected breakthroughs by creating numerous prototypes rapidly and stimulating quick feedback from real customers and actual users before the company spends too much time, money, or effort on one idea. The methodology is not as clean as the more linear and traditional problem-solving approaches but it generates more powerful and interesting results.

  •    Values are Created While Crucial Problems are Solved

Design Thinking is not just about inventing new products and services; it’s also about creating value and finding good solutions to existing problems. The method uses design principles to solve small and large issues of every industry.

When done properly, design thinking grabs the mindset and requirements of the people you’re designing for. It also provides you with a look at the opportunities that will be opened based on the needs of the client. It can also be used as the cornerstone of your offers and designs.

5 Stages of the Design Thinking Method

There’s no question that the Design Thinking method is very useful in dealing with challenging problems that are unknown or ill-defined. Problem solvers can do so by having a keen understanding of the human needs at play and then re-evaluating the situation in a human-centric way. They can then start brainstorming to create various ideas and then developing prototypes of the solution and testing them.

You can apply this method to solve difficult problems that crop up, regardless of whether it’s in a business setting or something larger. But in order to do that, one has to understand the methodology.

There are various Design Thinking models. One of the earliest ones was created by Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize laureate. His model consisted of seven stages and influenced most of the Design Thinking models being used today.

Another popularly used model was developed by Standford University’s Hasso-Plattner Institute. According to this model, there are five stages of Design Thinking – Empathise, Defining the Problem, Ideate/ Idea Generation, Prototype, and Test.

  1. Empathize

The first step in Design Thinking is to put yourself in your client’s shoes and acquire an empathic understanding of the dilemma you are tasked to solve. You can do this through immersion – literally living in the physical construct in order to have a deep personal understanding of the issues. Another option would be to consult specialists to learn more about the situation through observation, engagement and empathizing with others to understand their side, motivations, and experiences.

Empathy is vital in such a human-centric process like Design Thinking. It allows designers to remain objective about the situation so they can have a clear insight of the clients and their needs. While there might be time constraints on the project, this is the stage where copious amounts of data are gathered. The information collected will be used in the next step and is also utilized to create the best view of the users, their requirements, and the roadblocks that face the development of a specific product.

  1. Defining the Problem

After empathizing and gathering information, the next step is to collate all data and start defining the problem. As the problem solver, you will have to assess and analyze all information and synthesize them to identify the main problems. In this stage, you have to come up with a problem statement that will define the problem in a human-centric way.

Typically, companies would define the problem as one of their needs. For instance, they would state something like “We have to boost our product’s market share among preteens by 10 percent.” However, a better option of defining the problem in a humanizing way would be to say “Preteens require nutrient-rich food in order to grow, remain healthy and thrive.”

The second stage is also where the design team begins to gather ideas to establish functions, features, and other vital components that will assist them in either coming up with a solution or helping users resolve issues independently with minimal difficulties. At this junction, problem solvers will start laying the groundwork for the third stage by developing questions that can jumpstart the creation of solutions. For instance, the team might ask themselves – “How can we encourage preteens to do something that will keep them healthy while involving our product or service?”

  1. Idea Generation

The third stage of the Design Thinking process will see the design team ready to begin generating possible solutions. With the empathy you developed for the client in the first stage and a clear definition of the problem, you and your team can start generating ideas to either create new solutions or to look for another method of viewing the dilemma. This is also the stage where designers have to think outside the box and unleash their creativity.

Design teams can use any of the numerous idea creation techniques at their disposal, like Brainstorm, SCAMPER, or Worst Possible Idea. Each technique has their own pros and cons, but it’s critical that you create as many solutions or ideas as possible at this stage before you can take the next step and start testing them.

  1. Prototype Development

Problem solvers would start producing several scaled-down prototypes of the product or its particular features so the team can examine the solutions generated during the previous stage. These prototypes can be shared and investigated by the design team, by other departments, or by a small section of people outside the company. Bear in mind that the goal of this stage is to pinpoint the best solution for every problem identified during the initial stages so there are a lot of experimentation involved. The solutions are then executed on the prototypes, examined, and are approved, enhanced and reassessed, or rejected outright. Any rejection will have to be based on the clients’ experiences and feedback.

After testing the prototypes, the designers would have a good idea of the product’s limitations, any problems that have surfaced, and have a clearer perspective of how users will behave, feel, and think when using the product.

  1. Testing

The final stage of the Design Thinking process will see the design team vigorously testing the product using the best solution chosen during the prototyping stage. This is a repetitive process. The results of the tests are used to reevaluate problems and update users’ understanding, the conditions the product is used, how the consumer would behave, feel, and think, and to empathize. Changes and refinements are still being made to the product at this stage. This is to rule out every solution and develop a deep understanding of the product and the consumers.

It should be pointed out that while the aforementioned Design Thinking stages are discussed in a linear fashion, the process is very flexible. For instance, stages can be conducted simultaneously by different team members. Designers can also gather information and churn out prototypes during the entirety of the project so that they can visualize every solution. Results from the testing stage could also result in new ideas and lead to another round of brainstorming or prototype development.

What Design Thinking Means in Business

Design thinking is perfect for coming up with cutting-edge solutions. With it, companies can make decisions and come up with changes based on what prospective clients really desire instead of just depending on historical data or taking risky chances. They can depend on tangible evidence and not just rely on instinct, thereby saving money in the long run.

Remember that every business has a long-list of goals, from developing and releasing new products, boosting sales by engaging customers to providing clients with better customer support. But whenever a business decides to try and meet those goals, large amounts of time and money are utilized, especially in major corporations. Applying the Design Thinking method can help a company save money immediately since it targets specific solutions that customers need. This is achieved after discovering different ways of looking at the problem while providing insights and data that would be used to develop a solution that will help the company make money.

Design Thinking can also mean huge savings in government agencies. For instance, utilizing this method helped the US Department of Veteran Affairs Center for Innovation understand how war veterans interacted with the department. The steps used in Design Thinking showed the government the challenges veterans face when working with the VA. It also provided insight as to how employees can empathize, connect with their customers and work more effectively.

Design Thinking is the future. With it, businesses can really meet consumer demands and come up with the solutions that are user-centric. But a clear understanding of how to use this method is necessary if you want to stay ahead of the competition.

Successful companies are based on five pillars: the ability to reduce time to market, connecting strategy to daily operations, having an environment of continuous improvement, creating an environment of sharing knowledge and drive innovation. Analyse these 5 areas in your organisation right now to find out how close your organisation is from achieving fantastic results.


We have developed a free assessment in the form of a Scorecard to help you establish which areas of business you need to focus on to achieve your particular Organisational Mastery.

Take The Test

If you liked this article, feel free to visit my company Products and Services pages.

We provide Team CoachingAgile Training, and Agile ConsultingOKR TrainingOKR ConsultingInnovation Training and Innovation Consulting.

With my team, I built 5 main products: High Performing TeamsScrum Team CoachScrum Master MentoringOrganisational Mastery and the External Business Accelerator.

Rate this post:
Luís Gonçalves

About Luís Gonçalves

Luis Gonçalves is an Entrepreneur, Author & International Keynote Speaker that works exclusively with Senior Executives of 7 to 8 figure businesses on the deployment of his game changing ‘Organisational Mastery’ Methodology.


Share your point of view