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What is Design Thinking and Why Does it Work?

Design thinking aims to identify issues through a better understanding of human needs to reframe problems in ways that are easier to understand. The process is user-centred and helps designers better understand their clients' needs and how to approach the task.

The purpose of design thinking is to figure out who you are designing for, determine what their needs are and help them find a potential solution to their problem. This can be done using quantitative and qualitative market research methods for a more holistic view of the problem.

This post aims to address the five main steps of design thinking, how it works and provide you with the resources necessary to develop your design thinking ability further.

5 Stages of Design Thinking

Design thinking can be boiled down to 5 main steps: empathising, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing. This is a non-linear process, so any step can be performed at any stage.

Step 1: Empathise

Researching users needs

The first step of design thinking is empathy. During this stage, the design team will approach the problem from a customer or client's point of view to better understand the issue. The purpose of this stage is to allow designers to set aside assumptions to gain fundamental insights into the customers they are designing for.

To build this awareness, it's important to ask the correct questions and understand the best way to approach the task. What, how and why questions backed by market research can be used to develop a deeper understanding of how users interact with products/services and are helpful during this step of the design thinking process.

Some examples of Why, how and why questions include:

  • What actions does your target audience perform?

  • How do they perform them?

  • Why do they perform them?

Once a basic understanding has been reached, this framework can be used again to gain deeper insights. For example, for the above questions, if you had determined:

  • Suzy (ideal customer) goes to a coffee shop every morning

  • She drives to the location and purchases a coffee

  • She enjoys the caffeine fix

You could develop a deeper analysis by asking:

  • What coffee does she order?

  • How does she purchase her coffee?

  • Why did she choose this particular coffee shop?

What, how, why questions are a great approach to better understand what drives your ideal customers behaviour and will assist throughout the design process. Backing up points with customer data will assist the design team in making more informed decisions to better suit customer needs.

The Main Aim:

Develop a deep understanding of the product's users, their motivations, needs and problems that they face.

Step 2: Define

Organising Information

The Define step is all about creating a problem statement based on the information gathered during the emphasise stage. This step is important for guiding the design process for all future steps and helps define a clear goal that the entire design team can work towards.

When creating a problem statement, ensure that it is human centred and is pitched from the position of the users. Additionally, a good product statement is broad enough for creativity, but specific enough to solve the problem.

For example:

Instead of:

“We have created a bluetooth keychain as an additional add-on for our existing keychain products”


“Sometimes, we all lose our keys, but it is important that we can locate them quickly”.

The Main Aim:

Develop a problem statement to aid the design process

Step 3: Ideate

Challenge Assumptions, Design Solutions

During this phase of the design thinking process, designers are finally ready to start developing the product. Now that the design team understands the product's target users, assumptions can be put aside for non-biased design. This stage aims to attack design, look at it from multiple perspectives and develop innovative solutions to the problem statement.

The design team should utilise brainstorming techniques and tools to develop an extensive list of ideas which can then be refined through a screening process.

The Main Aim:

Brainstorm how to solve the issue outlined in the problem statement.

Step 4: Prototype

Create the Solution

In this stage, the team will determine the best possible solution to the problem outlined. Why is prototyping so important? Prototyping within the team will help to identify which ideas best solve user needs. Designs can be critically analysed and then be accepted, rejected or adjusted based on how well it performs.

Prototypes come in various shapes and sizes and can range from simple drawings on paper to advanced 3d modelled components. Some examples of prototyping include:

  • Sketches

  • Paper Prototypes

  • Lego Prototypes

  • 3D Modelling

  • 3D Printing

  • CNC Machining

  • + More

The Main Aim:

Test and design the solutions outlined during ideation.

Step 5: Test

Does it Work?

Lastly, designers and engineers test the design to see how well it aligns with the problem statement, how well it works, and any challenges or issues the product may have. Design thinking is an iterative process, meaning that the results will often be used to redefine problems for future improvements.

Throughout the testing process, it is typical for the design team to loop back to previous steps to make changes, alterations and upgrades. The testing phase is all about understanding users and how they interact with your design, so future designs and alterations can be made.

The Main Aim:

Develop a deep understanding of the product and the users as a whole.

Why Design Thinking works

Helps to Identify Better Solutions

As a user-centred design method, design thinking allows designers to identify real-world problems and better understand the psychology and thoughts of who they are designing for. This deeper level of understanding will enable designers to ask more insightful questions to reduce time spent being "hung up" on the issue and provide higher quality results.

Customers find it hard to understand an issue they do not have yet. Using customer data can assist in providing information to identify future pain points that customers may have and address them through smart design practices.

Additionally, diverse voices throughout the design process, either within the team or throughout the customer data, will allow designers to think outside of the box for more creative designs.

Key Benefits:

  • Helps to create Innovative Solutions to problems

  • Expands designers knowledge

  • Helps to Identify new problems

  • Customer needs focused

  • Helps to take on complex problems

Resources to assist in design thinking

Customer Journey Maps:

Mapping out the customer journey can assist the design team in understanding the touchpoints each person goes through while interacting with a product or service. This is useful in discovering points where a product or service lacks so that new innovative solutions can be created.

Some helpful resources for customer journey mapping for free include:


Whether you are working independently or as part of a team, brainstorming is always beneficial to practice during the design process. Brainstorming allows your team to get creative when answering problems and to cover and discuss underlying potential issues that may affect the designed product.

There are loads of brainstorming tools on the internet where you can work collaboratively with remote team members. Some of these tools include:

Empathy Mapping:

Empathy mapping is a powerful tool that helps to build personal and group emotional intelligence. The design of an empathy map captures the target audience's thoughts, feelings, motivations, desires and needs. The design team can use this information during the design process to better attack the problem and understand how the target audience will respond to the new device.

Empathy mapping should be based on relevant customer data to develop offerings more in tune with customer expectations. Some tools that are useful for empathy mapping include:

Other Resources:

Ideou is an excellent platform for understanding design learning, with lots of design thinking activities, case studies and frameworks to help you through the process.

Additionally, the below video gives a basic rundown of all points discussed above.


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