Design Thinking – What and Why?

So here I am at the back of the Dublin Tech Summit and one more speaker has just mentioned Design Thinking – I get a conference bingo point! The thing is, most of the speakers who refer to Design Thinking seem to have a rather vague idea of what it actually is, beyond it being the next buzzword that will solve all our problems. This is a shame because Design Thinking is actually very easy to understand, not all that complex and can actually solve all of our problems. That’s a big claim but that’s what it does – it’s a defined process for solving problems, no more, no less. 

What Design Thinking is not is “thinking like a designer”, “being creative” or “thinking outside the box”. It is a defined five-step process that stops us from making the same mistakes that we are hard-wired to make when we’re designing solutions.  It works like this:

·        Empathise

·        Define

·        Ideate

·        Prototype

·        Test

That’s powerful stuff. Why? Well for a start it’s actually simple enough to understand and follow, and it’s flexible enough to be applied to almost anything: software, cars, human behaviour, finance. In fact anywhere where there are problems to solve which is to say everywhere.

But the real power of Design Thinking lies in how it counterbalances the natural instincts that work against us when we try and design solutions to problems. Here’s how:


This involves getting up close and personal with those you are designing for, interviewing them, working with them, doing the things they do, trying and get an understanding of what it’s like to be in their shoes, seeing the problem through their eyes and from their context.

Why this helps

We are so used to seeing the world from our own perspective that we tend to design for ourselves – seeing the world as another sees it is not natural and requires a little work. Working with others helps lift us out of our own reality and question all the assumptions we are making about what’s useful to others.


This is about defining the problem, not the solution. Most solutions fail because they are solving the wrong problem. From work with your customer, target market, end user or whoever you worked with in the empathise step you should now be able to accurately define the problem you are trying to solve and how you will know that the solution works.

Why this helps

Trying to solve a vague problem is like trying to herd cats. Along with a defined problem there needs to be a defined success measure – otherwise how will you know if you’ve solved anything? This provides us with self-discipline to counteract the human tendency to tackle lofty but unclear problems. “Our products are not integrated” is not a problem definition. A problem definition looks like: “Our product appears and behaves differently on different devices. As our users often use multiple devices at once or switch devices mid-task, this causes confusion and frustration and leads to them abandoning the product entirely.” This also points to a success measure – customer retention rates. You now have something clear to achieve.


This is the traditional “comfort zone” of problem solving – the brainstorm. The aim here is to generate as many solutions as possible in a short period of time by quick-firing them into a huge list.

Why this helps

We tend to be solution-focused – that’s only natural when we’re looking for solutions. This means we’ll fixate on the first good suggestion that comes along and start exploring it at the cost of considering a lot of other good ideas that might exist. By getting suggestions down on paper quickly and then moving on we avoid that pitfall and give ourselves a greater array of possible solutions to choose from, and a greater chance of hitting on a really good one.


Build a quick model or functioning mockup to test out some solutions.

Why this helps

Once we’ve settled on one or more solutions that feel right we automatically become attached to them – in fact we become attached to a single one. Even if the team has selected three front-runners to test, everyone will have a favourite because being unbiased is almost impossible for humans, but until you have something real you are just backing an imaginary horse.


Take your prototype to real users and watch them use it. If it’s perfect, great! (It won’t be). If it needs refinement (likely) then change your prototype and try again. If it’s terrible then you still have other solutions from ideation to fall back on.

Why this helps

Again, we tend to make assumptions about how people will use things in the real world and because we are not those people we often get this very wrong. Until we go back to working with the users of the solution, we won’t even realise the assumptions we have made about them – we are blind to them!

Putting it together

When these steps are put together they give us a totally different approach to problem-solving than that we would usually take. Because we all like solutions we instinctively rush towards them, skipping the annoying bits like understanding the problem and comparing lots of different solutions. Design Thinking helps us avoid these pitfalls and come up with solutions that actually work.

There’s a bit more to Design Thinking than this, and doing it well is an art in itself. If you’re really interested you can go and study it at the at Stanford, but this here is the meat of it: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. Do those five things in order and you’ll be using Design Thinking to produce better solutions.