What Is Design Thinking? | Design Thinking 101 — Part 1

What is Design Thinking?


Rebecca Chew

3 years ago | 6 min read

Design Thinking 101 is a weekly series of articles that explain the theory and practice of Design Thinking. Starting with what Design Thinking is, I go on to explain the Design Thinking methodology step-by-step. These are brought to life with interesting examples of ux designers using Design Thinking to solve real-life problems.

Metis, part of Kaplan, wanted to create a data analytics plan that would help novice programmers and staticians become job-ready. They reached out to Datascope to design the curriculum from scratch.

By speaking to industry experts and potential students, Datascope identified key skill sets and engaging teaching methods, crafting a 12-week bootcamp to develop specific capabilities. Since 2014, this programme has expanded into 4 US cities and gone digital.

As an all-in-one coaching management platform, CoachVantage wanted to create a form-builder system that could speed up coaches’ workflows. Through interviews and usability tests, a form-builder feature that was easy enough to use for less tech savvy coaches was created. This helped improve retention and satisfaction for the platform.

How did these companies find success? They used the design thinking process. You too can understand and use it for your business.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an ideology which asserts that a user-centric approach to problem-solving leads to innovation in a competitive environment. It comes with an accompanying process that aims to find the intersection between human needs, technological feasibility and economic success.

Find an intersection between human needs, technological feasibility and economic success. Source: IDEO

Benefits of Design Thinking

The benefits of this shift in thinking help businesses and customers achieve better value-for-money:

  1. Lower risk for innovating new products. Design thinking can be used to validate new products and features in a low-risk and inexpensive way, potentially saving precious time, money and a company’s reputation.
  2. Able to innovate an entire industry. You can completely revolutionise an industry not only slightly differentiate yourself in it.
  3. Multiplies the team’s effectiveness. As the entire team is involved in the process early, members with different backgrounds contribute to the final solution. They build upon each others’ expertise, creating an exponentially better product.
  4. Increase the efficiency of the team. Since the process includes representatives from each function in a company, these representatives become beacons who understand the problem, informing and advocating for a solution. This creates alignment within all levels of an organisation and speeds up development.
  5. Iterate on your ideas frequently and cheaply. Constantly improve without having to spend tons of time or money.
  6. Scalable for large teams and problems. The design thinking process is simple enough to be repeated throughout an organisation. It is also applicable in any industry and problem scope, from specific things like search to large-scale societal, environmental and economic issues.

No matter the scope of your problem, using Design Thinking to its fullest extent requires an understanding of both its problem-solving mindset and process.

Design Thinking Mindset

Where others would dive into creating solutions, practitioners of design thinking first ask, “what are the human needs behind a problem?”. These needs act as the foundation which all other solutions are built upon. This is in stark contrast to the intuitive way of problem-solving in 3 ways:

  • Focused on gathering real user data. The first step is always discovering and deeply empathising with real, unmet user needs. Solutions are based on real people, not instincts, assumptions or historical data.
  • Innovative rather than incremental. By seeing the user’s problem and existing solutions at a high-level, design thinking promotes profound innovation in an industry. This is completely different from making incremental improvements to an existing solution.
  • Inclusive not reserved. Design thinking advocates that when a variety of experts work collaboratively, this becomes a major source of innovation. Creativity and innovation is no longer reserved just for designers.

Design Thinking Process

There are many ways to implement the design thinking mindset. Some popular ones are the traditional double diamond, the IDEO design thinking process and the enterprise-centred IBM design thinking methodology. They are all somewhat similar and based on the design thinking mindset. Today, I will focus on the simple Nielson Norman design thinking cycle. There are 6 stages in this design thinking process.

The Design Thinking Process. Source: Norman Nielson

1. Empathise

The Empathise stage is for understanding your user’s needs. Photo by Julia Larson from Pexels.

Goal: Identify and understand your user’s unmet needs.

Strategy: Do targeted research to gain a deep understanding of user needs.

For example, imagine your goal is to reduce the tons of uneaten food discarded by schools and restaurants everyday. In this stage, you will talk to a variety of users, like chefs, restaurant owners, school managers and customers.

Ask them what they think, feel and are currently doing to tackle the issue. Gather your observations long enough till you can effectively empathise with users.

2. Define

Goal: Make sense of research in order to highlight potential problems to solve

Strategy: Organise research and conduct workshops to identify problems

Continuing the food waste example, you might want to organise your findings on an affinity map to find the commonalities between users’ pain points. This naturally generates plenty of problems to solve. You and your team can then come together in UX workshops to prioritise the more important problems first.

3. Ideate

The Ideation stage lets all members be creative. Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels.

Goal: Come up with innovative solutions to solve users’ needs

Strategy: Generate a lot of ideas before choosing a few promising and feasible ones

By generating many ideas, you are more likely to find the best solution possible. For example, while at first you might think of reducing the amount of food purchased, selling the uneaten food to consumers also creates income for businesses. After you have created many solutions, vote on the best ones and go forward with them.

4. Prototype

The Prototype stage is where your team will build a life-like product. Source: Eladdin Project

Goal: Create a life-like version of your final solution

Strategy: While they might not work as a real solution, prototypes can be verbal descriptions, web-based mockups or physical models made with cheap materials.

By building the mockup, you will start to see how truly feasible your solution is. Use this internal feedback to iterate and improve your prototype until it is good enough to be placed in front of users. In our example, you might want to create an app that sells uneaten foods at a discount.

5. Test

The Testing stage is where you gather feedback on your prototype. Photo by Canva Studio from Pexels.

Goal: Gather feedback from users and customers

Strategy: Let users interact with the prototype and comment on how much they solve their unmet needs

With real customers seeing and using your prototype, you can get a sense of how good your solution is to them. Has this reduced the net amount of food wasted? Does it create unintended problems? Do customers find the app easy to navigate and use?

6. Implement

The Implement stage is the most important stage. Photo by Gabriel Freytez from Pexels.

Goal: Put the vision into effect and see how all customers react

Strategy: Use the feedback for the prototype as a springboard to create a real, working solution

This is the most important part of the process. Don Norman preaches that “we need more design doing.” Does the solution meet many people’s need? Is it desirable in the real world? Is it scalable? Is it profitable in the long-term? These questions can only be answered in the real world.

Design Thinking Tips

Before we end, a general tip is to be flexible. When practicing design thinking, it is common to come back to empathising after implementing a solution. This process is not linear. Indeed, as the diagram is a cycle, it is useful to do the entire process over and over for complex problems. This keeps solutions up-to-date with the latest customer feedback, guiding innovation.

It is normal to return to previous stages. Source: Norman Nielson

Another thing to note is that design thinking is a practice. It is normal to have to do it several times before becoming skilled. As Sarah Gibbons, Nielsen Norman Chief Designer puts it, “There’s a reason we are called practitioners. It’s a practice.” Don’t give up, and understand it is all part of the learning journey.


We are living in an era of experiences where we have high expectations for any product or service. With the breakneck pace of technological advancement, user needs are becoming more complex every day.

Design thinking helps lower the risk of innovation by multiplying the expertise on your team, leading to products and services that stand head and shoulders above the competition.

Stay tuned for the next article about empathising with your user, posted next week!


Created by

Rebecca Chew

I’m a UI/UX designer who’s passionate about tech and sustainability. In my spare time I run green Instagram page The Green Push and volunteer for SG Climate Rally! Talk to me about UX, sustainability or book recs anytime.







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