Design thinking is a way of approaching product design that puts the end user’s requirements centre stage. It also encompasses some very practical framework guidelines: what is technically feasible and what can become added value to the customer.

That’s the concept, but how does design thinking work in practice, when it comes to designing products for consumers or businesses? Let’s take a look at how this method works.

What does Design Thinking Require of the Designer?

Design thinking requires the designer to identify with the user and use a number of “soft” skills in the initial stages of the design.

The ability to collaborate is a key skill because so many products have embedded intelligence and complex functions. You need to be able to work with many different disciplines, on a cross-disciplinary team.

Empathy and optimism are not traditionally seen as design skills. Yet in design thinking, they are key components of successful product design. Optimism drives belief in a viable solution, even when the design problem seems insurmountable and having an empathic ability enables you to understand really appreciate what the end user wants from the product and why they want it.

Integrative thinking is a key conceptual skill when design products are multifactorial and complex. It means being able to see the big picture as well as the detailed one and to have the ability to unite a multitude of different factors into a coherent whole.

And finally, there’s experimentalism; that is a willingness to ask the most basic of questions in  order to come up with out of the box solutions or that may at first seem off the wall. This is about creating an open environment for ideas, in order to discuss completely different directions, to see if they are productive.

How Design Thinking Helps in Product Development

The empathetic nature of design thinking helps businesses understand clearly what their target market desires and requires. This allows genuine market opportunities to be identified. The risks of a new product launch are reduced because the product is informed by a comprehensive understanding of what its users want. And the empathetic understanding of user aspirations helps in the design of products that are innovative and meet future needs.

The Five Key Phases in Design Thinking

These phases don’t necessarily follow on from each other in a linear fashion, as you’ll often find yourself circling back to a previous stage. In this sense the design thinking process is very iterative in order to improve and refine the design. For example, if the designer feels that they have lost touch with what the user does and doesn’t want, they can go back to the Empathy phase at any time.

1. Empathise

This is the process of developing your insight into the person for whom you are providing the product, why they want it and value it, how they want to use it, how it fits with the rest of their life or business and with other products that they use. Being mindful this can be considered from the users perspective as well as from a product brand or “client” perspective.

2. Define

Use your insights to define the user’s needs You can create an initial brief that defines the user’s needs and therefore sets the framework for the product you are going to design.

3. Ideate

Otherwise known as brainstorming, this phase draws on the hard work you have carried out to understand your user. It requires a safe, free-thinking, inspiring and collaborative environment, in which misunderstandings and mistakes are accepted, and there’s no blame.

4. Prototype

Focus groups with prototypes and end users interacting with your prototypes in a safe testing space can be very beneficial and permit feedback to be considered, changing the design if necessary. There may be opportunities here not just to fix issues, but to greatly improve, the end product.

5. Test

This is the formal testing phase, with selected users getting to try the product. You’ll pick up valuable information from observing them using the product and can refine the design based on your observations.

Design Sprint

The design thinking process has developed and evolved over the years, throwing out varying schools of thought as to how best to tackle product design. Google, developed a process called Design Sprint an offshoot of design thinking in 2010. This methodology uses design thinking to help provide a practical toolkit for product design.

It has a working week structure, based on a sprint in activities beginning on Monday and ending on Friday.The idea is that a design team can learn huge amounts about the product and the people who will use it, in a very short period of time and without the major commitment of setting up a fully fledged project. That comes later, when what has been learned is understood and digested.

Design Sprint is now a very popular methodology in both product and UX design and a great way to get to solutions quickly and pragmatically.


Design thinking has evolved over the years since its inception, most notably into the design sprint methodology, but at its core it has remained a powerful iterative process that keeps the design process anchored to the original brief. By putting soft skills, like collaboration, communication, experimentalism, empathy and even optimism, at the forefront of the design process, design thinking allows designers to think outside of the box and deliver viable solutions to even the most challenging of problems.