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What Is Design Thinking? The 5 Phases of Design Thinking

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Design is the relationship between function and aesthetics in human-made objects—encompassing everything from the first hunting tool to the personal computer held in the palm of your hand. Could design effectively function as a business science, a method to invent and innovate the ways in which we interact with the world? This is the fundamental idea behind design thinking. This phased, empathy-driven process can expand your market, increase revenue, and be central to the development process for new products or services.

Many disruptive technical and social innovations, now household names, including Apple’s iPhone, Uber’s ride-hailing app, and Netflix’s streaming algorithm, result from design thinking methodology. Here’s how to apply design thinking to your business.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a human-centered design framework for developing creative solutions to complex problems. It requires generating ideas through rounds of examination and testing, ensuring that the best iterations make it through. You use this framework for product development, to optimize your website’s conversion rate, or to design a logo.

Regardless of how it’s used, design thinking is:

  • Human-centered. Design thinking is a user-centric approach. The goal is to specify and address the unmet needs of those you serve. Rather than merely testing a hypothesis, creative problem-solving with design thinking means gaining a deeper understanding of your target customer. Design thinking puts the “social” in social innovation.
  • Iterative. Design thinking is an iterative process. It’s non-linear, encouraging frequent reflection and sometimes taking one step back before taking two forward. You might mock up or prototype ideas to gather feedback, and test and rework the concept at every stage.

5 phases of design thinking

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Release, observe, and restart

1. Empathize

The empathize phase of design thinking is a research expedition to gain a solid understanding of your target market’s needs. Start by conducting market research to learn more about your customers’ experiences and expectations. The goal at this point isn’t to solve complex problems or test hypotheses. Instead, ask questions and identify issues. You may want to draft a problem statement to communicate the context of these issues with the rest of your team.

You might conduct interviews or surveys. You can go further by putting yourself in your customers’ shoes. It takes a conscious effort to create a rapport: If you make running shoes, empathizing might mean spending time at the track; if you make marinades and condiments, try shadowing home cooks or a few kitchen shifts at a restaurant.

2. Define

Building off the information gathered in the empathize phase, narrow your goals. What are the potential solutions you want to bring to your customers? If you make camping gear to enhance your customers’ wilderness adventures, your plan might be to create featherweight, easy-to-clean cooking tools rather than just portable versions of everyday appliances. If you’re working in UX design, your goal might be to help users spend less (or more) time on your app.

Defining your objectives is core to what makes design thinking a user-centric approach, and helps you direct your business perspective to serving your clientele rather than reacting to market competition.

3. Ideate

In the ideation phase, you imagine creative solutions to the problems you identified. The ideation stage is still about creating options rather than making choices.

This third phase can be one of the more amusing parts of the design thinking process because nothing is off the table. Many ideation techniques involve rapid-fire games that encourage spontaneity and free association. This is the time to voice your most inventive concepts. If you feel the urge to answer every problem with “We first need to relocate to Mars,” now is the time.

4. Prototype

The prototype stage is when your ideas turn into a rough model or, ideally, several preliminary models to see which aspects are worthy of a live application and which aren’t. Consider this a possible-solution space.

Prototyping can provide a preemptive sense of user feedback and help determine whether you solve the problems identified in the empathize phase. The testing phase saves time and money; you can nix poor-performing models or ones that are not economically viable, and green light models free of early development bugs.

5. Release, observe, and restart

The final step is to release your design and observe its impact on users. Then, restart the design process from step one. Design thinking has no decisive end; it’s a constant cycle of innovation and experimentation—and there’s always the potential for improvement.

When observing your design, reflect on the initial steps you took to empathize with customers. Assess whether you’ve met their needs and expectations. Are you solving the problems you set out to address? Has seeing your design in the real world given you new insight?

It’s circling back like this that makes design thinking iterative and human-centered. Every release is considered an iteration—a jumping-off point to refine your concept—rather than a conclusion, and the focus is on the human experience, not metrics.

How to apply design thinking to your work

Learning how and when to incorporate design thinking into your business practice takes time. Start by applying design thinking principles to everyday situations to see which methods generate ideas worth trying. Here are some key tenets to keep in mind:

  • Embrace uncertainty. You may encounter problems that appear too daunting to solve during the initial phases. Instead of backing down, look at these challenges as potential paths to new ideas.
  • Learn from mistakes. The design thinking approach is a forgiving process that rewards trial and effort. Resist the urge to abandon your ideas if they don’t initially work out. Instead, think of failures as possible solutions in progress and harness these experiences in your future endeavors.
  • Challenge assumptions and conclusions. The initial phases of design thinking are meant to cast aside preconceptions of your customers’ wants and needs. Even after releasing your successful ideas, use design thinking to rework and improve them.

Design thinking is a skill, and like any skill, it requires practice. When design thinking works, new ideas flow from open-minded engagement. The more you and your team employ this method, the more you’ll experience a boost in creative confidence as the aha moments increase in frequency.



Design thinking FAQ

What is meant by design thinking?

Not to be confused with design principles, design thinking is a human-centered design framework for developing alternative solutions to complex problems.

What are the stages of design thinking?

The five stages of design thinking are: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, release, observe, and restart. Although these stages follow a straightforward progression, design thinking is a non-linear process that encourages revisiting and challenging conclusions from each phase.

Who coined the term “design thinking”?

Herbert A. Simon, a cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate, developed the most popular notion of design thinking in 1969. Many other thinkers and design teams have gone on to critique and redefine design thinking. Rethinking design thinking is advancing the process’s key principles.
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