The Five Stages of Design Thinking

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology that uses a user-centric approach by seeking to fully understand the user’s problem. It’s a creative problem-solving approach based heavily on processes that designers use but isn’t solely used by designers. Any industry can use design thinking.

Design thinking is used for problems that haven’t quite yet been defined. It is beneficial in areas like product design, business design, leadership, organizational change, etc. If you’re not trying to solve an open-ended problem, it’s probably not the best option. At its core, design thinking is based upon designing to meet the user’s needs.

When to use design thinking When not to use design thinking
  • A solution has not yet been proposed
  • Facing a human-centered challenge
  • When processes aren’t open-ended
  • When there are pre-defined solutions proposed

Sometimes, design thinking isn’t the best problem-solving approach for a bigger problem, but it can be used when establishing a process flow or a smaller part of the project.

The 5 Stages of Design Thinking

The design thinking process is not linear, meaning you can loop around different stages not in chronological order.

Five Stages of Design Thinking

  1. Empathize

It is easy to hear or read about a problem and envisions your own solution. The first stage of design thinking is conducting research to empathize with the user. Through observation, you want to get a better understanding of where their true frustrations lie. Observations can be done through interviews, focus groups, one on ones, etc.

The D. School at Stanford created a list of standards for interviewing for empathy.

  • Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, people ask why they do or say things. The answers will sometimes surprise you. A conversation started from one question should go on as long as it needs to.
  • Never say “usually” when asking a question. Instead, ask about a specific instance or occurrence, such as “tell me about the last time you ___:
  • Encourage stories. Whether or not the stories people tell are true, they reveal how they think about the world. Ask questions that get people telling stories.
  • Look for inconsistencies. Sometimes what people say and what they do is different. These inconsistencies often hide interesting insights.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Interviewers often feel the need to ask another question when there is a pause. If you allow for silence, a person can reflect on what they’ve just said and may reveal something deeper.
  • Don’t suggest answers to your questions.
  • Ask questions neutrally.
  • Don’t ask binary questions. (Questions that can be answered with one word.)
  • Make sure you’re prepared to capture.

A good practice of the first stage is to communicate back to the user what you’re hearing to ensure you’re understanding their pains correctly and ask clarifying questions when appropriate. Seeking to understand through empathy allows for a human-centric approach to the problem you’re solving.

  1. Define

Once you have an understanding of the user’s needs, thoughts, and frustrations, it’s time to define the problem. By combining the user research and identifying similarities, it’s easier to come to a defined problem that the stakeholders are unanimously facing.

At the end of this stage, you should have defined an actionable problem statement that identifies who the user is, what is their need, and any insight based on observations.

Use this Point of View template by Interaction Design Foundation for help:

  1. Ideate

The ideation stage is a big brainstorming session. Come up with ideas and solutions on how to fix the user’s problem. No one idea should be too crazy to leave out of an initial session.

The Interaction Design Foundation created a list of ideation methods to spark innovative ideas, some of which included:

  • Brainstorm
  • Braindump
  • Mindmap
  • Sketch
  • Storyboard
  • Analogies
  • Movement

Nothing should be off-limits in the ideation session. Working with a group or getting all of your ideas out at once will help you limit and decide which are the best before moving onto the next stage.

  1. Prototype

Creating a prototype is a way to test your best ideas or solutions. Typically, prototypes are fast and cheap ways to test an idea that is easy to create. A prototype can be as simple as a sketch on pen and paper or as complex as a complete graphic wireframe using a tool like Sketch. There are pros and cons to each, however, spending more time on your prototype can make the design thinker less open to wanting to make changes in the long run.

More simple, basic prototypes tend to make sense at the beginning of the prototyping stage, whereas more complex prototypes make sense as your solution becomes more refined.

  1. Test

After creating your prototype, no matter how complex it is, it’s important to test its usability and how users interact with it. We learn the quality of our prototypes by testing them

Ask others, especially stakeholders, for their honest feedback. Does the tested prototype provide the best solution to the problem at hand?

Sometimes, when testing a prototype, it can break, or the user may not interact with it in the way you originally thought. If that’s the case, you go back to the drawing board.

The five stages are a framework for design thinking, but it’s an iterative process and doesn’t necessarily have to be followed in order. It’s common to repeat steps a number of times before a project is finished.

With a human-centric approach, design thinking as a problem-solving approach ensures that the user’s needs are taken into account at every stage. By focusing on the right problem and testing, design thinking increases the chances of success in finding the right solution.

Ready to get started with design thinking at your organization? Reach out to a consultant today.