The design thinking process at its’ core is all about user centric design. The user’s journey, motivations, and pain points are present in all steps of the process to create a tailored solution. 

There are five steps in the design thinking process. Think of these steps as part of a cycle which keeps going around and around until an optimized solution is found.

The first step in the cycle is to empathize. Empathy is crucial to the rest of the process because it is how designers can learn about their user. When you empathize with someone, you see the world through their eyes. In the designer's case, empathy means putting aside their own preconceived ideas to better understand the problem from the viewpoint of the user. The goal is to understand the user’s thoughts and motivations beyond collecting quantitative data. This happens in any number of ways: observations, direct conversations, surveys, journey maps, etc. For example, Mary is trying to create a solution for a parking shortage on a block with multiple large business offices. As a result of the shortage, people are arriving constantly late to work and are often arriving in an aggregated mood. In order to create a solution, Mary needs to understand the journey that the worker goes through on a daily basis without assumptions. She may observe traffic in the parking lots or people coming into the building. Questions such as “how far away did you have to park today?” or “do you park in the same spot every day?” could give her insight into the workers’ problems. She could send out a survey to collect information on parking or host a small forum to get people talking. In the empathy stage, one might run into some surprises, allowing the designer to see their own hidden preconceptions. In Mary’s case, maybe some people bike to work and have trouble finding places to lock up. Others may have resorted to taking the bus, which worked until they didn’t have a way to pick their child up from school when they got sick. Odds are good that the designer will run into unexpected information which will make it easier to design the solution which best fits the needs of all users.

There are several tools that can be helpful in the empathize stage. One popular tool is a user persona. Personas are made-up users who usually represent a unique case that may not apply to the majority of the users. Crafting personas can be especially helpful for projects where the group of users is not very specialized. Staying with the parking example, a persona could be an employee of a company who isn’t able to work regular hours because they take care of their family. When this person arrives around noon there is never anywhere for them to park. At night, he must walk alone for multiple blocks in the dark to reach his car. This has made him anxious to leave work later at night, and, therefore, he is not able to work the necessary hours and falls behind on work regularly. Designing a solution for this user in addition to all of the other user personas will create a versatile solution.

The next step in the design thinking process is define. In the define stage, the designer takes all of the information gathered during the empathize stage and analyzes it. However, defining a problem can be quite tricky. There will always be a problem definition that stands out as the obvious one. In our example, it would be that there is not enough parking. The challenge, as well as the reward, comes in reframing the problem in different ways to find the maximum amount of possible solutions. Here’s an example:

Jack works in a hotel. Customers keep approaching him and other staff complaining that the elevator is too slow. The problem at first glance would be that the elevators are too slow, and therefore the hotel must pay for a mechanic to come in and fix them. This would also mean having elevators out of commission for a while in addition to the cost of repair. Jack believes there are more ways to interpret the problem. Instead of calling a mechanic, he starts asking the customers questions and observing them as they wait. He ends up with a different problem definition! Customers are bored while waiting for the elevator. As a result of this new definition, the hotel puts up mirrors by the elevators. Instead of staring at the elevator as they wait, now people are looking at themselves. Customers stopped complaining, and the hotel didn’t have to spend money on a repair or shut down the elevators for maintenance. This example shows how powerful reframing the problem can be. The best solutions don’t always come from the most obvious problems, making the define stage essential to the design thinking cycle.

The next stage of the process is ideate. Ideation is all about creativity! Now is when you grab your dry-erase markers and let any and all ideas fly. Rather than ideating alone, it is best to bounce concepts around with a group of people also dedicated to solving the problem. Bringing ideas into a group setting allows them to evolve and grow into a stronger solution. In the ideate stage, all ideas are good ideas. Here, you are not confined to the rules of logic or execution. You never know what idea might lead to the best possible solution for your users! Having a diverse group of ideators is also important. People from different backgrounds, careers, and that are different ages experience different daily lives and will come up with the widest range of solutions. Ideas coming from that group will account for the most diverse population of users.

After all of the ideas are out in the open, it’s time to prototype. Prototyping allows designers to preview the practicality of a solution in terms of execution by making a scaled down and cheaper version. A prototype is valuable because it can expose weaknesses and flaws in your design. If flaws are found, return to a previous step in the cycle. The design thinking process is non-linear and flexible. It is a good thing if during the process you find yourself jumping around steps! Knowing when to go back and re-evaluate the problem definition is important, and your resulting design will be better for it. Once you have settled on one or more prototypes, it’s time to see what your users think.

Finally, test! Bring your design to the users and gather feedback. Hit the streets to have the user test the solution in their normal day-to-day. Make sure to record all feedback as it’s likely you will be heading back to the ideation stage a few more times before you settle on a final solution.

There are many ways to user test. Two of the most popular methods are 1) letting your user experience the solution with no explanation from you and 2) having them talk you through their experience and asking them questions to make them think even further about what they are experiencing. After they have completed their trial, ask some follow up questions. Focus on any weak spots and ask the user to elaborate. Lastly, observe. See whether they are using the product as intended. Mistakes made from a customer’s end can be a huge learning opportunity for designers. After testing, gather your data. If the solution needs to be fixed, move backward to repeat a previous step. Be patient. The solution is almost never perfect on the first try.

While the design thinking process can be tedious, it produces versatile and thoughtful results. As with anything, the more you practice the steps, the easier it will be to move throughout the cycle. Remember to stay flexible and listen. Now it’s time to get solving!

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