What is design thinking? Is it really a thing? - The Media Temple Blog (2023)

There is a new business buzzword in town. From the board rooms of IBM to General Electric, executives are talking about this mysterious new business methodology called design thinking. But what is it and does it have any real value?

When I first encountered the term, I was skeptical. As somebody who had been designing for over 22 years the idea of design thinking was new to me. Surely if it had any value, I would have already heard of it!

But when I dug into the subject, I discovered that the term was simply a handy phrase thatrefers many of the best practices in digital design I had been implementing for years. The same best practices that many enterprises are beginning to apply beyond interface design.

Design thinking tendsto encompass two main areas: Amindset and process. So let’s dive in and discover what design thinking is all about.

The design thinking mindset

As much as anything else, design thinking focuses on bringing a new mentality to solving business problems. If you work in the field of user experience, this mindset will seem familiar. But for those in other disciplines, it can feel like a revelation. A move away from specifications, project plans and committees.

The design thinking mindset is made up of three fundamental attitudes. These are: Experiment, test, and collaborate.


The online space has allowed us unprecedented opportunities to testand experimentbecausethe cost of our raw materials is nearly zero. Think about it for a moment; pixels cost nothing. You couldn’t easily experiment building a monumentin different ways because of the expense of the raw materials. But with a website or an appyou can, because pixels are free.

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That has nurtured a culture of experimentation, partially driven by themassive amounts of data we can gather. We no longer need to avoid failure because we can learn so much from it, and the cost of failure is low.

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We can apply this experimentation mentalityin all kinds of circumstances, from establishing new strategies to rolling out new products and services. It is an attitude, one that applies as much in the boardroom as the design studio.

However, experimentation is only valuable when we carefully monitor the result, so that we can move towards the best solution. That is where testing comes in.

Testing and iterating

Without a doubt, a mindset of testing and iteration lies at the heart of design thinking. It is born out of the plethora of data available to us as digital professionals. It makes sense that we should be testing and iterating everything we do.

From Google Analytics to session recorders, we have incredibly deep insights into how users behave. But we haven’t stopped there. We also carry out usability testing, field studies, and even eye tracking. We have become obsessed with testing our products and understanding our users.

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Once again, this is something that can be applied to the whole business, not just within the realm of digital design. A mindset that improves the quality of company offerings and reduces the number of failed projects.

But design thinking hasn’t just been influenced by the benefits brought by digital; challenges have also helped to shape it.

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One of the biggest challenges of working in digital designis the fact that it inevitably touchesevery part of an organization. It is also incredibly complex, requiring many specialists working closely together to deliver the best solution possible. As a result, we have been forced to adopt a collaborative mindset.

Most agencies andenterprisesoperate within departmental silos. Customers and projects are passed from one silo to another, along what is essentially a production line. Although this approach made sense in the mass media, mass-market age, it is too slow and prone to failure in the fast-moving and complex world we now live in.

A new multidisciplinary approach is required. An approach that brings together teams of experts to work collaboratively, and replaces committees with cross departmental teams.

But getting these different specialists to work together, despite their very different outlooks, can be challenging. That is where the lessons we have learnt as digital designers are proving invaluable. Design thinking offers us a framework that encompasses experimentation and testing while at the same time doing so in a collaborative fashion.

The four steps of design thinking

Because design thinking is a rather abstract concept, there will be many different interpretations of how we should implement it in practice. That said, I do see a general four step process emerging that we can apply to most business challenges, not just design.

It is a process that begins with research.

1. Do your research

It is shocking how many business initiatives begin from entirely the wrong premise. They start because somebody in senior management had a bright idea, or are driven by some crisis. Rarely do they start by identifying a customer need that the company can meet or pain point they can alleviate.

Many agencies already do plenty of market research, yet witha flaw: This focuses on seeing whether an internally generated idea has validity. It doesn’t look externally to customers as a source of inspiration for new products, services or initiatives. Often, this results in products that nobody needs or wants.

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Design thinking almost always begins with some research or a discovery phase. By seeking to understand customer needs and challenges better, design thinking can identify opportunities that we would otherwise miss. This initial phase typically makes use of analytics, ethnographic studies, user interviews, surveys and other research tools. Using these tools we can better understand what it is users are struggling with, and this enables us to explore possible solutions.

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2. Explore possible solutions

With a good understanding of the customer and their needs, it is possible to explore different approaches to meeting those needs. Often organizationjump immediately to a one singularsolution, but this typically creates problems further down the line. The answers we find are often less considered, and we approach the problem from just one narrow perspective.

Design thinking encourages exploring as many possible solutions as is feasible within time constraints. It brings together colleagues from across the organizationto explore various approaches to providing a tangible benefit to the customer. This exploration phase often begins with workshop exercises involving people with a broad set of disciplines. In other situations, it can also include the participation of customers themselves. Approaches to these sessions vary using exercises such as those found on gamestorming.com or even week-long design sprints.

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The idea is to explore as many possible options before the organisation commits to a direction that will be expensive to change later. However, ultimately a single solution has to be selected.

3. Refine towards a single possible solution

Typically the exploration phase ends with a small number of options. These are then further developed into working prototypes. Notice that, I did not say a specification.

Design thinking tends to prefer prototyping to specification documents. That is because specifications are easily misunderstood or interpreted in different ways by the various stakeholders. Also, a specification is not something we can test with real users.

Prototypes can take many forms. We are all familiar with user interface prototypes, but these are not the only type. Products can be prototyped using 3D printers, while we can mock up services at a superficial level to get a sense of the experience.

For example, Disney was considering introducing an RDF band to its parks that allowed customers to pay for things, unlock their hotel door and Disney staff to provide personalized service. Instead of writing a lengthy specification of their requirements, they converted a warehouse into a ‘cardboard park’. They mocked up relevant experiences across the park using a façade, some imagination and a few volunteers. They were able to test the experience with customers by guiding them through the prototype and mocking up the experience with nothing but smoke and mirrors. That enabled them to gauge consumer interest and also ensure the company had a shared vision about the direction they wanted to go.

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Not that Disney got it right the first time. It is rare for a prototype to receive nothing but glowing feedback when you first present it.

4. Test, test again, and iterate

Design thinking recognizesthat prototypes will need to be iterated upon many times before they are right. Indeed, that is why we should build prototypes as quickly and cheaply as possible. They will be hacked together, tweaked and ultimately replaced with the final implementation.

In fact, design thinking believes that testing and iteration should never truly end. That even after we launch a product or service, we should still monitor it and explore ways that it can be improved.

That is still a mistake I regularly see organizationsmake with their website. Instead of incrementally testing and developing their site over time, they replace it every two to three years. That kind of periodic website redesign is incredibly wasteful for many reasons and damaging to the business both financially and to its brand.

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This four step process that lies at the heart of design thinking has obvious benefits. It is enabling many organizationsto become more agile, more customer focused and to save significant time and energy in launching new services. But do we really need the design thinking label? Is it not just another buzzword?

Design testing matters

At the beginning of this post, I was somewhat dismissiveabout “design thinking.” I even implied it was just another pointless buzzword. If I’m honest, I don’t even think it is a particularly appropriate one at that. In my opinion, most of the processes and mindset that make up design thinking are more of a consequence of the impact digital has had, rather than design. Perhaps it should be called digital thinking.

But what we call it is irrelevant, what really matters is that the phrase is gaining traction. It is a neat way of summarizing a set of methodologies, processes and thinking. As a result, it is getting the attention of business leaders and introducing a new method to the boardroom that’s more appropriate for a digital world. An approach better equipped the meeting the ever spiralingexpectations of customers, as brought about by the digital revolution.


What is design thinking and why is it important? ›

Design Thinking is a strategy for creative problem solving by prioritizing customers' requirements above everything else. It helps to engage a person in several opportunities like experimenting and creating a prototype model, gathering feedback from customers and redesigning the product using innovative solutions.

What if design thinking? ›

Design thinking is an iterative, non-linear process which focuses on a collaboration between designers and users. It brings innovative solutions to life based on how real users think, feel and behave. This human-centered design process consists of five core stages Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

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 goal of design thinking? ›

The overall goal is to identify alternative strategies and solutions that are not instantly apparent with your initial level of understanding. Design thinking is more than just a process; it opens up an entirely new way to think, and it offers a collection of hands-on methods to help you apply this new mindset.

What is design thinking in simple words? ›

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.

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 is the biggest barrier to design thinking? ›

Barrier one: Lack of a user-centered approach

Without clear, documented principles that define how what you do and who you are benefits your users, it's far too easy to be driven by blind assumptions. The main principle of design thinking is to empathise for our users and the problem we are trying to solve.

What is the most powerful questions you can ask in design thinking? ›

Here are some questions IT leaders should ask before pursuing design thinking:
  • What's the impetus for exploring design thinking? ...
  • How will we define design thinking? ...
  • Can our organization embrace rapid testing, failure, and course correction? ...
  • Will your IT culture support the design thinking mindset?
11 Oct 2018

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.

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

Does design thinking really work? ›

Design Thinking does actually work but for an organisation to be truly innovative it is only one piece of the corporate innovation puzzle.

What are the three main ideas 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 the heck is design thinking? ›

“Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

How do you explain design thinking to students? ›

Design Thinking asks us to: Develop empathy and understand the needs of the people we are designing solutions for. Define problems and opportunities for designing solutions. Generate and visualise creative ideas.

How do you use design thinking in everyday life? ›

Using Design Thinking in Everyday Life
  1. Becoming a Better Problem Solver with Design Thinking. Source. ...
  2. Jumping to solutions isn't really a workout. Source. ...
  3. The first decent idea shouldn't be your last. Source.
25 Aug 2020

How can I use design thinking in my own life? ›

However, design thinking can also be used to solve personal problems, and to design and build your future.
Steps to Follow to Apply Design Thinking to Design Your Career
  1. Keep a Good Time Journal. ...
  2. Track Your Energy. ...
  3. Create Three Odyssey Plans. ...
  4. Define Your Problem. ...
  5. Ideate. ...
  6. Prototype and Test.

How do you use design thinking everyday? ›

5 ways to use Design Thinking in your daily routine
  1. Visualize Your Problem. Whether you're solving critical global problems or tackling micro-level projects, visualization reveals key themes and patterns. ...
  2. Challenge Common Assumptions. ...
  3. Reverse Your Thinking. ...
  4. Empathize With Your Audience. ...
  5. Embrace Risk and Failure.
19 Nov 2015

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

These 4P's are: Person: understanding the traits, characteristics or attributes of the creative person; Process: describing the operations or stages of thinking used in the creative process; Press: examining the nature of situations and its context within the creative press (or environment) and the Product: identifying ...

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 C's of design? ›

When preparing a cross-platform design, it's helpful to keep the 4Cs in mind: Consistency, Continuity, Context, and Complementarity. Most companies have specific design guidelines that must be followed to remain consistent with their brand identity, which refers to a company's visual appearance and voice.

What is design thinking explain with example? ›

It leans into design thinking's user-centric element and requires empathizing with those affected by a problem, asking them questions about their pain points, and identifying what they solved. You can then use what you learn to create a problem statement or question that drives the rest of the design thinking process.

How do we use design thinking in real life? ›

However, design thinking can also be used to solve personal problems, and to design and build your future.
Steps to Follow to Apply Design Thinking to Design Your Career
  1. Keep a Good Time Journal. ...
  2. Track Your Energy. ...
  3. Create Three Odyssey Plans. ...
  4. Define Your Problem. ...
  5. Ideate. ...
  6. Prototype and Test.

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.

What are the 5 stages of design thinking? ›

The Five Phases 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. Let's briefly explore each of these phases in relation to a practical design process.

What are the 3 laws of design thinking? ›

So how do you get started with 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 6 mindsets required for design thinking? ›

To illustrate these themes further, we have broken them down into the following six key steps: frame a question, gather inspiration, generate ideas, make ideas tangible, test to learn, and share the story.


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