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Why Design Thinking is critical to UX

Design Thinking is simply a method for creative problem-solving. According to the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF),

“Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions…”

The key ingredient is that it’s a human-centered process. As a UX Designer, it’s vital that the user is at the forefront, which means you need to be able to empathize. Design Thinking creates a breeding ground for empathy. It’s easy to recognize a product that has the users’ needs in mind versus one that doesn’t. That’s not to say that business goals aren’t equally as important, but UX is all about finding a balance between a user’s needs and the business’s needs. Incorporating the principles of Design Thinking will provide a foundation for finding the common ground between the two.

The 5 Steps

There are 5 distinct phases of Design Thinking:

5 distinct phases of Design Thinking

Empathize — with users
Define — users’ needs, their problems, and your insights
Ideate — challenge assumptions and produce ideas for innovative solutions
Prototype — begin creating solutions
Test — solutions

It’s important to recognize that these steps are non-linear. They can occur in parallel and are often repeated. However, “empathize” is typically the first step.

Building Empathy For Your Users

Empathy is not only applicable to UX. It’s an important life-skill to have and one that will be beneficial in the workplace and beyond. However, even if you consider yourself an empathetic person, it can be easy to lose sight of how to connect with the user. So, how can you ensure this doesn’t happen?

The first step is getting to know your users. This is not just about understanding what the target client wants and needs. Rather, this step is about taking the time to fully grasp users’ thoughts, emotions, and desires. As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” If you can understand the customer’s “why,” then you will be able to better convey the “why” of your business to them. In essence, it’s about building a connection between the product and the user.

When you have a sense of empathy for the people you’re designing for, you will gather insight into their needs, wants, behavior, and thoughts. As we make observations, it’s best to keep our judgments aside. You want to avoid having your assumptions or experiences create any sort of bias. Make sure to ask questions and truly listen to what the user says.

Conducting interviews is a useful method for connecting with customers. Before the interview, it’s productive to generate themes and questions you want to highlight in your conversations. This ensures you are staying on topic and getting at the heart of what you want to learn from these interviews.

If you keep in mind these practices and follow these steps, then you will be well on your way to building empathy for your users.

Defining the Problem

Once you have a solid understanding of the people you’re designing for, you can begin to define the problem. Now that you have expert knowledge of how to empathize, you should create a human-centered solution. During this part of the process, you need to synthesize all of your insights from the interviews and observations. Once that is done, you can create a clear problem statement, which will help you produce a relevant solution.

This stage is about analyzing and synthesizing. According to the IDF, analysis“is about breaking down complex concepts and problems into smaller, easier-to-understand constituents.” While, synthesizing “involves creatively piecing the puzzle together to form whole ideas.”

Once you have done these 2 steps, it’s time to create a problem statement which will ensure you are going in the right direction for the rest of the project. A problem statement should be human-centered and limited to a task that feels manageable. It should also be broad in the sense that it leaves room for creativity to flow and doesn’t pinpoint specific solutions. You don’t want to restrict your team from exploring a wide variety of solutions, so it’s a best practice to avoid noting technical requirements in your problem statement.

Ideation Time

Let the brainstorming begin. It’s time to start generating potential solutions based on all the prior research and synthesizing you have done. It’s important to still keep in mind the human-centered approach. Your solutions should reflect the user research and key themes you have pulled from the information you gathered in the previous phases.

During this stage, you should start by generating as many ideas as possible. Later on, you will narrow down these ideas to just a few. For now, use this as your chance to think outside the box and be as creative as possible. Sketch as much as you can to create an environment where ideas can grow and flourish. This will help you produce innovative solutions that may not be obvious at first. Ideation allows you to challenge assumptions and deepen your understanding of the user and their needs. Ask questions and re-evaluate beliefs. As Don Norman describes, so-called “stupid questions” are exactly how you acquire the necessary knowledge to build a great product.


Now it’s time to bring your ideas to life. This is an exciting stage, as you will start designing potential solutions that you will eventually test with users. It’s important to note that you aren’t producing a finished product just yet. In this phase, you should focus on a more scaled-down version of the product. The IDF discusses the use of prototypes,

“Prototypes are built so that designers can think about their solutions in a different way (tangible product rather than abstract ideas), as well as to fail quickly and cheaply, so that less time and money is invested in an idea that turns out to be a bad one.”

The key takeaway here is to fail quickly and cheaply. Before you invest too much time and resources into the product, you first collect feedback from users with a less robust version. As you gain insights, you can go back to the drawing board and iterate on your prototype. Test and iterate until you feel confident in your solution. Start with low-fidelity prototypes and move onto high-fidelity once you test and analyze the results. Most importantly, remember to build the prototype with the user in mind.

Test Your Solution

Use this stage as an opportunity to redefine any problems, and learn more about how your users feel, think, and behave. The testing phase allows you to form a deeper understanding of the customers and how they interact with the product.

It’s crucial to seek feedback as much as possible. Observe how the users interact with the prototype and ask them to speak their thoughts aloud. Try to avoid over-explaining the prototype or showing them how it works. This is your opportunity to see their reactions and detect usability issues. However, you should ask to follow up questions and get clarification if you are unsure of what the user means.

Testing may confirm your hypotheses or signal that you should restart the process, but it doesn’t matter whether the feedback is negative or positive. What’s important is all the knowledge you have accumulated from moving through this process. You haven’t invested too much money or resources, but the amount of insight you have accrued is invaluable.


Design Thinking is about iterating and improving, as you move fluidly through each step. Remember that these 5 stages are non-linear and you might find yourself cycling through each one several times before landing on the right solution. Think of the process as a general framework, and allow yourself to repeat steps or move in whichever order you see fit. Regardless of the path you take to get there, implementing a Design Thinking methodology will set you and your users up for success.


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Nevan Lalich
Head of Creative

Jul 07, 2021