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The Complete
Design Thinking
Process

Learn about the Design Thinking process powering today’s most user-friendly products, services and solutions.

About TheDesign Thinking Process

What is the Design Thinking process?

The Design Thinking process helps teams use work through “wicked” problems and turn opportunities into innovations. When teams apply the Design Thinking process, they work through a series of steps and activities toward a solution that is desirable, feasible and viable — also known as the Three Lenses of Human-Centered Design.

Given the iterative nature of design, the Design Thinking process can be considered more of a playbook than a predefined agenda. When teams need to learn more about their users, they turn to Empathy. When it’s time to test models, they pivot to Prototype. Often, Test results can reframe the opportunity, resulting in fresh rounds of Ideation and Definition.

Who participates in the Design Thinking process?

Unlike methods made for manufacturing or software development, the Design Thinking Process is designed for everybody. In fact, the Design Thinking process becomes more efficient as more skill sets are added to the team. This is because Design Thinking leans heavily on empathy and divergence, which both benefit from increased perspectives.

In practice, the most effective Design Thinking teams usually include 6 – 12 core members with diverse strategic and technical profiles. Some participants may be designers, but most will be experts and leaders in connected disciplines such as strategy, technology or marketing. Users are also common participants on the Design Thinking teams, as are other stakeholders or community members.

When building a Design Thinking team, consider the range of skills you need in order to make effective decisions during the workshop itself. This usually means having a mix of strategic and technical experts on-hand. In practice, teams with a mixture of “T-profiles” are most effective — that is, subject matter experts with a range of experiences.

T Shaped skills profiles are used to describe people with expertise in one field and experience in several others.
T-shaped profiles describe those with experience in several fields and a deep understanding of one. Experts in two or more fields are referred to as Pi-, M-, or Comb-shaped.

Who facilitates the Design Thinking process?

While anyone can participate in Design Thinking, coaching a team through the process does take practice. Facilitating the Design Thinking process typically entails coordinating research efforts and running multi-day workshops.

According to a study published by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design [1], the three most active facilitators of Design Thinking in organizations are:

  • Research & Development Leads
  • Design Thinking Consultants
  • Marketing Leads

The Design Thinking Framework

The Design Thinking framework provides a convenient mental model of the decision making process. It breaks the innovation process into simple steps, and helps teams know where to focus and when.

The framework was pioneered by John Arnold, an MIT professor who described an early version as: Question, Observe, Associate and Predict. [2]

Arnold encouraged the iteration of his approach, and the Design Thinking framework has since been widely adapted to suit diverse organizations, technologies and needs.

The Double Diamond Model

The Double Diamond model is one of the most influential models of the Design Thinking framework. It was published by the British Design Council in the early 2000s, and helped crystallize underlying concepts for the working world. Specifically, the Double Diamond model depicts how the two phases of divergent and convergent thinking work together to develop ideas. Other common cyclical Design Thinking models include those published by Nielsen Norman Group and IDEO.

The Double Diamond Model of Design Thinking works through a series of divergent and convergent activities to first frame the problem and then find the optimal solution.
The Double Diamond model is a helpful tool for visualizing how divergent and convergent thinking combine to map the area of opportunities and inform the development of prototypes.
Basically, there’s a problem statement at the beginning and a solution at the end, and the solution is reached in an iterative procedure.
Larry Leifer, The Design Thinking Playbook [3]

The Integrated Model

Staged frameworks are designed to help organizations integrate the iterative design process. The Integrated Design Thinking framework at Konrad is divided into three major stages containing a total of seven steps.

The following sections describe the Stages and Steps of the Design Thinking process, including what their objectives and key activities.

This Integrated Framework models the Design Thinking Process in three stages, comprising seven steps. The five core steps in the Design stage begin with Empathy, finish with Test, and iterate through a series of Ideation, Definition and Prototyping.

Design Thinking Stages

What are the stages of Design Thinking?

There are three primary stages of the Design Thinking process: Discover, Design, Deliver. Referred to as the 3 “Ds”, stages help organizations adopt Design Thinking into their existing processes. Together, the three stages provide a convenient way to coordinate complex projects containing iterative steps.

Design Thinking Stage 1: Discover

“We’ve sensed an opportunity and are exploring the space”

Every Design Thinking project kicks off in Discover. The goal of Discover is to move from a sense of the opportunity to a clear picture of the current landscape. This stage is often completed by a core project team who share their results with the broader team during Design Thinking workshops.

Key Output: A comprehensive landscape of the opportunity

Design Thinking Stage 2: Design

“We’ve aligned on objectives and are building experiences”

The Design stage is where rapid iteration occurs as teams shape insights into innovation. During the Design stage, teams work through five core steps of every Design Thinking process: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. These steps are completed through a series of design workshops and sprints that are tailored to each team.

Key Output: A working prototype ready to scale

Design Thinking Stage 3: Deliver

“We’ve found our solution and are ready to grow”

The Deliver stage is where lead prototypes are integrated with new and existing technologies. Whereas earlier stages are focused on working through ambiguity, the Deliver stage focuses on efficient execution and streamlined integration through training and technology.

Key Output: A real-world solution

The Design Thinking Process in Practice

How Gillette designed India’s favorite shave

Read how Gillette used Design Thinking to develop the Gillette Guard: A made-for-India experience for 400-million people.

  • Discover
    Gillette’s Opportunity
    Design thinking is often used to help teams address new markets.

    Shortly after Gillette was acquired by P&G in 2005, they set out to redesign the shaving experience for 400 million men in India. At the time, Gillette’s Western-style offerings were only catering to a sliver of the market, and the vast majority relied on (very) low-cost double-edged razors. After mapping the value chain from the steel to the sink, a cross functional team leveraged Design Thinking to re-learn the art of shaving in India — and bring an innovative product to market.

  • Design
    The Insights
    Using double-edged razors is a stressful shaving experience.

    The team met with men from across the country and saw first-hand how different the shaving experience was compared to in the United States. They saw how many men sat on the ground to shave using a mirror in their free hand. Often, only a small bowl of water was used to clean the blade. They saw the care it took to avoid cuts, and how long it could take (up to 30 minutes). While men had become experts in the craft, the desire for a less strenuous experience was clear — as long as it fit their current needs:

    • a faster, more relaxing experience
    • can still handle beards without running water
    • doesn’t clog easily from hair/shaving lather
    • priced competitively
  • Deliver
    The Innovation

    With these criteria, the team worked through a series of design iterations before arriving at the Gillette Guard: A made-for-India experience that delivered a relaxing shave for an affordable price. What makes the Guard unique is how it uses small plastic “teeth” to flatten the skin ahead of the blade, along with a custom pivoting head that works well in still water.

    Gillette celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Guard with a new 3-blade version.

    Thanks to a cost-saving design and distributed manufacturing model, the Gillette Guard sells profitably for 25 cents — or just 2% of the Mach 3 price. Launched in 2010, today 2 out of every 3 razors sold in India are Gillette Guards. [4]

    Read more about how P&G tripled its innovation success by engineering reverse innovations at Harvard Business Review.

Design Thinking Steps

What are the steps of Design Thinking?

Instead of trying to jump from mountains of research data straight to ideas, the Design Thinking steps help unpack the black box of creativity, and provide clear objectives for collaboration. Each step of the Design Thinking process works through a handful of core activities, completed with an array of tools.

Design Thinking steps begin with Research, end with Implement, and traverse an iterative 5-step core of Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. This core set of 5 steps has been adopted by diverse industries and is championed by leading UX design communities including the Interaction Design Foundation.

Step 1Design Thinking Research

Related Guide
UX Research Methods and Techniques
Go to Guide

Build the Foundation. Research helps move from sensing an opportunity, to seeing it in the context. It requires carefully studying the opportunity from every direction, and provides the foundation cross-functional teams need to work together effectively. Without a holistic view of the opportunity, teams will struggle to find feasible solutions that satisfy their innovation goals.

Core Design Thinking Research Activities

The current landscape describes all the systems and structures expected to underpin the solution. While the elements of the landscape are tailored to every project, the goal is always the same: Create a holistic view of the opportunity so disciplines can make decisions in real-time. The landscape is often created by a core team of project owners and design thinking consultants, and then shared with the complete team during design thinking workshops. Research Tools like AEIOU can help organize your landscape and identify any gaps.

The most successful design thinking projects begin with a shared understanding of what success looks like. Discussing the quantitative and qualitative KPIs early in the process helps teams have better conversations about the feasibility and viability of their ideas. If you aren’t sure where to start, you can use the Three Lenses of Human Centered Design as a guide (desirability, feasibility, viability).

After the current landscape has been created and shared among the team, and the KPIs have been discussed and drafted, teams are ready to “align on 1 line” with a statement of opportunity. Also called a problem statement, this activity helps complex teams speak the same language by articulating the high-level opportunity in simple terms. The most important part of the statement of opportunity is ensuring all disciplines are involved in drafting it.

Step 2Design Thinking Empathy

Related Guide
How to Create a User Persona
Go to Guide

Become your Users. The first step of the Design stage, Empathy is where teams immerse themselves in the user experience and challenge their own assumptions. Often referred to as ethnography, the Empathy step studies people in the context of their culture and environment. Depending on the scale and complexity of the opportunity, the Empathy step can take just a few days or up to several months, as was the case in the Gillette Guard example above.

Before drafting jumping into Empathy activities, teams must be clear who their primary users are. For a company like AirBnB, that means considering both people who rent apartments, and the people with apartments to rent. These two groups have very different needs, and should be considered separately to avoid compromising designs. When drafting user personas, these groups would be further divided based on shared travel interests, demographics, or other criteria.

Core Design Thinking Empathy Activities

Design Thinking Empathy is about immersing yourself in the user experience. That means interviewing real users, observing them in their daily life, and walking a mile in their shoes. Direct observation is a powerful creative tool, and small details can be very inspiring during ideation. Teams should look to connect both directly and indirectly with users, creating a holistic view of their experience through interviews, analytics and heuristic approaches.

User personas help design teams put a face to a name. They are the center of human-centered design, and a critical activity of the Empathy step. If you have worked with personas before, you’ll appreciate the level of realism and clarity of purpose Design Thinking personas provide. Personas are commonly drafted in advance of workshops by a core team and finalized together.

User stories allow teams to clearly articulate what users want and why. Without user stories (or closely related job stories / jobs to be done) teams would be overwhelmed trying to compare all the competing insights and user goals. It’s best to generate as many specific user stories as possible before converging on the top opportunities in a later activity.

UX research methods including interviews, surveys and walkthroughs play an important role throughout the Design Thinking process.

Step 3Design Thinking Define

Make choices. The Define step helps teams frame insights from Research and Empathy steps into a compass for their collaboration. During Define, teams validate, prioritize and align on next moves using guided activities in Design Thinking workshops. Without the Design Thinking process, aligning a cross functional team on human-centered opportunities would be very difficult, if not impossible. By the end of the Define step, ideas for solutions will begin to appear everywhere.

Core Design Thinking Define Activities

It’s important for teams to challenge their Statement of Opportunity several times throughout the Design Thinking process. Does it still stand? Or should it be updated to reflect new insights about users or feasibility? Validating the statement during Define keeps everyone on the same page.

A user persona should be as realistic as possible to inspire desirable ideas. Given how critical strong user personas are, design thinking teams should take care to make sure they reflect reality. Workshop tools like the Gallery Walk can be a refreshing way to review and revise draft personas, especially when combined with Dot Voting or other consensus-generating methods.

User stories provide UX teams with a single source of truth to design solutions with. Design Thinking provides transparent prioritization tools to help teams identify and apply the most effective criteria.

User journeys are a powerful visualization technique that combine user personas and user stories into a complete experience roadmap. Defining the journey helps uncover new moments and opportunities to delight users and improve the user experience.

Defining the requirements of the solution is a major milestone in the Design Thinking process. While the statement of opportunity outlines what the team is hoping to achieve, the requirements (sometimes called the Minimum Viable Product) give shape to the solution. For example, a team may begin with the opportunity to improve their online shopping experience, and after Research and Empathy they align on what specific user goals they need to support.

A design team working in the normal way might never appreciate that the problem had so many ramifications.”
Chris John Jones, Design Methods [5]

Step 4Design Thinking Ideate

Create choices. Ideate is where the magic of Design Thinking happens. Following weeks of research and immersion in the user experience, teams will begin seeing human-centered solutions everywhere they look. Core activities in the Ideate step help structure brainstorms and inspire new perspectives with creative tools like Brainwriting and SCAMPER. The Ideate step is usually revisited several times during the design thinking process as teams reframe opportunities and refine their solutions.

Core Design Thinking Ideate Activities

Sharing inspiring or innovative solutions among the team helps spark new ideas and creates a frame of reference for members with widely different professional disciplines or experiences. When planning a Design Thinking workshop, save time to have participants discuss a design or service that has personally surprised or delighted them. And be sure to look for inspiration outside your sector — hospitals can learn a lot from hospitality and vice versa.

Brainstorming is where human insights become innovative ideas. It is a highly divergent activity, dedicated to creating as many interesting avenues as possible. In practice, brainstorms are most effective when they’re focused on supporting a specific user goal. For example, “how can we help people get from X to Y”. For this reason, Design Thinking teams often split into small groups when brainstorming, each tackling one user story or moment. While not every brainstorm idea will be feasible or financially viable, each will reveal some truth about what users really want, which may inspire new ideas or be further expanded.

User stories provide UX teams with a single source of truth to design solutions with. Design Thinking provides transparent prioritization tools to help teams identify and apply the most effective criteria.

Step 5Design Thinking Prototype

Related Guide
The Complete UX Design Process
Go to Guide

Create context. The Prototype step puts ideas in context, allowing teams to make performance-based design decisions before any big commitments are made. Prototyping begins with low-resolution sketches that can be quickly created and compared, adding resolution as more is learned. In practice, the best prototypes provide just enough context to keep users focused on the aspects you want to learn about.

Core Design Thinking Prototype Activities

Making abstract ideas more tangible is an important first step in prototyping. It allows teams to compare strategic alternatives before committing resources, and provides valuable context for technical teams during production. Sketches, storyboards, or other ways to capture the concept will work well.

Modern prototyping tools are a design thinking superpower. From cloud-based tools to 3D printing, today’s designers can quickly simulate and iterate realistic experiences unlike ever before. This removes a lot of guesswork from the traditional design process, and creates more connected experiences at launch.

Step 6Design Thinking Test

Measure outcomes. The Test step in Design Thinking Test helps teams gather valuable feedback from users and other stakeholders. This step works hand-in-hand with Prototyping to inspire fresh ideas and refine working solutions. And just like with prototyping, the fidelity of the test should fit the situation — while “launch and learn” may be the best test for some projects, others have far lower risk tolerance.

Core Design Thinking Test Activities

You only get one chance to make a first impression, so it’s important to know what users say, think and feel when they first encounter your solution. Tools like the Feedback Capture Grid help organize user impressions to inform the design of higher-fidelity prototypes.

While not mandatory, evaluating solutions using tools like crowdsourced QA or live A/B testing can dramatically de-risk production.

Step 7Design Thinking Implement

Make reality. Implement is the final step of the Design Thinking process, and the first step of full-scale development. Here, teams map out how to integrate their proven prototype with the current landscape they explored during Research, optimizing as needed along the way. If you’re interested in learning more about what end-to-end design thinking consultants can offer, contact us.

Jones estimates a team of six designers can generate up to 300 ideas an hour with the appropriate methods. [5]

Core Design Thinking Tools

Design Thinking tools help teams combine perspectives and shape ideas. Each tool supports specific steps of the design thinking process, and comes in several flavors. The following section introduces the most popular Design Thinking tools, with additional links to more detailed resources.

Empathy Map

Develop a holistic understanding of your current or potential users and capture it in a simple cognitive canvas.

Empathy maps help organize and compare emotional insights about your users. They are typically divided into six parts to create a holistic view of a person’s experience and needs: Think + Feel, Say + Do, See, Hear, Pain and Gain

While not a requirement of all Design Thinking projects, empathy maps are an excellent source of insight most often used to build user personas, brainstorm user stories and map user journeys.

How to create an Empathy Map
  1. Divide a whiteboard or sheet of paper into the six sections above — preferably right after a user interview ends
  2. Arrange your notes and verbatims around the canvas
  3. Review interview recordings to fill in any gaps and dig deeper
  4. Compare notes with other interviewers and look to build on one another’s observations
  5. Share your empathy map with the broader team and align on the major Pains and Gains

Note: If you are working alone or in small groups, waiting to complete the pains and gains sections as a team can help create better ideas and alignment.

User Persona

Create a rich, realistic profile of your users that brings their experience to life for the entire team.

This example User Persona template outlines the basic sections and data to include. User Persona templates can be customized to suit specific project needs.

A user persona is a fictitious character profile that embodies one segment of your potential audience. They contain detailed descriptions on their background (age, career, education), behaviors (patterns, interests), and goals.

User personas are created based on observations from a variety of user surveys, interviews and analytics. As a critical piece of the Design Thinking process, user personas help teams focus all their downstream problem-solving efforts.

How to create a User Persona
  1. Think about a specific user role or goal you want to support
  2. Name your persona
  3. Fill out their personal details based on your observations of similar users
  4. Write a brief description about their current role and responsibilities as they pertain to your project
  5. List 4-5 relevant behaviors or patterns they have using the insights gathered in an empathy map, interview for empathy or other Design Thinking research tool
  6. Add a photo or mood board that captures their personality

Note: Avoid making more user personas than your team can remember in detail at once. Working with 3-6 user personas is usually best. Also consider scheduling quarterly team reviews of all your active user personas. This has the dual-benefit of keeping your users top of mind and your personas up to date.

Related Guide
User Persona Structure, Types and Examples
Go to Guide

User Journey Map

Develop a bird’s eye view of one user persona that encompasses all the important touch points relevant to your solution over time.

User journey maps are used to visualize multi-part experiences for a single user persona. They sections can be customized to suit your needs, but are typically clustered below high-level "milestones".

User journey maps are a powerful visualization technique. They are built in small teams using inputs from ethnographic research, empathy and ideation activities.

Common elements of user journey maps include basic details about the user persona, a timeline from start to finish, the user’s thoughts and emotions at each key moment, and significant opportunities to improve the experience.

How to create a User Journey Map
  1. Select one of your user personas
  2. Fill in basic details about the scenario
  3. Divide the journey into overarching phases
  4. Subdivide each phase into key moments
  5. Overlay emotions and quotes from interviews and empathy maps
  6. Identify user needs and opportunities to exceed expectations
  7. Discuss your journey map with the full team and iterate until complete

Note: Mapping your user’s entire journey – not just when they interact with you – is a great source for inspiration. You can upgrade a user journey to a service blueprint by connecting KPIs and organizational processes.

User Stories

Describe what your users want and why in a format that can be easily captured and compared among the team.

User Stories are often written on sticky notes and outline three important pieces of information: Who the user is, What they want, and Why they want it.

User stories help teams align on high-priority opportunities to improve the user experience. They are formatted as a single sentence that answers 3 W-H questions: WHO is the user, WHAT do they want, and WHY.

User stories are often created during brainstorming activities and discussed as a team using tools like a cluster matrix. User stories are common in Agile methodologies, and can be grouped together to form epics and themes.

Related Guide
User story mapping
Go to Guide
How to create a User Story
  1. Grab post its or open your user stories template
  2. Complete the following sentence with one of your user personas in mind:
    • As a [person in a specific role]
    • I want [to perform a specific action]
    • So that [I can achieve a specific goal]
  3. Write as many stories about your different users as you can
  4. Review user stories as a team

Note: Defining what needs to happen to “complete” the story can add more clarity for designers downstream. This is called the “acceptance criteria”.

SCAMPER

Build upon an existing idea or solution with a simple, structured brainstorming technique.

The seven Ideation thought-starters used in Design Thinking tool SCAMPER are depicted in this diagram.

SCAMPER is a brainstorming activity for breaking through to unexpected ideas. The word is an acronym for seven words that serve as cognitive prompts to help push thinking “outside the box”. SCAMPER stands for: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate and Revers

How to brainstorm with SCAMPER
  1. Start with a solution you want to improve
  2. Answer probing questions labelled under each letter
  3. Generate as many ideas as possible
  4. Move to the next letter if you get stuck

Note: Assigning one letter per person and rotating every 2-3 minutes can push ideas even farther.

Statement of Opportunity

Align on a singular statement that encompasses the spirit and scope of the current opportunity.

The statement of opportunity is a critical alignment tool completed during design thinking workshops

The statement of opportunity, also called a problem statement, is a simple tool for aligning teams. They answer the WHO, WHAT and WHY of your project in a single line, and are similar to user stories but with a different focus.

Statement of opportunity is usually developed early in a Design Thinking workshop and revisited throughout the process.

Related Guide
Create a Design Thinking Workshop Agenda
Go to Guide
How to create a Statement of Opportunity
  1. Grab post its or open your statement of opportunity template
  2. Write down what you believe the project’s strategic opportunity to be
  3. Share your statements with the team
  4. Align on a single statement of opportunity

Note: It is more helpful to focus on writing exactly what you feel the statement should be, instead of generating a pile of half-thought ideas

Share immersive user research with a broader team to mine for insights and opportunities.

Gallery Walks are a welcome way to share and compare insights from UX research. Commonly, draft user personas are presented in different areas of the room, allowing design thinking participants to browse at their own pace.

Gallery walks are an engaging way to share detailed results discovered during the Research or Empathy steps. They are intended to replicate the thoughtful experience of browsing in an art gallery, and participants are given worksheets or encouraged to record what stood out or surprised them.

Gallery walks are most often used to pressure test working user personas, with one large poster dedicated to visualizing each user type.

How to conduct a Gallery Walk
  1. Create a “canvas” for each user persona
  2. Hang your canvases around the room
  3. Invite the full team come and browse
  4. Provide a worksheet to focus discussion
  5. Discuss the show and validate findings

Note: Gallery walks are best when stakeholders can actually walk. Use large posters, big pictures and fat markers. In addition, rules like no talking and changing stations at set intervals makes it easier to organize your thoughts.

So what is the Design Thinking process?

Simply put, the Design Thinking process is a playbook that helps teams shape a field of opportunities into specific innovations. It breaks down the human-centered design process into a series of stages and steps, and guides complex collaborations with tools and activities.

Given the collaborative nature, most Design Thinking activities are completed during design workshops with the help of experienced facilitators. To learn more about putting the process into practice, see our guide How to Run a Design Thinking Workshop.

  1. Schmiedgen J, Rhinow H, Köppen E. Parts without a whole?: The current state of Design Thinking practice in organizations. Universitätsverlag Potsdam; 2016.
  2. Smith P. Creativity: An Examination of the Creative Process; a Report on the Third Communications Conference of the Art Directors Club of New York. Paul Smith, Editor. 1959.
  3. Lewrick M, Link P, Leifer L. The Design Thinking Playbook: Mindful Digital Transformation of Teams, Products, Services, Businesses and Ecosystems. John Wiley & Sons; 2018.
  4. Harvard Business Review, Brown T, Christensen CM, Nooyi I, Govindarajan V. HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Design Thinking (with featured article “Design Thinking” By Tim Brown). Harvard Business Press; 2020.
  5. Jones JC. Design Methods. John Wiley & Sons; 1992.