An introductory guide to design thinking.

Discover what it means to be a design thinker and how to carry out this effective problem-solving process that can help you to create new products built specifically around human needs.

Design thinkers brainstorming ideas together at a designer's desk

Design thinking centres the user in the creative process.

Design thinking is a type of creative problem solving. “It’s a way of thinking and making that keeps the user at the centre of everything,” explains experience designer Meg Dryer. “It’s a human-centred approach to developing products, services and experiences.” Anyone can be a design thinker, not just graphic or product designers. This is a method to arrive at great designs for physical and digital products, to create new solutions across professions.


“The design thinking process in a nutshell is really deeply understanding people and their needs, synthesising down what problems you’re going to solve, ideating around what concepts to design and then prototyping and testing over and over again while getting real user feedback,” says Dryer.

Design thinkers brainstorming concepts on a whiteboard table

Great design comes from empathy with other human beings.

The design thinking approach starts with a detailed exploration of who the audience is for the product and what their needs might be. There’s an entire branch of study called Human Factors, which is devoted to understanding human-to-system interaction, so websites and apps can be designed to be intuitive.


Human factors engineering student Sara Berndt explains: “We take a deep dive into user research, such as ‘What are the colours that humans can see? Where should things like error messages or alerts be located so that people can see them? How many alerts should they be shown before you take the next step? What are the important steps to focus on?’”


The five-stage design thinking process.

No matter what you want to create, the five steps of a successful design process are to empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. This respected five-stage model for design thinking was developed by global design company IDEO and is taught by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University’s


1. Empathise: Study the values of your users.

The first step before you start to design is to get to know your audience and make a list of their needs and values. “Having a strong list of user needs is so important. That’s something you should spend a lot of time crafting,” says Berndt. “Because in the end, you can rely on this not only for future changes but also to communicate with your team. If someone suggests a new feature, you can look at your user needs and say, ‘Well, it doesn’t seem like our users are really going to find that important.’ Understanding your users is really a foundation for everything.”


You may be tempted to simply rely on data, but studying the user experience in detail is crucial. “Data can tell you what is happening,” explains Dryer, “but it can’t tell you why. Qualitative, ethnographic research is absolutely critical. Because that’s where you learn how your users actually feel and what all their crazy workarounds are. That’s one of my favourite things to discover.”


Use the following methods to study your users:


  • Observe: Watch users go about their business.
  • Engage: Interview and interact with users.
  • Immerse: Put yourself in their shoes.


2. Define: Name the problem that you’ll solve.

Next, carry your findings from the empathise stage into a series of brainstorm sessions in which your team works to identify one key problem that it can solve for the user. Also outline your team’s “point of view” or the unique way that your product will be able to solve that problem. You should frame the problem from the user’s perspective, not from the perspective of your business.

Design thinkers brainstorming concepts on a blackboard
Design thinkers brainstorming with paper concepts on the floor

If you were designing a website that aggregates different short-term rental listings, your problem statement would be something like, “People want to book short-term rentals online but are overwhelmed by the number of different websites where listings can be found.”


3. Ideate: Come up with creative solutions.

Think of a wide variety of innovative solutions for your problem. Keep an open mind during this stage and don’t dismiss ideas before you’ve had a chance to prototype and test them. Idea generation can take many forms and ideation techniques can borrow from other industries.


“It’s important to get ideas from everywhere,” explains Dryer. “One project my colleagues worked on involved an ER, so they went and looked at what was working for NASCAR pit crews. Because they’re both high-pressure, major intensity situations where team co-ordination is super important.”


4. Prototype: Fail fast to learn fast.

In the prototyping stage, your design team should set out to create simple, cost-effective prototypes of a number of your ideas from your ideation sessions. Your prototype does not have to be fancy or expensive. It could be anything from a series of Post-it Notes to an interactive digital mock-up of an app or website using a programme like Adobe XD. And when users run into problems, don’t despair. The point of a prototype is to reveal issues. The faster your prototype “fails,” the faster you can find a better solution.

Design thinkers making concept prototypes
Concept prototype chairs made from paper

5. Test: Go back to the drawing board.

The final stage of the design thinking process is testing. Release your prototypes to groups of users. See how people interact with them and where your designs fall short. This window into the customer experience will inform your next prototypes.


“Don’t stress about finding the right people,” says Dryer. “You can learn something from nearly anyone you talk to. With deep ethnographic research, I’ve found that you don’t actually have to interview that many people before you start to see patterns.” Dryer also stresses the importance of having your own coworkers review your prototype to make sure it’s technically feasible and viable from a business perspective.


You will need to iterate many versions of prototypes before you arrive at the winner. Testing might also reveal a better way to frame your problem, leaving room for more ideation. Be ready to be agile with your thinking and don’t be afraid to start from square one.


Build a successful design thinking team.

Your team is one of your most important design thinking tools. Dryer recommends setting a few ground rules to be sure your team is set up to collaborate well and do their best work.


  • Focus on the user. “The first rule is that we always focus on the consumer,” she says. “We take it outside of ourselves.”
  • Assume the best of others. “The second important thing is to assume good intent and seek to understand,” she says.
  • Foster creative confidence. Dryer’s third rule is that design thinking is a safe space for everyone’s ideas. “Everyone is a designer. If you are practising design thinking, you have an equal seat at this table. Everyone can be creative and innovative,” she says.


Equip yourself with the best design tools.

Access the best design tools for every stage of the process with Adobe Creative Cloud. Go from wireframes to interactive prototypes that you can share easily with test audiences. See how it’s done in this step-by-step tutorial.


Time spent on design thinking will save you in the long run. “It’s the best risk-mitigation strategy you can have,” says Dryer. “You will, in going through the design thinking process, learn everything that is either not great about your product or likely to not work.” Dive into the process today and see what amazing solutions you can come up with.


Meg Dryer,  Sara Berndt

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