What to expect in every phase of the design thinking process.


Design thinking is simply a method for solving problems. It’s a way of working that is applicable in everything from business to education and non-profits. While the explosion in interest in design thinking means that there are many variations on the methodology, the basics are mostly the same.

If you want to use a design thinking process to your next challenge at work, here are the five significant steps, the thinking behind them, and some of the activities that typically take place.

The Design Thinking process as defined by Stanford’s d-school.
The Design Thinking process as defined by Stanford’s d-school.

What is the Design Thinking Process?

For this article, we’ll use Stanford d.school’s process steps. You might see different names, models, and structures depending on the organization, but really — any design thinking program or method will follow these steps in some fashion, just with a different title or slightly variable approach.

The Five Phases of the Design Thinking Process

Phase 1: Empathize

The beginning of a design thinking project starts with your users. Who is (or will be) using your product or service? Kids? The elderly? Millennials? Soccer players? Writers? Car enthusiasts? Whoever your users are, the Empathize phase is the moment you try to understand what they are all about.

What’s the phase about:

  • Understanding your end-users at a deep level.
  • Gaining empathy for their needs, wants, challenges, and daily life.

Typical activities:

  • Observations: You’ll go where your users go and see what they care about. Let’s say you’re designing an app for extreme athletes — you might observe an Iron Man race to see what makes your athletes tick.
  • Interviews: One of the primary activities in the Empathize phase is qualitative interviews. This is where you hold one-on-one interviews with a handful of your users to understand their attitudes on the topic you are exploring.
  • Immersions: Step into your user’s shoes so you can feel and experience their day-to-day. For example, if you were designing new tools for fast-food workers, you might spend a day working behind the counter of the restaurant to experience their frustrations and pain points.

The Empathize phase is essential because it stresses the human-centered or user-centered nature of your endeavor from the get-go.

Why is it important?

  • The Empathize phase is essential because it stresses the human-centered or user-centered nature of your endeavor from the get-go. This phase aims to get you outside of your perspective and assumptions. By diving deep into your actual user’s needs, you have a better chance of designing something they’ll want and desire.
Workspace with people working
The Empathize phase is about knowing your users deeply.

Phase 2: Define

The next step in the design thinking process: take all of the rich information that you learned by talking to and observing your users and hone in on what you should focus on.

What’s the phase about:

  • Getting clarity about the actual problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Synthesizing your learnings into actionable insights and opportunity areas that can guide you through the rest of the project.

Take all of the rich information that you learned by talking to and observing your users and hone in on what you should focus on.

Typical Activities

  • Clustering and Themes: There’s 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.

Why is it important?

  • The Define Phase is crucial because it focuses your energy and future designs. 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.
Man working through ideas
Supplies
In the Define phase, you get clarity on the actual problem you’re trying to solve.

Phase 3: Ideate

Now that you know what areas you want to focus on, it’s time to think about potential solutions or ways to tackle your challenge. This is the phase everyone loves — and maybe wants to jump to first — ideas!

What’s the phase about:

  • Thinking broadly about potential solutions to your problem.
  • Considering things that haven’t been done before.
  • Balancing wild ideas with solutions that align to business needs and feasibility.
  • Generating many ideas before honing in on the ones with the most potential.

This is the phase everyone loves — and maybe wants to jump to first — ideas!

Typical Activities

  • Brainstorms or Ideation: This is when you’ll want to gather as a team to think about how you might solve for the opportunity areas you came up with during the Define phase. One popular way to structure your brainstorm is to turn your opportunity areas into How Might We statements. These can create a good framework for generating a lot of great ideas.

Why is it important?

  • The Ideate Phase is vital because it’s where you come up with new approaches and solutions that haven’t been considered before. It’s 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.
Man and women working through ideas on board
Board with ideas sketched out

Phase 4: Prototype

Next, in the design thinking process, you move into prototyping. While people are usually excited to come up with ideas in the previous step, this phase might be a little more daunting. You need to create a simulation of your design so you can show it to people and get feedback.

What’s the phase about:

  • Creating a physical or digital prototype of some aspect of your product, service, or experience that you can show to users.

Create a simulation of your design so you can show it to people and get feedback.

Typical Activities

  • Digital Prototyping: There are so many great prototyping tools out there today. Many design teams use tools like Sketch and InVision to create a mock-up of their idea.
  • Paper Prototyping: Your prototype doesn’t have to be high-tech. It can even be a sketch of an idea that you use to get reactions and feedback.

Why is it important?

The Prototype phase is critical because it moves you beyond talking and ideas and into the realm of the real. Once you design and create the thing you have dreamt about, you can see if the idea has any legs. Prototypes help move conversations along because they provide something concrete to react to.

Person holding mobile phone
Design sketch for prototype
Box that says "act now"
Prototypes can take many forms.

Phase 5: Test

The final step of the design thinking process is about testing. This is the point in your project where you 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.

What’s the phase about:

  • Showing your prototype to users for feedback and input.

Typical Activities

  • User Testing: Gather a set of your users for interviews again. (You might even go back to some of the people you talked to in the first phase.) Show them your prototype and walk them through a set of open-ended questions to get their thoughts on your ideas. Use their feedback to decide if your concept has potential or to refine it even further.

Testing is essential because everything, ultimately, should be about the people who will use your products.

Why is it important?

Testing is essential because everything, ultimately, should be about the people who will use your products. You want to see what real people think about your idea. Do they love it? Are they confused? Where do they stumble? What’s resonating? Testing helps you refine and improve your thoughts and move on to building something that you can launch.

People looking at phone

Looking for a partner in Design Thinking?

Voltage Control facilitates design thinking workshops, innovation sessions, and Design Sprints. Please reach out at info@voltagecontrol.co for a consultation.