What is Design Thinking and Why Does It Matter? (2023)

This guide gives you a comprehensive overview of design thinking as a problem-solving approach. In this first chapter, you'll gain a strong understanding of what design thinking is, why it’s relevant, and how it helps you design products that you’re proud to bring into the world—and that your users will love.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach to product development that places an emphasis on the user to help teams identify issues, reframe them, and generate creative solutions.

It’s a solution-based ideology, process, and collection of hands-on methods to solve complex problems in a user-centric way. Design thinking is most useful for addressing problems that are either ill-defined or unknown, by helping you:

  • Redefine the problem with a user-centric mindset

  • Identify the challenge worth solving

  • Develop ideas in brainstorming sessions

  • Adopt a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing

Who is design thinking for?

Despite its name, design thinking is not exclusively used by designers. Instead, it’s a human-centered approach to innovation practiced across science, art, engineering, and business.

In the world of product development, design thinking has been incredibly successful in showcasing relevant solutions for real problems. With it, teams can do better UX research, prototyping, and usability testing to uncover new ways to meet users’ needs.

Design thinking helps you focus on achieving practical results and solutions that:

(Video) The Explainer: What Is Design Thinking?

  • Meet and solve a real human need

  • Can be developed into functional products or processes

  • Are economically viable

It also aims to turn ideas into tangible, testable products as quickly as possible, and make changes and improvements before building the real thing.

5 things you need to know about design thinking

Design thinking has long been considered the holy grail of innovation. But before you incorporate it into your own workflows, you need to understand what it is and why it’s so popular.

1. Design thinking came about as a way to teach engineers how to approach problems creatively—like designers do.

The concept of design thinking was fathered by John E. Arnold, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. From there, it began to evolve as a way of creative thinking and problem-solving, leading to IDEO’s iconic 90s run and Stanford University’s d.school design thinking course as an approach to technical and social innovation.

Today, design thinking gives us the opportunity to reimagine the world and the products, systems, or institutions that reinforce the ways people relate to each other. Some of the world’s leading brands are using design thinking to drive innovation and results—from Apple to Google, and from Samsung to IBM and GE.

Dive into the Design Thinking Examples chapter of this guide to learn what actions your product team can take related to design thinking.

2. Design thinking means approaching a problem with a designer’s mindset, from the user’s perspective.

As a designer, you have this amazing power of wide-eyed curiosity. What does the world—or even just one person—need in terms of product, user experience, strategy, or complex systems? Can design help achieve it?

A designer is uniquely equipped to deal with these complex problems, with an inquisitive approach that embraces empathy, optimism, iteration, creativity, and ambiguity.

As a solution-based approach to innovation, design thinking draws techniques from the designer’s toolkit to solve problems in a creative and innovative way. The designer’s mindset helps you observe and develop empathy with the user—it asks about what they want and need from your product, and how you can use design to bring that to life.

(Video) What Is Design Thinking? An Overview

4. Design thinking is a solution-based framework, not a problem-focused approach.

The way you look at a problem can dictate the way you solve it. Design thinking offers an alternative to problem-focused approaches by highlighting what is working (or could work), rather than emphasizing deficits, limitations, and weaknesses.

A problem-focused approach helps to identify the problem, why it exists, and when and where it becomes a pain point for your users. The approach lets you analyze a situation and figure out where the breakdown is occurring—but you still need to figure out what comes next.

A solution-focused approach, on the other hand, helps you solve the problem. Beyond identifying the problem, and when and where it occurs, this approach lets you identify strategies to resolve the issues that are causing the problem in the first place.

In product development, solution-based approaches tend to yield more positive results and better products. A user-first approach like design thinking simplifies everything across product teams, marketing, sales, and client services, because customer goals and success metrics are the centerpiece.

A solutions-driven organization does everything from the users’ perspective first, allowing you to:

  • Gain empathy with users’ habits, behaviors, and needs: discover new opportunities to improve the user experience by empathizing with users and seeing an unbiased view of their experience

  • Design a frictionless user experience: identify pain points in the user experience and design a solution that balances both user and business needs

The focus is on coming up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible, thinking ‘outside the box’, looking for alternative ways to view the problem, and identifying innovative solutions to the design thinking problem statements you’ve created.

For a closer look, read the Design Thinking Process and Framework chapter of this guide.

5. Design thinking is an iterative and non-linear process that encourages constant experimentation.

The design thinking process fosters creativity, innovation, and user-centricity, and helps you come up with actionable solutions. As noted above, the process outlines a series of principles, or stages, that bring this ideology to life:

  1. Empathize: getting to know your users and their challenges

    (Video) The Design Thinking Process

  2. Define: homing in on what problem needs to be solved

  3. Ideate: outside-the-box thinking about solutions and angles

  4. Prototype: creating something tangible that users can then try-out

  5. Test: exposing your prototype to real users to determine if your solution is valid or needs some work.

You can carry out these five-stages in parallel, repeat them, and circle back to a previous stage at any point in the process.

For example, even once you’ve defined your problem statement, you should keep building empathy with users—use design thinking tools like surveys and feedback software to validate your problem statement and update your assumptions.

The purpose of the process is to allow you to work dynamically to develop and launch innovative ideas. Regardless of how you choose to implement the design thinking process, the goal remains the same: to approach complex problems from a human perspective.

How design thinking helps teams build better products

Design thinking is a tool for creativity, innovation, and problem-solving:

Design thinking empowers teams to get their ideas out and share them. It holds the space for you to be ambiguous and messy, knowing you're moving in the direction of the outcomes you're looking for. It’s a way to start, and be willing to have 100 sketches on the floor that won’t work, before finding the one that does—from ambiguity to clarity, refinement, and launch.

Design thinking can impact and provide innovative solutions to issues product teams truly care about:

Tackling complex challenges

Design thinking encourages creative problem-solving. It pushes you further into the process of questioning: questioning the problem, the assumptions, and the implications.

A good design thinking framework will give you new perspectives on the lives of your users—including the challenges they face in your product, and the moments that delight them. Having this empathy can give you the insights you need to solve hard, worthwhile problems.

This is especially useful in a product development context—whether it’s designing a competitive product, optimizing internal processes, or reinventing an entire business model.

Moving faster, with iterative speed

Design thinking stops you from falling into assumptions and designing patterns out of habit. Instead, it shifts the focus from your problem to the solution that works best for your users.

Designing a product with insights from user observation is much more productive than starting from scratch. This shortens the development process by helping you design better products that your users actually want, from the get-go.

Design thinking also helps scale the design process through large organizations. It keeps the team and stakeholders on the same page and improves efficiency with an agile design thinking approach to early-stage feedback that stops you wasting resources on unpromising ideas.

Meeting and exceeding customer expectations to ensure customer delight

Empathy is at the heart of design. It connects you—the designer—to the people who will benefit from your work, empowering you to create products that ultimately meet real human needs.

Design thinking revolves around a deep interest to understand the people you're building for, creating the conditions for innovation to happen over and over again.

With design thinking, teams have the freedom to generate real solutions. It’s not just about coming up with ideas—it’s about turning them into prototypes, testing them, and making changes based on user feedback.

Minimizing uncertainty and improving confidence in design decisions

Product development can be fraught with obstacles. Your team either collects a lot of backward-looking data, which doesn’t tell you what current or future users really want, or you make risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.

Design thinking is a strategy-making tool that shifts the focus to human behavior. By using imaginative, human-centered problem solving, you can identify new strategies and unlock new markets. Design thinking also plays a key role in reducing assumptions for product teams, and ultimately enables you to better understand users and deliver products that delight them.

Developing this type of deep empathy with your target users means you’ll be able to design products they really want, and will use and come back to.

(Video) What is Design Thinking?


1. Why Design Matters
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2. Webinar - Design Thinking: What is it and why should I care?
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3. Why Design Thinking Matters with Scott Sanchez - Deluxe
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4. The Design Thinking Process (Explained By An Expert)
5. Design Thinking vs. Problem Solving
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6. Design Thinking - What it is, why it's great and why it's perfect for HR
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