The five steps that make up the design thinking process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.


By now, you’ve probably heard about design thinking. More industries than ever are taking a human-centric approach to evolving their existing products and generating new ideas to serve their customers better. But what does following the design thinking process look like? In this article, we’ll explore the five-step process that enables teams to come up with impactful solutions to real problems that are vetted by the people they intend to serve before they’ve even been built.

Design Thinking 101 — Neilsen Norman Group
Design Thinking 101 — Neilsen Norman Group

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a “process for creative problem solving.” It’s an approach, typically applied in a Design Thinking workshop, that anyone (not just designers!) can take to solve a business or creative challenge. While there are different approaches to the Design Thinking depending on who is teaching it, the process typically boils down to the following five steps:

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

The method is steeped in a deep belief that the end-user should be at the heart of all decision making. While you start from consumer desirability in Design Thinking, any ideas generated are also weighed against the technical feasibility and the business viability. The benefit of Design Thinking is that, through empathy for your customer, consumer, or client, you are able to create products and experiences that truly help people and even change lives.

Below, we walk through each step of the Design Thinking process:

Design Thinking Process Step #1: Empathize

The first step of the design thinking process provides an opportunity to set our assumptions aside and immerse ourselves in the context of the problem we’re attempting to remedy. The particular problem determines who might find the solution useful as well as which experts might help shed light on ways the issue is currently being solved.

Several approaches can help draw out the information needed to paint a full picture of the problem’s context. Conducting face-to-face interviews to learn about how people are currently solving the same or similar issues is one of the most common. Asking someone to tell a story about the last time they experienced the problem you’re investigating provides a rich description that highlights details you might not have otherwise considered.

Tools like empathy maps can be a great way to consolidate all of the valuable information gleaned from interviews.

Tools like empathy maps can be a great way to consolidate all of the valuable information gleaned from interviews. Empathy maps capture what people do, say, think, and feel in the context of the problem.

Say captures what people say in interviews or during observations of what they do in the context of the problem you’re trying to solve. Pay particular attention to when people mention frustrations or comments that indicate their motivations. Pulling direct quotes from interviews is ideal for demonstrating how people feel in their own words.

Capturing what people think may require you to infer based on unspoken details like body language. As you immerse yourself in the information gathered from interviews, think about how the person you interviewed might feel when performing a particular task. What might be frustrating them? If they don’t share their frustrations, consider why they might withhold that information.

Do is fairly straightforward. As you observe someone experiencing the problem you’re trying to solve, take note of not only what they do, but how they do it. Are they in a hurry? Do they seem confused? Asking why someone takes a particular action can provide insight into their thought process as well.

Feel focuses on the emotional state. What adjectives describe each behavior? Do they abandon a particular task because it’s too time-consuming? The Neilsen Norman Group suggests representing feelings with an adjective plus a short sentence for context. (ex. Impatient: pages load too slowly)

NNG Empathy Map Example
NNG Empathy Map Example

Empathy maps provide more than just a way to summarize data. They also help colleagues understand the context of the problem and how people experience it, too. Arming everyone with this knowledge helps ensure that the person the solution is intended for is top of mind at all stages of the idea’s development.

Design Thinking Process Step #2: Define

In this step, we combine and analyze the research to draw insights from the data that will help define our problem statement and guide ideation in step three. The resulting problem statement should be captured in human-centered terms rather than focused on business goals. For example, instead of setting a goal to increase signups by 5%, a human-centered target would be to help busy moms provide healthy food for their families.

Based on the frustrations, you observed or heard about come up with questions for how you might solve them. One standard format is, to begin with the phrase “how might me” followed by a particular pain point. For example, how might we make it easier for moms to quickly pick up groceries when they have sleeping kids in the car. As you explore the empathy data, focus on identifying patterns and problems across a diverse group of people. Gathering information on how people are currently solving the problem provides clues on how to give a more innovative solution, and learning about frustrations with those solutions serves to identify unmet needs.

Two men looking at post it notes on board
Step #3 of the design thinking process is to brainstorm ways to address your user’s needs.

Design Thinking Process Step #3: Ideate

Now that the problem is apparent, it’s time to brainstorm ways to address those unmet needs. The ideation stage marks the transition from identifying problems to exploring solutions. Here we prioritize breadth over depth as we look for a diverse range of ideas to prototype and test with real people and the following two steps.

When ideating, challenge yourself to go beyond minor adjustments. Prototypes provide a way to investigate riskier ideas cost-effectively, and the testing phase provides more confidence that the risk is worth pursuing.

We prioritize breadth over depth as we look for a diverse range of ideas to prototype and test.

The ideation stage flows between idea generation and evaluation, but it’s important that each process remains separate from each other. When it’s time to generate ideas, do so quickly without focusing on the quality or feasibility of the idea for now. You never know whether infeasible ideas can inspire someone else. Consider activities like sketching during the ideation process. It’s not necessary to be a skilled artist. As long as you can draw boxes, arrows, and stick figures, you can communicate an idea through sketching.

After ideas are collected, move into the evaluation phase. This is where you can go around the room and discuss the ideas presented to get clarification if needed. One method to quickly evaluate ideas is the dot vote approach. Each person is provided with a limited number of dot stickers that they place on the idea they think is worth pursuing. The top idea or ideas with the most votes (dots) move into the next step to be prototyped.

Design Sprint board
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Design Thinking Process Step #4: Prototype

Prototyping allows you to get ideas into physical form to gain feedback from the people they are intended to serve. The goal is to start with a low fidelity version of the intended solution and improve it over time based on feedback. Beginning with a paper prototype can help you learn quickly with minimal effort. At this stage, it’s often a good idea to work through the prototype internally to ensure that any significant gaps are identified before the prototype is tested with it’s intended audience in step five.

Prototype example drawing
UX Sketch
In prototyping, you create a quick version of your solution so you can get feedback from users.

The prototype should be a realistic representation of the solution that allows you to gain an understanding of what works and doesn’t work. It is changed and updated based on feedback from the Test phase in an iterative cycle. The low-cost, lightweight nature of prototyping also allows you to develop multiple solutions to test in tandem to identify the best possible solution for meeting those unmet user needs.

Design Thinking Process Step #5: Test

Think of the test step as an extension of the empathy process. The prototype serves as a conversation starter to gain an even more in-depth understanding of the pain points someone experiences in the context of the problem being solved. We put the prototype in front of people who might use it one day to get feedback on whether or not it solves their problem.

Now’s the time to revisit the problem statement and make sure the end solution is meeting those needs and resolving frustrations. By testing, we’re seeking to learn if we’ve made an impact on the way someone feels about the problem at hand. Have we improved upon what already exists? Is our solution compelling enough to change someone’s behaviors?

Two people collaborating
Talking with hands
Test your prototype with users to get feedback and refine your ideas.

As feedback comes in, prototypes are iterated upon and then reintroduced to people for more feedback. Adopting an open mind is essential in this stage. The Stanford d.School design thinking guide encourages practitioners to, “Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.” That can mean being prepared to start over if the prototyped solution does not adequately address the problem. Testing may even reveal the issue was framed incorrectly from the beginning.

The goal of design thinking is to do the upfront work to validate a solution that addresses a real problem while gaining an intimate understanding of people who might use it, so there’s a higher likelihood of a successful product or service in the long run.


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