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 evolve their existing products and generating new ideas to serve their customers better. Let’s take a closer look at what design thinking is and how to apply it to your organization.

According to statistics, 79% of companies agree that design thinking improves the ideation process, and 71% have enjoyed a significant shift in their work culture after adopting design thinking.

Design Thinking 101

What is the Design Thinking Process?

Design thinking is a process for creative problem-solving. Rather than a one-shoe-fits-all mindset, it encourages a holistic view where uncertainty and ambiguity are welcomed and embraced as to consider all sides of a problem. A design mindset can be applied to any life situation, and it aids in considering the bigger picture and informatively acting accordingly.

The method is steeped in a deep belief that the end-user should be at the heart of all decision-making. 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.

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.

Pro-tip: use our Liberating Structures templates to get the most out of the design-thinking process with your team.

The 5-Step Design Thinking Process

1. Empathize 

The first stage of the design process is to understand the perspective of the target audience/customer/consumer to identify and address the problem at hand. To do this, design thinkers are encouraged to cast aside all assumptions (because assumptions can stifle innovation!) about the problem, the consumers, and the world at large. This allows them to objectively consider any and all possibilities about the customers and their needs.

Typical activities:

  • Observations: You’ll go where your users go and see what they care about. 
  • Qualitative Interviews: You’ll hold one-on-one interviews with a handful of your users to understand their attitudes on the topic you are exploring. 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.

Immersions: Step into your user’s shoes so you can feel and experience their day-to-day.

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. They help colleagues understand the context of the problem and how people experience it, too.

2. Define

Putting together all of the information gathered in the first stage, the next step is to define the problem statement clearly. 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. 

Typical Activities

  • Clustering and Themes: There are a lot of different ways to go about the Define phase, but it’s safe to say you’ll need a wall of sticky notes; these will be filled with the quotes, observations, and ideas you heard throughout your research. Group and cluster ideas together until you find the prevailing or most prominent themes.

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. You can’t solve all of your users’ problems. Know the most significant or most impactful issues that you want to consider as you move forward.

Define your problem statement clearly: group and cluster ideas together until you find the prevailing or most prominent themes.
Define your problem statement clearly: group and cluster ideas together until you find the prevailing or most prominent themes.

3. Ideate

Now that the problem is apparent, it’s time to brainstorm ways to address those unmet needs. You collect as many ideas as possible at the start, so your team can investigate and test them by the end.
The ideation stage marks the transition from identifying problems to exploring solutions. It flows between idea generation and evaluation, but it’s important that each process remains separate from the other. When it’s time to generate ideas, do so quickly without focusing on the quality or feasibility of the idea for now, 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.

The ideation phase is usually a very creative and freeing phase for a team because they have permission to think of out-of-the-box ideas before deciding what they are going to prototype.

Explore solutions and think out-of-the-box in the ideation phase of the design thinking process.
Explore solutions and think out-of-the-box in the ideation phase of the design thinking process.

4. Prototype

It’s time to experiment! Through trial and error, your team identifies which of the possible solutions can best solve the identified problem(s). This typically will include scaled-down versions of the products or systems in question so you can present and get 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. 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.

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

5. Test

All of the work and information come together to test the product in the final stage. It’s important to note that this is still an interactive stage. You will want to hear from your users again —just as you did in the Empathize phase. The difference is that you are showing them your prototype to get feedback on whether or not it solves their problem.

Testing is essential because everything should ultimately be about the people who will use your products. Now’s the time to revisit the problem statement and make sure the end solution is meeting those needs and resolving frustrations.

You want to see what real people think about your idea. This stage allows for all details to be flushed out and refined to create the best solution possible.

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

Need an expert facilitator for your next meeting, gathering, or workshop? Let’s talk.

Voltage Control facilitates events of all kinds, including design thinking workshops, innovation sessions, and Design Sprints. Please reach out to us at if you want to talk or for a consultation.

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