Design thinking

Design thinking is one of the most branded and publicized “thinking” frameworks around. A majority of companies have their own version that’s printed on T-shirts, mugs, and giant posters. But what does it really mean?

What is design thinking?

At its core, design thinking is problem-solving for humans. When different disciplines come together to collaborate, it’s easy to lose sight of the people: the reason you’re building that software or service in the first place.

Everyone brings their own expertise to the table and approaches things differently. The business side thinks about dollars and cents; marketing thinks about campaigns and execution; engineers think about technology. But the one thing everyone can come together and agree on is the humans that inspire the work. That’s why design thinking is so powerful. It provides a user-centric path that both non-designers and designers can follow.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Tim Brown

CEO, Ideo

Companies who champion design thinking

A strong advocate for the overall process, IDEO has been using a design thinking framework on and off for the last 30 years. They’ve developed an instructional track so people can learn how to apply it to their own businesses (Hello Design Thinking), and base their framework on four steps:

  1. Gather inspiration. Inspire new thinking by discovering what people really need.
  2. Generate ideas. Push past the obvious to find breakthrough solutions.
  3. Make ideas tangible. Build rough prototypes to learn how to make ideas better.
  4. Share the story. Craft a human story to inspire others to take action.
If you think design as a profession is simply about the 'thing,' just like everyone else in business, you're wrong… It's about the ability to lead other people to the right answer and get them to adopt it.

Phil Gilbert

General Manager, IBM

IBM follows what they call Enterprise Design Thinking. Because it’s such a massive organization, they have to think big. Like IDEO, IBM has an online course for implementing their framework at scale. It consists of three steps:

  1. Observe. Immerse yourself in the real world.
  2. Reflect. Come together and look within.
  3. Make. Give concrete form to abstract ideas.

Another common version comes from the academic perspective of the Stanford, also referred to as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. The is one of the best when it comes to design thinking studies in college. Their framework is similar to IBM and IDEO, with slight variations:

  1. Empathize. Build empathy for your users by learning their values.
  2. Define. Unpack empathy findings into needs, insights, and scope.
  3. Ideate. “Go wide” by generating radical design alternatives.
  4. Prototype. Get your ideas out of your head and into the world.
  5. Test. Gather feedback, refine solutions, and continue to learn about your users.

Regardless of the framework, you’ll see an emphasis on the user, generating multiple ideas, and gathering feedback from the team or stakeholders. These are the core pieces of design thinking. This process of designing, getting feedback, and refining is commonly referred to as an iterative design process.

Why does design thinking matter?

Design thinking is a framework that helps the team push past the normal business boundaries and think of unique ways to approach a problem. It provides a platform for non-designers to hop on and understand the designer’s user-specific goals.

In order to really understand why it’s so important, let’s look at it next to traditional business thinking.

Design thinking is solutions-focused and iterative, with a powerful component that involves observing people to understand their habits. Business thinking is more definitive; it relies on equations for proof, and dissecting focus groups or surveys. Design thinking looks to understand the user, while the business side zeros in on the output of the user. Design thinking brings the focus back to what the user wants—so you and your team can actually improve their lives, not just the company’s bottom line (though those two often go hand-in-hand).

The phases of the design thinking process

Depending on how you’re implementing design thinking, the steps might have slightly different names, but they’re all essentially the same: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

Empathize, observe, and gather inspiration

The first stage of design thinking is to understand your user and the problem you’re solving.

This could present itself as a smaller issue, like how to develop a feature or product, but evolve into a bigger company problem. It could also remain simple. The goal is to make sure you’re empathizing with your users. If you can experience the situation first hand—ideally in person through observation or participation—you can really understand what they need, which helps you paint a more accurate picture of the problem.

Because the user is at the core of the design thinking framework, this is a crucial step. It’s also important to make sure you’re observing in an unbiased way, and not guiding the users to answer the way you want them to.

Define and reflect

After observing, you need to unpack and dissect your findings. Explore what you and your team witnessed: Analyze the problems your users were facing and the frustrations they had. This should lead you to the essence of what you’re solving for, and help you define what you need to build.

Generate ideas

Now that you understand the humans at the center of the problem and have had time to reflect on your observations, it’s time to start the idea phase.

Right now, everything is feasible and you can build anything. Don’t let practicality get in your way now. Generating as many ideas as possible is the name of the game. Thinking unconventionally and without constraints is ideal. This is the true advantage of design thinking. With a team that’s used to working together, this can become a fast, intense exercise where the group hops from idea to idea, thinking about the present and future state, riffing off each other until the right one sticks.

Another word for this is gedanken, or thought experiment: The common goal is to explore the potential consequences of the principle in question.

There are a ton of ways to bring this step to life, including using InVision Freehand as a collaborative space where your team can work through ideas and iterate in real time.

Make your ideas tangible

See that list of ideas you generated? It’s time to prototype them to understand if they’ll actually work. Depending on the problem and potential solution, the number of prototypes needed could be wildly different. If it’s a massive problem in an unknown solution space, it could be hundreds; if it’s a more specific problem with tons of competition, it could be a much smaller number.

The word “prototype” here should be used loosely. This stage is all about adding fidelity without going 100% in. If your product is a physical object, you can make the form factor out of cardboard. If it’s digital, try sketching it out in higher fidelity on a piece of paper. Wireframes and clickable prototypes are also a great way to start bringing ideas to life and testing their validity. The important part of this stage is to explore your ideas and make sure they feel right once they start taking shape.

Build a company focused on learning as quickly as possible. You can make decisions to learn faster or learn slower… We've invested in a giant testing framework. At any given point, there's multiple versions of Facebook running.

Mark Zuckerberg

CEO, Facebook

Test to learn

This step really helps you understand if your ideas are solving the original problem. The point here is to test your solutions before you invest in building them 100% of the way. Testing could come in various applications: clickable prototypes, wireframes, in-person experiences, or fully-coded products.

Often, this step leads to redefining your problem. And that’s OK. Testing never hurts and will help you understand your users even better. Design thinking as a methodology is not a linear progression but a way to achieve a deeper understanding of your users.

Solve user problems as a team

Developing empathy for users is a key part of the product design workflow, but brainstorming and managing inspiration can be challenging, especially with teams.

Help your team better understand the needs of your users by brainstorming solutions on a digital whiteboard. InVision Freehand and Boards allow your team to collaborate on empathy maps, create wireframes, and gather design inspiration. Whether you sketch out your own thoughts or add your feedback to someone else’s, you’re working together in real time and pushing your project forward.

With a collaborative canvas, your team can create low-fidelity prototypes early in the process and iterate rapidly as the project evolves. Once you’ve got buy-in, take your design to high-fidelity with the screen design power of InVision Studio. No matter where you are in the design process, InVision is there to help.

Now that you know, use that new knowledge and collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard

Transformative collaboration for all the work you do