Design Thinking: How to Execute Exceptional Designs & Think Outside the Box

Ellen Gregory

The core of design thinking encourages you to focus on the end-user that you’re designing for. When your design thinking process accurately reflects the needs and wants of the end-user, it results in better products, services, and internal processes. As with any design element, the focus should always be, “what's the human need behind it?”

Design thinking starts with asking the right questions and following a solution-based approach that allows you to address a vast range of challenges and ultimately solve problems. Read the following guide and the 5 key design thinking phases necessary to deliver exceptional user-friendly services and products. 


design thinking
With design thinking, embrace simple mindset shifts and tackle problems from a new direction.


What is design thinking?

Anyone who is creating something intended to be used by another person can use design thinking to create human-centric products, services, content or designs. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But the real question is, how does design thinking work, and what is design thinking in simple words? 

So, let’s start with the basics: what is design thinking? Simply put, design thinking is an iterative process that aims to understand the user’s challenges by identifying alternative strategies and creative solutions that are not apparent at our initial level of understanding. Through the design thinking process, we embrace simple mindset shifts and tackle problems from a new direction. It involves a collection of hands-on methods informed by a particular way of thinking that can be broken down into the following 5 phases:  Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; Test.

Design Thinking Process Diagram
The 5 key design thinking phases necessary to deliver user-friendly designs.

We’ll come back to these phases and discuss them in more depth further down in this article. Before we define the pillars of design thinking, let’s discuss the importance of design thinking.

Why is design thinking important?

Design thinking is being taught at leading universities across the globe, and has been implemented in leading brands design strategy methods, such as Apple and Google. How many times have you gotten together with a team to solve a problem, but left feeling nothing productive was accomplished? This is where the importance of design thinking can truly be appreciated. 

Considering how difficult it is for companies, products or services to stand out from the rest of the competitors, implementing design thinking will give you an upper hand. Not only does it provide real and measurable results, but it also gives you a competitive edge. 

Design thinking is a proven problem-solving method that employs successful results because it focuses on solutions, not the problem. A primary element of the design thinking process is thinking and ideating on meeting a customer’s needs. With it, you are pulling together the most desirable solution from a human point of view within the confines of what is technologically feasible and economically viable. By combining creative and critical thinking, information and ideas are organized in a way that ensures decisions are made, situations are improved, and problems are solved. 

The importance of design thinking
Design thinking is a proven problem-solving method that focuses on solutions.


Through the design thinking process, you will:

  • capture the specific mindset and needs of your end-user 
  • identify and define the problem to form solutions around
  • create opportunities based on the needs of your end-user
  • find innovative solutions starting with quick, low-fidelity experiments 
  • provide insight into your end-users’ biggest challenges

Essential pillars of design thinking

Design thinking is a useful technique when tackling problems that are either unknown or unclear. The essential pillars of design thinking are all about re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, brainstorming to think outside of the obvious solutions, and adopting a hands-on approach in the design thinking prototype stage and testing stage. 

Luckily, design thinking is based on skills that anyone can develop and employ with the right understanding and practice, and can be broken down into the following 5 phases:

1. Empathize

2. Define

3. Ideate

4. Prototype

5. Test

Why is design thinking important?
Design thinking reframes the problem in human-centric ways.



It’s important to note that the 5 phases may not be sequential, and thus, are not required to follow a specific order. It’s common for the phases to occur alongside one another, and to be repeated iteratively. Think of the stages as different modes that contribute to a project in whatever order best achieves the desired outcome. 


5 stages of the design thinking process
The best results come from understanding the end-user

Design thinking empathy stage

Design thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing and understanding the end-user. Starting with questions that give us a sense of whom we’re designing the products or services to help us observe, develop empathy and fulfill their needs. Design thinking empathy begins with a series of questions that get to the heart of the problem, the assumptions, and the implications. One of the best ways to develop empathy and an understanding of your user is to observe them without imposing our assumptions or knowledge onto them. Simply take a step back to measure the success or pain points real users experience from their perspective.

Design thinking define stage

This phase of the design thinking process is all about defining your problem statement, or design challenge. How do you do this? Break down complex concepts and problems into smaller, bite-sized nuggets of information. With that information, you can begin creatively piecing ideas together to create a problem statement.

A clear and concise definition will kickstart the ideation process and guide it in the right direction. Defining your problem in this stage will help you avoid stumbling blindly in the dark. The best way to measure your problem statement is to ensure it is:

  • Human-centered
  • Manageable
  • Open enough for creative freedom

Design thinking ideate stage

Most designers consider the ideate stage to be the best part because it’s where you get to generate creative ideas. It’s important to promote creativity, eliminate assumptions, and to stay focused on the end-user. Consider implementing strategies such as:

  • Collaborating
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Mindmaps
  • Pre-prototyping sessions

The key to this stage is non-judgmental, quick brainstorming that enables you to step beyond the obvious solutions.

  

Design thinking prototype stage

After you’ve investigated several problems and created some solutions from the end-users point of view, it’s time to select a solution that appears to have the greatest potential. It’s important to note that this stage is about designing a finished, high-resolution product, but rather, designing a prototype that can be manipulated and adjusted throughout the testing process. The goal is to quickly convey the look, feel, and functionality of your design, typically it’s recommended to create low-fidelity prototypes. So just start building, don’t spend too much time on the prototype as they will undergo a lot of changes during and after the testing stage. And above all, remember what you’re testing for and who you’re designing for to avoid becoming too emotionally attached or bias. 

Consider prototyping in the form of:

  • Mockups
  • Simulations
  • Process sketches
  • Storyboards

Design thinking testing stage

Testing is a crucial part of the design thinking process. It bridges the gap between the designer and the end-user. Rather than expecting perfection, expose your design to users with a testing session, and then evaluate, analyze the feedback and refine your design based on the feedback received.

The best results come from observing participants as they interact with your prototype. Users typically make assumptions and judgments very quickly, so avoid guiding users if they don’t understand anything. Simply watch and learn from their actions and feedback. Once you have gathered all this information, it is time to go back to the drawing board for another iteration.

Here are some tips and tricks to consider during your design thinking testing stage:

  • Ask your users to externalize thoughts and feelings while they interact with the prototype
  • Create a realistic environment where distractions are not eliminated
  • Takes structured and unstructured notes including what you see, hear, and the time they spend on a task
  • Make sure you record the session
  • Show don’t tell. Avoid explaining, guiding or helping the participant 
  • Remain objective throughout and avoid jumping to conclusions
Design thinking problem statement
A crucial part of design thinking is defining your problem statement.


Design thinking process: An iterative, non-linear process

Design thinking may not proceed linearly, but all 5 phases outlined above are essential elements that create an iterative approach that’ll bring you closer to your desired results. It is best thought of as a design thinking journey map or roadmap that guides you towards your solution. 

It begins with a driving question that inspires you to consider the end-user that you’re designing for, and help you get to the core of what they need. Once you’ve gathered inspiration, ask yourself, are there other solutions that can help you reframe the way you’re working? Use that mind frame to go beyond obvious and generic solutions. This part of the design thinking process will help you achieve original and breakthrough ideas. 


The design thinking process
Design thinking is about going from a blank slate to a new, innovative idea.



From there, build rough prototypes to make your ideas and solutions tangible so you can observe and test what’s working vs what’s not. This is where gathering feedback, and returning to the drawing board with those results is key to moving forward. Often, you need to repeat these steps several times, and you may even jump back and forth between them before you arrive at the right solution. The design thinking process is all about going from a blank slate to a new, innovative idea.

Get inspired: design thinking examples

Design thinking is an undeniably powerful tool for companies when properly applied. As we know, design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that dives into understanding the end-user by challenging assumptions, redefining problems and creating innovative solutions. 


design thinking examples
Design thinking is an undeniably powerful tool when properly implemented.



The method is useful when you’re tackling a problem that is ill-defined or unknown. One of the best ways to understand the process is to see what it looks like in practice. In Voltage Control’s case study, they found 8 design thinking examples that successfully utilized the design thinking process.


Design thinking examples Airbnb
Airbnb transformed the company by understanding their end-userSource: Airbnb


Airbnb, for instance, used design thinking to transform the company from a failing startup into a billion-dollar business. The company painstakingly figured out why end-users weren’t booking on the platform, by completing a series of experiments and changes that eventually transformed the company. There are tons of successful design thinking examples that perfectly illustrate the importance of design thinking, including PepsiCo, Nike, Nordstrom, Uber, and IBM.

 

Simplify your design thinking process with CloudApp

CloudApp is a great tool for instantly sharing your prototype with others and getting invaluable insight based on direct input and real user interaction.

With CloudApp's GIF screen recording, simply share your screen recording, and get user feedback to improve your design in any phase. This feature gives you the option to test your prototypes remotely, and can be moderated or unmoderated. Simply share your screen recording, and get user feedback to improve your design in any phase without having to upload to a third platform. Once you complete your video capture or webcam recording, a link is automatically copied to your clipboard that can be password protected and set to expire after any desired length of time.


Learn more about CloudApp for designers here.

Design Thinking Essentials

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

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