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  • Aaron Hogan

Understanding the Design Thinking Mindset

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

What is Design Thinking?

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.” - French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss

Design Thinking has steadily become the “gold standard” design process across all industries - but what is it?

Wikipedia describes Design Thinking as:

“...[the] strategic and practical processes by which design concepts are developed.”

This ambiguous description may leave you with more questions than answers.

Like most design processes, it aims to provide a repeatable set of steps for problem-solving. However, upon closer look, this system is really about a shift in mindset that focuses on the consumer as the primary decision-maker and favoring data over opinion.

We describe Design Thinking as a human-centric, problem-solving approach to design be it software, fashion, marketing campaigns, website content, or any of your client’s needs. Its basic premise is to put yourself in your users’ shoes: the person using the thing you make tells you what they want, and therefore what you should create.

Main Advantages

· Better understanding of the unmet needs of your customers, clients, students, users, etc.

· Reducing risk in launching new products and services

· Learning and iterating faster

· Being consistently creative without relying solely on inspiration

Design Thinking is not about working the “right” or “wrong” way, and the process should conform to you rather than the other way around. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the structure is a mere guideline meant to be a flexible reference point for planning and executing the Design Thinking mindset. It is a noteworthy stand-out because it is both repeatable and flexible enough to be widely beneficial for all types of companies.

The Design Thinking mindset is about embracing simple mindset shifts and tackling problems from a new direction:

1. Users and their needs come first at the center of business

2. Collaboration with all team members and the client (or market) is encouraged at all steps

3. Solutions should be challenged and reframed at every iteration

4. There is more than one solution to any given problem

5. Testing early and often validates all potential solutions equally

Design Thinking Process Overview

Let’s take a look at the current version of the Design Thinking process.

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The Design Thinking workflow is broken down into 5 standard and repeatable steps, offering a roadmap to any design process:

1. Empathize - research, observe, understand and create a point of view

2. Define - describe the problem and explore the human context

3. Ideate - brainstorm ideas good and bad

4. Prototype - start creating fast, cheap mockups and test them for problems

5. Test - implement the protype and generate real user data

6. Implement - release the product or idea, then rinse and repeat

You should always follow the basic steps but feel comfortable customizing the details of the process to fit your project, business, work style, or client (market) needs.

You may be thinking, “This is just another in a long list of similar processes,” or more generally that design processes are good in theory but difficult in practice. While it is arguably a distilled “greatest hit” of the past centuries’ design philosophy, this modern system offers the best balance of broad utility and familiarity - high marks for any tool.

How to Put Design Thinking to Use

The following steps are recommended and presented in logical order but may each be modified to better suit your organization. Once you have sufficient information for each step, proceed to the next. At the end of the process, repeat to validate or improve your solution when needed. When you struggle to advance or hit difficulties, return to the appropriate previous steps, and reevaluate your design (idea, concept or product).

1. Empathize (Research)

While the design process is never linear, it should always begin with empathy. All team members must have a firm understanding of the live person or persona who will be using the thing you’re trying to create. This first step asks you to focus on various types of research to better understand the motivations and experiences of your clients, customers, and users.

Additionally, consult subject matter experts and immerse yourself in your consumer’s environment to gain their point of view. Do not ignore the experience of others in your field, as understanding existing solutions to similar problems can help you to avoid the mistakes of the past.

2. Define (Written requirements for problems or solutions)

Now having an appropriate perspective on behavior and motivation, you can begin to describe their problem(s) that you intend to solve by focusing on what the user needs. This step requires you to trust that if you focus first on your consumers’ needs, the business needs will be met in kind.

Always use a human-centric approach to defining the problem(s), rather than company-centric thinking.

· Company-centric thinking: "We need to increase sales by X%."

· Human-centric thinking: "Our customers need the ability to X%"

Describe your customers’ problem as simply as possible in written words and collaborate with your team to reach a consensus on the problem(s) you intend to solve. Your written descriptions will be referenced in future steps, so make sure they are easily accessible by your team.

If you struggle to concisely define the problem, consider returning to step 1 to gain more insight into your consumer.

3. Ideate (Solution Concepts)

Ideating is the fun part, where you have a good enough understanding of your users and an agreed problem defined to start thinking of solutions. Have brainstorm sessions and collaborate to document various possible solution designs, comparing designs against the requirements set forth by your problem definition.

At this step, a new design or idea is considered to be the “first iteration”, or version of a solution. One particular design may leave and return to this step several times, each trip producing another iteration. Reject solution iterations that do not meet your requirements and keep the best iterations for use in the next step.

4. Prototype (Small, fast mockups of concepts)

Now that you have documented one or more viable solutions to the problem, you will want to try these out in the real world as quickly as possible. Rather than build fully functional versions of solutions, you will instead make scrappy prototypes of each iteration.

Do not fall in love with these mockups and create them at little-to-no cost when possible, as they are bound to change. To this end, this mockup can be as simple as a slide deck, paper drawings, or another tangible presentation. Use this as an early-stage and internal gut check for your solutions, designing new iterations before testing when needed.

Remember, your prototype doesn’t need to perform any function - it only needs to simulate or imitate the conditions rapidly and well enough to gather feedback.

5. Test (Concept Validation)

Test your solutions with varied methods, early and often. Set clear testing goals and criteria. Put the prototype of each iteration into the hands of people who best represent your customer. Record their reactions, difficulties, success rates, etc., and report these back to your team. Analyze the test results with an objective eye and do not be afraid to pivot, return to ideation, or reassess the problem.

Testing is not predictable, so keep an open mind and trust your user.

So, what’s next?

After Testing

So, you’ve gone through the Design Thinking process, got your hands dirty making some prototypes, and even successfully recorded some test data - what’s next?

1. Validate your test data. Ensure that the goals and criteria of your testing are to your standards and expectations.

2. Use your test data to validate or invalidate your solution(s).

3. Repeat the whole or necessary parts of the process, producing a new iteration that better meets the consumers’ needs, and test again until validated.

Making it Real

With a validated solution in hand, you’re ready to get to the real work of producing your product or service. For some, this phase may include software development, more traditional design, manufacturing, marketing, etc.

However, do not abandon the Design Thinking process. Part of the beauty of this system is that it is applicable at all stages of business. Have a new feature idea? Have poor user feedback? Follow these five steps from the top - they are as valuable now as when you designed your first iteration.

Follow up

Have your own ideas on Design Thinking, or design processes in general? Did we get something wrong, or a miss valuable point? Let us know below or via email at

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