Design Thinking

Design thinking is a framework for innovation based on viewing problems or needs from the user’s perspective. Because this human-centered approach demands a thorough understanding of what your customers both think and feel, the design thinking process requires you first to empathize with the people for whom you’re trying to design new solutions.

What is the Design Thinking Process?

Similar to the agile development framework, design thinking represents a non-linear approach to innovation; driven by trying to empathize with users, testing ideas, analyzing feedback, and continuously rethinking and retooling your plans.

Although the five stages below are written sequentially, it is important to keep in mind that in practice these design thinking steps rarely take place in linear fashion. Often, for example, product teams will find themselves going back to the ideation stage after testing their product with users and learning from their feedback.

Below is a summary of the standard stages involved in design thinking.


Step 1: Empathize with your users

According to the design thinking philosophy, before you can expect to develop a product (or any solution) that will resonate with a user, you must first empathize with that person. This enables you to understand their needs, wants, goals, fears, and frustrations.

The reason design thinking places empathy first in the process is that only after the product team has set aside its own biases and assumptions can the team begin to actually see and understand things from its customers’ point of view.

Step 2: Define the problem

After you’ve completed the Empathy step and gained a real understanding of what your user base thinks, feels, and wants, you can begin to translate these insights into a high-level statement that encapsulates the problem you’d like to solve.

What’s important to remember here is that you want your problem statement to be human-centric. In design thinking, you’ll be building products not based on abstractions but according to the real needs and goals of real people.

You might distill your learnings into a statement such as, “Property managers need a better, more time-efficient way to manage all of the data across the many properties they manage.”

You will use this statement as the basis to begin developing ideas for products, services, or specific functionality, which you’ll do in the next step.

Step 3: Start generating ideas

In this step, you and your team will get together to generate ideas for products, features, and other elements to help translate the big-picture problem statement you’ve drafted into practical solutions that you can develop for your user base.

During this Idea stage, you should welcome as many ideas as your team can come up with. You will be able to narrow this list later on, according to your company’s broader priorities, your budget, and other strategic considerations.

At this stage, though, after you have spent time developing a heightened sense of what your users think and feel, you want to capture as many insights, suggestions, and potential product ideas as you can. This is the time when your team could strike innovation gold.

Step 4: Build a prototype

Similar to the agile approach in software development, your goal at this stage is to take the most promising product ideas you’ve come up with and turn them into scaled-down versions. You can quickly share these versions with potential users for feedback. Think of this as the minimum viable product stage of the design thinking process.

During the Prototype phase, your team is also learning about the development process itself: which resources are required, how long specific development details take, and what (if any) constraints your team is facing.

When you’ve completed this stage, you should have one or more simple versions of your product to start testing with users.

Step 5: Test your solution

Now it’s time to learn just how much empathy you’ve gained for your target users, and how well the solution you built is resonating with those people.

The results you glean from this Test stage could help your team to fine-tune several aspects of this non-linear process. Your user feedback might force you to re-define the problem because perhaps you’ll realize based on how your users respond to your prototype that you didn’t accurately capture the challenges they’re facing.

This Test stage might also help go back and build a better prototype, come up with more ideas for your product’s next iteration, or even help you gain more empathy for your customers.

Note: IDEO, one of the leading proponents and teachers of design thinking, suggests a slightly different set of steps. You can find a detailed discussion of these on our post, Why Product Managers Should Use Design Thinking.

How Can Design Thinking Help Product Managers?

Often credited to IDEO’s founder David Kelley, the concept of design thinking originally focused on helping designers take a human-centered approach to creating innovative solutions. But due to the success and popularity of design thinking, the approach has spread to other areas of business — and it has also become popular with product management.

As Rajat Harlalka explains, design thinking can enhance product management in several ways. For example:

  • Design thinking helps ensure product definition includes insights and perspectives from all disciplines.
  • Design thinking helps product managers and their teams guard against becoming too dependent on product requirements — because these are essentially assumptions — and instead encourages more conversations centered on the needs of the people they are trying to serve.
  • Design thinking helps the cross-functional product team increase empathy for the user.
  • Design thinking enhances the team’s understanding of the “why” behind every initiative.
  • Design thinking facilitates faster learning and more sharing and collaboration amongst cross-functional teams.

The Case for Design Thinking

Regardless of what type of product you oversee — whether it’s an off-the-shelf consumer item or a complex solution for enterprises or even governments — you and your organization are ultimately developing products for people.

Design thinking capitalizes on re-orienting your team’s approach to product development from a focus on the products themselves to a focus on the human beings whose jobs and lives you’re hoping to improve by building these products. The more you’re able to empathize with your target users — to see the world as they do, to intuit what frustrates them, and what makes them happy — you’ll be more likely to design products that hit the mark with those users.