Design Thinking: Process, Examples, & Models

The design thinking process is tremendously helpful for any team attempting to problem solve or provide a better product to their end users. The name implies it is a technique used only by designers. However, design thinking has been used in the fields of art, science, business music, education and more to produce great innovation. Whether you’re a small business owner, a consultant working with a large team or looking to enter the consulting field, design thinking is an effective option to more traditional problem-solving techniques. It is a highly creative process that gives you freedom to explore a broad array of solutions to develop something truly groundbreaking.

At the heart of design thinking is a belief that the end user should be the driving force behind decision making. This is opposed to not simply looking at the numbers. It’s a more human-centric approach than traditional problem-solving techniques focused on achieving a certain end goal. In short, design thinking prizes the end user over a predetermined end goal. This leads to iterative problem-solving also referred to as the design thinking process.

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What is Design Thinking?

The question now is, “What is design thinking”? Design thinking is an iterative, non-linear process that seeks to understand the user of a product or service, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems. The alternative strategies developed from this method are inventive in nature because the process pushes team members to consider what might not be instantly apparent.

Another key aspect of design thinking is that users are at the heart of the process. This, in and of itself, is really more of an organizational mindset shift.

The design thinking steps lead your team to question everything. Question the problem, the assumptions and the implications of solutions. The more questions you ask, the more well defined your problem will become and your solutions should be more effective and elegant. This is why the design thinking process is iterative and non-linear. What you discover in the testing phase, for instance, could send you back a couple steps to the conceptual phase. Design thinking is especially helpful for problems that aren’t well defined. It reframes the problem in human-centric ways and involves developing a wealth of ideas and potential solutions, then actively engaging in prototyping and testing those solutions. It also involves ongoing experimentation…sketching, testing and trying out new concepts.

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Design Thinking Process

There are different approaches to design thinking. The following design thinking process is taught by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as As one of the forerunners in the space,’s process boils down to 5 design thinking steps:

  1. Empathize

This phase is about researching your users’ needs to gain an empathetic understanding of the challenges they face. This means setting aside your own preconceived notions and seeking to understand the needs and challenges others experience using tools such as:

    • Firsthand Interviews
    • Asking someone to describe the last time they had a particular problem
    • Empathy Maps
  1. Define

Here you gather, analyze and synthesize the information obtained in the empathetic phase to identify the core problems. Use this information to come up with a problem statement.

    • Ask questions like, “How might we…” and end the sentence with an example of one of the stated problems from your interviews.
    • Create “personas” to keep your process human.
    • Identify patterns across a wide range of people.
    • Make sure your stated goal is human centered as opposed to the more typical “increase sales by 10%.”
  1. Ideate

With the solid information you have from the first two phases, you can now “think outside the box” and develop solutions for the problem statement you have created. Think brainstorming here!

    • Generate ideas quickly and don’t get caught evaluating them at first. Just get them out.
    • Go wide, not deep. Allow yourself to generate a wide variety of ideas without having the define them.
    • Once the ideas are on the table, then go around and ask questions to further clarify.
    • Allow team members to vote for their favorites by giving them a certain number of stickers or dots to put next to their favorite ideas.
  1. Prototype

This is the phase to identify the best possible solutions for the problems you’ve found. You can create low-cost prototypes and investigate possibilities.

  1. Test

Here you start to test your prototypes on a sampling of end users. It’s also where the process most often becomes iterative because the results you discover could lead you to go back to the definition or ideating phase.

The following diagram visually shows how the steps feed into one another and the potential for the non-linear approach we mentioned.

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Design Thinking Examples

Now that we have a good understanding of the process, let’s take a look at some design thinking examples that showcase how this method can be used in a real-world setting. The examples below illustrate how design thinking can be used in a variety of fields and settings.

Uber Eats

Uber Eats is a perfect example of a company that has used modern day technology to revolutionize something as simple as the way we order dinner. In order to keep their perspective fresh and focused on the end user, Uber implemented the Walkabout Program, which takes place quarterly. This involves sending UberEats designers to a city to study the transportation systems, local restaurants and delivery options. This type of commitment to understanding both the perspective of their drivers and their customers is one of the key reasons UberEats has remained user-friendly and thus continued to take share in a competitive market.

Stanford Health Care

In 2016, Stanford Hospital conducted a two-day seminar with 14 doctors, nurses, and technicians to develop strategies for improving patient care in Stanford’s Emergency Room. The students went through empathy gaining exercises such as putting themselves in the shoes of patient family members as their classmates applied simulated care to patients. They also conducted in person interviews with patients and their families. The combination of both exercises gave students an increased level of understanding and empathy for the intangibles that affect their patients – the emotional component they couldn’t understand any other way.

The interesting takeaway of this seminar was that patients and their family members were primarily looking for more communication – both with them and also between the medical team. The findings were presented to hospital leadership and implemented. The experience also led Stanford Health Care to begin implementing design thinking steps to solve a variety of ongoing issues.

The Achievement Habit

“The Achievement Habit”. This is a way you may not think of applying design thinking steps. Yet, in his book, “The Achievement Habit”, Bernard Roth, academic director and professor of Engineering at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, makes it personal. He illustrates how individuals can use design thinking steps to accomplish what they’ve always wanted to but never could. This may refer to a habit you’ve wanted to break, reducing high stress or even starting that business.

The process follows the same structure as in a business setting. Start by empathizing with yourself and asking questions such as, “How is this problem affecting me? What positive effect would it have in my life if I solved it?” These questions allow you to truly define the problem (like the 2nd step in the process) and then brainstorm solutions to your problem. The key to using this method is to not shy away from trying out different solutions. Be willing to risk “failure” to learn more about yourself and the problem. This helps you turn your ideas and desires into action by tweaking and testing solutions until you find the right one for you.

Design Thinking Model

In addition to the design thinking model we have shared from, there are several other models you may encounter along your design thinking journey. These include:

IDEO’s design model is based on fusing the principles of Viability (business), Desirability (human), and Feasibility (technical) in an overlapping process.
Idea Couture’s model that integrates design thinking with the more analytical business minded approach.
Darden School of Business’ four phased approach that encourages managers to use 10 design tools during the exploration process.

Take Away

The wide variety of structures prevalent in design thinking models show that there are many ways you can approach this process. It wouldn’t be true to design thinking if that wasn’t the case! Though, all of these design thinking models have one thing in common. They encourage designers to resist the urge to jump to the easiest solution or try to solve a problem that hasn’t been fully defined. At its core, design thinking is an innovative process that puts the person who is dealing with the problem you are trying to solve in the center of the process. Try it in your next problem-solving session, and let us know if you develop some creative solutions!

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