Six Steps of Design Thinking

Botanical Gardens in Singapore: An Amazing Design

An earlier blog commented on why design thinking was critical to solving sustainability challenges, this blog tells you more how to engage in design thinking.

Designers tend to use a six-stage process to organize their fact finding and decision making: (1) Empathy, (2) Define, (3) Ideate, (4) Prototype, (5) Test, and (6) Launch. Note, user refers to anyone who is a target of our design work.

  • Empathy: Empathy is the foundation of the human-centered design process. To empathize, we observe users and their behavior in their context, interact with and interview users, and experience what users experience.
  • Define: Defining your problem occurs when you unpack and synthesize your empathy findings into compelling insights. You do this defining to gain focus – an actionable point of view.  By the end of this stage, you should have developed a guiding statement that focuses on specific users, insights, and needs that you uncovered during the empathy stage. The define stage helps you move beyond simple problem statements to a unique design vision that you crafted based on your discoveries. Note that you engage users before defining the core challenges you are addressing. Designers trust their observational skills to learn a great deal about users. This step helps to avoid you saying “Oh, I’ve seen this problem before and I know what to do.”
  • Ideate: When you ideate, you go far and wide to generate solutions to address discovered challenges. During this phase you are searching for a large quantity of ideas and a diversity among the ideas.
  • Prototype: Next, you get ideas and explorations out of your mind and the minds of others into the physical world. A prototype can be anything from post-it-notes on a wall, role playing, design mockups, or a storyboard. Prototypes are ways to demonstrate ideas and to get feedback to build more and more prototypes; they are tools for interaction.
  • Test: Prior to launching, testing is done by reframing solutions and making them better. Designers usually follow this concept, “prototype as if you know you are right; test as if you are wrong.”
  • Launch: Introduce your idea to markets and get feedback during the launch phase. It is like a prototype on steroids.

To get more concrete about this process, take a look at this video about a design challenge given to the world-class design firm IDEO. You’ll see this process in action and even learn a few of the methods designers use. This is called The Deep Dive.

Key Methods

Designers use many methods to implement these six stages of the design process. Here are a few examples of the more frequently used methods:

  • Getting unstuck: Methods used to help keep the problem solving moving, such as playing to loosen up a group, writing without worrying about correctness, scratching—a term used by Twyla Tharp when she was experimenting with an idea and simply doing what came to her at the moment, or interacting with unusual persons.
  • Observation: Interviewing, videotaping experiences, or role playing a scene to see what happens.
  • Brainstorming: Methods to generate large quantities of ideas.
  • Visualization: Making everything graphically and visually appealing through observing, building a model, or using mind mapping.

There are literally hundreds of methods designers use. The more competent you become as a designer, the more you’ll learn these methods and choose effective ones for your specific design challenge.

Competencies and Mindset

Designers develop certain competencies to be able to do their work. Among the more important ones are:

  • Ethnographic skills of observation: Acting like an anthropologist be developing a keen eye for observation.
  • Collaboration: Design works when many people are involved. Designing, as we’ll advocate, is not a lone genius process.  It is a collaborative team effort and working in teams is a skill to be developed.
  • Visualization and prototyping: The more you visualize your ideas the better you will become at doing so. You do not need to be an artist to make your ideas concrete.
  • Listening and storytelling: Communication skills are fundamental to quality design. They are skills – not natural to most of us.

Designers adopt a specific mindset to do their work. They approach problems with an open mind and a bias for action and concreteness. They give themselves permission to fail and learn from their failures. Most important, designers are mindful.


In this brief document you have learned:

  1. Design thinking is a process using a designer’s methods, competencies, and mindset.
  2. The process moves from empathy to define to ideate to prototype to test to launch.

Design thinking can be applied to product development, service development, process design, and remakes and even life decisions about your career. We’ll explore all of these uses and cover the specifics of design thinking and acting like a designer in future blog posts. You’ll see how design thinking complements other problem solving and decision making tools and methods and can be used in many diverse settings.

For these reasons, being a trained designer gives you a leg up on others! It will increase your work enjoyment and provide insights unavailable using other methods.


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