The Basics of Design Thinking

The process of identifying the question and solve with its users in mind.


Nina Chen

3 years ago | 5 min read

As a product designer, I sometimes face the challenge of explaining my work to non-designer audiences. All of us are in this conversation with the best intension of delivering a good product, but the communication barrier is putting us in an awkward position of not understanding each other and can’t come to a conclusion.

How to establish smooth and effective team communication that everyone feels comfortable participating in? That’s why I started this writing project — to gear everyone up to enjoy design conversations. Starting with two fundamental steps: discovery and empathy.

What is design

Before we jump into today’s topics, let’s take a step back by asking What is design?If you search “design definition” on Google, it will tell you that

Design is a plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or the implementation of an activity or process, or the result of that plan or specification in the form of a prototype, product or process.

Now, what is design? Is it a plan? an activity? or a product? Design is all of them, and design goes beyond the form of an outcome. The outcome of design can be many things, but the design itself is more about discovery. It is the journey that creates and guides itself with the pieces of information being collected on the way.

Discovery — Defining the problem space

Design is a discovery journey. This sounds big and hollow. Anything can be a discovery journey, what makes a journey design? Taking the example of designing a workspace. How would your brain react when you get the task of designing a workspace? I start with: What is an ideal workspace? How will it look like? What items need to present in the space? You might hold similar questions. This is natural. We ask questions when we don’t have a certain answer to what the outcome might be. We name this stage of design journey discovery.

Start with questions, as many as possible. Don’t try to understand the questions yet; let them flow. Some of them are broad, some of them are small. Some of them flow away, some of them stick to the thought. When the pace of asking questions slows down, we can take a pause and start reviewing the questions that were just asked.

We want to find the key questions. The key questions being the questions that we keep referring back to. For example, when questions about the type of furniture, table size, chair are asked, it all comes back to the size of the space and its functionality. Therefore we know space size and its functionality are 2 of the key questions.

When key questions are all identified, we want to lay them out and find the connection between them. Don’t worry about the answer just yet. Our brain tends to jump to a conclusion, especially when the brain gets excited, but let’s all press the brake to slow it down a bit.

Empathy — Understand the people

From discovery, we defined the key questions and some dependency or connection between them. Now, we need to find the centre pole where all the questions can be tied. The pole is the user, the person who will be working in this workspace we designed.

Who is this workspace for?

Who is your user?
Who is your user?

It can be myself, or it can be others. If I am designing a workspace for myself, things get a lot easier. I know myself inside out (for most of the part). I know what I want, what I need, how I move and how I think.

In which case, I can skip this stage. When it comes to designing for others, which happens 99% of the time, this stage of empathy becomes crucial to the overall process. I need to know this other person as well as knowing myself to deliver a nice outcome for him/her.

The moment ‘the person’ is identified, we as designers need to seal up ourselves. Seal my preference, my value, my needs, and anything that labelled with me in a box. And put the box of me aside. From this moment onwards, we put on the shoes of ‘the person’, to achieve the goal of knowing ‘the person’ as much as knowing about ourselves. This is the 2nd stage of the design journey — empathy.

The empathy stage requires a large amount of interaction with ‘the person’, information gathering and field study. I like to call it the study of people. It is the process of knowing, understanding, and thinking like ‘the person’. Start from pasting over ‘the person’s’ behaviour, to understand the rationale behind the behaviour, to thinking in the logic behind the rationals.

I am now ‘the person’ who will be using this workspace. ‘I’ need the workspace to be bright and spacious because ‘I’ find ‘myself’ being most productive in this type of environment. ‘I’ tends to work with 2 monitors and a sketch pad, therefore, ‘I’ need a relatively big desk. ‘I’ like to work in a stand-up posture, it helps ‘me’ to stay focused.

However, ‘I’ had a back injury, so ‘I’ can’t stand for too long, so ‘I’ need to alternate between sitting and standing posture a couple of times per day. Therefore the desk needs to have flexible height, and ideally, it can remember ‘my’ standing and sitting height so ‘I’ don’t need to spend time and energy to adjust it.

User’s needs
User’s needs

As the designer becomes empathetic to ‘the person’ or becomes ‘the person’. The answer to the questions, which were defined in the discovery phase, becomes easy to answer. Assumptions are taken out of the answering process. The designer

Questions are answered! Do we have design now? The answer is yes and no. Yes, we’ve got a very good foundation for the workspace design project, in which we’ve identified all the questions and we’ve understood ‘the person’s’ logic and rationale to answer the questions. But we haven’t got the floor plan of the space yet.

We know this particular workspace needs a large size desk with flexible height, but we don’t know where to put it or what colour it will be yet. Slow down and take a deep breath. Design is not about finding a perfect solution, it is about finding the question, and answer the question as ‘the person’, and let the answer of the questions lead to its form of result.


Design thinking is a messy and iterative process. It is a circular process of discovering questions, understanding users and solving the question. If you are a designer, be patient with yourself, keep asking questions, you will find a good solution.

If you are a stakeholder, please be patient with your designers. With time, they will create satisfying solutions. There is hardly any perfect design. The better design is always the next iteration.


Created by

Nina Chen







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