Design thinking is a term for a specific approach to problem solving. Whether you’re a designer, a developer, a business owner, anyone really, I’m sure at one point or another you’ve applied design thinking to a problem you had.

Although the term implies that it is somehow unique to designers, it’s not. It’s just its name. In this post, we’ll go over what is design thinking and how to apply it to any problem you might be facing. By the end of this post, you’ll see why design thinking is not only important but practical.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking isn’t just problem solving. This concept heavily revolves around developing solutions, instead. Simply put, it’s a creative, human-centric process for creating and generating, both, meaningful, and useful solutions. It can be described as common sense approach.

This means that design thinking aims to use focus on people’s needs, wants and goals first to come up with a creative solution. Ideally, an innovative solution too. In business, design thinking is often associated with competitive advantages.

The design thinking process is made up of six different stages or parts, including empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, testing, and implementation. Let’s dive a little deeper into what each of those steps/phases is.

Step 1: empathize.

To empathize means to research the people you’re trying to help, the people you’re trying to solve the problem for. In your research, you will need to develop knowledge about what these people do, say, want, think or feel. That’s how you will be able to empathize with them.

This doesn’t need to be over the top elaborate research. You just need enough data points to be able to understand your audience’s perspective.

Step 2: define.

What you are aiming to define are the unmet needs of your users. Take a look at the research insights you’ve gathered and take a look at your problem at hand. Next, look carefully to figure out what isn’t overlapping here.

What areas can be improved upon within your problem, or scenario, to meet the expectations of the people you’re trying to help? You’re looking for missed opportunities to address.

Step 3: ideate.

The third step is where creativity starts to come in. Creativity in ideation can merely mean brainstorming and thinking outside the box. By creativity, I don’t mean to imply you need to be an artist or anything. You just have to let loose with possible solutions.

Don’t hold anything back, go as wild and crazy as possible here. Mix and match your ideas with your coworkers. Build on top of one another’ ideas. Go nuts. Have fun. Your job here is to come up as many creative ideas as possible.

Step 4: prototype.

The purpose of prototyping is to get feedback on which parts of your ideas work, which need improvement, and which won’t work for your problem at all. You’re going to have to create actual prototypes of some of your brainstormed solutions from the ideation step.

Quick and dirty prototyping is encouraged here because it will allow for smaller, and therefore shorter, feedback loops. However, and this is important, at this point the feedback is still internal. That’s because you want your idea to be as fleshed out as possible before testing it with the actual people you’re trying to solve albeit it users, customers, community members, etc.

Step 5: testing.

Once you have a few prototypes fleshed out, gates them with your target audience.

Go back to the people you’re trying to help and get their feedback. You want to know whether you’re proposed solution is meeting their needs, wants and goals. Adapt your prototype based on their feedback too to get is as perfect as possible.

Step 6: implement.

Here we are with the final step of design thinking. Once you’re satisfied with the quality of your solution, make it happen and make it real.

Whether you’re designing a landing page or a pet care waiting room, the time will eventually come where you’ll have to implement your idea into reality. You’ll need to make sure that your solution is implemented for its intended audience, you know, the people you’re trying to help as I keep saying.

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, this is one of the most forgotten steps. After you’ve spent so much time and effort into figuring out a great solution, you will need to put time and effort into making it happen. So do. It might take time, as this isn’t a quick and dirty prototype anymore.

And that’s okay. By far, execution is the more important aspect here. Don’t forget that anything, including design thinking, is useless if the solution isn’t actualized.

Design thinking is about people

Design thinking is not a new term. It just so happened to gained buzz over the last few years. Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Muir, and Milton Glaser have been using design thinking in the early 1900s. I mention this because design thinking is about people. The I ♥ NY logo was made with people in mind. The Eames chairs and Muir’s dresses were too made with people in mind. That’s why we still love and buy their products today.

Design thinking can be summarized into three parts, people, bring storming and iteration. Because when we focus on problems that real people have, and carefree to come up with as wild ideas as we want to, we will come up with something impressive. We can even ensure that we come up with something innovative if we make sure to iterate enough on our proposed solutions, especially with the people we do want to help.

If you’re still not convinced, remember that the very first step is about people you’re trying to help. Design thinking makes you focus on real people.

On Derek, a 17-year-old high school senior who needs help writing a resume for his college application. Or on Meredith, a 32-year-old single mother of three who needs a reliable cleaning service.

It’s much easier to empathize, innovate and create something amazing with real people in mind instead of some made up, face-less personas. Don’t you agree?

What’s the advantage of design thinking?

Design thinking is important for Many reasons. For starters, it focuses on real people who have actual problems and needs. It helps you focus on solving the hit problems instead of imaginary or assumed ones. The ideation step allows you and your team freedom in coming up with solutions, right? Yes, it does. This means, that design thinking also encourages innovation whether on a large or small scale.

Another reason to appreciate design thinking is its flexibility. No matter the problem, design thinking can help you. Design thinking can help with something small like a new landing page. But, it can help with something big like eliminating hunger among school children.

Don’t forget that design thinking can be applied to anything. That’s why I’ve been trying to avoid industry-specific terms like users or giving specific examples. That’s because I want anyone to find design thinking applicable to them whether you’re a developer, a lawyer, an interior designer and so on.

What design thinking is not

Natasha Jen did a great talk about design thinking at the 2017 99U Conference. Her talk was titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit.” I want to briefly touch upon some of her points in this talk. I don’t want to glorify design thinking because, as Natasha also believes, sometimes it’s just common sense.

For example, GE produced an MRI machine for children where they painted the MRI and the room all sort of cartoons for the kids. They wanted to make the MRI experience less scary and less intimidating for children. Neither Natasha nor I am hating on GE, but this is common sense.

Solutions like the GE’s MRI is intuition. The reason I say this is because you don’t need design thinking for something so simple and obvious. Now, something like a foot activated car doors, now that’s something that took a lot more thought into creating. Check out Natasha’s talk. It’s pretty great. She goes into these points a lot more in-depth herself.


As you can see, design thinking is mainly a problem solving approach that anyone can use for any problem. It can help you come up with innovative, competitive advantages.

It can help you make the best possible mobile game. It’s such a flexible process. Give it a try with the next problem that comes your way.

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