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How to Become a Product Manager

What Is Design Thinking?

Ready to start your career in Product? Find out more about BrainStation's Product Management Course

Design thinking is an iterative process that aims to understand users, challenge commonly held assumptions and conventions, and find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Design thinking not only provides a way to develop and define which measures need to be taken, it also ensures that nothing is overlooked as you move forward. Through repetition and by constantly questioning the effectiveness of your solutions with each cycle, the flaws that might be lurking in the conceptualization process can be brought forward, examined, and solved sequentially.

Within the development cycle, design thinking can be invaluable in providing a model to guide some of the most abstract and challenging steps. That is, it’s relatively straightforward to go through a to-do list and check items off. It can be much more difficult to plot a way forward when there’s no to-do list at all—or when you’re not even sure about the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve.

What is the Design Thinking Process?

Design thinking can be used to describe Designers’ approach to looking at practical problems and how they can be addressed through design. In the world of development, “design thinking” typically refers to a more structured methodology with clearly delineated steps.

This method is an important cornerstone of user experience design and usually includes five main steps.

What Are the Five Steps of the Design Process?

The design thinking process typically involves five phases that Designers move through, though not always in that exact order:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Based on the results of your testing, you may need to go back to the prototyping stage—or the ideation phase, or even the define phase. Design thinking isn’t about leading you from A to B. Each step reveals the errors or assumptions you made in the step before, so it’s more of a series of loops than a straight line, and requires repetition to work out all the kinks. It’s also worth mentioning that these steps don’t necessarily need to be completed in this order; the process may begin with a rough prototype, for example, and so benefit from testing even before the “define” stage is initiated.

The designs created during this process don’t always pan out—and that’s often the point. With each failure, a new set of lessons is gained, meaning you can repeat the process more than once until you get the results you want.

In fact, revisiting previous steps is fundamental to the process. So, rather than thinking of these five phases as a strict timeline, think of them as five different activities you can switch back and forth between as often as you need, depending on what the problem you’re trying to solve calls for.

Let’s take a closer look at the five steps of the design process:

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, and what are the users’ needs that have to be fulfilled? Answering these questions may help you make a good start,” says Nađa Božović a Community Manager for PopArt Studio. Done right, this early research phase helps set the foundation for a product offering that hits the mark when it comes to what users are looking for.

Define

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

As Božović notes, this is the time to start thinking about the steps users will need to make to successfully use your digital product, whether it’s a piece of software, 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.”

Ideate

With lots of insight into your users’ needs analyzed and your goal clearly defined, it’s 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 Rebecca Costa, a Useability Writer at Justinmind. “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 those boxes; the sky’s the limit in this phase, so don’t shy away from wildly innovative or atypical ideas. Worry about feasibility later—first, get those creative juices flowing.

Prototype

This is the phase where you’ll want to zero in on which of your solutions are actually feasible, and which will produce the best results. Then, get to building them. That means sketching out ideas for, say, your app offering, then building digital wireframe prototypes. Understand that, at this stage, feasibility is a concern, but the main focus is still on design features, not the underlying architecture or operability of them.

As Costa writes, “Prototyping is crucial because it ensures that you’ll have no doubts over the main characteristics of the design.”

Test

Trying your ideas out to see if they work isn’t the final phase of the cycle, unfortunately, since you’ll likely wind up jumping back to earlier steps in the process, but it’s certainly a crucial one. Testing isn’t just about proving it works; it’s also a way to gain new information that will help you further refine the design and ensure it really meets user needs the way it’s intended, and creates an ideal experience. You’re assessing both the basics (does this 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 on the first try,” Božović writes. “More likely, though, there will be some errors to fix. And that is completely fine, as one of the core principles of the design thinking process is 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.

And with that, the process moves onto its true final step: implementation. If everything has gone to plan, you should be able to begin building your product with a crystal clear sense of what it’s going to do and how, and exactly which benefits it will deliver to the people who use it.

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