Demystifying design
5 min read

Design Thinking explained

By
Louise Hill
February 1, 2024
Share this post
A person pointing to some sticky notes from a workshop. A team of people on their laptops are watching them.

Overview

You may have heard about the business benefits of applying Design thinking methodologies, but how does it all work and what actually is it? Your questions answered.

Human-centered design was popularised in the '80s and '90s. In the 21st century, businesses started to see the benefits of applying design methods to their challenges. In 2005, Stanford’s d.school began teaching design thinking as an approach to innovation and from there it has been widely adopted.

Design thinking is a methodology which encourages businesses to focus on the people they are creating things for—this leads to better products, services and processes. The first question when you kick off a new initiative should be—why do people need this? By applying the design thinking approach, your aim is to create something desirable, usable and feasible (both economically and technically). It is a process which can be used by designers and non-designers to solve a wide range of challenges using creative tools.

A Venn diagram showing the central point (innovation) at the centre of desirability, viability and feasibility.
Your aim is to create something desirable, usable and feasible (both economically and technically)

How can design thinking help your business or service?

You can use design thinking to:

  • Find and better understand unmet needs of your customers / clients / teams
  • Reduce risk when launching new processes / products / services
  • Create solutions which are future proof, rather than short term
  • Learn and change faster

What does design thinking look like?

The Frameworks
  • Design thinking is rarely linear but it’s often easiest to discuss the process in a step-by-step way. However, in reality many of the steps can be repeated, or you might jump back and forth between them
  • Moving through the phases can take you from nothing, to a new, innovative solution
  • There are lots of different design thinking frameworks, but at their core they contain a number of consistent themes

A diagram showing the stages of Design Thinking: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test.
Design Thinking themes: empathise; define; ideate; prototype; test

Empathise

Engaging with your target audience to understand their challenges and motivations.

Ideate

Now you have a clear problem to solve, it’s time to come up with lots of solutions. Quantity over quality is key. You can hold dedicated idea sessions using techniques like ‘crazy-8s', 'reverse thinking' and 'worst possible idea’.

Prototype

A scaled-down version of your idea that you can test on humans. These can take many forms and can span physical and digital experiences. Examples can include paper sketches, interactive digital prototypes and speedy landing pages. It’s important at this stage to understand how it will help you learn what you need to know and what the limitations will be.

Test

Learn as much as possible by putting your prototype in front of the right people. You can run testing sessions where you observe people interacting with the prototype and make changes and iterations as you go, quickly improving the results before you start spending time, effort and money implementing the solution.

How to get started

Step one

Gather insights through speaking, with empathy and curiosity, to your customers or potential customers / service users. Getting to know your customers is one of the most valuable things you can do as a business. Don’t assume you know what they want or need—dig deeper and embrace the word ‘why?’.

Step two

Frame problems as questions.The quickest way to start coming up with focused ideas is to frame your problem or opportunity as a human-focused question.

Step three

Sketch and build scrappy prototypes.Perfection is the enemy of progress. Communicating visually and testing out different ideas with real people makes all the difference when exploring which direction is best. Test with your target audience early and often.

So how can I help you using Design Thinking?

I can help with interviewing your customers, facilitating idea sessions, creating prototypes for you and testing those prototypes with your target customers. I can also run five-day Google Design Sprints with you—these are a series of intensive workshops where we run through the full design thinking process—prototyping and testing solutions to one of your business challenges.