The design thinking process asks us to place the user at the center of our work. Implementing a user-centered approach may feel quite natural during the “empathize” stage. After all, in our efforts to understand users, we conduct research that often brings us face-to-face. We may meet in person, have a discussion via phone or video chat, or gather written responses that reveal their unique opinions, frustrations, and goals.

However, in the “define” and “ideate” stages, there are fewer opportunities to directly connect with users. When users are not in the room, how do we maintain a user-centered approach?

Ultimately, we can apply user-centered thinking by leveraging our research from the empathize stage. This can be a tricky process because the research doesn’t tell us what problem to focus on or how to solve it. Rather, it provides information about our users that we can use to guide our design decisions.

Define and Ideate with Empathy

As we dive into the define and ideate stages of design thinking, we pick up where the empathize stage leaves off.

After conducting generative user research, we are equipped to define a real problem that users are experiencing. Then, with this user-centered problem in mind, we can ideate relevant solutions.

In these stages, the key to success is making choices that, to the best of our knowledge, will solve a problem users are facing. As we continue designing, we will evaluate our choices by obtaining user feedback. In some cases, we may learn that we solved the wrong problem, applied an ineffective solution, or missed opportunities to effectively address users’ pain points. When this happens, we can tap into the nonlinear nature of the design thinking process. The work of defining and ideating is not contained to one moment in time! We can revisit and reimagine our work from these stages to adapt the design for our users.

In this lesson, we will explore the overarching goals of the define and ideate stages. As we go, we’ll practice creating some standard outputs of these stages.


Think about the answer to the following question to check your understanding of this exercise.

How can designers keep the user at the center of the “define” and “ideate” stages?

Check Answer
Designers should use insights from user research to guide how they define a problem and how they intend to solve it.

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