What is Design Thinking?

What is design thinkingThere are a lot of big, hairy problems out there in the world, and for folks in business, it’s often your job to figure out a solution. But is your process for coming up with this solution an effective one? Do you even have a process?

If you’re like many of us, you don’t actually have a set procedure for figuring out solutions to difficult problems. For the most part, we just sit down with some peers and try to come up with a few ideas—perhaps by having a brainstorming session. Eventually, we try to get to some sort of consensus and then move forward, often with little regard for previous biases that might be guiding us.

When you think about this you can see how flawed and myopic problem solving can be when approached this way. To effectively come up with viable solutions we could all benefit from a defined process.This is exactly the reason that design thinking has really come to the forefront over the past few years.

While you can trace the roots of the term and the reasoning behind it to earlier books and papers—many revolving around architecture and urban planning—it was Stanford’s Design Institute and world renowned design agency IDEO (co-founded by a Stanford professor) that popularized design thinking. Much of the focus was around designing for a product (IDEO famously created the first ever mouse for Apple computers), however, the process can be used to solve other business problems as well.

Due to its popularity, the design thinking process has been picked up and modified by a number of firms and thus comes in a variety of flavors. For this post, we’ll take a look at the steps outlined by Stanford’s prestigious D.School.


Developing empathy for the end-user (design lingo for the customer) is the first step of the process. You want to get to know the needs and motivations of the people who would be using your solution. Getting to the emotional core of the issue can do wonders for homing in on the most important issues. With regard to a business problem (instead of a product problem) think about who will be benefiting from your solution. Is it something HR related? Then your employees are your end-user. Talk to as many of your end-users as you can and really try to put yourself in their shoes, addressing their individual struggles.


Now it’s time to dig into your findings from the previous step. Your goal is to distil what you learned through talking to your end-users into a definite point of view. To help guide your thinking, look for patterns. It works best to express the present problem in a short, simple, and straightforward fashion. Think in terms of a snappy sentence, not a lengthy paragraph.


Once you’ve defined the problem at hand, it’s time to generate ideas to fix it. This is not a time to be hemmed in, but rather let your imagination go wild. During this brainstorming session go as wide as possible, with no thought of filtering ideas. Ideas will be later reviewed to fuel the prototyping stage. The hope is to get beyond what would be considered standard solutions and instead find other rich areas for exploration. At the end of this process, your team should carefully select three ideas to prototype. Choosing the three items to move forward should come after creating three voting criteria for the finalists. Stanford suggests “the most likely to delight,” “the rational choice,” and “the most unexpected” as example criteria, though it’s ultimately up to the team. You want to have some diversity in the solutions you’re prototyping, hence the differing criteria.


Now it’s time to start building. In this phase, you will start creating simple prototypes of your ideas to iterate on. These should be quick and dirty prototypes—think arts and crafts time. Even storyboards can work, though the more experiential you can make them, the better. Imagine a “device” cut out of cardboard with some symbols on it that your end-user can hold, or a series of post-its on a whiteboard that you move around to different spots depending on an interaction. Try repurposing some items around the office as proxies. Think in terms of things that people can role-play with, and during the process of interacting with the prototypes you want to be particularly aware of emotions that come up for users. Build quickly and try not to get overly elaborate or emotionally involved in a particular solution. The idea is to be iterative and improve after feedback. Additionally, always keep the end-user at the forefront of your mind. Are you truly putting yourself in their shoes?


This is less a next step, and more a process that happens in tandem with prototyping. You want to be regularly soliciting feedback from end-users when they use your prototypes. This testing period will inform your next versions of prototypes—your tweaks, improvements, and refinements. Proper testing requires setting the stage to create more of an experience for your end-users—be careful not to over explain things as an end user’s interpretation of the prototype is quite valuable. Also, you want your end-users to compare your different prototypes as this often brings to light missing elements and potential opportunities.

The whole design thinking process is something that should happen in cycles—and it’s important to not be afraid of failure. This just means starting the process over again until you get something that really resonates with your end-user and successfully addresses their problem. Occasionally you’ll get the solution wrong, but sometimes you’ll find that the problem isn’t framed properly. Either way, it’s helpful information that will get you closer to a successful breakthrough—something that design thinking is uncannily good at producing.

Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.

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One comment on “What is Design Thinking?
  1. Sally Park says:

    Design thinking around creating your best life is a an interesting idea. Towards that end, I highly recommend the book “Designing your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (also of the Stanfrod d. School).

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