Your go-to resource for acronyms, jargons, terminology, and useful words for product and customer experience teams.


Design Thinking

What is the Design Thinking Process?

Design thinking is a framework for innovation that revolves around understanding problems or needs from the user’s point of view. This human-centered approach requires empathy for the people you’re trying to design new solutions for. Therefore, the design thinking process begins with learning about your customers’ thoughts and feelings.

The design thinking framework is similar to the agile development framework in that it represents a non-linear approach to innovation. The driving factors behind design thinking are empathy for users, testing of ideas, analysis of feedback, and continuous rethinking and retooling of plans.

While the five stages below are written sequentially, it is important to keep in mind that they rarely linearly take place For example, product teams will often find themselves going back to the ideation stage after testing their product with users and learning from their feedback.

Step 1: Understand the needs of the user

First and foremost, develop a product that your users will love, you must put yourself in their shoes and understand them. This is what we call empathy and it’s an important step in the design thinking process. Empathy allows you to identify a user’s needs, wants, goals, fears, and frustrations so that you can design a solution that meets them where they’re at. 

Design thinking starts with empathy because it’s only after we’ve set aside our preconceived notions that we can begin to see things from our customers’ perspectives. Only then can we develop products that they’ll want to use.

Step 2: Draft a problem statement

After you’ve completed the Empathy step and have a good grasp of what your user base needs, feels, and wants, you can start to translate these insights into a problem statement that covers the design issue you’d like to solve.

When doing this, it’s important to remember that your problem statement should be people-centric. In design thinking, you’ll be creating products not based on assumptions but according to the real needs and goals of actual people.

After taking some time to reflect on what you’ve learned, you might distill your thoughts into a statement like, “Property managers need a more time-efficient way to manage data across all the properties they manage.”

You can use this statement as a starting point for developing ideas for products, services, or specific functionality. In the next step, you’ll begin thinking about how you can turn your idea into a reality.

Step 3: Begin with your ideas

In Step 3, it’s time to start generating ideas with your team so you can begin developing practical solutions to the problem statement you came up with earlier. Remember, during this stage, it’s important to get as many ideas from your team as possible. You can always narrow down the list later according to what’s most important for your company, your budget, and other strategic factors.

At this stage in product development, it’s important to take the time to understand your users and what they want. This is when you and your team can start to generate new ideas and potential solutions that could be real game-changers for your product.

Step 4: Prototype your ideas

In the fourth stage of Design Thinking, you will take your most promising product ideas and turn them into scaled-down versions, known as prototypes. These prototypes can then be quickly shared with potential users for feedback. The Prototype phase is also a time for your team to learn about the development process, including which resources are required, how long specific development tasks take, and any constraints your team may be facing.

When you reach this stage in your product development, you should have at least one basic version of your product to begin testing with users. This will give you valuable feedback as to whether or not your product is on the right track. Keep it simple at first, then add more features and complexities as you move forward based on what users are asking for.

Step 5: Test your solution

Now it’s time to see how much empathy you’ve gained for your target users, and how well the solution you built is resonating with those people. The results you glean from this Test stage could help your team to fine-tune several aspects of this non-linear process. Based on user feedback, you might need to redefine the problem because you didn’t accurately capture the challenges they’re facing.

IDEO, one of the leading proponents and teachers of design thinking, suggests a slightly different set of steps for the test stage. As discussed in Why Product Managers Should Use Design Thinking, this stage might also help you go back and build a better prototype, come up with more ideas for your product’s next iteration, or even help you gain more empathy for your customers.

How Can Design Thinking Help Product Managers?

Design thinking has been successful in helping designers take a human-centered approach to create innovative solutions, and because of its success and popularity, the approach has spread to other areas of business such as product management.

Design thinking is an essential tool for product definition because it ensures that insights and perspectives from all disciplines are included. Design thinking helps product managers and their teams avoid becoming too reliant on product requirements, which are essentially assumptions. Instead, design thinking encourages more conversations centered on the needs of the people they are trying to serve. Design thinking also helps the cross-functional product team increase empathy for the user, understand the “why” behind every initiative, and learn more quickly.

The Case for Design Thinking

Regardless of what type of product you oversee — whether it’s an off-the-shelf consumer item or a complex enterprise solution — you and your organization are ultimately developing products for people. Design thinking capitalizes on re-orienting your team’s approach to product development from a focus on the products themselves to a focus on the human beings whose jobs and lives you’re hoping to improve by building these products. The more you’re able to empathize with your target users — to see the world as they do, to intuit what frustrates them — the more successful your product will be.