What Is Design Thinking? – A How-To Guide

Historically speaking, the word design has always been associated with products. Products that a user can touch, feel and experience. Michelangelo designed David, Charles Babbage designed the first automatic computing engine. With time, design shifted to ergonomics and ease of use: IKEA rolled out modular furniture, Ergonomic chairs and computer peripherals started taking over the market.

Now, design has a new role. Design thinking has taken over: A lot of Business level strategies, problem statements are solved through the design thinking approach. 

But a primary question arises in every mind, how can thinking be designed?

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a human-centric approach to understand, define and then come up with a solution that would help the user. Generally, this would be a very obvious approach to solving any problem. But unfortunately, we humans are driven by pattern bias or cognitive bias. We tend to think in one particular direction that we are fully aware of; thus we generalize a problem based on our perception and a solution based on our knowledge.

Design thinking forces you to go out on the field and find a solution that isn’t convenient for you as an ideator but is actually useful for the end-user.

When To Apply Design Thinking?

Since design thinking is a buzzword currently, a lot of people abuse the idea of using design thinking everywhere. But when do you actually use design thinking?

When The Problem Is Human-Centric

We have already discussed that design thinking is a human-centric approach to any problem. Through design thinking, we can clearly define what a user needs, which needs can be converted to wants and what will push it up a notch to make it a desire. The primary key here is understanding what a user wants and solving the problem through constant feedback in an iterative approach.

When You Wish To Have Solutions To A Mystery

This may sound very outlandish but design thinking is actually an exploratory tool. It helps you clearly understand and define the problem and proceed with solutions to the problem you do not fully understand. The results may not be what you anticipate and sometimes, you change the problem statement completely.

Although knowing when to apply design thinking isn’t enough, the important aspect is to know when not to apply design thinking.

When Not To Apply Design Thinking?

The Problem Is A Puzzle

Now, what the statement implies is, you have a problem and an anticipated outcome you already know of, the only issue is the approach. Such complicated problems are very well defined issues, that need very specific results. If you have any of these, a design thinking approach might be counterproductive as you fall into the loop of iterating solutions without real outcomes.

Now that you are sure you need to implement Design Thinking, here is what you need to do next:

The Five Steps Of Design Thinking

Design thinking has specific stage processes that give you the structure to help you design better solutions. Although there is no particular rule to stick by them, The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Standford, more commonly known as the d.school has provided an outline of five stages. It is important to note that not always will you follow the chain, sometimes you may skip a few stages, jump or work parallelly on multiple stages since there will be a lot of iterations to your solution.

design thinking

Stage 1: Empathize

Here, you need to have an in-depth understanding of your user’s needs. The reason why it is stated as empathize is so that you get into the shoes of a user and understand the problems they face from their perspective. Typically the empathetic understanding is gained through user experience and their perception towards a problem.

Avoid: Assuming problems. Most designers make the error of assuming the problem and begin with the define phase. The problem isn’t what you think the user is facing, the problem should be directly derived from the target user and from what the target user perceives as a problem.

Stage 2: Define

For the define phase, you cluster all the information you gathered during the empathize phase and using your observations define the core issues you identified. You write it down and define this as the problem statement you will be willing to work on.

Avoid: Defining problems closest to your convenience. A well-defined problem statement would be such that it helps most of the target user (setting aside the outliers) and generally solves the most recurring issues.

Stage 3: Ideate

After the first two steps, designers have a clear idea of what the problem is what the expected solution generally would be. When it boils down to ideating for the defined problem, the designer has to think of solutions that are out of the norm. Here are a few methods you can use to ideate better.


Braindumping is similar to brainstorming, but on a piece of paper. The essence of braindumping is to dump a lot of ideas into a piece of paper that could possibly solve the problem. The ideas might be farfetched or sometimes very naive and basic. That shouldn’t stop you from writing them down. There are a few points to keep in mind whenever braindumping:

  1. There are no stupid ideas: Most people disregard their ideas and don’t write them on the paper.
  2. The more the merrier: The more ideas there are, the better a solution can be. Therefore try working on a team and hand over a bunch of sticky notes to each member to write one idea per sticky note.
  3. Time-box: The longer time you provide your brain to think, the more it will disregard ideas. Thus, give yourself a frame of 15 minutes with the team and set a target of writing down 15 sticky notes ideas. Repeat the exercise if you feel the ideas are less.
  4. Cluster: Now, when you have enough sticky notes full of ideas with you, start clustering them on a chart with the axes as Ease of Implementation and Utility. Many designers use this for the define stage as well to have a better understanding.
  5. Group: Group all the relevant ideas in the top right of your chart and club the ones you can implement in one final solution.
  6. Bring your idea to life: With these resources now you can formulate a solid idea
design thinking

Stage 4: Prototype

A prototype is where you start to experiment with your idea. You develop a very scaled-down, economical version of your product derived from the idea that will solve the general need family of your problems. This will help you realize the issues you might face during implementation.

If you are unable to develop a prototype, you can create a storyboard that will help the user understand what your idea is all about.

Avoid: Making an elaborate prototype. The prototype most likely will never be your final product and investing resources in it would actually be detrimental to your work. Keep it as simple and as easy to use such that users can provide easy feedback.

Stage 5: Test

Your prototype/storyboard is ready, now you need to see if it actually benefits the target user. You can approach target users and provide them with your prototype to use and get their feedback. A lot of times, the testing phase is used to redefine one or more issues a user faces. The testing phase is what makes the solution closest to what a user expects.

Avoid: Testing on one single user. Try testing on multiple target users and make changes accordingly. Also, avoid testing on users that do not fall under your target user category or the results may be disastrous.

Tip: Every designer is fond of their idea and believes it is a perfect fit for the problem. Sometimes, we force-fit this jigsaw piece and which is why the solution never takes off. Design thinking was developed to ensure you are closest to the user but the process would work only if you are willing to let go of your initially conceived ideas. The process is extremely human-centric and a designer should always remember that the solution is for the problems a user faces, not what the designer thinks the problem is.

design thinking process

Design Thinking Example

Honeypots and Helicopters

A very famous example of creative thinking, this example takes us through the perspective of Pacific Power and Lighting (PP&L), responsible to provide power to Northwest Cascade mountain area in the US.

The area was prone to some of the worst snow-storms and icy conditions, which resulted in heavy ice depositing on power transmission lines. This was a concern as the weight was capable of bringing down the line rendering operations in that area impossible. The traditional way to handle the problem was to send a linesman to remove the ice manually which was both expensive and hazardous. To solve the problem, the company set a brainstorming session with the help of an external agency. The agency insisted that the meeting was held in the presence of people from various departments, not just linesman and managers. This is how the meet went:

design thinking example

The meeting had no results, the disappointed employees gathered for coffee in the break room. Amongst the chatter, one linesman recalled his recent experience with frosty lines, he said “We really need to get a solution to this problem. Last week, I was getting rid of some nasty ice on a tower and slipped from the icy pole. I was face to face with one of the biggest bears I have ever seen who then chased me over a mile.”

After the coffee break, the agency insisted to bring this anecdote to the meet.

“Let us train those bears to shake ice off those poles” laughed one linesman.

Another one quipped, “But there is no incentive, why would they do it. Let us hang honeypots from the poles, those heavy bears would shake the ice off while trying to reach them.”

The room erupted in laughter.

A couple of seconds later, another senior linesman said “We will make those head office people use their helicopters to set honeypots on those high poles.”

Another round of laughter.

When the laughter died, the secretary spoke “I was an aid to the nurse in Vietnam, they brought in the injured in helicopters. Just staying underneath one would blow you away, everything would fly off. If we could fly one of them at a low altitude, we won’t need the honeypot idea at all”.

Everyone was silent. This was the solution, this was it.

It only had to run a few tests to see if it could work. And so it did happen, and PP&L used helicopters to clear icy lines from that day onwards.

But the question may arise, how did design thinking play a part here? It certainly didn’t design thinking is a guideline to think clearer and this was an exercise conducted without any real guideline. But if you look closely, it did have design thinking all over it.

Empathize: It began when the linesman narrated the story. The pain points are felt by linesman here and he explicitly puts them out.

Define: They quickly defined the problem and then decided on to have solutions where a man on the ground won’t be needed.

Ideate: When the room threw around ideas all around, relevant or irrelevant. It was brainstorming in its truest form.

Prototype: PP&L then figured out the viability of such a task and did a demo run.

Test: After multiple runs, PP&L made this their standard operating procedure whenever they had an icy situation.

Final Word

Design thinking isn’t a rule to be followed. It also isn’t the only way to think of a solution. However, it provides a guideline which helps you understand the various parameters that go into a champion foolproof design.

Go On, Tell Us What You Think!

What do you think of design thinking? Do you think it is a fad and will die off soon enough or do you think it is here to stay? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. There is so much written and said about the do’s of design thinking. Such a change to read the don’ts of it! Also the example is going to make sure these steps stay with me for long

  2. The article gives a clear picture of what design thinking is and do’s and dont’s with regards to it’s application.


What Is Design Thinking? - A How-To Guide

by Anuj Nawal