The Stages of Design Thinking Explained

How do you go about solving everyday problems? Is there a specific method for breaking down complex ideas and turning them into actionable solutions or products? Design thinking is a term that is synonymous with product development. Why does it matter? How can companies and entrepreneurs use it? This article covers the five stages of design thinking in detail. 

What is design thinking? 

Innovation has been at the center of technological and engineering breakthroughs. Engineers and designers have had to use unorthodox means, invent tools and overcome barriers to solve persistent problems. Once one identifies a problem, they have to analyze the situation, come up with a list of viable ideas, identify and refine the most appropriate solution. We can say that design thinking is a set of repetitive tasks that leverage innovation to generate new ideas, improve existing solutions and perfect the quality of products.

Design thinking provides a holistic approach from which the designer or the engineer places the end-user at the center of all decisions. The goal of this process goes beyond delivering top-of-the-range solutions but rather to provide memorable experiences and products that the end-users can truly appreciate. 

Successful companies and entrepreneurs across the globe are embracing design thinking in product development because of its robustness and ability to spearhead the generation of futuristic solutions. The design thinking process relies on real-time insights rather than historical information for idea generation and actualization. The technique applies to any type of business or industry.

What are the benefits of design thinking?

The benefits of design thinking are two-way, affecting the problem solver and the target users. For a start, it inspires the designer to be a creative thinker who can quickly analyze situations, brainstorm ideas and communicate solutions in an understandable, easy-to-follow manner. The entire process requires the inputs of multi-skilled individuals, working in a team to innovatively solve a common problem or invent a new product through invention design.

Through design thinking, designers develop products and services which are sustainable, user-friendly and reliable from the user’s perspective. During the process, designers come across new ideas and findings that enhance product design. 

Principles of design thinking

The design thinking process may incorporate some radical approaches. There are guiding principles that individuals and companies should follow when using this product development methodology.

Capitalize on human-centered designs

The human factor is at the center of all decisions and ideas. While designing a new product, think of the desirable features that the user anticipates from the innovation. Will they be comfortable with it? Are there features that will complicate the completion of processes? The decision to focus on a particular product design should emanate from practical human experiences, not some science fiction-like imaginations. 

Overlooking the human aspect during the product development cycle will complicate solution generation. The final product or service may be unappealing to the users. It replicates poor product or service uptake, premature product damage or poor user reviews. No matter how complex a problem is, always empathize with the final user. Know which side of the shoe bites.

Leverage redesignable ideas

Design thinking is infinite. A ground-breaking solution in the present day could be obsolete in a few years. Technology-based solutions experience frequent transformations which affect the reliability of solutions. When working on a solution, design teams need to ensure that future designers can make reference to the product development process, incorporate consumer feedback and make necessary adjustments to the solution.  

Leave some room for ambiguity

Design teams deal with ambiguous information at every phase of product development. There could be little information on how to circumvent a particular problem. The ambiguity opens a new world of possibilities. It allows the teams to explore and experiment with new problem-solving methods. Instead of narrowing down issues and adopting a single problem-solving approach, design teams should have the liberty to approach the problems from any angle. 

Prototypes must provide tangible solutions

Whether a team is working on an architectural design process, UX research or UX design, the focus is on producing a working prototype. While a solution may be appealing to the design team, it may fail to deliver actual value to the real users. At the end of the day, the solution needs to be comprehensible.

Stages of design thinking

The design thinking process happens in five stages. They are interdependent stages and can be tweaked severally before finding a final solution. The design thinking stage is not an entirely linear one. It involves iterative verification of ideas, testing of prototypes and restructuring the hypothesis. The icing on the cake is when an industrial design company or individual rolls out the prototype and affirms that the solution works. The fives stages of design thinking are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

It is easy to assume that the design thinking process is just but a straightforward activity. In reality, teams must evaluate each idea. The worst possible idea may end up as a viable solution after a series of iterative evaluations. Design teams must verify the outcome of each stage of design as it forms the backbone of subsequent processes. 

Here is an in-depth look into these stages of design thinking.

  1. Empathize

It is the initial step that is primarily involved with fact-finding. It helps the designers to understand the nitty-gritty details of the needs, preferences and obstacles that end-users face. Empathizing with the user is immersing yourself in their environment to eliminate any assumptions surrounding the viability of a product or service. The designer has to understand what irks users, what motivates them, features that limit utilization of products/services and collect information on possible ideas for improvement. 

By observing the target audience, individuals or companies understand their target audiences. They visualize the intensity of challenges before defining the problem. Ways to empathize with consumers are by:

  • Conducting interviews. 
  • Sending out anonymous survey forms.
  • Physical observations. 
  1. Define

At this stage, the design team dissects raw information collected from consumers to develop specific objectives. They convert consumer insights into human-centered problem statements. The objectives have to focus on consumer needs instead of business prospects. Create a list of possible innovation points, establish guidelines for prioritizing ideas and a design framework to actualize the entire process. 

Because the team will be dealing with multiple, disorganized information, design teams have to group information using:

  • Empathy maps — organize information based on how consumers feel about using a product or service.
  • Experience maps — vital for categorizing information based on customer experiences over time.
  • Affinity maps — what are the common consumer patterns?

There could be several problems that need your attention. Trying to solve them all at once could throw you off- balance. Focus on the most significant and impactful consumer issues. 

  1. Ideate

At the third stage of design thinking, ideas for solving problems begin coming to life. The company can organize ideation sessions where different players like UX researchers, UX designers, architectural designers, sales teams, engineers, etc. meet to find solutions to defined problems. The phase is an overlap of idea generation and evaluation. Team members suggest ideas that cross their minds, and the team leads note them irrespective of their quality or feasibility.

After the brainstorming session, the team assembles to refine the ideas. At the evaluation stage, they discuss ideas based on their quality, feasibility and the ability to meet the specific objectives. During the ideation phase, consider all possible scenarios from the end-user perspective. The team develops schematic designs of how the final product will look like. The best solution moves to the next stage of the design thinking stage. 

  1. Prototype

After the design team settles on a specific solution, they develop a replica of the final product. This is the stage where industrial design companies activate rapid prototyping. The prototype incorporates all the ideas forwarded from the third design stage. For an architectural design project, the prototype is a cardboard scale version of the actual design. With the advent of technology, companies can use digital models to communicate solutions.

The prototypes help companies establish if the ideas are implementable. When developing prototypes, companies have to focus on least-cost solutions. Most prototypes are made from locally available materials or recycled products.

  1. Test

The prototype is distributed among real users or a select group of representatives. They subject the product to actual operating conditions and provide feedback on components that work and those that do not. The users can also provide valuable insights on the components that require improvements. 

The testing phase informs full-scale production or iteration of the design process. Companies can move to full-scale production if they receive positive feedback and when the solution resolves specific consumer challenges defined at the second stage of design thinking. Where there is prevalence or escalation of challenges, the company has to re-assemble the design team to redesign the product or service.

Using Design Thinking

Perhaps you are a small-scale entrepreneur wondering if design thinking is actually for you. The truth is, anyone can use design thinking in their line of work or business as long as there is a need to solve a problem. Ensure that you involve experts when dealing with technical matters, that way, you do not overlook critical design issues. 

Companies can use design thinking workshops for one-time problem-solving missions. They solve complex problems in a short time and communicate the idea behind design thinking to non-technical employees.

What About Design Sprints?

A design sprint reduces the time required for human-centered designs. The team handling the project completes all the five stages of design thinking within a week. They generate, evaluate and prototype ideas within the shortest time, creating enough time for iterations before moving to full-scale production.

Final Thoughts

Design thinking is crucial for business success. It is a simple, easy-to-follow product design methodology that allows you to fail early, identify opportunities for improvement and enhance the realization of ideas. Using design thinking methodology gives companies the flexibility required to upscale operations, incorporate user feedback and enhance the quality of their products and services. Individuals and businesses seeking to propel their businesses to the next level should implement a design thinking methodology by modifying or using the discussed stages.