The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Design Thinking: What It Is and Why You Need It

Everything you need to know about design thinking. How it works, why it’s important, the process behind it, and it's links to Agile and the Design Sprint methodologies.

Maybe your colleagues have taken an online course on it, or maybe you’ve just heard the term thrown around so ubiquitously that it feels like a phenomenon you’ll never really understand in a tangible sense. Design thinking, put very simply, is a human-centered approach to creative problem-solving, and has made loads of noise all over the internet and beyond in the latest years.

Although the buzz around design thinking has been on the rise just in recent years, the concept itself has been around for a few decades already. And as it often happens, the more popular it became, the more it got thrown around out of context and the more confusion ensued.

To set things right once and for all, we’ve developed this nifty beginners guide to design thinking. Read on to find out what design thinking is, how it works, why it’s important, the process behind it, and how it ties in with methodologies like Agile and the Design Sprint.

Don’t have time for the whole thing? Navigate through the article with the table of contents:

What is Design Thinking?

In simple words, design thinking is a mindset that helps you solve problems creatively.

More specifically, design thinking is a human-centric approach to innovation. It helps teams find the intricate balance between what makes sense to the end-users, what is technologically doable, and what is viable for a business to undertake.  

Design Thinking has also been described as a way to “encourage organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes” by design thinking leaders at IDEO. In businesses and social context, it’s about how we design products and a new way of thinking that’s based on user needs.

So why is design thinking important?

All this sounds nice, but … why bother? Can’t the old frameworks do the trick?…

While it’s tempting to dismiss design thinking like one of those shiny buzzwords that create a stir and disappear into the abyss a few years later, in its various shapes and sizes, design thinking has proven itself integral to business success many times over.

Companies which are ‘design-led’ have been proven to outperform the competition. Just take a look at this graph by Design Management Institute:

A graph showcasing design value index from 2005 to 2015

Besides, design is never a stand-alone discipline and comes in a bundle with user experience. Good design is characterized by buttery smooth experience, and just what exactly does design thinking help you do? You guessed it.

The ‘Norman Door’ phenomenon might just be the best illustration of why design thinking and a human-centred approach are important.

‘Norman Door’ is a figurative term for any product that is cumbersome to use and was designed poorly. A Norman Door has a handle that you can grab, so you think that you need to pull it. But when you pull you realize it’s actually a push. While logically thinking, placing a handle on the door is perfectly normal, in the world of real people and real experiences, the handle is obsolete and confuses the user.

By thinking from the needs of the user, a design thinking approach helps designers bridge the gap between something that just works and something that solves a problem.

What are the cornerstone principles of design thinking then?

The entire design thinking mindset rests on three main pillars:

  • Empathy

Empathy is the foundation of design thinking. Unless you get into the wants and needs of people you are designing for, what you’re doing can’t be considered design thinking.

  • Ideation

Ideation is the core of creative activities in the design thinking process. Simply put, it is when multiple ideas are pitted against each other, where creativity is unleashed and innovation happens!

  • Experimentation

Are your assumptions correct? Did you hit the right spot with your product? What are users thinking about it? Don’t just guess – test it!

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What are the actual phases in the design thinking process?

Design thinking has five steps: empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.

The 5 phases of the design thinking process
The 5 phases of the design thinking process

Empathizing is about deeply understanding the user and their problems, and then defining their challenges more concretely. Ideating is geared at coming up with multiple solutions that might work for the problem. The final phases are for creating prototypes and testing them with real users.

It might seem at first glance that design thinking is a linear step-by-step process with the exact tools and activities you need to use for every stage. Well…not quite.

In real life, design thinking is as far from a linear process, as french fries are from a healthy diet (but hey, we’re not judging, we love french fries).

Design thinking is a mindset, a way of thinking about solving problems. So you can go through the process phase by phase, or decide to conduct the phases simultaneously.

You will almost certainly have to go back to some phases and reiterate (multiple times), and the tools you’ll be using are not concretely defined either. As David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and godfather of design thinking put it: “Design thinking is not a cookbook where the answer falls out the end. It’s messier than that. It’s a big mass of looping back to different places in the process.”

The whole process might feel intimidating by now, but don’t bail on design thinking yet! After you’re done with this guide you’ll have a solid understanding of how to tie it into your work routine.

So let’s dive a bit deeper into what each of the design thinking phases means.

Design thinking is not a cookbook where the answer falls out the end. It’s messier than that. It’s a big mass of looping back to different places in the process


Empathize – stage 1 of the design thinking process

Although design thinking is a non-linear path, most of the projects begin with the empathizing phase. Quite simply because empathy towards the end-users lies at the very core of the design thinking mindset (remember the three pillars of design thinking?)

The goal of this stage is to gain a deep understanding of the actual users you are designing for. What moves them, what troubles them? How do they go about their day? What causes friction for them? What are their actual problems, and what is the solution they really need for them?

So, what’s the best way to get in the head of your target user?

Like with any design thinking phase, there’s not a single ‘correct’ way you should use to get the best results. It all depends on the nature of your project, time-frame, budget, and available resources. Here are a few examples of some of the techniques that are often used by design thinking practitioners:

  • User-based studies

As the name suggests, this technique is all about drawing insights and observations from studying your users. This can take on any form you’d like, be it a video or photo study or actual research.

  • Beginner’s mind approach

Invite some zen into your life, and for a moment – just observe, without judging. Too cliche? Don’t let the spiritual references put you off. Beginner’s mindset is a useful tool to uncover deep insights. Leave your assumptions, previous knowledge and experiences at the door and invite curiosity into the process.

  • User interviews

Lots of times, nothing does the trick quite like…just asking. You’ll be surprised at how willing people are to tell you all about their feelings and emotions! Be careful how you craft your questions though, to not steer people in the direction you might want them to go. For some advanced guidance on this, watch this handy video we made.

Spoiler alert: outcomes from this stage will include an enhanced understanding of your target audience, their thoughts, and feelings.

Define – stage 2 of the design thinking process

Phase 2 of the design thinking process is focused on defining the problem statement (or design challenge in design thinking lingo) that you’re trying to solve for the user.

Clearly defining a problem is like pinpointing a North Star in the sky – it guides your decisions and keeps you on track when shiny distractions compete for your attention. So when you do get distracted you’ll easily be able to find your way home, just look to the North Star.

The ‘Define’ stage builds on the observations you collected about your users in the ‘Empathizing’ phase, synthesizing the results of your analysis to single out the design challenge that is the most worthwhile to take on.

Since the definition of your design challenge really shapes the entire project,  this step is one of the most important ones in the whole process. Get it wrong – and you’ll end up wasting precious time and resources, with a team that’s not aligned on the challenge, working towards a goal that’s not important. Yikes!

What makes up a good problem statement in a design thinking mindset?

The perfect problem statement should clearly answer the following questions:

  • What are we trying to solve?
  • For whom are we trying to solve it?
  • What are the different ways we can approach this from?
  • How can we act on it?

Your problem statement should be guiding your team towards searching for a feasible solution. Keep in mind, that design thinking is all about empathy, and users are the center focus point of all activities –  so keep on championing the human-centred approach and frame the problem with real people in mind.

If you still have doubts on how to frame your challenges, here are a few helpful points to consider:

  • Keep your design challenge broad enough, so that your team has enough creative freedom.

Don’t fall prey to the “cursed how’s” (e.g. how could that system possibly work with our current setup?), don’t get stuck on any particular method and don’t bring any tools or technical details into your problem framing.

  • Don’t broaden it too much, though

Narrow the problem down to a manageable size, so that your team doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Hint: anything that starts to feel like a mission statement is too broad of a challenge.

  • Make it actionable

Although you shouldn’t get too bogged down by details at this stage, your problem statement should be something you can actually take action on.

How to frame your problem statement?

When it comes to the choice of methods and techniques that can be used for problem framing in the design thinking process, you’ll have a wide selection to choose from.

  • Space Saturation, Group, and Affinity diagrams

Creating collages of grouped insights, stories, observations, so that the individual pieces (notes, insights, etc,) can be interconnected with each other, creating even deeper insights. This method is quite popular for problem framing because it allows you to present the findings visually.

  • Empathy Maps

Empathy Maps help the team dig a bit deeper into their observations of the target audience. They try to depict what the users said, did, thought and felt when taking certain actions. While the first 2 parts of the map are easy to fill in, the thought and feeling bits are the ones that require intense thought-work. They are often the parts that offer the deepest insights and help in problem framing.

  • Point of View (POV)

Drafting a Point of View statement requires combining user description, need and insight elements into one compelling, actionable statement.

  • The 5 Whys

An easy-to-use technique that will let you delve deep into the cause and effect of your problem. The interrogative and iterative nature of ‘the 5 Whys’ lets you get to the bottom of the problem in as little as five rounds of why’s.

Start at the very top of your problem, its most obvious effect, and keep asking the question until you feel you’ve gotten to the ultimate cause of it.

Why are our users not using feature X? – Because they don’t understand our product.

Why don’t our users understand our product? – Because they don’t do the onboarding

Why don’t they do the onboarding? – Because they don’t have time for a 2-hour call.

Why don’t they have time? – They are working long hours and have little free capacity.

Why are they working long hours? – They aren’t able to effectively manage their time.

The root cause, in this case, is the inability to manage their time efficiently. Your problem statement would likely focus on topics of time-efficiency, or time-savings.

  • The four Ws

Yet another technique to synthesize your findings from the empathizing stage. The four Ws method helps you pinpoint the problem by answering the following questions: who, what, where and why.

Who is experiencing the problem? Who are you focusing on, while trying to solve the problem?

What is the problem? The main pain point that stands in the user’s way.

Where is the problem happening? Is it physical, mental or digital? What’s the context around this problem?

Why is it important? Will the user get substantial value out of that problem being solved?

  • “How Might We” statements or HMWs

A great technique that lets a team reframe a challenge into a more positive statement. How Might We statements are aimed at sparking ideas, opening the challenges to a broader set of solutions, and ultimately – innovation. HMWs are based on the observations made during the empathizing stage and are ultimately problems, reframed as questions.

For example, you’ve noticed that a certain area of your product is not intuitive for your end-users, your HMW statement might look something like this:

“How might we make step 2 more intuitive for our users?”

Now that you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to solve and why you can move on to the next phase of design thinking.

Ideate – stage 3 of the design thinking process

Our motto for this stage: Quantity over quality!

It’s time to challenge the status quo, think outside of the box and let your creativity flow!

The goal of this stage is not to come up with a ready-to-go, polished solution, but instead to spark ideas. Don’t worry about feasibility or viability just yet. Lots of ideas that your team will generate will have to go into the rejection pile, and that’s totally fine.

For the ideation phase to be the most effective your team will have to feel safe to challenge the norm and wide-spread assumptions. So lay judgment by side, there is no space for “that’s the way it’s always been done” at this stage.

What are the techniques for design thinking ideation?

With design thinking, whatever suits your team best, will do. There’re a ton of ideation techniques to set you on your way, and here are just some of them.

  • Brainstorming

Ahh, who doesn’t love a good ol’ brainstorm? Although this is, arguably, one of the most famous ideation techniques, we’d recommend steering clear of it (we explained why in detail over here). Brainstorming tends to reward the loudest, most extroverted group members, and punish the silent geniuses among us.

It’s not the best option, but if you must implement it, we’d recommend coupling it with another technique.

  • Bodystorming

This technique lets you get in your users’ skin and experience the problem first-hand. It’s all about setting up a real physical experience which resembles that of your user – with props, people, and prototypes. Outcome? New ideas sparking off in the heat of the moment, as you progress through the same flow as your user does.

  • Lightning Demos

A great way to get your creative juices flowing. Look at examples of how other companies (not necessarily in your industry) are trying to solve the same problem. What tools, tricks, and workflows are they using? Why do you like that? Reflecting on the way someone else has solved a similar challenge kicks off your thinking process in the right direction and allows you to capitalize on great ideas while giving them your own spin.

  • 4 Step Sketching

Ideally implemented in conjunction with the Lightning Demos, this exercise is great for group settings. Team members work alone, together, to pour their ideas out on paper in the form of a sketch. Curious for more details? Check out this video here:

After the team worked hard and came up with a bunch of amazing ideas it’s time to select which ones to prototype. For this step, we’d suggest refraining from open discussion when trying to decide on which ideas to go forward with. This method of decision-making tends to favor the eloquent extroverted speakers and neglect more reserved people.

Our go-to ideas selection technique is dot voting, and it’s as easy as it sounds. The team looks at ideas (in silence!), and votes are distributed by placing a dot on the idea they like most – no discussion involved.

If that doesn’t fit your team dynamics, feel free to choose any other technique from the design thinking toolbox – like categorizing, running ideas through the validation boards, or anything else that you fancy.

Prototype – stage 4 in the design thinking process

The prototyping phase of design thinking is crucial to the whole process.

Let’s rewind to why we’re trying to implement a design thinking mindset in the first place. Ahh, right! Because we want to get to that sweet spot on the intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability. Prototyping can bring us one step closer to that goal!

The goal of good design is the intersection between feasibility, desirability and viability
The goal of good design is the intersection between feasibility, desirability and viability

By creating a prototype we get a cheap and cheerful way of testing our solutions out in the real world. The key with prototyping is to keep it simple.

Don’t invest too much time, resource (or emotions, for that matter!) into it. The goal of this stage is to make informed design decisions, so keep in mind: both validation of ideas and their rebut are equally valuable.

There is an abundance of prototyping forms and techniques, but to make the most out of the process we recommend making prototypes high-fidelity so that your testers won’t question its authenticity.

Here’s a rundown on what kind of tools we use while prototyping:

As well as some tips on how to make prototyping nice’n’quick:

Design thinking is all about empathy, and users are the center focus point of all activities

Test – stage 5 in the design thinking process

How do we know whether we’ve done a great job without asking real users themselves? Well, we don’t. That’s why testing is an essential part of the design thinking process.

The testing phase is the most straightforward one out of all 5 – we put the prototype in front of real users, let them test it and gather their feedback. After the testing phase, you’ll know what features of your product users love, and which they’d rather trash.

Testing gives teams solid ground and insights for iteration and further improvement. But ultimately, it reveals how viable the product is and lets teams save both time and money.

Curious on how to conduct user testing for maximum insights? Then check out this video:

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How is design thinking different from the Design Sprint and Agile?

Design Thinking influenced the creation of loads of other methodologies out there (including the Design Sprint!) So it’s only natural that people get confused with which method to apply when, whether they fit together, or can be interchangeable. Let’s break it down.

The Design Sprint takes the philosophies of design thinking and translates them into a process that can be worked through logically. Design thinking, on the other hand, is a mindset. A way of thinking about solving problems, that can be applied in different ways for each new project. Both are equally valid and useful. While design thinking takes a lot of knowledge building up, expertise and understanding of how to apply different tools, the Design Sprint is a clear process to be followed for certain types of projects.

Agile on the other hand is an ongoing structured way of work, for projects. It’s a workflow for teams to follow on how to communicate more effectively, run meetings, implement things or decide on priorities. So while Agile is a workflow guide, the Design Sprint is a recipe for a one-off clear process, which doesn’t conflict with the way people are working.

So your company can be using Design Thinking or Agile as a structure but use Design Sprints as part of these processes. There is an overlap between them, but they don’t necessarily conflict with each other.

Now that you’ve equipped with the best understanding on what design thinking is, and how it ties in with other methodologies out there, which ones would you use for your next project?

Want to know how to run a Design Thinking workshop? Follow our actionable guide for best practices, tips and techniques, as well as easy-to-follow steps to guarantee the success of your first session.