Design Thinking For The Rest Of Us

By now you’ve probably heard about Design Thinking. Originated by the Stanford University Institute of Design, this is a development pathway that was devised for use by designers and other innovation specialists.

It has now made its way into the business mainstream in a big way. Essentially, Design Thinking is a process in which various steps are knitted together to help guide innovation in virtually any area of discipline. That is, the process helps develop new products and services, new advertising or promotions, new package functionality or presentation, etc.

Here is the graphic Stanford created depicting the five key steps or “modes” of the process.

Design Thinking

Although the elements themselves are not new, laying out this defined pathway and placing the emphasis on the consumer (or end user) seem to be the keys to Design Thinking’s marketplace growth. The system is guiding innovators and marketers to very intentionally focus on end users and their needs.

For the rest of this discussion, I’ll focus on development of physical products. Let’s break the process down and look more closely at what each mode is. Later, I’ll touch on execution.

Empathize–This is described by Stanford as “the work you do to understand people.” It’s the observations and conversations you have with a potential audience or market to gain a better understanding of their challenges, needs, desires, etc. This can be accomplished through casual observation and interaction, by analyzing social media posts or exchanges, and more.

More formalized work should also be incorporated. Ethnography or other qualitative research is essential to understanding people. And to truly comprehend, we need to not only observe what’s happening in the visible world, but we also need to get below the surface to determine what motivates people deep down to do the things they do or want the things they want. This requires sophisticated interviewing and analytical techniques often employed by qualitative researchers.

Define–Stanford refers to this mode as “bringing clarity and focus…based on what you have learned…to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement.” In other words, this is a very analytical step resulting in a well-understood and articulated need. Everything we observe and unearth in the Empathize step is considered, synthesized, and formed into a very focused “problem statement.” What is the specific problem we’re trying to solve with an innovative new product? The Define step helps us give structure and definition to the challenge or problem.

Ideate–Now that we know which sandbox we’re playing in (as defined in the last step), we can start digging. Stanford refers to this as “concentrating on idea generation…going wide in terms of concepts and outcomes.” A couple of criteria are essential for success in this mode:

  • Define the boundaries—effective ideation requires guardrails. "Blue-sky" thinking may sound very creative and romantic, but it really isn’t practical in the development of effective solutions to specific problems or needs. We have to remain grounded by the end goal.
  • Keep an open mind—no ideas are bad ideas at this point; everything is on the table (within the established guardrails). Ideas will be judged on feasibility later, but now is the time to push the boundaries and consider all possibilities.

Once a large number of ideas are generated, some winnowing must occur as we head toward the prototyping step. Now is the time for that feasibility discussion, at least at a high level. The goal is for a moderate number of ideas to move to the next steps for end-user input and refinement.

Prototype–Here something is being built or developed to communicate what the product would be like. Stanford makes the case that this is a “build to think” mode. That is, early prototypes can be very rough depictions of a product idea (sketches, paper or foam renditions—think paper airplane types of models). They are created to provide stimulus for discussion and interaction for the purpose of refinement and further feedback.

At this step, the learning is quick and iterative. We depict or build ideas rapidly and inexpensively so that we can learn what we need to learn and keep moving. Once this process is complete, we are ready for more formal testing.

Test–In this step, as Stanford says, we “solicit feedback, about the prototypes you have created, from your users and have another opportunity to gain empathy for the people you’re designing for.” More formal testing of a small number of prototypes is always recommended in order to elevate the new product’s chances for success. More realistic, usable prototypes are brought in at this step for end user experiences and evaluation.

Depending on the product and the cost to produce prototypes, the test may take place in a central location or in a person’s home or work environment—the real-world setting. Regardless of the location, the objective is to evaluate the product idea, understand more about the end-users’ needs and desires, and improve the product before moving into production.

At this point, you may be wondering how this process would be carried out in your world. Honestly, the steps I'm about to outline in this process may be familiar territory. Here are some thoughts on how Decision Analyst characterizes each step of the process and the types of activities we often suggest for each.

Design Thinking & Research

Mode Objective Activities & Methods
design thinking define Exploration; getting to know your customer Qualitative research, ethnography, observational interviews, shop-alongs, video diaries
design thinking define Pinpoint and define the need Read, review, analyze, and synthesize the observation and research done up to this point
design thinking ideate Develop a large list of ideas (casting a wide net) Brainstorming and innovation; Imaginators®
design thinking prototype Develop and refine rough ideas Workshops; internal stakeholders and potential end users; Imaginators®
design thinking test Measure consumer/user reactions to early-stage product concepts, designs, or prototypes ConceptScreen®, ConceptTest®, Optima® In-Home Usage Tests (IHUT)

Many organizations are embracing the Design Thinking philosophy and incorporating it into their new product development (NPD) processes. It can be very helpful in focusing NPD teams, both small and large, not only on the outcome (the widget they’re designing), but on the people they intend to serve. After all, the success of a new product is wholly dependent upon a customer base—people—embracing it. And they will only do that if it meets a real need, provides value, and enhances their lives in some way.


Felicia Rogers

Felicia Rogers

Executive Vice President

Felicia Rogers is a dynamic insights consultant who leverages decades of business and consumer research experience. During her career, she has partnered with companies across an array of categories. Felicia began her career in print advertising and has since spent most of her professional life in various consumer insights roles at Decision Analyst. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration, with a concentration in Marketing, from the University of North Texas.

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