Understanding the Basics of Design Thinking

In his book The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon started what we now refer to as design thinking. Since then, numerous other works have been published detailing design thinking concepts and how it relates to all manner of different business models. One of the most famous icons to design thinking in the modern era is probably Apple, Inc. Let’s ask ourselves:

· Did you feel you needed an iPod before Apple created?

· Did you feel you needed an iPhone before Apple created it?

Apple’s genius during the early 2000s was not in creating new products that no one had ever heard of. There were dozens of cell phone manufacturers making quality cell phones before the iPhone landed. There were dozens of MP3 players on the market before the original iPod.

But, once Apple entered the arena, none of that mattered. Why? Because Apple understood the unarticulated needs (and in fact, you could even argue that Apple’s real genius was creating a need for a product by releasing that product!) of its customers. How were they able to do this?

How can we solve a problem for our customer in such a way that they don’t even know the problem exists until we show the solution?
The Five Phases of Design Thinking

Design thinking is a process of five distinct phases of execution. Those phases are:

· Empathize

· Define

· Ideate

· Prototype

· Test

Looking at that list, it seems to be a mix of skills from various disciplines. “Prototype” and “test” seem to be drawn from engineering and product development, whereas “empathize” and “ideate” come from a more psychological, social methodology.

Phase 1 — Empathize

Empathizing immediately sets design thinking apart from most of the other business models out there. True, most business models strive to understand their ideal client’s needs and wants, but few do it from a relational perspective. This is what Simon Sinek talks about in his book Start With Why: That people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. For Apple, that meant understanding the desire of their customers to be a part of something. They weren’t buying things because it was the best. They were buying it because of the reasons behind WHY Apple made it. When the corporate world was turning its back on customer relations and focused more on profits than on value, Apple communicated a different mission and mindset, which allowed their sales to skyrocket.

Phase 2 — Define (The Problem)

Another crucial part of design thinking. The problem. The majority of creators will fail at this part because they think about problems as nouns. Problems are verbs. If you see a little girl trying to get cookies from the shelf, people will start listing the problems as:

· She needs a cookie

· She needs an adult

· She needs a ladder

· Maybe she needs milk with those cookies

While the truth is, she needs to reach. Reaching is the problem, not the cookies. If you solve the reaching problem, you solve anything she will want to reach in the future. Once we understand others' unarticulated needs through authentically empathizing, it’s time to define the problem.

Phase 3 — Ideate

Ideation, the process of coming up with potential solutions to your customers’ unarticulated needs, can only occur after those needs have been identified through empathy and the problem defined. Do we solve the problem through a product, or a relationship, or a service? Is it through expanding our business model to include other forms of retail or consumer service? As an operations manager, the unarticulated needs that I wasn’t meeting for my fellow workers were found in the way I was focused on problems, not on them personally. I felt like, and if nothing was going wrong, there was nothing for me to do. What was going on underneath the surface, and what I was failing to do, was to spend time with them, to learn their processes to the point that I could spot potential problems before they actually became problems. Again, this human-centered approach must consider, above all else, the user's experience, whether customer, employee, or client.

Phase 4 — Prototype

Prototyping doesn’t necessarily have to involve models or scaled-down products. Prototyping also applies to non-physical solutions as well, in terms of how we construct frameworks to solve problems. Obviously, there are times when physical prototyping is important, but the overarching goal of prototyping is to apply solutions in a controlled environment to allow for testing, the fifth phase.

Phase 5 — Test

The final and simplest phase of design thinking. Since design thinking doesn’t flow like time in a strictly linear fashion between stages, there are times when prototyping leads back to ideation and when defining the problem actually requires more time spent empathizing to reassess the customer’s needs. Because of this frequently recursive nature, by the time we arrive at the design thinking process's final phase, sometimes testing merely confirms the last step in our solution. Other times, it can restart the entire process from the beginning. The importance of moving fluidly throughout all five phases.


Creativity is about doing, not thinking. Design thinking as well is about playing and acting. Those actions will swing between a process-oriented approach and a human-oriented approach depending on the project. At the end of it all, whether we are talking about coworkers or customers, the one thing they all have in common is that they are people looking for solutions to their problems. Solving the problem without addressing the people will only lead to frustration and failure. Providing a solutions-based approach to problems rather than a problems-based approach to problems will guarantee a greater chance of lasting implementation and effectiveness of whatever problem we’re solving.


· https://www.ideou.com/pages/design-thinking

· https://www.creativityatwork.com/design-thinking-strategy-for-innovation/

· https://dschool.stanford.edu/resources-collections/a-virtual-crash-course-in-design-thinking

· https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-stages-in-the-design-thinking-process

· https://hbr.org/2008/06/design-thinking

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