What is Design Thinking — & How Can You Start Actually Using It?

6 minutes

Lots of people are drawn to tech because they get a thrill out of solving problems — and designers are no exception. UI/UX teams (short for “user interface” and “user experience”) use a specific process called “design thinking” to get in their users’ heads, identify their problems and needs, and come up with solutions.

At its core, design thinking is a multi-step framework for creative problem-solving, explains Taylor Green, Product Designer at Codecademy. The concept was developed in the ‘70s, and has become the standard for UI/UX design. You might hear design thinking referred to as “human-centered thinking,” because the whole point is to put people (or “users”) at the forefront of each step in the process.

“Design thinking” is a bit of a misnomer, because it’s utilized in other fields beyond just design. “It’s a great process for anybody who wants to dig deeper into a problem by understanding customer needs, brainstorming solutions, and quickly testing hypotheses,” Taylor says. Design thinking is typically a cross-functional effort, says Juan Real, Lead Product Designer at Miro. Product, Design, and Research teams might take the lead in the early stages and then incorporate more teams and stakeholders as the project evolves, he says.

Learn something new for free

In our free course Learn Design Thinking: Ideation, you’ll learn how to use the design thinking framework to define problems and ideate solutions to solve them. Plus, you’ll get access to Miro, a well-known visual collaboration platform that’s used by millions of people worldwide, including major tech companies like Dropbox, Dell, and Typeform.

To give you a taste of what you’ll learn in the course, here are the five steps of design thinking and tips for applying the problem-solving technique to your own work.

1. Empathize

In order to understand your user, you have to be able to empathize, or put yourself in the user’s shoes and imagine their needs, wants, behaviors, and thoughts, Taylor says. Empathizing requires “setting aside your own biases, challenging whatever assumptions that you had previously, and just getting to know your user,” she says.

Throughout the whole design thinking process, you’ll continue empathizing with your end user. This step is really about discovering who has the problem, learning what other solutions are out there, and contextualizing the problem space in general, Juan says.

How to do it: Empathy and research go hand-in-hand. During this initial stage, you’d conduct stakeholder interviews, observe user behaviors through field visits, and document your findings. The more people and perspectives that are engaged in this process, the better.

2. Define

Using the information you gleaned from research, the next step in design thinking is to define the user needs and problem space, Taylor says. “You’re trying to get a better understanding of your problem and really put it into terms that are easy to understand and will help set you up for the process moving forward,” she says.

This stage is essential, because it helps UI/UX teams identify the “right” problem to solve, Don Norman, who’s considered the father of UX, explained in an interview with the Interactive Design Foundation. “You have to look at what the fundamental issues are and address them,” Don said. “And those fundamental issues are much more difficult than solving the symptoms.”

How to do it: Defining a problem is a matter of analyzing and interpreting your research findings to come up with a point of view. In this stage, UI/UX teams will typically write a problem statement, which is a few sentences that clearly frame the task and provide direction. A problem statement should address the five W’s — who, what, where, when, and why — about your problem.

In our free course Learn Design Thinking: Ideation, you’ll get practice using user research to write a problem statement for a friendship networking app.

3. Ideate

With your problem top of mind, the next step is to think about how to go about solving it. During the ideation phase of design thinking, you get to really think outside of the box and stretch your imagination to produce innovative solutions, Taylor says.

How to do it: There are a variety of creative brainstorming and workshopping techniques and tools that UI/UX teams use to bring out a wide range of ideas, Taylor says. For example, mind-mapping is a brainstorming method that involves making a web chart of ideas that stem from a central problem. There’s another format called “inverted brainstorming,” where participants are prompted to think of the “worst possible idea” and work backwards.

Miro has a plethora of templates that you can use for each stage of the design thinking process, particularly ideation, Juan says. “You can find methods you are familiar with or you can explore and try new methods with your team,” he says. No matter which brainstorming format you use, it’s important to withhold judgment while you ideate. At this phase, there’s no such thing as “bad” ideas or “dumb” questions — so go wild!

4. Prototype

This is the point where your ideas come to life and you get to build tactile products to test out.

How to do it: In digital product design, prototyping means actually sketching a low-fidelity design or building a wireframe for your web page or application, Taylor explains. As you explore the initial structure and design of your product, you also come to realize which of your ideas are actually feasible from a technical standpoint, she adds.

Want to learn how to make wireframes? You can practice sketching wireframes in our free course Introduction to UI and UX Design.

5. Test

The design thinking process wraps up with a lot of testing and tweaking based on feedback from users — after all, human-centered design prioritizes users’ needs and wants. Through testing, you’re essentially validating the hypotheses and solutions that you came up with in the other stages, Taylor says.

How to do it: Get your product in the hands of real users and see how they interact with it through usability testing, which is where a UX Researcher or other team member observes and interviews a participant (a realistic user) as they perform a task. Researchers conducting the tests use this stage to seek feedback, both negative and positive. It’s very likely that you’ll uncover a potential problem or missed opportunity during testing. From there, teams have to figure out how to revisit or restart the design thinking process altogether.

Tips for getting started with design thinking

Design thinking is supposed to be iterative, meaning the work doesn’t stop once you reach the final step. As you keep getting new insights, feedback, and information, you’ll return to your ideas and continuously make improvements. “You’re never really done empathizing or iterating,” Taylor says.

Don’t get caught up in following the precise order of operations, because design thinking can be nonlinear — you might go back and forth between a few steps, or even move faster through some depending on the scope of the project or your timeframe, Taylor says. For example, if a research team has lots of historical data on their users available to pull from, they may speed up the information-gathering part of the first step.

Like anything in coding, with practice, the design thinking principles “become ingrained in your process and become second nature,” Taylor says. If you’re hoping to get hired in a UI/UX role, it’s important to showcase the basics of the design thinking process in your portfolio when you’re presenting case studies, Juan says. “It is very important to showcase how your learnings and the empathy that you gained helped you to come up with solutions, and create a very compelling story of your involvement in the project,” he says. In our free course Learn Design Thinking: Ideation, we’ll walk you through how to document your work and write a UX case study for your portfolio.

Want to pick up more UI/UX skills? Check out Introduction to UI and UX Design to learn more about the theory and practice behind UI/UX design, or Learn User Research: Generative to get hands-on practice conducting user research and analyzing data with Miro. (Those courses are all free btw!) And for more job-search motivation, be sure to read these stories about people who broke into UX design.

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