top of page

Phases of Design Thinking

Design thinking is not just about sketches and coming up with crazy ideas, it is about creating unique experiences for unique target users.

Where did design thinking begin? Was it there since the beginning or is it something we came up with while evolving. Is it a 21st century term or is it as old as our grandfathers? I I think it was always there. Its imprints can be seen all the way from the Indus Valley Civilisation drainage system to making the Netherlands transporation system one of the cleanest and most convenient public transportation systems. I am not saying it never changed, but the core values remained the same. Designing for people, with people and for betterment of the society.

In 1969 Nobel Prize Laureate Herbert Simon outlined the very first model of design thinking process in his work, “The science of the Artificial” with 7 phases. All existing models ranging from 3 to 7 phases are mainly based on Simon’s work. I personally use and believe in the 5 phase model coined by Stanford

Before we start with the specifics, we have to compare this design thinking process with usual design process of: ideate, define, design and develop. On the other side in this model as mentioned earlier there are 5 phases: empathise, design, ideate, prototype and test. This is no way stringent order of the model, some design processes may need to alter the order to fir their needs. Design thinking processes welcome the multi dimensionality of dynamic processes and we do have the liberty to juggle the stages in a manner that complies with our workflow (think360). This whole process will jumble up your mind with so many thoughts and analyses that sometimes you will get lost. That’s why you have to follow the tools and methods. Even if you feel lost at a certain point, don’t worry you will find the way in the end. That’s usually how this works.

Let me make a point here, design thinking does not follow specific processes or steps, you can follow whatever flow works for you. This is just a suggested framework, I cannot say anyone who does not follow this is not a design thinker, it all depends on the results.

Let me make a point here, design thinking does not follow specific processes or steps, you can follow whatever flow works for you. This is just a suggested framework, it all depends on the results.

Lets start with Design Thinking phases:

1. Empathise:

The whole process starts with human touch and human understanding. When you start any project you have to completely understand the needs and wants of the user and help him distinguish between them. Because what he wants won’t always be what he needs. And understanding this gap is where the designer plays an important role.

Usually as a designer you are never trying to solve a problem for everything, but for a specific group of people and its very rare to be a part of that group. You usually are dealing with something that you have never faced yourself, in such cases you empathise with your user through observations, interviews and focus groups.

At the end of this phase you usually share everything with your team on the big white wall and listen to everyone’s observations and findings. You conclude things and create insights.

2. Define

During this phase, we combine all the insights collected during the first phase. We start to synthesise and face the challenge ahead of us. That means we start to define the exact problem we are trying to solve.

This is where you can get crazy with the problem definition itself and thus start with innovative solutions in the next phase.

As mentioned earlier this phase is where you craft a actionable problem statement. This will be the guiding light for your final solution. Defining the statement clearly and correctly is very important since this will the basis for the subsequent processes.

A problem definition should provide proper focus, inspire your team and users alike, informs criterion for evaluating competing ideas, capture hearts and minds of people involved and save you from doing the impossible.

Once you have the problem statement we should start brainstorming about 'How might we?' These outcomes will solve most of your trouble and in future if you have to come back, you will always have options to select from similar ' how might we’s' to remain relevant to whatever you did so far.

3. Ideate

Once we have defined the problem, its time to take actions. We brainstorm all possible areas of prospective solutions. The one ultimate rule of brainstorming is not to overlook any idea no matter how silly it seems. Simple and obvious solutions can be starting point for brilliant solutions. This is where you have to think out of the box while keeping the user needs and insights that you gained in the previous phase in mind.

You have keep an open mind and explore all possible ideas with an unbiased point of view and that is why a moderator is important during these processes who will guide you correctly through the whole exercise. Think as creatively as you can, having a number of people share their mind can create a great idea in the end by building over simple solutions that you would have neglected otherwise.

One important thing during ideation is to sketch. Sketch your heart out. Whatever you come up with try and sketch it so that afterwards you will remember it more clearly and it will be easier to convey to your colleagues when required. At the end of this phase you will vote for ideas, this can be on different criterion depending on the requirements of the clients. This is how you will shortlist 2 or 3 ideas to move forward with.

4. Prototype

Once we have a solution, we need to gauge the reaction of the user. For this there is no need to ponder on whether the user will like the idea or not or if the target will buy it. You have to enter the field with it and ask people what they think about it.

Prototype is a low resolution models of your Minimal Viable Product (MVP) be it paper, paint, post-its or cardboard. It is anything that your user is interacting with. This phase is the conversation starter, this is your opportunity to interact directly with users and take their unaltered reactions for the project. These prototypes are rough so its okay if you fail, you have to fail a lot and quickly that is how you will get to the best solution fast.

You don’t have to make a perfect prototype, don’t spend much time on making only one prototype which is prettier. Make something where you can check many possible scenarios at the same time and conclude at the end on one of those. You have to build this with the user in mind, his behavioural traits, his habits etc.

5. Test

During this phase you have to measure the understanding and response of your target for the presented solutions. You have to realise the testing phase from the context of the user, as to how and when they wish to use the solution. As per's thumb rule: always prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong—testing is the chance to refine your solutions and make them better.

This is one of the most important phases and is used to run a complete test of all the best solutions identified in the previous phase. As mentioned in previous article design thinking is iterative and continuously evolving, the results obtained during this phase can be used to refine and redesign the solutions until you get the best possible fit for your user.

Never guide your user during the testing phase, let them use it the way they want and record this. This is not a product showcase but the testing session, create actual experiences through this testing. Tell them all the possibilities, show them things to compare and listen what they are comparing these products to.

Once you acquire the results from the testing phase, weigh them and start iterating. This can be a long process, you may have to repeat the same cycle again and again and again but more you work on it, better the solution will be.

Design thinking is not about just sketches and coming up with crazy ideas it is about creating unique experiences for unique target users. This is one of the most rational and intricate approach for product and service design that should be considered by big organisations, but of course this is not supposed to happen overnight just because someone from the outside told me to. It has to be studied, analysed and made specifically for your organisation with your clientele in mind.

In the next blog we will go through tools and methods used during a project using design methods.

Was this helpful? Let me know in comments below.


Related Posts

See All

From Engineering to Design.

Whats, Whys and Hows of this transition. Engineering and designing are usually perceived as two different worlds. I studied mechanical engineering from College of Engineering Pune, India. While relat


bottom of page