What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a process for solving problems by prioritising the customer’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.

Design thinking is “human-centred,” which means that it uses evidence of how customers actually engage with a product or service, rather than how someone else or an organisation thinks they will engage with it. To be truly human-centred, designers watch how people use a product or service and continue to refine the product or service in order to improve the consumer’s experience. This is the “iterative” part of design thinking. It favours moving quickly to get prototypes out to test, rather than endless research.

In contrast to traditional problem-solving, which is a linear process of identifying a problem and then brainstorming solutions, design thinking only works if it is iterative. It is less of a means to get to a single solution, and more of a way to continuously evolve your thinking and respond to customers needs.


5 Stages of Design Thinking

The 5-stage model was originally proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, and it is widely used by individuals and companies to better innovate themselves.

The 5-stage model is as follows:

  • Empathise (learn about the audience for whom you are designing),
  • Define (construct a point of view that is based on user needs and insights),
  • Ideate (brainstorm and invent creative solutions),
  • Prototype (build a representation of one or more of your ideas),
  • Test (return to your original user group and present your ideas for feedback).

Stage One: Empathise

The Empathy stage allows for Design Thinkers to gain comprehensive insight into the issue and, equally important, the context of where it exists. This discipline facilitates the dismissal of personal assumptions.

This includes:

  • consulting experts on the matter,
  • investigating further into the issue to improve the understanding of the problem,
  • working through the issue as a group, resulting in a deeper comprehension of all aspects of the problem.

The outcome:

A substantial amount of information is gathered, which is carried on to the next stages to help define the problem accurately. This discovery phase enables an authentic design to be constructed in the next stage – Define.

Stage Two: Define

The Define stage involves the analysis and compilation of the data gathered in stage one.

This process further facilitates:

  • the definition of the problem,
  • the context in which it exists and
  • the surrounding factors which would be affected by changes.

The outcome:

  • Collaboration and gathering of ideas
  • This stage leads into the third stage of the Design Thinking Discipline – Ideate

Stage Three: Ideate

Ideation allows for a fresh perspective and identifies creative ways to ideate solutions to normalised problems.
Often times being too close to the problem prevents one from seeing the bigger picture and the potential solutions.

The outcome:

  • A number of focused ideas offering multiple solution options.
  • These advance the process into the next phase of prototype.

Stage Four: Prototype

During this stage the team will work on creating a number of inexpensive products with specific features.  Each prototype facilitates a considered solution to the problem and exposes how the problem would be addressed, together with the impact of the solution on the environment.

The outcome:

  • An improved understanding of the constraints and limitations of each prototype.
  • This furthers the Teams wholistic understanding and identifies any complications, aiding in improved solution-design.

The process then progresses to the final stage – Test.

Stage Five: Test

Prototypes are extensively tested against the problem or plan that was identified in stages one and two above.  Alterations and refinements are made to the solution, ensuring the best possible outcome.

This is an iterative process, allowing the team to return to previous stages and revise their information and understanding. The team can continue to follow this process until they are satisfied with the designed solution.


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