What is the design thinking process (plus examples)?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 16 January 2023

Published 19 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In the field of design, a process like design thinking can help you approach problems in new ways and more effectively create solutions to problems. It's an iterative, human-centred approach to solving problems, evaluating ideas and creating new products and services. If you want to tap into the potential of design thinking, you may want to know how it works and how to apply it within your workplace's existing culture and processes. In this article, we explore the basics of the design thinking process and its value in the business world today.

What is the design thinking process?

The design thinking process encourages designers to work with users in understanding their wants and developing creative solutions that solve them. The success of a business can depend on how well designers can innovate and create products and services that your customers want to buy. There are six steps to the design thinking process, which are: define, empathise, ideate, prototype, test and refine.

The process can apply to many different scenarios to help you make better decisions. Design thinking can apply to various aspects of life, from dealing with behaviour problems to product development, in addition to other fields that have become increasingly focused on design, such as education and medicine. Below is a deeper look into the six steps of the design thinking process:

1. Defining consumer wants

As part of design thinking, the first step involves identifying and defining the problems people might have with products or services. This enables you to develop a more exact solution. It's a good idea to research potential customers before attempting to solve an identified problem; you want to make sure your proposed solution addresses their wants before going ahead and investing in product development. To do so, start by identifying these key areas:

  • Who is my customer?

  • What do they want or desire?

  • Why are they having trouble fulfilling this request?

2. Understanding and empathising

To create an effective product, designers attempt to understand the end-user. Put yourself in their shoes to think about what they want. The value of a product correlates to how well it solves a problem the consumer has, so you can figure out what problems they face and why they're interested in solutions.

To understand a problem fully, it's helpful to empathise with those who have that problem. Think about people from all walks of life. Demographics, habits, finances and other factors can play a role in whether or not your solution can be useful. List as many potential users as possible, then take time to consider their different goals.

Related: What is process design? (Plus its 8 core principles)

3. Brainstorm ideas

When you know the problem you're trying to solve, you can begin brainstorming how to do that. Ideas start with a seed that grows into a fully fledged concept. Here is a real world example to help you understand how this process works.

Example: If you want to design an app for teaching kids about computer programming, but you don't know where to begin, start by writing down all of your ideas about what could make such an app successful. At this stage, it's fine to note down outlandish or far-fetched ideas. You can narrow them down later, but when you're starting the brainstorming process, it's helpful to be creative and uncensored. After spending some time thinking up as many possibilities as possible, look at which ones seem promising and ask yourself why they have value.

Step away from your brainstorming notebook or notes for a while. When you go back to your list, try to find flaws in any of your initial ideas that could cause problems down the road. One of your initial thoughts might be for an app that gives parents and kids access to each other's calendars. While there are many benefits to this idea, you may realise on reflection that there is also potential for an invasion of privacy. Ask yourself if any of your concepts aren't viable options. This can help you narrow down and improve your ideas.

4. Prototype the design solution

Prototyping gives you a chance to take an idea for a product or service and turn it into reality so that you can test its viability, look for flaws and fix them before moving onto more permanent solutions. The goal of prototyping isn't perfection. Instead, it's the completion of enough iterations to ensure that your final product can be successful. You may want to prototype a few ideas to help you better visualise them and find the pros and cons. A paper prototype is much easier and often cheaper than constructing a physical object.

Just because something is physical doesn't make it better. Visualising an idea on paper can help you avoid losing sight of your project. Paper prototyping allows you to move past basic questions about how to make the product or how long it may take and helps you focus on wider issues such as design, usability or customer experience. After this stage, you can create more in-depth prototypes to get you closer to your design solution.

Read more: How to learn graphic design with tips for success

5. Test the prototype with real people

Researching how your prototype works for real users or people with similar interests as the user can help you understand exactly what they want. These may not be what you originally thought, which may cause you to change your prototype during this process. Designers call these tests low fidelity prototypes because they use simple materials that can be easily changed. It's not necessary for these prototypes to look good, it's just important that they work.

Low fidelity just means more flexibility, so if something doesn't work out, it can change very quickly. Through testing, you can get qualitative feedback, such as what consumers like or don't like about your prototype. This information can help you refine your design to be more usable and effective. By testing with people from different backgrounds, you can gain better insight into how your design works for people with different goals, priorities or skill levels.

6. Refine the design

When you have tested and received feedback on your prototype, you may find that either the design is successful and you have completed the design process or you would like to make improvements. If it's the latter, you can circle back to the ideation phase to brainstorm alterations to your design.

Refine your product using what you've learned from customer testing and iterate through a series of design cycles until you're happy with your design solution. If a customer finds a problem with one aspect of their experience but not others, change only that part so as not to disturb other parts of the experience. Testing the product with a larger number of people can help you determine whether each person's experience is an outlier or part of a pattern.

Read more: How to become a product designer (duties, skills, salary)

Example of the design thinking process

To break down a problem, use design thinking principles to consider different perspectives and find creative solutions. Below is an example of how you can use the design thinking principles to solve a problem:

Define and empathise with consumer demands

Freshly Dropped is a meal kit service. They have determined that their customers' main issue is the number of resources used in packaging. The company analyses how this concern affects their behaviour and sales choices.

Ideate possible solutions

Freshly Dropped's design team brainstorms ideas to reduce their packaging. They have the idea to create an online recipe page for their website that customers can reach by QR code. This can help the company eliminate the paper and ink they previously used to print the recipe sheets, making the meal kit more sustainable.

Read more: Guide to jobs for designers (career path and salaries)

Produce a prototype

The design team sketches out a design for the recipe page. They then ask the opinion of the wider team. The improvements they suggest are from website data and when they are happy with the design, they create a test version of the page.

Test and refine the solution

After approving the test page, Freshly Dropped begins rolling out a beta version of the new system. They receive feedback from test users and tweak the design for the best user experience. They then release the final design to their full customer base.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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