Design Thinking

Design thinking is a problem-solving method used to create practical and creative solutions while addressing the needs of users. The process is extremely user centric as it focuses on understanding the needs of users and ensuring that the solutions created solve users' needs.

It's an iterative process that favours ongoing experimentation until the right solution is found.


  • Why is the design thinking process important?
    Benefits of Design Thinking. Source: Spencer 2017.
    Benefits of Design Thinking. Source: Spencer 2017.

    Design thinking helps us to innovate, focus on the user, and ultimately design products that solve real user problems.

    The design thinking process can be used in companies to reduce the time it takes to bring a product to the market. Design thinking can significantly reduce the amount of time spent on design and development.

    The design thinking process increases return of investment as the products are user-centric, which helps increase user engagement and user retention. It's been seen that a more efficient workflow due to design thinking gave 75% savings in design and development time, 50% reduction in defect rate, and a calculated ROI of more than 300%.

  • When and where should the design thinking process be used?
    Introduction to design thinking. Source: Humble 2018.

    The design thinking process should especially be used when dealing with human-centric challenges and complex challenges. The design thinking process helps break down complex problems and experiment with multiple solutions. Design thinking can be applied in these contexts: human-centred innovation, problems affecting diverse groups, involving multiple systems, shifting markets and behaviours, complex societal challenges, problems that data can't solve, and more.

    A class of problems called wicked problems is where design thinking can help. Wicked problems are not easy to define and information about them is confusing. They have many stakeholders and complex interdependencies.

    On the contrary, design thinking is perhaps an overkill for obvious problems, especially if they're not human centred. In such cases, traditional problem-solving methods may suffice.

  • What are the principles of the design thinking process?

    There are some basic principles that guide us in applying design thinking:

    • The human rule: All design activity is social because all social innovation will bring us back to the "human-centric point of view".
    • The ambiguity rule: Ambiguity is inevitable, and it can't be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in being able to see things differently.
    • The redesign rule: While technology and social circumstances may change, basic human needs remain unchanged. So, every solution is essentially a redesign.
    • The tangibility rule: Making ideas tangible by creating prototypes allows designers to communicate them effectively.
  • What are the typical steps of a design thinking process?
    The design thinking process. Source: Adapted from Think Design & Convert 2018.
    The design thinking process. Source: Adapted from Think Design & Convert 2018.

    The process involves five steps:

    • Empathy: Put yourself in the shoes of the user and look at the challenge from the point of view of the user. Refrain from making assumptions or suggesting answers. Suspend judgements throughout the process.
    • Define: Create a challenge statement based on the notes and thoughts you have gained from the empathizing step. Go back to the users and modify the challenge statement based on their inputs. Refer to the challenge statement multiple times throughout the design thinking process.
    • Ideate: Come up with ideas to solve the proposed challenge. Put down even the craziest ideas.
    • Prototype: Make physical representations of your ideas and solutions. Get an understanding of what the final product may look like, identify design flaws or constraints. Take feedback from users. Improve the prototype through iterations.
    • Test: Evaluate the prototype on well-defined criteria.

    Note that empathy and ideate are divergent steps whereas others are convergent. Divergent means expanding information with alternatives and solutions. Convergent is reducing information or filtering to a suitable solution.

  • What are the specific tools to practice design thinking?
    Tools for the design thinking process. Source: Butler 2019.
    Tools for the design thinking process. Source: Butler 2019.

    Design thinking offers tools for each step of its five-step process. These are summarized in the above figure. These tools offer individuals and teams something concrete to effectively practice design thinking.

    New Metrics has enumerated 14 different tools: immersion, visualization, brainstorming, empathy mapping, journey mapping, affinity mapping, rapid iteration, assumption testing, prototyping, design sprints, design criteria, finding the value proposition, and learning launch. They describe each tool briefly and note the benefits. More tools include focus groups, shadowing, concept maps, personas, positioning matrix, minimum viable product, volume model, wireframing, and storyboards.

    For specific software tools, we note the following:

    • Empathize: Typeform, Zoom, Creatlr
    • Define: Smaply, Userforge, MakeMyPersona
    • Ideate: SessionLab, Stormboard, IdeaFlip
    • Prototype: Boords, Mockingbird, POP
    • Test: UserTesting, HotJar, PingPong
    • Complete Process: Sprintbase, InVision, Mural, Miro
  • What should I keep in mind when applying the design thinking process?
    Design thinking and Scrum complement each other. Source: Yoshida 2018.
    Design thinking and Scrum complement each other. Source: Yoshida 2018.

    Every designer can use a variation of the design thinking process that suits them and customize it for each challenge. Although distinct steps are defined, design thinking is not a linear process. Rather, it's very much iterative. For example, during prototyping we may go back to redefine the problem statement or look for alternative ideas. Every step gives us new information that might help us improve on previous steps.

    Adopt Agile methodology. Design thinking is strong on ideation while Scrum is strong on implementation. Combine the two to make a powerful hybrid Agile approach.

    While the steps are clear, applying them correctly is not easy. To identify what annoys your clients, ask questions. Empathy means that you should relate to their problems. Open-ended questions will stimulate answers and help identify the problems correctly.

    At the end of the process, as a designer, reflect on the way you've gone through the process. Identify areas of improvement or how you could have done things differently. Gather insights on the way you went through the design thinking process.

  • What do I do once the prototype is proven to work?
    Iterate on prototyping and validation. Source: McConell 2015.
    Iterate on prototyping and validation. Source: McConell 2015.

    The prototype itself can be said to "work" only after we have submitted it to the clients for feedback. Use this feedback to improve the prototype. Make the actual product after incorporating all the feedback from the prototype.

    Gathering feedback itself is an important activity. Present your solution to the client by describing the thought process by which the challenge was solved. Take notes from users and ensure that they are satisfied with the final product. It's important not to defend your product. It's more important to listen to what users have to say and make changes to improve the solution.

    Present several versions of the prototype so that users can compare and express what they like and dislike. Consider using I Like, I Wish, What If method for gathering feedback. Get feedback from regular users as well as extreme users with highly opinionated views. Be flexible and improvise during testing sessions. Allow users to contribute ideas.

    Recognize that prototyping and testing is an iterative process. Be prepared to do this a few times.

  • How is design thinking different from user-centred design?
    Design thinking as a methodology within the UCD framework. Source: Lake 2016.
    Design thinking as a methodology within the UCD framework. Source: Lake 2016.

    On the surface, both design thinking and user-centred design (UCD) are focused on the needs of users. They have similar processes and methods. They aim for creative or innovative solutions. To elicit greater empathy among designers, UCD has been more recently called human-centred design (HCD).

    However, design thinking goes beyond usability. It considers technical feasibility, economic viability, desirability, etc. without losing focus on user needs. While UCD is dominated by usability engineers and focuses on user interfaces, design thinking has a larger scope. Design thinking brings more multi-disciplinary perspectives that can suggest innovative solutions to complex problems. While it borrows from UCD methods, it goes beyond the design discipline.

    Some see UCD as a framework and design thinking as a methodology that can be applied within that framework. Others see these as complementary: a team can start with design thinking for initial exploration and later shift to UCD for prototyping and implementation.

  • What are some ways to get more ideas?

    Design thinking is not about applying standard off-the-shelf solutions. It's about solving difficult problems that typically require creative approaches and innovation. More ideas, the better. Use different techniques such as brainstorming, mind mapping, role plays, storyboarding, etc.

    Innovation is not automatic and needs to be fostered. We should create the right mindsets, an open and explorative culture. Designers should combine both logic and imagination. Teams should be cross-disciplinary and collaborative. Work environments must be conductive to innovation.

    When framing the problem, think about how the challenge can be solved in a certain place or scenario. For example, think about how one of your ideas would function differently in a setting such as a kitchen.

    Write down even ideas that may not work. Further research and prototyping might help refine it. Moreover, during the prototyping and testing steps, current ideas can spark new ideas.



The Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design, Architecture and Communications is held in London. It explores design processes and new design methods. Although the birth of design methodology can be traced to Zwicky's Morphological Method (1948), it's this conference that recognizes design methodology as a field of academic study.


The term Design Science is introduced. This shows that the predominant approach is to find "a single rationalised method, based on formal languages and theories".


Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel Prize laureate and cognitive scientist, mentions the design thinking process in his book The Sciences of the Artificial and further contributes ideas that are now known as the principles of design thinking.


This decade sees some resistance to the adoption of design methodology. Even early pioneers begin to dislike "the continual attempt to fix the whole of life into a logical framework".


Rittel publishes The State of the Art in Design Methods. He argues that the early approaches of the 1960s were simplistic, and a new generation of methodologies are beginning to emerge in the 1970s. Rather than optimize through systematic methods, the second generation is about finding a satisfactory solution in which designers partner with clients, customers and users. This approach is probably more relevant to architecture and planning than engineering and industrial design.


This decade sees the development of engineering design methodology. An example is the series of International Conferences on Engineering Design. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers also launches a series of conferences on Design Theory and Methodology.

The evolution of the design thinking process. Source: Dam and Siang 2019.
The evolution of the design thinking process. Source: Dam and Siang 2019.

Nigel Cross discusses the problem-solving nature of designers in his seminal paper Designerly Ways of Knowing.


Peter Rowe, Director of Urban Design Programs at Harvard, publishes his book Design Thinking. This explores the underlying structure and focus of inquiry in design thinking.


IDEO, an international design and consulting firm, brings design thinking to the mainstream by developing their own customer-friendly technology.


  1. AIMET. 2017. "Getting to grips with Design Thinking." Blog, Australian Institute of Management Education and Training Pty Limited, October 03. Accessed 2019-07-27.
  2. Arab, A. 2023. "From Ideas to Innovation: How Design Thinking Can Drive Business Success." New Metrics, May 19. Accessed 2024-01-05.
  3. Brunetto, Sebastian Kummetz. 2018. "When to use Design Thinking and when NOT to?" Medium, April 2. Accessed 2019-06-17.
  4. Butler, B. 2019. "Designing for Change: Communities and Capital." Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, March 19. Accessed 2024-01-05.
  5. Cross, N. 1993. "A History of Design Methodology." In: M. J. de Vries et aL (eds.), Design Methcdology and Relationships with Science, Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 15-27. Accessed 2020-07-31.
  6. Cserti, R. 2019. "20 Best Online Tools for Design Thinking." Blog, SessionLab, March 19. Accessed 2024-01-05.
  7. Dam, Rikke and Teo Siang. 2018. "5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process." Interaction Design Foundation, November 30. Accessed 2019-07-01.
  8. Dam, Rikke and Teo Siang. 2018b. "Design Thinking: New Innovative Thinking for New Problems." Interaction Design Foundation, December 30. Accessed 2019-07-27.
  9. Dam, Rikke and Teo Siang. 2019. "Stage 4 in the Design Thinking Process: Prototype." Interaction Design Foundation, May 18. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  10. Dam, Rikke and Teo Siang. 2019b. "Design Thinking: Get a Quick Overview of the History" Interaction Design Foundation, July 3. Accessed 2019-07-15
  11. Dam, Rikke Friis and Teo Yu Siang. 2019c. "Test Your Prototypes: How to Gather Feedback and Maximise Learning." Interaction Design Foundation, August 1. Accessed 2020-07-31.
  12. Humble, Jeff. 2018. "What Is Design Thinking? An Expert Explains." CareerFoundry, via YouTube, October 11. Accessed 2019-06-17.
  13. IDEO. 2018. "What’s the difference between human-centered design and design thinking?" FAQ, IDEO, December 13. Updated 2021-05-03. Accessed 2024-01-03.
  14. Interaction Design Foundation. 2016. "User Centered Design." Interaction Design Foundation, June 5. Updated 2023-10-27. Accessed 2024-01-03.
  15. Kelly, Braden and Adam Radziszewski. 2019. "8 Design Thinking Problems and How to Fix Them." Accessed 2019-07-27.
  16. Lake, F. 2016. "Human Centred Design vs Design Thinking vs Service Design vs UX …. What do they all mean?" LinkedIn Pulse, June 8. Accessed 2024-01-03.
  17. MJV. 2022. "Design Thinking Tools: how to use them to solve complex problems." Blog, MJV Technology and Innovation, January 6. Accessed 2024-01-05.
  18. McConell, Ivana. 2015. "How to Use Prototypes to Inspire the Right Feedback." Blog, UxPin, March 3. Updated 2020-04-22. Accessed 2020-07-31.
  19. Moreira, Matina. 2017. "Design Thinking: Finding the Problem." Medium, December 5. Accessed 2019-07-01
  20. Powell, Doug. 2018. "The Business Value of Design Thinking." IBM Think Blog, March 8. Accessed 2019-06-13.
  21. Spencer, John. 2017. "Benefits of Design Thinking." Flickr, May 2. Accessed 2019-06-17.
  22. Stevens, Emily. 2019. "What Is Design Thinking? A Comprehensive Beginner's Guide." Blog, CareerFoundry May 16. Accessed 2019-06-13.
  23. Think Design & Convert. 2018. "Design Thinking Process." Think Design & Convert, March. Accessed 2019-07-27.
  24. UID. 2016. "Design Thinking – new old creativity." UID GmbH, March 3. Updated 2022-09-05. Accessed 2024-01-03.
  25. Wahl, Daniel Christian. 2017. "Facing Complexity: Wicked Design Problems." Age of Awareness, via Medium, April 29. Accessed 2019-07-27.
  26. Wikipedia. 2020. "Design thinking." Wikipedia, July 29. Accessed 2020-07-31.
  27. Yoshida, Takeshi. 2018. "Try Design Thinking + Scrum." Medium, September 19. Accessed 2019-07-27.

Further Reading

  1. The Sciences of the Artificial 3rd edition by Herbert A. Simon
  2. Creative Engineering by John E Arnold
  3. What Is Design Thinking? A Comprehensive Beginner's Guide
  4. Designerly ways of knowing - Nigel Cross
  5. Design Thinking - Peter Rowe
  6. Lawson, Bryan. 1990. "How Designers Think – The Design Process Demystified." Second Edition, ScienceDirect. Accessed 2019-06-13.

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Devopedia. 2024. "Design Thinking." Version 9, January 5. Accessed 2024-06-25.
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Last updated on
2024-01-05 09:09:43