Design Thinking: What It Is and Why It’s Used (2023)

Jon Kolko, chief operating officer at design consultancy Modernist Studio, arrived at the home of a University of North Texas photography major who was considering dropping out.

Kolko was there with his colleague Chad Fisher. They were there to interview the student, whom they refer to as the pseudonym Kendra, as part of the discovery phase of the design thinking research their firm was doing for Texas OnCourse, a state-funded college and career planning resource. They had been hired to improve a website intended to help students transfer from community colleges to four-year programs more seamlessly.

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a creative problem-solving process used to innovate user-centered products and services.

The first step of their research was to figure out what was going on in the minds of students like Kendra. What preconceived ideas did they have about college and professional success? How did they make academic decisions? What barriers did they face to enrollment? In essence, they were framing the problem by gathering ethnographic research, which is what many experts consider the first step of design thinking.

Design Thinking: What It Is and Why It’s Used (1)

What Is Design Thinking?

Tim Brown, chair of the design consultancy IDEO, describes design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

There is broad consensus among experts that the method grew to prominence after being taught in Stanford University’s design school in 2003 and, thereafter, adopted as a product and business development strategy by IDEO founder David Kelley.

Today, it’s applied as a product development and brand positioning strategy by high-profile software firms like Intuit, Samsung and Google, and its efficacy has been affirmed by scholars like Jeanne Liedtka, a professor in the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Liedtka cited a seven-year study of 50 projects from business, healthcare and social services sectors, in which she found “design thinking has the potential to unleash people’s full creative energies, win their commitment, and radically improve processes.”

Design thinking’s focus on assembling diverse teams to reframe problems and experiment helps “get around the human biases or attachments to specific behavioral norms that time and again block the exercise of imagination,” she added.

Though there’s compelling evidence design thinking is effective, its application varies widely depending on a company’s customers and who it wants those customers to become.

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Design Thinking: What It Is and Why It’s Used (2)

(Video) What Is Design Thinking? An Overview

Design Thinking Process

Most experts agree design thinking is an iterative, early-stage framework for creating products or building or structuring a business. For software companies, it often moves in step with a five-stage development cycle.

Design Thinking Process

  1. Customer discovery
  2. Problem definition
  3. Ideation
  4. Design and testing
  5. Implementation

These stages are modular and do not have to occur in sequence, or even at all. The process tends to work best at early stages of product development. Startups may use it to learn about their users and guide prototype development. Legacy companies may apply it to launch new product lines, reframe their value propositions or fundamentally reinvent themselves.

Anders Wallace, a user experience and user interface designer at NBC, describes the five stages of a design thinking framework:

1. Customer Discovery

This stage asks, “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” It is an attempt to empathize with the needs and desires of current or potential users through in-depth interviews and close observation.

2. Problem Definition

This step usually involves a succinct problem statement. The statement describes a product or feature that can realistically be built and assessed against strategic goals for growth.

3. Ideation

During ideation, the product team, designers and software engineers brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. It is largely about prioritization and the ordering of ideas and intentions.

4. Design and Testing

This phase brings the idea into the world through the creation of physical models or digital wireframes and prototypes. These models are tested with users to see where the product is addressing problems and where it still might need improvement.

5. Implementation

Once a working prototype meets an agreed-upon standard, it is released into the wild. As user feedback is collected, the product is continuously improved to better meet customers’ needs.

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Human-Centered Design Thinking

At the early stages of the customer discovery process, immersive in-person interviews — often hanging out with people for hours at a time to “walk in their shoes” — help form an organic understanding of the problem from the user’s eyes.

Let’s consider Kolko and Kendra again, for instance. When Kolko and his colleague arrived at Kendra’s house, they found the home in disarray, full of unopened merchandise boxes.

“And as we start to get deeper and deeper into this conversation, it turns out that her dad is actually deep in debt,” Kolko said. “I’m not going to be able to build that mental picture if I’m asking her to fill out a survey, but I’m able to build it sitting next to her for three hours.”

The results of the interview and others like it were revealing. Modernist Studio learned that students had misconceptions about the link between their majors and career prospects, and that two-year college students made profound life decisions largely based on how close campuses were to their homes and their parents’ alma maters.

The occasionally opaque language on ed tech platforms, and their UX designs, played a role too. Some students were mystified by the meaning of terms such as “credentials” and “credit-hour units.” Accounting emerged as the most frequently chosen major among interviewees. Not because of its exciting career prospects, Kolko said, but because it appeared first in an alphabetically arranged drop-down menu.

“So you arrive at a sort of mental ball of understanding why a 20-year-old is making decisions around the quote-unquote rest of their life for all sorts of reasons an adult might assume are bad,” Kolko said. “That translates both into, strategically, what is the product we should make to help them, [and] the details of what, literally, is on the screen."

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Deeply understanding a target user’s lived experience helps avoid unintentional prejudice that might color decision-making about a product. It also helps clarify how to talk about that product to potential customers, Wallace said.

In an earlier role at Colgate, he worked on a team that applied design thinking to the development of a smart toothbrush called Hum.

What Colgate was trying to do, he said, was understand the interests and desires of potential Gen Z customers. How could Colgate create a product that would be appealing to young people?

An outside agency went on home visits and conducted qualitative interviews, which informed the minimalist design of the physical toothbrush and the features of the app. The research also influenced the direction of a flashy branding campaign with the tagline, “Brushing gets better when you hum.”

“The people they feature in their ads, their diversity; the color tones, the semiotics, the ways the images communicate what they’re trying to say are very different from a lot of their older messaging, which is a little more traditional,” Wallace said. “So design thinking is as much a case of designing products as it is communication marketing: How do we speak to people?”

Judging by editorial opinion, the design thinking framework appears to have paid off. A review of the toothbrush in Wired by writer Medea Giordano gave the “especially cute” toothbrush a nine out of 10 rating.

As with other high-performing products born from design thinking, it is difficult to say how much credit the strategy deserves and how much success stemmed from the behind-the-scenes work of product and design teams doing their jobs well. Still, few would dispute the brush had its desired effect on Giordana, a converted smart toothbrush skeptic.

“The Colgate Hum is the first [smart toothbrush] I tried that delivered on its promise to make brushing better,” she wrote.

(Video) Design Thinking - What it is, why it's great and why it's perfect for HR

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Design Thinking: What It Is and Why It’s Used (4)

Design Thinking Versus Lean Startup

Zack Onisko, CEO of Dribbble, a portfolio website for designers and creatives, calls design thinking the yin to lean startup’s yang. The lean startup approach relies heavily on user analytics and A/B testing. Each approach has its advantages, he said, but starting with design thinking may be easier for younger, smaller firms not yet at the scale to adopt a lean methodology in earnest.

“We get drunk on A/B testing, right?” Onisko said. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Let’s just go test something,’ instead of making a decision. But to adopt the kind-of-Silicon Valley best practice of A/B testing, you need enough traffic to get results of significance.”

The other problem with over-reliance on quantitative approaches is that conversion metrics can be deceptive as a measure of performance.

In Onisko’s days as vice president of growth at Hired, when he was managing a 45-person team of product and marketing professionals, one of his responsibilities was to keep watch on click-through rates for a button on the homepage that led to job listings. Week over week the conversion rates were increasing — an encouraging sign, on the surface.

“Then my head of sales comes over, fuming, one day, and he’s like: ‘Hey, all our account managers have to hop on a call. Because clients don’t even know what the hell our business does,’” Onisko said.

Stripping the site of explanatory text and imagery, in other words, had boosted conversion rates at the expense of users’ understanding. By bringing a more diverse group of stakeholders to the table earlier in the process, design thinking presumably would have revealed the human costs of the trade-off.

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Design Thinking Leverages Designers and Consultancies

If you’re going to adopt a design thinking framework, it’s wise to do an internal audit of your staffing needs, said Marcello Magalhaes, who is founder and chief design officer of the Los-Angeles based brand design firm Speakeasy. His firm helps clients like Coca-Cola, Fanta, McDonald’s and Burger King find the right creative talent for special product launches and branding campaigns — roles that often don’t exist in-house.

At Speakeasy, teams of three work independently to develop ideas and share their recommendations with clients, typically in two- to three-week cycles. Guided by tools like V.J. Kumer’s 101 Design Methods, they follow Albert Einstein’s mantra: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

(Video) What is Design Thinking?

Speakeasy’s recent work with Burger King is a good example. Based on the success of the Impossible Whopper developed by Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods, Burger King hired the firm to better position plant-based meal menu options for specific consumer targets. Magalhaes mined his network of 250 independent researchers, designers and planners to fill important roles. Rather than investing the time to become an authority on vegetarian fast-food options or assigning the task to someone on the agency’s payroll, he hand picked the right people from his professional network.

For a restaurant chain whose menu has historically read as a bacchanalian visual homage to beef, design thinking helped identify a new customer base whose tastes and environmental ethics weren’t reflected in current offerings; this insight inspired the strategy behind cheeky television spots, such as Cows Menu.

Design consultancies offer firms this advantage, Magalhaes said: identifying unserved markets and acting as knowledge brokers who can keep costs down by leveraging their networks to recruit non-salaried talent with specialized skills.

“Instead of being in the cockpit, you want to be on the lookout for those who can sit in the cockpit,” he said.

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Pros and Cons of Design Thinking

Design thinking’s current obsession with user experience optimization has its share of critics. One of the most outspoken is Michael Scharge, a research fellow in MIT Sloan School’s Initiative on the Digital Economy who has consulted with Prudential, Pfizer, Microsoft, Amazon and Google on innovation and performance management.

Design thinking as it ought to be practiced, Scharge said, goes beyond the present-day functionality of a website or mobile OS. It looks to the future and asks the question: “Who do you want your customer to become?”

Scharge, who worked closely with Nicholas Negroponte, the Greek architect and co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, calls design thinking an “investment in the customer and clients’ capabilities, their creativity, their competence and their human capital.” Like Magahaes, Scharge takes a broad, somewhat Bauhaus view of who is equipped to be a designer and what their role is.

“Nicholas didn’t have a degree in computer science. He was an architect. The Media Lab wasn’t in the school of computer science. It was in the School of Art and Architecture. Still is,” he said. “What does architecture do? It balances the aesthetic with functionality. You can have ugly, brutalist buildings that stand up. And you can have beautiful, gorgeous buildings that fall down. To me, design thinking is about the balance you want to strike in the service of transforming your customer, transforming your client and transforming your user.”

Prototypes are key to striking this balance, he said, but not in the way you might expect.

“The prototype is used not just to discover the functionality of the product, but the temperament and the typology and the preferences of the users,” he said. “In economics, we call this revealed preference. We don’t care what people say. We care what people do.”

Design thinking at its best, he told me, happens at companies like Salesforce, which leverage user insight to encourage customers to behave the way customers want.

“They pioneered the function of the customer success manager,” Scharge said. “Not an account person saying, ‘Are you happy with our software suite?’ but people actually trying to get users and departments and teams to get more value from what Salesforce has to offer.”

Now recommendation engines are beginning to perform a similar function: learning about users and serving up customized features, advertisements and tooling options. This may be the direction design thinking is heading, converging with machine learning to influence customer behavior.

(Video) The Explainer: What Is Design Thinking?

“In 2015, how many design thinkers said, ‘How do we want our user experience to learn about the customer?’ You can be sure they were asking that question at Amazon, at Facebook, at Google and, of course, at Netflix and Alibaba Group and TikTok,” Scharge said. “Everyone’s asking it now.”

“That’s why we care about personalization,” he continued. “It’s wonderful to have software that learns about you. We don’t have to build a custom product for everyone. We build a product that learns about you better, and, through customization, you train the product for us.”


What is design thinking and its uses? ›

Design thinking is a process for solving problems by prioritizing the consumer's needs above all else. It relies on observing, with empathy, how people interact with their environments, and employs an iterative, hands-on approach to creating innovative solutions.

Why do we need design thinking? ›

So why do you need design thinking? The short answer is that it brings everyone—beyond designers and developers—into to product design process. This in turn helps entire organizations scale their design processes to create better, human-centered user experiences and disruptive products.

How do we use design thinking in real life? ›

It can be used to deal with complex issues that are not properly defined or human needs are not known and can be applied in any field. Solving the complexity of human problems requires creative brainstorming, prototyping and testing.

When should design thinking be used? ›

When facing a complex challenge! Design Thinking is a great method and mindset when dealing with complex challenges, where we do not fully understand the problem domain nor do we have a good solution at hand. This is why complex problems are ideally tackled using an explorative process such as Design Thinking.

What is the most important focus of design thinking? ›

Design thinking is a solution-based framework, so the focus is on coming up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible. Ideation is both a core design thinking principle and a step in the design thinking process.

What is the main purpose of design? ›

A design is a plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or for the implementation of an activity or process or the result of that plan or specification in the form of a prototype, product, or process. The verb to design expresses the process of developing a design.

Why is it called design thinking? ›

Design thinking is created not only because Tim Brown coined the word that became a buzzword. There's a logical reason to it. Design thinking is created because big corporation lack the ability to be creative and on extreme cases, aren't able to create new products and services that meet unmet needs of their customers.

Where we can apply design thinking? ›

Design thinking is a methodology which provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It's extremely useful when used to tackle complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown—because it serves to understand the human needs involved, reframe the problem in human-centric ways, create numerous ideas in.

What are the benefits of using design? ›

Advantages of design to your business
  • increase sales of your products or services.
  • improve market position.
  • boost customer loyalty.
  • reduce customer complaints.
  • build a stronger identity for your business.
  • create new products and services and open up new markets.
  • reduce time to market for new products and services.

What is the most important of design? ›

It's what made every single product you use in your daily life and what made buildings come into existence. It can make our lives better in various ways. First of all, well-designed products can make us save time and allow us to focus on more important activities.

What is the heart of design thinking? ›

Ideation is at the heart of the Design Thinking process. There are literally hundreds of ideation techniques, for example brainstorming, sketching, SCAMPER, and prototyping.

How do you introduce design thinking? ›

How to introduce design thinking into your organization
  1. Start small. ...
  2. Identify early adopters and evangelists. ...
  3. Avoid silos by department or team. ...
  4. Understand that design thinking is a fluid process. ...
  5. Identify how you will measure success. ...
  6. Boost innovation with design thinking.
23 Apr 2018

What are the most important elements of design thinking? ›

The next time you need to solve a problem, you can grow your team's creative capacity by focusing on three core design thinking principles, or the 3 E's: empathy, expansive thinking, and experimentation.

What are the 5 D's of design thinking? ›

The 5 D's are Discovery, Design, Development, Delivery and Debrief. Anderson introduced the concept and discussed the first two D's in her first installment.

What are 5 stages of design thinking? ›

The short form of the design thinking process can be articulated in five steps or phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

What are the 3 most important elements of design thinking? ›

There are five key elements of the Design Thinking process:
  • Human-centered. If you don't understand the person who will be using the thing you're trying to create, it simply won't work. ...
  • Creative and playful. ...
  • Iterative. ...
  • Collaborative. ...
  • Prototype driven.
2 Nov 2020

What are the 4 P's of design thinking? ›

The 4 Ps of Service Design

People. Products. Partners. Processes.

What are the 4 pillars of design thinking? ›

Let us recall the four pillars of Design Thinking: Understand by asking people; Explore by finding patterns; Prototype by making tangible; Evaluate by always iterating.

What are the 4 D's of design thinking? ›

Design Thinking methodology involves FOUR distinct stages – Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. Collectively, this is known as the 4D Framework.

What are the keys to design thinking? ›

The Design Thinking process can be divided into five key steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. When considering the five steps of Design Thinking, it's important to remember that it's not a linear process.

What are the 3 spaces of design thinking? ›

The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

How do you develop design thinking? ›

What are the 5 Stages of the Design Thinking Process
  1. Stage 1: Empathize—Research Your Users' Needs. ...
  2. Stage 2: Define—State Your Users' Needs and Problems. ...
  3. Stage 3: Ideate—Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas. ...
  4. Stage 4: Prototype—Start to Create Solutions. ...
  5. Stage 5: Test—Try Your Solutions Out.
3 Jun 2022

Is design thinking a mindset? ›

As a mindset, Design Thinking is characterized by several key principles: a combination of divergent and convergent thinking, a strong orientation to both obvious and hidden needs of customers and users, and prototyping.

What are the types of design thinking? ›

The Five Phases of Design Thinking
  • Phase 1: Empathise. Empathy provides the critical starting point for Design Thinking. ...
  • Phase 2: Define. The second stage in the Design Thinking process is dedicated to defining the problem. ...
  • Phase 3: Ideate. ...
  • Phase 4: Prototype. ...
  • Phase 5: Test. ...
  • Empathise. ...
  • Define. ...
  • Ideate.
6 Dec 2022

What is at the heart of design thinking? ›

Ideation is at the heart of the Design Thinking process. There are literally hundreds of ideation techniques, for example brainstorming, sketching, SCAMPER, and prototyping.


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