Design Thinking

A Creative Strategy For Innovation

Design Thinking - A Creative Strategy For Innovation

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Use design thinking to bring designers and end users together.

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. It's not. Design is how it works.– Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple

Design thinking is a user-centered approach to creating, testing and producing solutions that are innovative, elegant and – if you get it right – commercially successful. It views both design and the needs of the end user as intrinsic parts of a development process.

It emphasizes the importance of continuous research and evaluation, and seeks input into a project from various individuals, areas or teams within your business as a product, process or service takes shape.

In fact, with its emphasis upon ongoing assessment, the technique may be particularly useful for solving what design theorist Horst W. J. Rittel described as "wicked problems" – those whose underlying issues and solutions are unclear.

How Design Thinking Works

Various design thinking models have been devised (by IDEO, IBM and the U.K.'s Design Council, for example) but they all share the same basic stages: Understand, Explore and Materialize (also known as Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation). These stages can be divided into the six steps shown in the diagram, below:

Design Thinking Diagram

This diagram is adapted from "Design Thinking 101" by the Nielsen Norman Group.

1. Empathize. Do your research. Meet with customers and stakeholders to discover their motivations and understand what they want from a product or service. In particular, pay close attention to emotional factors: how does a particular idea make people feel? In his influential article, "Design Thinking," Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, cites the example of a successful new range of bicycles inspired not by competitive cycling but by cyclists' happy memories of riding bikes as children.

2. Define. Identify the problem that you want to solve. Which needs or desires are being poorly met, or not being met at all? Consider your users' journey: perhaps your customers' behaviors or expectations are changing, but your product has not yet caught up. Are new technologies available that could help to improve the experience of using your service or buying your product?

3. Ideate. Hold brainstorming sessions to generate new ideas, and involve members of different teams to provide different perspectives. They may see new connections between ideas and be willing to question established ways of thinking. Multiple viewpoints lead to more ideas and a richer discussion.

When you've generated enough ideas, you may want to organize and filter them with an Affinity Diagram, or by using the Six Thinking Hats process. Then ask your own team to select (or vote for) two or three that will be taken through to the Prototyping stage. Remember to select the ideas that best address the problem you identified in the Define stage.


Reverse Brainstorming, Crawford's Slip Writing Method, and the Charette Procedure are tools that can help you to brainstorm more effectively in certain situations.

4. Prototype. Once you have identified a potential solution, begin the prototyping phase. Depending on your time and budget, the prototype can be a product, a model, a storyboard, or a sketch. Developing a prototype this early in the process is not about seeking perfection. It's all about learning as much as you can, as quickly as you can. It can be quite basic, and only needs to demonstrate that your idea is viable.

5. Test. Your goal here is to find out what works and what doesn't. So, don't be afraid of failure. Study how your users respond to your prototype: does it meet the needs that you identified in the Define stage? Do they enjoy using it? Does it make them feel good?

The design thinking process is iterative, and every "bump in the road" contributes to your learning. Try to remain optimistic if your users highlight issues or make criticisms, and repeat the Prototyping and Testing stages until you have a product or service that solves your users' problem in a way that they like.

6. Implement. All the hard work that you've done so far will count for nothing if you can't turn your ideas into reality, and address the needs that you have identified. Evaluate your new product's performance and, if it proves unsuccessful, go back to the very beginning and start again.

Be honest about your design's ability to meet the brief's requirements. You may have to start again with a blank page if it can't, but this is an important part of the design thinking process.

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These steps are not necessarily linear, and you may need to return to a previous stage a number of times before you reach what Stanford professor Garth Saloner has called the "a-ha moment" – the sudden flash of inspiration that shows you a clear path forward.


For further information on developing new products, read our article on The Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop. For a methodical approach to improving existing products, try the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) process.


The evolution of design thinking began in 1969, with the publication of social scientist Herbert A. Simon's "The Sciences of the Artificial," which outlined a three-stage process for decision making: intelligence gathering (identifying a problem); design (researching and developing ways to solve the problem); and choice (analyzing and choosing one of the options available).

Headings were reproduced from "The Sciences of the Artificial, Simon's Three Strategies of Rational Decision Making" by Herbert A. Simon. Third edition. © 1996 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by permission of MIT Press.

Key Points

Design thinking puts end users' needs and desires at the center of your process for creating new products or services. The innovative ideas created in this way can give your company a competitive advantage.

The design thinking process has the following six steps:

  1. Do appropriate research with the end user, focusing on emotional as well as practical and technical factors.
  2. Identify and define the users' problem that you want to solve.
  3. Hold brainstorming sessions that involve members of different teams.
  4. Develop prototypes, which could be a model, a sketch or a storyboard.
  5. Test, refine and repeat the process from the beginning if necessary.
  6. Implement your idea and take it to market with a viable business strategy.


How well do you understand design thinking? Take our quick test to find out.



  1. It's best to have a clear idea of the kind of new product or service that you want to provide before you start conducting research interviews with your users. True or false?
  2. Producing several prototypes is an integral part of the design thinking process. True or false?
  3. Discarding technically difficult ideas is the best way to speed up a design thinking project. True or false?
  4. It doesn't matter if all your ideas fall flat in the testing stage. True or false?
  5. "Creative" thinkers are best placed to lead a design thinking process within your organization. True or false?


  1. False. The aim of interviews is to identify the problems experienced by your users, which you can then try to solve with innovative thinking. Avoid going into meetings with a preconceived idea of what you want to offer.
  2. True. Producing prototypes should be a quick, cheap and simple way to test whether an idea works. At this stage you are designing the solution to a problem, not a polished finished product.
  3. False. An exciting idea that is not technologically feasible is still an exciting idea, even though it may take a little longer to fully develop. Further research may reveal a new way to solve the same problem in a more practicable way.
  4. True. Now you know what definitely doesn't work, you will be in a stronger position when you return to the ideation stage.
  5. Trick question! Design thinking is human-centered and requires multiple perspectives to produce innovative ideas. Every user is a "creative" if he or she has an experience to share or a story to tell.