What is the design thinking process?

The design thinking process is a problem-solving design methodology that helps you tackle complex problems by framing the issue in a human-centric way. The design thinking process works especially well for problems that are not clearly defined or have a more ambiguous goal.

One of the first individuals to write about design thinking was John E. Arnold, a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford. Arnold wrote about four major areas of design thinking in his book, “Creative Engineering” in 1959. His work was later taught at Stanford’s Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design (also known as d.school), a design institute that pioneered the design thinking process. 

This eventually led Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon to outline one of the first iterations of the design thinking process in his 1969 book, “The Sciences of the Artificial.” While there are many different variations of design thinking, “The Sciences of the Artificial” is often credited as the basis. 

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A non-linear design thinking approach

Design thinking is not a linear process. It’s important to understand that each stage of the process can (and should) inform the other steps. For example, when you’re going through user testing, you may learn about a new problem that didn’t come up during any of the previous stages. You may learn more about your target personas during the final testing phase, or discover that your initial problem statement can actually help solve even more problems, so you need to redefine the statement to include those as well. 

Why use the design thinking process

The design thinking process is not the most intuitive way to solve a problem, but the results that come from it are worth the effort. Here are a few other reasons why implementing the design thinking process for your team is worth it.

Focus on problem solving

As human beings, we often don’t go out of our way to find problems. Since there’s always an abundance of problems to solve, we’re used to solving problems as they occur. The design thinking process forces you to look at problems from many different points of view. 

The design thinking process requires focusing on human needs and behaviors, and how to create a solution to match those needs. This focus on problem solving can help your design team come up with creative solutions for complex problems. 

Encourages collaboration and teamwork

The design thinking process cannot happen in a silo. It requires many different viewpoints from designers, future customers, and other stakeholders . Brainstorming sessions and collaboration are the backbone of the design thinking process.

Foster innovation

The design thinking process focuses on finding creative solutions that cater to human needs. This means your team is looking to find creative solutions for hyper specific and complex problems. If they’re solving unique problems, then the solutions they’re creating must be equally unique.

The iterative process of the design thinking process means that the innovation doesn’t have to end—your team can continue to update the usability of your product to ensure that your target audience’s problems are effectively solved. 

The 5 stages of design thinking

Currently, one of the more popular models of design thinking is the model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design (or d.school) at Stanford. The main reason for its popularity is because of the success this process had in successful companies like Google, Apple, Toyota, and Nike. Here are the five steps designated by the d.school model that have helped many companies succeed.

1. Empathize stage

The first stage of the design thinking process is to look at the problem you’re trying to solve in an empathetic manner. To get an accurate representation of how the problem affects people, actively look for people who encountered this problem previously. Asking them how they would have liked to have the issue resolved is a good place to start, especially because of the human-centric nature of the design thinking process. 

Empathy is an incredibly important aspect of the design thinking process.  The design thinking process requires the designers to put aside any assumptions and unconscious biases they may have about the situation and put themselves in someone else’s shoes. 

For example, if your team is looking to fix the employee onboarding process at your company, you may interview recent new hires to see how their onboarding experience went. Another option is to have a more tenured team member go through the onboarding process so they can experience exactly what a new hire experiences.

2. Define stage

Sometimes a designer will encounter a situation when there’s a general issue, but not a specific problem that needs to be solved. One way to help designers clearly define and outline a problem is to create human-centric problem statements. 

A problem statement helps frame a problem in a way that provides relevant context in an easy to comprehend way. The main goal of a problem statement is to guide designers working on possible solutions for this problem. A problem statement frames the problem in a way that easily highlights the gap between the current state of things and the end goal. 

Tip: Problem statements are best framed as a need for a specific individual. The more specific you are with your problem statement, the better designers can create a human-centric solution to the problem. 

Examples of good problem statements:

We need to decrease the number of clicks a potential customer takes to go through the sign-up process.

We need to decrease the new subscriber unsubscribe rate by 10%. 

We need to increase the Android app adoption rate by 20%.

3. Ideate stage

This is the stage where designers create potential solutions to solve the problem outlined in the problem statement. Use brainstorming techniques with your team to identify the human-centric solution to the problem defined in step two. 

Here are a few brainstorming strategies you can use with your team to come up with a solution:

Standard brainstorm session: Your team gathers together and verbally discusses different ideas out loud.

Brainwrite: Everyone writes their ideas down on a piece of paper or a sticky note and each team member puts their ideas up on the whiteboard. 

Worst possible idea: The inverse of your end goal. Your team produces the most goofy idea so nobody will look silly. This takes out the rigidity of other brainstorming techniques. This technique also helps you identify areas that you can improve upon in your actual solution by looking at the worst parts of an absurd solution. 

It’s important that you don’t discount any ideas during the ideation phase of brainstorming. You want to have as many potential solutions as possible, as new ideas can help trigger even better ideas. Sometimes the most creative solution to a problem is the combination of many different ideas put together.

4. Prototype stage

During the prototype phase, you and your team design a few different variations of inexpensive or scaled down versions of the potential solution to the problem. Having different versions of the prototype gives your team opportunities to test out the solution and make any refinements. 

Prototypes are often tested by other designers, team members outside of the initial design department, and trusted customers or members of the target audience. Having multiple versions of the product gives your team the opportunity to tweak and refine the design before testing with real users. During this process, it’s important to document the testers using the end product. This will give you valuable information as to what parts of the solution are good, and which require more changes.

After testing different prototypes out with teasers, your team should have different solutions for how your product can be improved. The testing and prototyping phase is an iterative process—so much so that it’s possible that some design projects never end.

After designers take the time to test, reiterate, and redesign new products, they may find new problems, different solutions, and gain an overall better understanding of the end-user. The design thinking framework is flexible and non-linear, so it’s totally normal for the process itself to influence the end design. 

Tips for incorporating the design thinking process into your team

If you want your team to start using the design thinking process, but you’re unsure of how to start, here are a few tips to help you out. 

Start small: Similar to how you would test a prototype on a small group of people, you want to test out the design thinking process with a smaller team to see how your team functions. Give this test team some small projects to work on so you can see how this team reacts. If it works out, you can slowly start rolling this process out to other teams.

Incorporate cross-functional team members : The design thinking process works best when your team members collaborate and brainstorm together. Identify who your designer’s key stakeholders are and ensure they’re included in the small test team. 

Organize work in a collaborative project management software : Keep important design project documents such as user research, wireframes, and brainstorms in a collaborative tool like Asana . This way, team members will have one central source of truth for anything relating to the project they’re working on.

Foster collaborative design thinking with Asana

The design thinking process works best when your team works collaboratively. You don’t want something as simple as miscommunication to hinder your projects. Instead, compile all of the information your team needs about a design project in one place with Asana. 

Academic Exchange Quarterly       Winter   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.

The Design Process of Problem Solving

Robin Vande Zande,   Kent State University

Vande Zande, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and coordinator of art education

The design process of problem solving, which provides a cognitive framework of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation is used by many professional designers to create solutions to design problems.   Students may be taught this process as an effective life skill, which starts with defining the problem and moving through steps to creating a logical solution.  


Problem solving is central to everyone’s existence.   People survive if they are fed, sheltered, and protected but they construct ways to obtain food, shelter, and protection through problem solving.   Though problems vary in complexity, survival at the one end and the pursuit of contentedness at the other, we are dependent on our ability to solve problems.   The design process is consistent with notions about effective practices for educating K-12 students: using theme-based and interdisciplinary instruction; fostering self-direction and independence; teaching topics relevant to the learner; using group interaction; promoting student discovery; and encouraging critical and creative exploration of ideas ( Currier, 1986; Stevenson, 1992). Students discover through testing, revising, and retesting that there may be some solutions that are more effective than others but there are many possibilities for success.

Good design often is an assimilation of elements that involves observation, creative brainstorming, and collaboration. The word design refers to a goal-oriented process that is intended to meet needs to improve situations or to create something new and/or useful (Freidman, 2003). At the heart of designing is the design process, which follows a planned sequence of analytical, synthetic, and evaluative steps until the optimum solution is finalized. It may involve contemplating, speaking, writing, drawing, modeling, and constructing. The process follows stages that may be used sequentially or that may require the student to loop back and modify an earlier stage.   Prototypical models are often constructed, evaluated, and modified for solution development.

The Design Process

Stage one:   define the problem.

Part One:   The teacher gives an assignment, which is presented as a problem to solve.   The students answer the questions of what, who, where, when, and how to gain clarity in defining the problem.   This could be done as a group or individually.   At the elementary level, it may be easiest for the teacher to guide the questions and complete stage one as a group.   At the middle or high school levels, it is up to the discretion of the teacher whether each team or individual is capable of completing this stage with little teacher guidance.

Example lesson : The teacher asks students to research different Native American tribes in order to gain an understanding of each group, such as their customs, celebrations, locations, indigenous foods, gender roles, history, and beliefs.   The teacher provides the problem that many people do not know the backgrounds of these tribes and as a result have some misconceptions about them, which could simply lead to questions or create prejudices.   The students are given the task of educating the public about Native American people.

An effective teaching strategy is created if the problem has relevance to the students’ lives.   Students may not be familiar with different Native American groups but they are familiar with books and book covers. A book cover is a form of advertising used to persuade someone to buy the book, or in this case, learn from the cover.   The teacher decides that by having the students create a book cover, which visually highlights the important aspects of a book, the students will need to know the content of the book.   In this example, the content is the background information about a Native American tribe. Once the research is completed, applying the information incorporates a higher level thinking skill. The student, as designer, needs to know the content of the book and reduce the content to its various essential elements in order to apply the information in a new form.

  This problem has two features: 1) getting the students to learn about Native Americans and 2) designing book covers to advertise the most essential information about the Native American tribe they are studying

Example of how to apply the questions for defining this design problem:  

What is needed?   A way to get people to better understand the different Native American tribes and their backgrounds

Who will benefit by it?   People of all ages may benefit from this.   Younger and older people may have established prejudices because they do not understand differences and how those affect the way individuals view the world and behave.

Why is it needed? To reduce misconceptions that may exist about Native American people.

Where will this be used?   This will be used by individuals who would normally see the book in a bookstore, library, or catalogue.   The book covers need to grab people’s attention.

When will this be used?   Anytime.

Part two:   Once the questions are answered, the students clearly state the problem.

Example :   Create a way to educate people about Native American tribes and some of their customs, celebrations, locations, indigenous foods, gender roles, history, and beliefs through the design of a book cover.   The focus group is the school community, people of all ages within the school community.   The purpose is to build understanding and reduce misconceptions about Native Americans.

Stage Two: Investigate and Research to Gather Data

Through interviews, articles, books, the Internet, observations, role-playing, and/or discussions, students research information that deals with the problem.  

Example: Divide students into 3-4 member groups and assign a different tribe to each group.   The students will research background information about one tribe and about book covers as advertising. Students then collect book covers to study how concepts are visually communicated, followed by a discussion on aesthetics and style.   During this discussion, the following topics would be covered:   the use of color and imagery to convey meaning and attract attention, the use of words and font styles to enhance meaning and influence the reader, and other devices used to make the message enticing. Students should record their observations.

The research stage may be something the students would like to circumvent so motivational strategies such as the following are important: 1) Divide the students into groups of   3 or 4,   which allows each person to concentrate on one part to research and not be overloaded with work plus gives each some responsibility; 2) Explain the importance of research with an example, illustrating the usefulness of obtaining and applying the information; 3) provide the instructional resources in easy access; 4) engage the students by asking questions to get them to be more interested in finding pertinent background information to answer the questions that may lead to a solution.

Stage three: Generate Ideas

Once the research is completed, the students allow their ideas to flow freely before attempting to move to the final solution.   Free association of ideas opens the possibilities for innovative and creative solutions to surface.   Creative thinking should be used to get beyond the first ideas that come to mind.

To develop creative thinking, avoid the following practices: 1) Do not seek the right answer- in brainstorming there is a danger in looking for THE right answer. There are many possible satisfactory solutions.   2) Do not apply logical thinking too early in the process- this closes off the chance of break-through ideas that may be pursued. 3) Do not try to be practical- this causes judgments of what works and what would not.   Some of the least practical ideas may be the seed of thought for the final solution.   4) Do not worry about making a mistake- this prevents positive risk-taking.   Creativity requires a leap into the unknown. 5) Do not think you are not creative- this makes it challenging to   become an inventive thinker.    Using these strategies and additional encouragement, the likelihood for student success will increase ( Wycoff , 1991).

There are different ways to approach creative thinking. Three of these techniques are brainstorming, mindmapping , and rough sketching. Brainstorming is a procedure for generating solution possibilities through openly listing anything that comes to mind as it relates to the topic.   When done in a group, the facilitator clearly states the topic and the participants give suggestions.   The facilitator includes any idea WITHOUT editing. Once a comprehensive list is completed and the participants think they have used all ideas, the facilitator asks for 3-5 more ideas to stretch their thinking.

Mindmapping is a form of visual outlining.   The facilitator draws a rectangle or oval in the center of a paper.   Inside this shape, write one or two words, which define the focus of the problem.   The facilitator notes ideas as they are given, drawing lines out from the center focus and recording the idea. This is done quickly and everything that comes to mind gets recorded.   If it is easier, draw pictures, symbols, or use color to represent ideas ( Wycoff , 1991).

Rough Sketching is done with a sketchbook/journal to record ideas.   For this form of creative thinking, multiple sketches are quickly made for possible solutions.   Once many ideas are generated, the best 2 or 3 solutions for development are recorded.   Rapid prototyping is a 3-dimensional version of this done by quickly constructing simple dimensional ideas with paper and tape.  

Example :   Having collected the information about Native Americans and book covers, students brainstorm ways to organize this information in order to educate the public.   They are reminded that this will be a book cover that influences people’s perceptions in a positive manner.   Through a careful selection of words, fonts, color, and a judicious choice of images, the book cover should be appealing and enlightening. The Internet is very useful for finding technical information and to better understand social issues ( Pavlova , 2005).

Group A was assigned to research the Cherokee Indians.   This group did a mindmap then individually sketched ideas in their journals.   They compiled ideas for 2 designs and then compared the two.   The first design used the illustrated what contributions and similarities the Cherokee customs have on current mainstream American life.   The students collaged pictures and drawings of women carrying babies in cradleboards juxtaposed to babies in backpack carriers today.   Mohawk haircuts and tattoos on Cherokee men were placed adjacent to pictures of people displaying these current trends.   Foods eaten historically by the Cherokees are shown in the background, such as strawberries, cornbread, squash, and stews.   The second design used visual stories to illustrate various artwork as shown through their arts: totem poles, rugs, quillwork, kachina dolls, carvings, and jewelry.   The students found images from the Internet that they downloaded into a paint program and arranged with a computer program.  

Stage four: Select the Criteria for Success

This stage reflects the objectives of the lesson and defines the components of the design problem. The student or team selects the best solution to develop based on these criteria: creativity, aesthetics, community values, safety, location, or cost.

Example: Group A decided on the first design.   They gathered images from magazines, the Internet, photocopies from books, and literature from the National Native American Museum in Washington, D.C.   The students had to determine the best color, words, and font style that provided context and meaning.   Turquoise blue paper was chosen to represent turquoise jewelry.   A basketweave font representing Native American basketry was selected for the title.

Stage five: Determine the Work Plan

The students describe how the model prototype ­­ will be made, what materials are needed, and approximately how long it will take to complete.

Stage six: Make the Model Prototype or Drawing

A carefully crafted model or drawing is made.

Stage seven: Test the Solution

In the final stage, the students may present the design solutions to other students, parents, faculty, administrators, or a group connected to the topic.   The audience is the “focus group” who will give feedback on the effectiveness of the solution. The various approaches for presentations may involve a planned lecture, a digital program (such as PowerPoint), graphics, presentation boards, video and audio documents, among others.

In developing a presentation, here are some points to follow:

1) Clearly state the design problem, give a brief background of the research, quickly explain the considered solutions, and show the final model stating why it was the best solution.

2) Keep the presentation short and simple.

3) Be accurate and relevant to your audience.

In planning the verbal portion of the presentation, think of it as theater in three acts with an introduction, the body, and conclusion ( Gottesman & Mauro (2001).   The three acts include:

Act 1: The presenter starts the presentation with the introduction during which he/she clearly states the specific issue to be addressed, explains the points to be covered, and convinces the audience that they should care.  

Act 2: The body of the speech incorporates what the audience needs to hear, in a way they understand.  

Act 3:   The conclusion should be persuasively stated, noting what the audience is supposed to understand and remember.

In preparing a presentation board , the students should include drawings, sample swatches of textures and colors, photographs, graphs, diagrams, pictograms, and any other pertinent visual materials.   The textual information would include the most essential words and not any more.   The text should be easily visible by the audience and organized in a logical fashion.

Example: The students show the book cover to the focus group and ask what they understand by looking at it, without giving an explanation.   The students note the feedback.   If the feedback is on target with what they had hoped to convey, they have completed their assignment.   If it is not, they ask for further ideas to improve the message.   They then show a presentation board that includes the different possibilities they considered in deciding color, fonts, images, etc when they were creating the prototype.

Stage eight:   Evaluation

The students need to answer whether the focus group understood the prototype.   If the answer is no, then they determine what changes are needed and what is required to make those changes.

By using the design process for problem solving, a conceptual framework is presented that impels students to become self-directed learners who use inquiry, think at high levels, and solve problems. McTighe , Seif , and Wiggins (2004) explain that teachers should regularly use engaging, stimulating, and interactive instructional approaches.   Weiss and Pasley (2004) expand on this premise by emphasizing that high quality instruction occurs when students are challenged to engage deeply with the content, in part, through contributing their ideas and questions. The design process promotes a flexible, creative, integrated approach to establish a foundation of understanding through research in various areas and an integration of knowledge from many disciplines. The introduction of the design process is a step toward meaningful learning that engages the students interactively in a purposeful pursuit of knowledge.

Currier, L. (1986). A declaration of independence: A creed for middle school educators.

  Middle School Journal, 17(2), 4-6.

Freidman, K. (2003).   Theory construction in design research: Criteria, approaches, and

              methods.   Design Studies, 24(6), 507-522.  

Gottesman , D. & Mauro, B. (2001).   Taking center stage: Masterful public speaking

  using acting skills you never knew you had .   NY:   A Berkley Book.

McTighe , J., Seif , E., & Wiggins, G. (2004).   You can teach for meaning.   Educational

  Leadership, 62 (1), 26-31

Pavlova , M. (2005).   Social change: How should technology education respond? International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 15 , 199-215.

Stevenson, C. (1992). Teaching ten- to fourteen- year olds. New York: Longman.

Weiss, I. R. & Pasley , J. D. (2004).   What is high-quality instruction? Educational

  Leadership, 61(5), 24-9.

Wycoff , J.(1991).   Mindmapping . NY: Berkley Books.  

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Design Thinking, Essential Problem Solving 101- It’s More Than Scientific

The term “ Design Thinking ” dates back to the 1987 book by Peter Rowe; “Design Thinking.” In that book he describes the way that architects and urban planners would approach design problems. However, the idea that there was a specific pattern of problem solving in “design thought” came much earlier in Herbert A Simon’s book, “The Science of the Artificial” which was published in 1969. The concept was popularized in the early 1990s by Richard Buchanan in his article “ Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”.

Ralph Caplan, the design consultant, sums up the need for design thinking with; “Thinking about design is hard, but not thinking about it can be disastrous.”

the problem solving/design process

Author/Copyright holder: Christine Prefontaine. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

A simple overview of design thinking as a problem solving process.

Problem-Solving and Two Schools of Thought

Design thinking is concerned with solving problems through design. The idea being that the future output of the process will provide a better answer than the one already available or if nothing is available – something entirely new.

It is an unconstrained methodology where it is possible that the designer (or design team) will work on many possible solutions at once. It enables designers to consider the problem in many different ways and speculate on both the past and future of the problem too.

This is in contrast to the scientific method of problem solving which requires a highly-defined problem which focuses on delivering a single solution.

This difference was first noted by Brian Lawson, a psychologist, in 1972. He conducted an experiment in which scientists and architects were asked to build a structure from colored blocks. He provided some basic rules for the project and observed how they approached it. The scientists looked to move through a simple series of solutions based on the outcome and entire rule set. The architects, in contrast, simply focused on the desired end-state and then tested to see if the solution they had found met the rules.

This led to the idea that scientists solve problems by a process of analysis, whilst designers solve problems by synthesis. However, later evidence suggests that designers apply both forms of problem solving to attain “design thinking”.

They do this via a process of divergent thinking . A designer will examine as many possible solutions at the beginning of a process as they can think of – then they will apply the scientific side ( convergent thinking ) to narrow these solutions down to the best output.

the problem solving/design process

Design thinking can be as simple or as complex as the business and users require. This IDEO process can be seen as a 3 part process or a 9 part process .

The Design Thinking Process

Design thinking is essentially a process which moves from problem to solution via some clear intermediate points. The classic approach, as proposed by Herbert A Simon, is offered here:

  • Definition – where the problem is defined as best as possible prior to solving it
  • Research – where the designers examine as much data as they feel necessary to be able to fully contribute to the problem solving process
  • Ideation – where the designer commences creating possible solutions without examining their practicality until a large number of solutions has been proposed. Once this is done, impractical solutions are eliminated or played with until they become practical.
  • Prototyping – where the best ideas are simulated in some means so that their value can be explored with users
  • Choosing – where the best idea is selected from the multiple prototypes
  • Implementing – where that idea is built and delivered as a product
  • Testing – where the product is tested with the user in order to ensure that it solves the original problem in an effective manner

There are many other design thinking processes outlined in literature – most of which are a truncated version of the above process combining or skipping stages.

the problem solving/design process

Here we see a more complex interpretation of the design thinking process and how it fits into the larger business sphere.

The Principles of Design Thinking

In the book, Design thinking: Understand, Improve Apply, Plattner and Meinel offer four underlying principles for design thinking:

  • Human – all design is of a social nature
  • Ambiguity – design thinking preserves and embraces ambiguity
  • Re-design – all design processes are in fact re-design of existing processes
  • Tangibility – the design process to make something tangible will facilitate communication of that design

It is also worth noting that design thinking functions independently of the design methods employed in any given design process. Design methods are the tools employed (such as interviews, user research , prototypes, etc.) and the assumption is that there are many paths that may be used (e.g. different sets of methods applied) to reach the same “best” result.

Visuals and Design Thinking

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that design thinking is not about graphic design per se. However, designers are often used to communicating their thinking visually and drawings, sketches, prototypes, etc. are often used to convey the ideas created within a design thinking process.

In fact, ideas which are hard to express easily in words are often given shape in the form of visual metaphors. Design thinking thus easily incorporates abstract thought processes – something that scientific thinking may find more challenging to accommodate.

the problem solving/design process

Visual representations of how those involved in the design process might be thinking about a problem.

The Take Away

Design thinking is a process by which designers approach problem solving. It incorporates analytical, synthetic, divergent and convergent thinking to create a wide number of potential solutions and then narrow these down to a “best fit” solution. There are many ways to use a design thinking process to incorporate different methodologies to still reach the same end point. Designers must solve problems in order to add value through design.

Richard Buchanan’s original article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking," was published in Design Issues , vol. 8, no. 2, Spring 1992.

Peter Rowe’s book from 1987 Design Thinking was published byCambridge: The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-68067-7.

Herbert A Simon’s book from 1969 The Sciences of the Artificial . Was published by Cambridge: MIT Press.

Plattner, Hasso; Meinel, Christoph; Leifer, Larry J., eds. (2011). Design thinking: understand, improve, apply . Understanding innovation . Berlin; Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag. pp. xiv–xvi.doi:10.1007/978-3-642-13757-0. ISBN 3642137563.

This fascinating case study looks at how IBM plans to bring design thinking to large scale businesses - http://www.wired.com/2016/01/ibms-got-a-plan-to-bring-design-thinking-to-big-business/

See how Pepsi’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, implemented design thinking in her organization - https://hbr.org/2015/09/how-indra-nooyi-turned-design-thinking-into-strategy

Harvard Business Review examines design thinking and how it translates into action here - https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-for-action

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Wikimedia Deutschland e. V. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

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An increasing amount of organizations are starting to value Design Thinking as a tool for creative problem solving. For some time now, they’ve recognized that ideas often don’t come from the top – Ideas originate from across the organization. 

That’s why many companies now train their employees in Design Thinking to encourage the pursuit of innovative ideas. Once you’ve seen the fun you can have and the ingenuity of Design Thinking workshops, you’ll want to participate in them yourself. Design thinking is contagious.

Design thinking looks fun, and it is fun. It boosts team morale, creates enthusiasm, and gets everyone working toward a common goal.

When you’re comfortable practicing design thinking, you become a valued team member. You become a leader. You can use your skills to solve problems within your team, but you can also teach others your skills and help them solve problems in other areas of the organization. 

In this article, I’ll give you an overview of what it’s all about and how you can use it to solve even the most complicated problems.

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  • How to Plan a Workshop: A Quick and Easy Guide

Table of Contents

Design thinking in the real world, what is the design thinking process, large projects vs small projects, why design thinking works, benefits of design thinking, step by step on how to use design thinking to solve problems, how can we measure the success of design thinking.

Design thinking is a practice that involves taking action and making things happen. 

It’s a highly collaborative method that relies on moving forward, identifying problems, exploring them, and having fun developing solutions.

That’s why it’s best to start no matter where you are in your journey. The more you practice the design thinking framework, the more familiar it will become. 

Starting a design thinking project can be daunting, especially when all eyes are on you. But you can take comfort in the fact that the process is about learning, and to learn, you need to make mistakes. 

That’s what it’s all about.

So start small, look for ways to solve problems, and begin practicing design thinking as soon as possible.

What Kind of Problems Can Design Thinking Solve?

Design Thinking is versatile and can be applied to various problems in various fields. 

It’s proven effective for solving tasks requiring a deep understanding of human needs and complex systems.

It’s known to be effective in solving problems that are poorly defined or complex, i.e. ‘A Wicked Problem’. 

Its collaborative and iterative nature allows us to use different skills to cycle through the framework to expand our knowledge and increase our chances of success with each iteration.

Design Thinking acknowledges that we don’t know all the answers and values inquiry and the pursuit of understanding. It is a team sport.

Although some of the most inspiring examples come from healthcare, education and environmental sustainability. In the private sector, it’s just as effective in developing products, functions and services.

Simultaneously exploring problems and solutions makes it effective in solving problems that are not very well defined or complex and difficult to solve.

Here are 6 examples of problems that Design Thinking is known for solving:

  • Finding human-centered solutions to business problems.
  • Developing new products, features, and services.
  • Improving processes, ways of working and operations.
  • Designing business strategies and policies.
  • Improving the efficiency and engagement of an organization.
  • Influencing social change and community initiatives.

Design Thinking can be effective anywhere you want to design something that resonates with a group of people’s needs, behaviors, and attitudes.

What Are Some Examples of Design Thinking in the Real World?

  • Developing digital tools to teach financial literacy
  • Home toilets for Ghana’s poorest urban dwellers
  • Developing a scalable water and sanitation business
  • How do you encourage new customers to open a bank account?

The 5 steps of the Design Thinking Process

Theoretically, there are 5 phases in the Design Thinking process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

In practice, we go through each phase several times, go back and forth, and do some simultaneously.

For example, we can build empathy with our target audience and further define our problem by prototyping and testing an idea with customers.

This flexibility and focus on learning rather than following procedures makes design thinking as effective as it is.

Each stage is essential, and we should not skip the steps entirely but cycle through the stages to move our thinking forward in a way that suits our particular project.

If you’re new to design thinking or the design process and have never practiced iterative design , familiarize yourself with the process, practice it, and then experiment with how you can apply it.

Here’s a more detailed view of each stage of the Design Thinking process:

We can develop more informed solutions when we understand our audience and learn firsthand about their issues.

By learning about their habits, preferences, behaviors and attitudes, we can uncover deep insights that lead to real change.

To this end, we conduct user research, interview people, and observe them in their environment.

In the “Define” phase, we evaluate the research and formulate the problem we want to solve.

We identify noteworthy patterns, themes, and insights that could guide our thinking throughout the project.

To do this, we organize the information, highlight key themes, and distill them into problems, opportunities, and insights.

Exploring a broad range of possible solutions allows us to explore the issues discovered in the previous phase and speculate on the most effective solution.

By developing ideas, talking about them, and critiquing them, we can build our understanding of the problem and the type of solution needed.

To this end, we engage in creative ideation activities, usually in a group or participatory design workshop.

Once we’ve developed a set of possible solutions, we need to build a prototype to share with the end user to gather further feedback.

A prototype needs to be the simplest possible execution of the idea that helps us gather more customer insights.

To do this, we look for ways to simulate the experience or functionality, sketch our ideas, and share the images.

Now that we have a prototype, we need to take it to our customers, ask them questions and observe how they interact with it.

To do this, we share the prototype with them, ask them some questions and ask them to do some tasks.

Then we take the feedback, do another prototype iteration and test it again.

Get the most out of the design thinking process by cycling through the process several times.

Each time you go through the process, you create another iteration of your idea, and it gets better in quality each time.

This way, you can build a knowledge base and validate your findings before committing to developing an expensive product.

You can apply design thinking to projects of all shapes and sizes. 

Sometimes it’s enough to start with a specific problem or outcome you want to achieve and go through the framework once to get the desired results. 

For larger projects, you should divide the project into manageable sections and progressively go through the framework multiple times for different parts before bringing everything together at the end.

For example, suppose your project is to improve employee engagement or collaboration around a particular idea. In that case, developing an innovative solution and testing it for a few weeks may be better before revisiting the project, reviewing the data, and moving on.

When redesigning an extensive application, website, or platform that includes multiple sections or functional categories, it would be best to break it into smaller parts and work on each individually. 

Design thinking works because it’s highly collaborative.

It emphasizes on-the-go learning through direct observation.

It values making decisions based on evidence, and wherever we make decisions based on evidence, we can have more confidence in the decisions we make.

Design thinking works because it attracts people and encourages engagement because of its interactivity and fast-paced nature.

It also acknowledges that you might not get it right the first time and that it’s okay to try again, incorporating new evidence until you get it right.

Because it’s an iterative model, our chances of success increase with each iteration.

Design thinking can accelerate time to market, stimulate creative thinking across the organization, and teach your team new skills.

You can use design thinking on internal projects to improve processes and procedures. Use it on external projects to create a new product, feature or service, or it can help develop strategies and ways of working. 

The best way to learn Design Thinking is to experience it for yourself.

It’s a hands-on process that requires commitment, energy, and creativity.

My advice is to get started right away and decide for yourself whether or not it’s suitable for your organization or project.

As you practice, you’ll gain more experience and understand why we do the things we do, and then you can tweak the approach, experiment with activities, and make it work for you.

Choose a Project, Problem, Need or Goal

The first step is to select a project. You may have an idea of an outcome you want to achieve, a problem you want to solve, or a change you’d like to see.

Here’s a broad set of starting points demonstrating that goals and outcomes can be specific, general or poorly defined:

  • We want to redesign our mobile experience.
  • We want to reduce our environmental footprint.
  • We want to understand customers and solve their problems.
  • We want to encourage colleagues to celebrate each other’s successes.

Getting clarity and focus on goals and outcomes can be part of the discovery process; however, the clearer you are in advance, the more focused you can be during the workshops.

To ensure you get buy-in from your stakeholders, involve them in the opportunity identification process. 

If you’ve got the support of your stakeholders, you’re more likely to get the time, space, and people you need for the project. They’ll also be excited to see the outcome when you’re done.

Alternatively, if this is your first experience, choose something small that you’ve got control over for your team, or help another team with a lower-stakes project so you can practice.

Choose a Team of People to Work With You

The more diverse your team is, the more diverse the outcome will be. 

Different perspectives benefit the Design Thinking approach and are excellent for creative thinking.

Here are some considerations you need to make when choosing your team:

  • How diverse can you make the team in skills, values and beliefs?
  • What kind of dynamic do different combinations of personalities bring?
  • Can you get a variety of SMEs: Tech, marketing, research, UX design?
  • Who will help you gain traction within the organization?

It doesn’t matter if the participants have never participated in a Design Thinking process before; this can be an excellent learning opportunity.

However, if you have a new team, it’s a good idea to have a strong facilitator, teach some skills beforehand, or choose a project that allows them to experiment without fear of failure.

When you’ve selected your team members, arrange a session to brief them on the project. 

Explain to them what Design Thinking is, share some case studies and details about the project so far, explain why they’re valued team members, and discuss ways of working and how you’ll foster a fun and engaging working environment.

Plan and Prepare for the Project

The design process is fluid and flexible.

The specific activities and timings will change as you move through the process. That said, you can time box each phase of the project and draft a schedule so you have a guiding framework; then, as you progress, you can make changes to your approach as and when you feel the need.

When planning a design thinking project, some of the things you need to consider are:

  • What problem area do you want to explore?
  • Who’ll be involved?
  • When do you want the project to take place?
  • How long do you want the project to last?
  • Where will it take place?
  • What materials will you need?
  • What activities will happen at each phase?

It’s best to answer some of these questions with your team or stakeholders so you can confirm they agree with the direction and that you’re focusing on the right things.

Conduct the Workshops and Get the Work Done

Now comes the fun part, conducting the workshops.

You can set the agendas for each day in advance and use them as a guide that you can adjust and change depending on what you learn as you go along.

It’s best to start each day with a catch-up. Talk about what you have in mind for the day. Invite your team to share their suggestions on how to maximize your time and the value of the activities.

Meet again at the end of the day for a debrief and discuss how it went, what you learned, and what you want to do the next day.

Go through each phase of the framework and try to understand your audience, choose a focus, develop ideas, prototype, get customer feedback, rinse and repeat as many times as necessary.

Towards the end of the project, you should begin to summarize the process and approach and document your findings so that you can share them with the business and make plans to develop and deploy the solution.

This can be done using a series of decision-making frameworks, or you can discuss and prioritize ideas based on the criteria identified during the project.

For example, in the initial phase, you may have decided that your idea must be sustainable, cost-effective, and accessible. When you review your ideas at the end, you should map them to these criteria to see if they meet the requirements or if gaps need to be filled.

This summary phase is essential to put what you’ve learned into a concise case study that you can use to tell the story of the complex problems you want to solve and the potential solution you wish to develop. 

You can use this to show the organization the value of the process you went through. This is your chance to share what you learned and explain why you chose the solutions you did and the impact they had on the end users. The more data and evidence you can use to tell your story, the more impactful it’ll be.

Ultimately, this summary should convince the people who’ll help you maintain momentum and get the necessary resources to build and launch your solution.

Release Your Idea Into the Wild

You get the best data when you release your creative solution into the wild.

You want to see how users experience it in practice. Does it achieve the results you were hoping for? What impact does it have on the target audience?

This is an excellent opportunity to gain additional insights that you can use to improve the solution.

Find Opportunities to Improve Your Idea and Repeat the Cycle

If you find that parts of the idea need improvement or the idea could have been more successful, you can use the data collected to choose another focus and repeat the process.

This iterative approach helps us identify opportunities for true innovation and develop breakthrough products and services.

Measure the Success of the Activities

When you finally get your idea out into the world, you’ll need to collect data on its performance. This data can tell you if your idea has succeeded and where it needs to improve.

Then you need to periodically review the progress of the project and evaluate the data to decide what tweaks and adjustments need to be made or if the project is successful enough to continue.

We’ll come back to measuring success further along in this article.

What Are Some Alternative Problem-Solving Approaches?

The Design Thinking methodology has become popular in recent years; it has experienced a resurgence. 

As markets and industries become more competitive and innovating has become necessary, companies are looking for new ways to innovate.

Since Design thinking is the name given to the process of thinking like a designer. There are a few other design approaches worth taking a closer look at.

Note that these frameworks are based on the design process, so they all have similar phases, values, and outcomes.

After you have tried them all and become familiar with them, you’ll likely develop your own process that is an amalgamation of all of them. Then you’ll be a pro.

Here are three human centered design alternatives to the Design Thinking framework:

The Design Cycle

The MYB Design Cycle

The Design Cycle is a 4-phase process broken into multiple steps designed to help students learn and apply the human-centered design process.

Double Diamond

A description of The Design Councils Double Diamond: Discover, define, develop, deliver

The Design Council developed the Double Diamond as a method for designing solutions in a wide range of contexts and sectors.

Design Sprint

The 5 steps of the Design Sprint process

The Design Sprint is a framework often used by software development teams to accelerate identifying opportunities and creating solutions. 

  • How to Measure the Success of Design Thinking

This is a question that gets asked a lot. 

Organizations are used to measuring the success of their work to determine whether or not they are using their time efficiently and adding value in the right areas.

The answer to this question depends on the nature of the project and what impact you want to have.

It’s similar to how you would measure another type of activity.

Measure the Design Thinking Process

Do you want to measure the process so you can report on the activities, the time they take, and the number of people involved? If so, you could look at the number of workshops conducted, prototypes created, features on the roadmap that emerged from DT workshops, and the number of ideas produced.

Measure the Impact of Your Solution on Customers

Do you want to measure the impact on customers using customer feedback, survey responses, retention and adoption rates, task completion and time on task?

Measure the Impact of Design Thinking on the Organization

Would you like to measure the effect on the organization? The number of employees trained in Design Thinking or the number of projects completed?

Measure Your Traditional KPIs

You can measure the impact of the solution on your traditional KPIs. 

Did the solution produce the desired result? Did it generate a profit, was it well received, and did it impact your net promoter score or OKRs?

You can also compare solutions created through Design Thinking activities with solutions created through other methods by looking at your roadmap and highlighting the projects that came about through Design Thinking and those that didn’t. See how many of them there are and how they perform relative to each other.

In reality, you need to mix measures, depending on what you want to know.

Think about what outcomes you want to achieve by introducing Design Thinking into your organization and pick from the metrics above to assess whether it’s working for you.

Design thinking is a powerful tool that can help you achieve your desired outcome no matter what problem you’re facing. The more you practice design thinking, the more familiar it will become. And remember, Design Thinking is versatile and can be applied to various problems in various fields. So don’t hesitate to give it a try the next time you’re stuck on a project!

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  • Josh Singer
  • Jun 24, 2021

The Rise Of Design Thinking As A Problem Solving Strategy

  • 18 min read
  • UX , Design , Product Strategy
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About The Author

Josh Singer is a UX Designer and former Math Editor at Renaissance Learning , where he has worked on products and written content for educators and students … More about Josh ↬

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Having spent the last 20 years in the world of educational technology working on products for educators and students, I have learned to understand teachers and administrators as designers themselves, who use a wide set of tools and techniques to craft learning experiences for students. I have come to believe that by extending this model and framing all users as designers, we are able to mine our own experiences to gain a deeper empathy for their struggles. In doing so, we can develop strategies to set our user-designers up to successfully deal with change and uncertainty.

If you are a designer, or if you have worked with designers any time in the last decade, you are probably familiar with the term “design thinking.” Typically, design thinking is represented by a series of steps that looks something like this:

There are many variations of this diagram, reflective of the multitude of ways that the process can be implemented. It is typically a months-long undertaking that begins with empathy: we get to know a group of people by immersing ourselves in a specific context to understand their tasks, pain points, and motivations. From there, we take stock of our observations, looking for patterns, themes, and opportunities, solidifying the definition of the problem we wish to solve. Then, we iteratively ideate, prototype, and test solutions until we arrive at one we like (or until we run out of time).

Ultimately, the whole process boils down to a simple purpose: to solve a problem. This is not a new purpose, of course, and not unique to those of us with “Designer” in our job titles. In fact, while design thinking is not exactly the same as the scientific method we learned in school, it bears an uncanny resemblance:

By placing design thinking within this lineage, we equate the designer with the scientist, the one responsible for facilitating the discovery and delivery of the solution.

At its best, design thinking is highly collaborative. It brings together people from across the organization and often from outside of it, so that a diverse group, including those whose voices are not usually heard, can participate. It centers the needs and emotions of those we hope to serve. Hopefully, it pulls us out of our own experiences and biases, opening us up to new ways of thinking and shining a light on new perspectives. At its worst, when design thinking is dogmatically followed or cynically applied, it becomes a means of gatekeeping, imposing a rigid structure and set of rules that leave little room for approaches to design that do not conform to an exclusionary set of cultural standards.

Its relative merits, faults, and occasional high-profile critiques notwithstanding, design thinking has become orthodoxy in the world of software development, where not using it feels tantamount to malpractice. No UX Designer’s portfolio is complete without a well-lit photo capturing a group of eager problem solvers in the midst of the “Define” step, huddled together, gazing thoughtfully at a wall covered in colorful sticky notes . My colleagues and I use it frequently, sticky notes and all, as we work on products in EdTech.

Like “lean,” the design thinking methodology has quickly spread beyond the software industry into the wider world. Today you can find it in elementary schools , in nonprofits , and at the center of innovation labs housed in local governments .

Amidst all of the hoopla, it is easy to overlook a central assumption of design thinking, which seems almost too obvious to mention: the existence of a solution . The process rests on the premise that, once the steps have been carried out, the state of the problem changes from ‘unsolved’ to ‘solved.’ While this problem-solution framework is undeniably effective, it is also incomplete. If we zoom out , we can see the limits of our power as designers, and then we can consider what those limits mean for how we approach our work.

Chaos And The Limits Of Problem Solving

An unchecked belief in our ability to methodically solve big problems can lead to some pretty grandiose ideas. In his book, Chaos: Making a New Science , James Gleick describes a period in the 1950s and ’60s when, as computing and satellite technologies continued to advance, a large, international group of scientists embarked on a project that, in hindsight, sounds absurd. Their goal was not only to accurately predict, but also to control the weather:

“There was an idea that human society would free itself from weather’s turmoil and become its master instead of its victim. Geodesic domes would cover cornfields. Airplanes would seed the clouds. Scientists would learn how to make rain and how to stop it.” — “Chaos: Making a New Science,” James Gleick

It is easy to scoff at their hubris now, but at the time it was a natural result of an ever-heightening faith that, with science, no problem is too big to solve. What those scientists did not account for is a phenomenon commonly known as the butterfly effect, which is now a central pillar of the field of chaos theory. The butterfly effect describes the inherent volatility that arises in complex and interconnected systems. It gets its name from a famous illustration of the principle: a butterfly flapping its wings and creating tiny disturbances in the air around it on one side of the globe today can cause a hurricane tomorrow on the other. Studies have shown that the butterfly effect impacts everything in society from politics and the economy to trends in fashion .

Our Chaotic Systems

If we accept that, like the climate, the social systems in which we design and build solutions are complex and unpredictable, a tension becomes apparent. Design thinking exists in a context that is chaotic and unpredictable by nature, and yet the act of predicting is central. By prototyping and testing , we are essentially gathering evidence about what the outcome of our design will be, and whether it will effectively solve the problem we have defined. The process ends when we feel confident in our prediction and happy with the result.

I want to take pains to point out again that this approach is not wrong! We should trust the process to confirm that our designs are useful and usable in the immediate sense. At the same time, whenever we deliver a solution, we are like the butterfly flapping its wings, contributing (along with countless others) to a constant stream of change. So while the short-term result is often predictable, the longer-term outlook for the system as a whole, and for how long our solution will hold as the system changes, is unknowable.


As we use design thinking to solve problems, how do we deal with the fact that our solutions are built to address conditions that will change in ways we can’t plan for?

One basic thing we can do is to maintain awareness of the impermanence of our work, recognizing that it was built to meet the needs of a specific moment in time . It is more akin to a tree fort constructed in the woods than to a castle fortress made from stone. While the castle may take years to build and last for centuries, impervious to the weather while protecting its inhabitants from all of the chaos that exists outside its walls, the tree fort, even if well-designed and constructed, is directly connected to and at the mercy of its environment. While a tree fort may shelter us from the rain, we do not build it with the expectation that it will last forever, only with the hope that it will serve us well while it’s here. Hopefully, through the experience of building it, we continue to learn and improve.

The fact that our work is impermanent does not diminish its importance, nor does it give us the license to be sloppy. It means that the ability to quickly and consistently adapt and evolve without sacrificing functional or aesthetic quality is core to the job, which is one reason why design systems , which provide consistent and high-quality reusable patterns and components, are crucial.

Designing For User-Designers

A more fundamental way to deal with the impermanence of our work is to rethink our self-image as designers. If we identify only as problem solvers, then our work becomes obsolete quickly and suddenly as conditions change, while in the meantime our users must wait helplessly to be rescued with the next solution. In reality, our users are compelled to adapt and design their own solutions, using whatever tools they have at their disposal. In effect, they are their own designers, and so our task shifts from delivering full, fixed solutions to providing our user-designers with useful and usable tools specific to their needs .

In thinking from this perspective, we can gain empathy for our users by understanding our place as equals on a continuum, each of us relying on others, just as others rely on us.

Key Principles To Center The Needs Of User-Designers

Below are some things to consider when designing for user-designers. In the spirit of the user-designer continuum and of finding the universal in the specific, in the examples below I draw on my experience from both sides of the relationship. First, from my work as a designer in the EdTech space, in which educators rely on people like me to produce tools that enable them to design learning experiences for students. Second, as a user of the products, I rely on them in my daily UX work.

1. Don’t Lock In The Value

It is crucial to have a clear understanding of why someone would use your product in the first place, and then make sure not to get in the way. While there is a temptation to keep that value contained so that users must remain in your product to reap all of the benefits, we should resist that mindset.

Remember that your product is likely just one tool in a larger set, and our users rely on their tools to be compatible with each other as they design their own coherent, holistic solutions. Whereas the designer-as-problem-solver is inclined to build a self-contained solution, jealously locking value within their product, the designer-for-designers facilitates the free flow of information and continuity of task completion between tools however our user-designers choose to use them. By sharing the value, not only do we elevate its source, we give our users full use of their toolbox.

An Example As A Designer Of EdTech Products:

In student assessment applications, like in many other types of applications, the core value is the data. In other words, the fundamental reason schools administer assessments is to learn about student achievement and growth. Once that data is captured, there are all sorts of ways we can then use it to make intelligent, research-based recommendations around tasks like setting student goals, creating instructional groups, and assigning practice. To be clear, we do try very hard to support all of it in our products, often by using design thinking. Ultimately, though, it all starts with the data.

In practice, teachers often have a number of options to choose from when completing their tasks, and they have their own valid reasons for their preferences. Anything from state requirements to school policy to personal working style may dictate their approach to, say, student goal setting. If — out of a desire to keep people in our product — we make it extra difficult for teachers to use data from our assessments to set goals outside of our product (say, in a spreadsheet), then instead of increasing our value, we have added inconvenience and frustration. The lesson, in this case, is not to lock up the data! Ironically, by hoarding it, we make it less valuable. By providing educators with easy and flexible ways to get it out, we unlock its power.

An Example As A User Of Design Tools:

I tend to switch between tools as I go through the design thinking process based on the core value each tool provides. All of these tools are equally essential to the process, and I count on them to work together as I move between phases so that I don’t have to build from scratch at every step. For example, the core value I get from Sketch is mostly in the “Ideation” phase, in that it allows me to brainstorm quickly and freely so that I can try out multiple ideas in a short amount of time. By making it easy for me to bring ideas from that product into a more heavy-duty prototyping application like Axure , instead of locking them inside, Sketch saves me time and frustration and increases my attachment to it. If, for competitive reasons, those tools ceased to cooperate, I would be much more likely to drop one or both.

2. Use Established Patterns

It is always important to remember Jakob’s Law , which states simply that users spend more time on other sites than they spend on yours. If they are accustomed to engaging with information or accomplishing a task a certain way and you ask them to do it differently, they will not view it as an exciting opportunity to learn something new. They will be resentful. Scaling the learning curve is usually painful and frustrating. While it is possible to improve or even replace established patterns, it’s a very tall order . In a world full of unpredictability, consistent and predictable patterns among tools create harmony between experiences.

By following conventions around data visualization in a given domain, we make it easy for users to switch and compare between sources. In the context of education, it is common to display student progress in a graph of test scores over time, with the score scale represented on the vertical axis and the timeline along the horizontal axis. In other words, a scatter plot or line graph, often with one or two more dimensions represented, maybe by color or dot size. Through repeated, consistent exposure, even the most data-phobic teachers can easily and immediately interpret this data visualization and craft a narrative around it.

You could hold a sketching activity during the “Ideate” phase of design thinking in which you brainstorm dozens of other ways to present the same information. Some of those ideas would undoubtedly be interesting and cool, and might even surface new and useful insights. This would be a worthwhile activity! In all likelihood, though, the best decision would not be to replace the accepted pattern. While it can be useful to explore other approaches, ultimately the most benefit is usually derived from using patterns that people already understand and are used to across a variety of products and contexts.

In my role, I often need to quickly learn new UX software, either to facilitate collaboration with designers from outside of my organization or when my team decides to adopt something new. When that happens, I rely heavily on established patterns of visual language to quickly get from the learning phase to the productive phase. Where there is consistency, there is relief and understanding. Where there is a divergence for no clear reason, there is frustration. If a product team decided to rethink the standard alignment palette, for example, in the name of innovation, it would almost certainly make the product more difficult to adopt while failing to provide any benefit.

3. Build For Flexibility

As an expert in your given domain, you might have strong, research-based positions on how certain tasks should be done, and a healthy desire to build those best practices into your product. If you have built up trust with your users, then adding guidance and guardrails directly into the workflow can be powerful. Remember, though, that it is only guidance. The user-designer knows when those best practices apply and when they should be ignored. While we should generally avoid overwhelming our users with choices , we should strive for flexibility whenever possible.

An Example As A Designer Of EdTech Products

Many EdTech products provide mechanisms for setting student learning goals. Generally, teachers appreciate being given recommendations and smart defaults when completing this task, knowing that there is a rich body of research that can help determine a reasonable range of expectations for a given student based on their historical performance and the larger data set from their peers. Providing that guidance in a simple, understandable format is generally beneficial and appreciated. But, we as designers are removed from the individual students and circumstances, as well as the ever-changing needs and requirements driving educators’ goal-setting decisions. We can build recommendations into the happy path and make enacting them as painless as possible, but the user needs an easy way to edit our guidance or to reject it altogether.

The ability to create a library of reusable objects in most UX applications has made them orders of magnitude more efficient. Knowing that I can pull in a pre-made, properly-branded UI element as needed, rather than creating one from scratch, is a major benefit. Often, in the “Ideate” phase of design thinking, I can use these pre-made components in their fully generic form simply to communicate the main idea and hierarchy of a layout. But, when it’s time to fill in the details for high-fidelity prototyping and testing, the ability to override the default text and styling, or even detach the object from its library and make more drastic changes, may become necessary. Having the flexibility to start quickly and then progressively customize lets me adapt rapidly as conditions change, and helps make moving between the design thinking steps quick and easy.

4. Help Your User-Designers Build Empathy For Their Users

When thinking about our users as designers, one key question is: who are they designing for? In many cases, they are designing solutions for themselves, and so their designer-selves naturally empathize with and understand the problems of their user-selves. In other cases, though, they are designing for another group of people altogether. In those situations, we can look for ways to help them think like designers and develop empathy for their users.

For educators, the users are the students. One way to help them center the needs of their audience when they design experiences is to follow the standards of Universal Design for Learning , equipping educators to provide instructional material with multiple means of engagement (i.e., use a variety of strategies to drive motivation for learning), multiple means of representation (i.e., accommodate students’ different learning styles and backgrounds), and multiple means of action and expression (i.e., support different ways for students to interact with instructional material and demonstrate learning). These guidelines open up approaches to learning and nudge users to remember that all of the ways their audience engages with practice and instruction must be supported.

Anything a tool can do to encourage design decisions that center accessibility is hugely helpful, in that it reminds us to consider those who face the most barriers to using our products. While some commonly-used UX tools do include functionality for creating alt-text for images, setting a tab order for keyboard navigation, and enabling responsive layouts for devices of various sizes, there is an opportunity for these tools to do much more. I would love to see built-in accessibility checks that would help us identify potential issues as early in the process as possible.

Hopefully, by applying the core principles of unlocking value, leveraging established patterns, understanding the individual’s need for flexibility , and facilitating empathy in our product design, we can help set our users up to adapt to unforeseen changes. By treating our users as designers in their own right, not only do we recognize and account for the complexity and unpredictability of their environment, we also start to see them as equals.

While those of us with the word “Designer” in our official job title do have a specific and necessary role, we are not gods, handing down solutions from on high, but fellow strugglers trying to navigate a complex, dynamic, stormy world. Nobody can control the weather , but we can make great galoshes, raincoats, and umbrellas.

Further Reading

  • If you’re interested in diving into the fascinating world of chaos theory, James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science , which I quoted in this article, is a wonderful place to start.
  • Jon Kolko wrote a great piece in 2015 on the emergence of design thinking in business, in which he describes its main principles and benefits. In a subsequent article from 2017, he considers the growing backlash as organizations have stumbled and taken shortcuts when attempting to put theory into practice, and what the lasting impact may be. An important takeaway here is that, in treating everyone as a designer, we run the risk of downplaying the importance of the professional Designer’s specific skill set. We should recognize that, while it is useful to think of teachers (or any of our users) as designers, the day-to-day tools, methods, and goals are entirely different.
  • In the article Making Sense in the Data Economy , Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro describe the emerging challenges and complexities of the designer’s role in moving from the manufacture of physical products to the big data frontier. With this change, the focus shifts from designing finished products (solutions) to maintaining complex and dynamic platforms, and the concept of “meta-design” — designing the systems in which others operate — emerges.
  • To keep exploring the ever-evolving strategies of designing for designers, search Smashing Magazine and your other favorite UX resources for ideas on interoperability, consistency, flexibility, and accessibility!

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1.1 Problem-Solving Approach to Design

Business communications tasks are often designed to solve a problem or improve a situation. Design thinking processes are often enlisted to get to the true heart of the problem. A clearly-articulated design process provides a clear, step-by-step plan for finding the best solution for your situation.

Take a moment to search the Internet for the term “design thinking process” and look at “images.” You will find many variations. Have a look at several of them and see if you can find a common pattern.

One commonality you will likely find in the images is this: the first step in designing any solution is to fully Discover the problem. Figure 1.1.1 shows a typical design thinking process, from discovery to innovation. Think about the kind of communication and interaction with customers that each step of this process might entail for a business.

the problem solving/design process

Design thinking encourages multiple perspectives and variations at the heart of the issue:  You think about solutions to customers problems until you have a clear empathetic understanding of the problem. This critical first stage of the design process requires investigation, beyond your initial assumptions. Creating this empathetic relationship to the problem allows for deeper understanding; however it cannot be done alone.

For our purposes, we will use Barry Hyman’s Problem Formulation model  [2] to clearly define a problem. Hyman’s Problem Formulation model consists of 4 elements:

  • Need Statement: recognizes and describes the need for a solution or improvement to an “unsatisfactory situation.”  It answers the questions, “what is wrong with the way things are currently? What is unsatisfactory about it? What negative effects does this situation cause?” You may need to do research and supply data to quantify the negative effects.
  • Goal Statement:   describes what the improved situation would look like once a solution has been implemented. The goal statement defines the scope of your search for a solution. At this point, do not describe your solution, only the goal that any proposed solution should achieve. The broader you make your goal, the more numerous and varied your solutions can be; a narrowly focused goal limits the number and variety of possible solutions.
  • Objectives :  define measurable, specific outcomes that any feasible solution should optimize (aspects you can use to “grade” the effectiveness of the solution). Objectives provide you with ways to quantifiably measure how well any solution will solve the problem; ideally, they will allow you to compare multiple solutions and figure out which one is most effective (which one gets the highest score on meeting the objectives?).
  • Constraints :  define the limits that any feasible solution must adhere to in order to be acceptable (pass/fail conditions, range limits, etc .). The key word here is must — constraints are the “go/no go” conditions that determine whether a solution is acceptable or not.  These often include budget and time limits, as well as legal, safety and other regulatory requirements.

Communication as Solution

This model can apply to a communications task as well as more physical design tasks. Imagine your communications task as something that will solve a problem or improve a situation for a target customer. Reflect back to the one-liner, what visual elements would be required to communicate the solution?

  • A potential client lacks sufficient information on whether the solution I have proposed to solve the client’s problem will be feasible, affordable, and effective.
  • Provide the customer with visuals showing you understand their needs and have a solution. Keep the information specific, appealing and in a readable format so it makes the business purpose an ideal solution for the problem.
  • Perform market research and a design critique to investigate what similar businesses are doing to meet the objectives.
  • How much time is your target audience willing to give you? How long should you make your reel, one-liner, or website header.
  • What format and style do they expect?
  • How much time do you have to create it?

Businesses looking to clarify their message and truly determine their unique selling position (USP) should start with communication and delving into the discovery stage with their customers. A simple example of this is a Net Promoter Survey used by businesses like Quickbooks to ask a simple question: “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend Quickbooks to your friends or colleagues?” Followed by an open-ended question asking the customer to define the chosen value. This type of question allows Quickbooks to perform both qualitative and quantitative analysis on their services.

When businesses ask for feedback from customers surprising information can be found. Perspectives and use-cases can be found on issues and problems the business didn’t know existed. Balsamiq, a website wireframe builder, harnesses the power of discover by empowering their customer service team . [3]

Essentially, businesses that communicate regularly with their current customers are more likely to be able to determine their target audience and ensure their products and services are meeting real needs.

  • Mvtestani , CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons ↵
  • B. Hyman, “Ch. 2: Problem formulation,” in Fundamentals of Engineering Design , Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002, pp. 40-54. ↵
  • [Smashing Community]. (2022, May 24). User Research in the Real Messy World with Billy and Jessica at The Meets For What? May 2022. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/418IsX2BN5k ↵

Maintaining an Online Presence by Camosun College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Understanding the Design Process to Solve Customer Problems


When we think about “design,” we often visualize the end product—the sleek smartphone, the stylish car, or the user-friendly website. However, the design process is much more than just the act of creating visually appealing items. It’s a systematic approach to problem-solving, one that is essential for solving customer problems effectively.

The creative activity of “designing” itself—is the part where we make things look great and function smoothly. But it is only one part of a much larger design process that is a structured journey that takes us from identifying a problem to developing a solution.

The Critical Role of Design in Addressing Customer Needs

At its core, design is the identification of a customer’s need and then working backward to create a solution that addresses it. It’s the vehicle that transforms problems into innovative, user-friendly, and effective products or services. The design process is a structured, methodical way to ensure that we consistently arrive at well-thought-out solutions. It prevents haphazard decision-making and fosters a user-centric approach.

What is the Design Process?

The design process is a comprehensive framework used by designers to create innovative solutions to various problems. It involves a sequence of steps, each playing a vital role in guiding the design journey. It’s a roadmap that helps us navigate a problem that is highly functional and aligned with user needs.

Design is Continuous

The dynamic ecosystem of design is one where feedback and insights from one stage feed into the next. It’s a cyclical process where you may need to revisit previous stages as you gather more information and insights.

The 7 Steps of the Design Process

The design process involves a series of interconnected steps that guide the designer from problem identification to the delivery of a user-focused solution. These seven steps provide a structured framework that ensures a systematic approach to design:

Design Process Template

Step 1: Problem Identification and Definition

In this initial phase, the objective is to precisely define the problem that the design aims to solve. It’s all about understanding the issue, its context, and its impact.

To define the problem, start by conducting thorough research. This involves gathering information, analyzing data, and talking to stakeholders. At this stage, it can be very helpful to use visual frameworks like mind maps to visualize the complexity of the issue and create a visual representation of the problem space.

  • Clearly articulate the problem statement.
  • Understand the context in which the problem exists.
  • Identify key stakeholders and their perspectives on the problem.
  • Document any existing solutions or attempts to solve the problem.

Step 2: User Research and Empathy

With the problem identified, the next step is to delve into user research to gain a deep understanding of the people you’re designing for.

User research involves activities like surveys, interviews, and observation. It’s crucial to understand the needs, behaviors, and pain points of your target audience. User personas, empathy maps, and user journey maps to visualize and document user insights. These insights can then be used to shape the product, design, and user experience. Additionally, they can also help identify potential opportunities for improvement and areas where the user might need additional support.

  • Define your target user groups.
  • Conduct research through interviews, surveys, and observations.
  • Develop user personas to represent typical users.
  • Create empathy maps to understand users' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Step 3: Ideation and Brainstorming

After understanding the problem and your users, it’s time to generate creative solutions.

Ideation involves brainstorming sessions where you and your team generate a wide range of ideas to address the problem. It’s essential to encourage free thinking and creativity during this stage. Techniques like mind mapping, brainstorming sessions, and worst possible idea sessions can help generate a wealth of possibilities.

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • Encourage a judgment-free environment to foster creativity.
  • Capture all ideas, no matter how wild or unconventional.
  • Ensure that team members have diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
  • Allow time for individual ideation before group brainstorming.

Step 4: Concept Development and Prototyping

Ideas generated in the previous step need to be shaped into tangible concepts that can be tested. Select the most promising ideas and develop them into concrete concepts. Creating prototypes is a common practice at this stage. Prototypes are simplified representations of the final product or feature. They can be in the form of wireframes, storyboards, or mockups. Prototyping helps to visually represent ideas and gather feedback.

  • Focus on the most feasible and impactful concepts.
  • Create prototypes that are quick and inexpensive.
  • Be open to iterative changes in response to feedback.
  • Ensure the prototype represents the user experience.

Step 5: User Testing and Feedback

With the initial design concepts in hand, it’s time to test these with real users and gather feedback. Engage users in testing sessions where they interact with the prototype or concept. Observe their behavior, ask for their input, and collect feedback. Usability testing, A/B testing, and feedback loops are mechanisms that help capture valuable user insights.

  • Select a diverse group of users who represent your target audience.
  • Establish clear testing goals and tasks for users.
  • Be open to criticism and feedback to improve the design.
  • Record observations and gather user feedback systematically.

Step 6: Iteration and Refinement

Feedback from users is invaluable in the design process. In this step, you take the feedback and make necessary adjustments. Review the feedback collected during user testing and use it to refine the design. Iterative design is about making incremental improvements based on user input. Design journals are a way to visually document changes and insights during the iterative design process.

  • Prioritize changes based on the significance of user feedback.
  • Maintain a record of design changes and their reasons.
  • Test the refined design with users to verify improvements.
  • Continuously refine the design based on user input.

Step 7: Implementation and Launch

After numerous cycles of feedback and refinement, the design is finally executed, prepared for launch, and delivered to customers. The implementation phase involves translating the design into a final product or service. This requires close collaboration with developers, engineers, or relevant teams. Creating product roadmaps and launch plans can be an effective way to visually communicate goals and milestones for the implementation and launch phase.

  • Collaborate closely with development and engineering teams.
  • Ensure that the final product aligns with the design vision.
  • Communicate the launch plan and milestones clearly.
  • Monitor user feedback post-launch for further improvements.

Roadmap Template

In practice, the design process is not always strictly linear. It often involves moving back and forth between these steps to refine the solution further. An agile approach to design allows for flexibility and adaptation based on real-world feedback and evolving project requirements.

The Importance of User-Focused Thinking Throughout the Process

User-centered design places the user’s needs and experiences at the core of the design process. Every decision made aligns with delivering value to the user. This human-centric approach ensures that designs resonate with real people and provide solutions to their specific problems.

This approach significantly reduces the risk of designing products that miss the mark and leads to enhanced user satisfaction, improved usability, increased engagement, efficient problem-solving, and a superior competitive advantage.

Tips for Enhancing the Effectiveness of the Design Process

1. Foster a Culture of Collaboration: Encourage collaboration and openness within your design team to ensure the free flow of ideas and feedback. This promotes a diverse perspective and enhances the quality of design solutions. 2. Incorporate Regular User Testing: Incorporate regular user testing throughout the design process to catch and address issues early. Early testing allows you to validate your design concepts with real users and make necessary adjustments promptly. 3. Document Design Decisions and Insights: Document design decisions and insights in a clear and organized manner. This documentation helps in knowledge sharing, making informed decisions, and facilitating continuous improvement. 4. Stay Informed About Design Tools and Technologies: Stay knowledgeable about the latest design tools and technologies. The design field is dynamic, and adopting new tools and methods can streamline your design process and make you more efficient. 5. Seek Feedback Continuously: Continuously seek feedback from colleagues and clients to ensure your design process remains effective and adaptable. Constructive criticism and suggestions from others can lead to valuable improvements.

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Chiraag George is a communication specialist here at Creately. He is a marketing junkie that is fascinated by how brands occupy consumer mind space. A lover of all things tech, he writes a lot about the intersection of technology, branding and culture at large.


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