The Design Thinking Process


The Design Thinking Process

July 7, 2021


Design thinking has become essential when developing innovative ideas.  This structured process of innovation has its roots in lessons learned from successful designers. Unfortunately, when most people think about innovation, they attribute their experience to the inventor, while it may be more accurate, a lot of the time, to attribute the pleasant experience to the designer. 

Inventor vs. Designer

There is a key difference between an inventor and a designer. While an inventor creates innovative products and services, a designer figures out how the end-user will interact with it and what design would make it most engaging. 

Curious to learn more about what design thinking is? Check out our article on it.

For example, while an inventor created dental floss, a designer created the holster that the dental floss came in1. Design thinking aims to develop a stronger connection between form and function and follows a process that, while similar to other product development processes, places a large emphasis on empathizing with the end-user. As a result, the design thinking process has five key phases: 

The Five Steps of the Design Thinking Process

1.   Empathize – conduct research to understand who your end users are.

2.   Define – clearly outline your end-users needs, goals, pain points, and takeaways from your research.

3.   Ideate – Challenge your predisposed hypotheses and begin coming up with innovative solutions that inherently speak to your end-users.

4.   Prototype – Begin developing functional solutions that create the desired look and feel your end users would want.

5.   Test– See whether your prototypes accurately speak to your end-users needs by testing them on potential target markets.

Step 1 – Empathize

The sole purpose of this step is to wear the end-user’s shoes and truly understand what problems they face. In the best-case scenario, this step is done by conducting primary research to ensure that all variables are controlled (or at least to the best of your ability), but secondary research is also helpful as long as the environment in which the research is performed is consistent across all research. When trying to empathize with the end-user, step back and ideate what strategy will help you feel what the end-user goes through. If you can understand the peak emotional moments in the user’s journey, you can identify where to focus your efforts in improving a user journey. This is can be done using the Peak-End Rule.

The Peak-End Rule

Have you ever gone to a restaurant that had good food but terrible service? It is likely that the terrible service defined your overall experience as negative. This is an example of the Peak-End Rule, which is a cognitive shortcut that defines an overall experience by its peak emotional moments as well as by the start or end of the experience. When empathizing with the end-user, it is crucial to identify those peak moments within the user journey and find ways to amplify the positive moments rather than focusing all efforts on trying to correct the negative ones. This is because when you have a phenomenal positive peak moment, your brain will overpower the smaller negative experiences and will likely remember the experience as positive overall. For more context regarding these peak moments, refer to our article: Getting a Return on Your Journey Mapping Project.

The importance of accurately empathizing with the end-user

By effectively empathizing with the end-user, the rest of your design thinking journey will be emotionally connected to the audience you are trying to speak to. The empathize phase is what differentiates design thinking from regular practices. That being said, it is fundamentally important to not limit your empathy to content specifically surrounding the scope of your project. Doing so will limit your ability to speak to your end-user on a comprehensive level.

Step 2: Define

Now that you have conducted your primary research, it is time to start developing your scope by defining your problem statements. While it may seem trivial, problem statements comprehensively outline the user’s pain points that you wish to address. To humanize these pain points, it is incredibly helpful to develop some key personas to which your solution will aim to speak to. These personas’ main goals are to help design thinkers determine the grouped needs of specific user segmentations and their behavioral tendencies in areas that are relevant to the project scope. The Interactive Design Foundation does a great job breaking down the different types of personas that designers and design thinkers use to achieve these results. Check out their article for a more detailed look at personas. By understanding these key aspects of your end-user, you can apply some of the key insights you gained from the empathy phase into your processes.

Note: It is crucial to not begin developing solutions until Step 3. While it is human nature to start thinking about how you can solve the problems that become evident through your thorough research, doing so will start creating mental barriers which can negatively impact the innovative potential your solution may have.

Step 3: Ideate

This phase is where the fun begins. With all the concrete preliminary work you have done, you have all the information you need to start thinking about solutions that can speak to the end-user. What is crucial to remember in this step is that the end user’s needs are at the forefront of the ideas. When you are implementing a solution, step back and ask, “How will this bring value for the end-user?” One strategy to ensure that every idea is focused on the end-user is the “How Might We” framework. This strategy asks WHY first and then approaches the HOW. I’d strongly recommend reading Atomic Object’s article regarding the “How Might We” framework as it goes in-depth regarding this strategy.

Step 4: Prototype

Now that you have some ideas, it is time to test them out with a prototype. What makes prototyping effective is the ability to make changes to them quickly and inexpensively pivot if necessary. Keep in mind, terms such as “quickly” and “inexpensive” are subjective to the individual but the sole purpose of this phase is to identify how realistic your ideas are. Imagine you are prototyping a vehicle. If you were to begin your prototyping journey by building your conceptual car right away, you will likely realize some fatal flaws in your ideas (as most do with their first prototypes) and would have spent thousands of dollars and human resources to realize this. This is where rapid prototyping has gained popularity in the design thinking space. By following the cycle of “Prototype – Review – Refine – Iterate – Prototype…”, you can ensure that your prototyping is feasible to continuously reiterate upon and refine over numerous iterations. Remember, this is not the final product, this is making sure all the pieces fit together harmoniously.

Step 5: Test

Once you are satisfied with your prototype, it is now time to bring it to a set of viable end users. The purpose of this phase is to receive feedback and iterate on your idea to better meet the end-user’s needs. The prototype can be of higher fidelity at this stage as iterations should be minor changes, but there should always be the capacity to pivot. After you have implemented the necessary rounds of feedback during this phase, you are ready to go to market!


The design thinking process is the new way to creatively design products and services that truly speak to the end user’s needs. While the foundations of design thinking are based on product and service creation, the purpose of these practices is to create a positive experience for the end-user and, therefore, can be used in many different facets such as process optimization and analyzing data. With a growing interest in personalized experiences, design thinking can make sure you are tailoring your experience specifically to the end-user in a holistic manner.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

  1. gearyinteractive. “The Deep Dive.” YouTube Video. YouTube, January 26, 2011.


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