What is Design Thinking?

By BrainStation November 20, 2019

All UX Designers are problem-solvers. It’s a role that puts a research-backed, creative spin on figuring out how to make life a little better and easier for customers using a company’s digital offerings.

With that goal in mind comes the need for a framework to actually make it happen. Enter UX design thinking (and design thinking courses at BrainStation).

As far back as the 1960s, various types of Designers — the more traditional kind working in advertising and marketing — started looking for a more scientific approach to their craft. The notion of “design thinking,” as a universal workflow for Designers to follow, started gaining traction.

Over the last decade, UX Designers have zeroed in on a process of their own — an approach to conceptualizing and building products that solve problems while creating positive experiences for end-users.


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As Social Futurist Dirk Knemeyer puts it, design thinking “caught fire.”

“Progressive and heady Designers joined together with the new breed of liberal arts problem solvers, particularly ethnographers and anthropologists, to help design thinking spread like wildfire,” he writes in Interactions magazine. 

“Whereas UX developed systematically in the bubble of Silicon Valley, design thinking rode the trend of innovation and Web 2.0 to make its way into boardroom conversations straightaway.”

So how exactly does design thinking work?

“From the UX side of design, you can create a tool that helps people live their lives to the fullest, with as little stress as possible,” writes Rebeca Costa for Justinmind’s blog. “The design thinking methodology is a means to that end.”

The process involves five phases — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test — which Designers move through, though often not in that exact order.

In short, it’s “a non-linear, iterative process which seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test,” explains the Interaction Design Foundation.

Costa says it’s all about understanding people and problems. And while you might move from one phase to another, it’s okay — and often a good thing — to go back and revisit earlier phases in the process to test new and better ideas.

“This back and forth is good because it encourages constant reiteration, which tends to help Designers spot issues and potential downfalls of their product while still in the development phase,” she adds.

So here’s what it looks like to go through the phases:

Phase 1: Empathize

This phase is all about researching your end-users’ needs through an empathetic lens. You want to put yourself in a client or customer’s shoes — looking at the problem at hand through their worldview, not your own. 

“Who are the future users of a digital product you are creating, what makes the target audience distinctive, what are their habits, what is their online behavior like, where are the pain-points, what are the users’ needs that have to be fulfilled? Answering these questions may help you make a good start,” recommends Nađa Božović a Community Manager for PopArt Studio.

Done right, this phase helps set the foundation for a product offering that hits the mark when it comes to what users are looking for.

Phase 2: Define

Once you’ve dug into what your target users need, it’s time to compile and analyze those observations to figure out the real problem you’re trying to solve. 

As Božović notes, this is the time to start thinking about the steps users need to make to successfully use your digital product, whether it’s a website, app, or online store.

“That could include mapping your users’ journey and defining all the problems they may stumble upon along the way of interacting with your site,” she adds.

Phase 3: Ideate

With lots of insight into user needs analyzed and ready to go, it’s a good time to start brainstorming concepts and challenging your own assumptions.

“At this point, you’ve done your research and have a clear understanding of who the product is for, what it’s meant to do for its users and why that matters to the users,” writes Costa. “Now, you and your team can start dreaming up ways that your design could check all the right boxes.”

And don’t be afraid to think outside the box: The sky’s the limit in this phase, so don’t shy away from innovating, atypical ideas. Get those creative juices flowing.

Phase 4: Prototype

This is the phase where you want to zero in on some solutions that could actually be feasible and produce the best result — then get building them.

That means sketching out ideas for, say, your app offering, and building digital wireframe prototypes.

“Prototyping is crucial because they make sure that there are no doubts over the main characteristics of the design,” Costa writes. 


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Phase 5: Test

This isn’t exactly the final phase since you’ll likely wind up jumping back and forth to earlier steps in the process — but it’s certainly a crucial, unavoidable one.

This stage is all about thoroughly testing your product in order to refine the design and ensure it really meets user needs and creates an ideal experience. You’re assessing the basics — does the website or app work properly, or does it have any bugs or glitches — and the deeper experiential aspect of how people feel while using it.

“If you are fortunate (and skillful) enough, you might create a flawless design out of the first try,” writes Božović. “More likely, though, there will be some errors to fix. And that is completely fine, as one of the core principles of design thinking process might also be – to tolerate failure.”

In other words, you’ll likely have to pick yourself up, dust your design off, and start the process all over again until you develop a product that hits the mark.

Find out more with BrainStation’s Design Thinking Courses