What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important?

It all starts with understanding the problem you’re solving.

Written by Jeff Link
What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important?
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Brennan Whitfield | Feb 22, 2024

Design thinking involves human-centric approaches used to solve problems throughout the design process. It is applied in user experience (UX) design and user interface (UI) design to create products specifically with user needs in mind, and focuses on being solution-based rather than being problem-based.

Design Thinking Definition

Design thinking describes creative problem-solving approaches used to innovate user-centric products and services, as well as develop effective solutions in the design process.


What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking refers to procedures applied in the design process that help make decisions and address roadblocks in a user-centric manner. It puts a focus on finding design solutions that get to the root of why a user or product problem occurs, rather than focusing on fixing the problem alone. Design thinking tends to be non-linear and iterative in its process to identify areas for improvement at each step of design. UX, UI and product designers may utilize design thinking to develop products and services that effectively address user needs.

Tim Brown, chair of the design consultancy IDEO, describes design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

The design thinking method grew to prominence after being taught in Stanford University’s design school in 2003. Today, design thinking is applied as a product development and brand positioning strategy by high-profile software firms like Intuit, Samsung and Google to build and test new ideas efficiently. 


Why Is Design Thinking Important? 

Offers Flexibility 

While design thinking is associated with creative design, its practices can be applied to solve various types of problems, especially those requiring an understanding of human needs. Its application can also vary widely depending on the company and its customers, making it a flexible approach to product development or overcoming business obstacles.


Can Help Startups and Early Businesses Launch

Startups may use design learning to gain a deeper understanding about their users and guide prototype development. Legacy companies may apply it to launch new product lines, reframe their value propositions or fundamentally reinvent themselves.

Zack Onisko, CEO of Dribbble, calls design thinking the yin to lean startup’s yang. The lean startup approach relies heavily on user analytics and A/B testing. Each approach has its advantages, he said, but starting with design thinking may be easier for younger, smaller firms not yet at the scale to adopt a lean methodology in earnest.


Embraces Creativity 

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Jeanne Liedtka, a professor in the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, cited a seven-year study of 50 projects from business, healthcare and social services sectors, in which she found “design thinking has the potential to unleash people’s full creative energies, win their commitment, and radically improve processes.”

Design thinking’s focus on assembling diverse teams to reframe problems and experiment helps “get around the human biases or attachments to specific behavioral norms that time and again block the exercise of imagination,” she added.


Phases of Design Thinking

Design thinking is an iterative, early-stage framework for creating products or building and structuring a business. For software companies, it often moves in step with a five-stage development cycle.

These stages are modular and do not have to occur in sequence — or even at all — and tend to work best at early stages of product development. 

Design Thinking Process

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test and implement


1. Empathize

This stage asks, “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” It is an attempt to empathize with the needs and desires of current or potential users through in-depth interviews and close observation.


2. Define

This step usually involves a succinct problem statement. The statement describes a product or feature that can realistically be built and assessed against strategic goals for growth. 


3. Ideate

During ideation, the product team, designers and software engineers brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. It is largely about prioritization and the ordering of ideas and intentions.


4. Prototype 

This phase brings the idea into the world through the creation of physical models or digital wireframes and prototypes. By visualizing solutions on paper, teams can better identify potential issues or determine if the solution properly meets user needs. 


5. Test and Implement 

Product models are tested with users to see where the product is addressing problems and where it still might need improvement. Once a working prototype meets an agreed-upon standard, it is released into the wild. As user feedback is collected, the product is continuously improved to better meet customers’ needs. 


Benefits of Design Thinking 

Encourages Empathy and Customer Focus

Design thinking encourages practicing empathy and understanding a target user’s lived experience, which helps identify true user needs and avoid unintentional prejudice that might color decision-making. It also helps clarify how to talk about a product to potential customers, said Anders Wallace, a user experience and user interface designer at NBC.

At the early stages of the customer discovery process, gathering qualitative insights and “walking in users’ shoes” can form an organic understanding of a product problem from customer eyes.

Getting to know a customer and their concerns first-hand “translates into, strategically, what is the product we should make to help them,” said Jon Kolko, chief operating officer at design consultancy Modernist Studio (acquired by Gorilla Logic).


Fosters Creativity and Innovation 

Design thinking leverages a flexible approach to problem solving, where solutions don’t have to be designed in a linear fashion. This allows teams to complete steps in any order they choose or delegate more time to certain steps over others based on their needs, making for possibly unique or innovative solutions. Additionally, design thinking encourages the sharing of ideas from multiple perspectives like designers, users and stakeholders to solve problems, making for various creative solutions that can arise. 


Can Improve Return on Investment

Design thinking lets designers discover what solutions are most effective early on in a product’s development, reducing mistakes and making for a possibly higher ROI down the line. Without design thinking, a designer may make a product decision based only on quantitative data or perceived user wants, which can make for increased risk of product dissatisfaction upon release. Plus, design thinking’s ability to test multiple decisions before release means designers can invest properly into what their users need, instead of applying quick fixes or guessing on how to make a product succeed. 


Challenges of Design Thinking 

Lack of Structure or Focus

While design thinking’s nonlinear nature can open the door for increased creativity, this can also lead to a lack of focused product vision and development structure. Utilizing design thinking for teams that aren’t already familiar with its practices can cause confusion or disorganization, which may result in unclear time and resource delegation, and even delay a product’s release entirely.


Can Be Time- and Resource-Intensive

Accounting for each step of the design thinking process can require extensive time, resources and expertise, making it possibly less-than-ideal for fast-paced business environments. Design thinking prioritizes gathering qualitative, often-interview based data in the ‘empathize’ phase of its process, which can take more effort to accomplish than using quantitative insights. Repeating prototyping and testing phases until finding the best solution can also demand more time than only carrying out one testing stage.


Can Be Difficult to Implement in Hierarchical Organizations

Design thinking can necessitate some upfront risk, creativity and increased collaboration amongst teams and users to make the practice effective. As such, this makes it potentially difficult to adopt for businesses with a hierarchical culture. A hierarchical organizational culture tends to be risk-averse and sticks to known procedures, which can restrict the innovative endeavors encouraged by design thinking.

Related ReadingDecolonizing Design, Explained


How to Get Started With Design Thinking 

Design thinking can be applied to almost any project to tackle a problem. To start, here’s a few ways to implement design thinking in product development or beyond. 


Balance Customer, Client and User Needs

Design thinking as it ought to be practiced goes beyond the present-day functionality of a website or mobile OS, said Michael Schrage, a research fellow in MIT Sloan School’s Initiative on the Digital Economy who has consulted with Prudential, Pfizer, Microsoft, Amazon and Google on innovation and performance management. It looks to the future and asks the question: “Who do you want your customer to become?”

Schrage calls design thinking an “investment in the customer and clients’ capabilities, their creativity, their competence and their human capital.” He takes a broad, somewhat architectural view of who is equipped to be a designer and what their role is.

“What does architecture do? It balances the aesthetic with functionality. You can have ugly, brutalist buildings that stand up. And you can have beautiful, gorgeous buildings that fall down. To me, design thinking is about the balance you want to strike in the service of transforming your customer, transforming your client and transforming your user.”


Identify Staffing Needs

If you’re going to adopt a design thinking framework, it’s wise to do an internal audit of your staffing needs, said Marcello Magalhaes, founder and chief design officer at brand design firm Speakeasy. His firm helps clients like Coca-Cola, Fanta, McDonald’s and Burger King find the right creative talent for special product launches and branding campaigns — roles that often don’t exist in-house.

Design consultancies may offer firms this advantage, Magalhaes said: identifying unserved markets and acting as knowledge brokers who can keep costs down by leveraging their networks to recruit non-salaried talent with specialized skills.

“Instead of being in the cockpit, you want to be on the lookout for those who can sit in the cockpit,” he said.


Use Prototypes

Prototypes are key to striking balance between customer and client needs, Schrage said, but not in the way you might expect.

“The prototype is used not just to discover the functionality of the product, but the temperament and the typology and the preferences of the users,” he said. “In economics, we call this revealed preference. We don’t care what people say. We care what people do.”


Leverage User Insights and Personalization 

Design thinking at its best happens at companies that leverage user insight to encourage customers to behave the way customers want, Schrage told Built In.

“In 2015, how many design thinkers said, ‘How do we want our user experience to learn about the customer?’ You can be sure they were asking that question at Amazon, at Facebook, at Google and, of course, at Netflix and Alibaba Group and TikTok,” Schrage said. “Everyone’s asking it now.”

Now recommendation engines are beginning to perform a similar function: learning about users and serving up customized features, advertisements and tooling options. This may be the direction design thinking is heading, converging with machine learning to influence customer behavior.

“That’s why we care about personalization,” he continued. “It’s wonderful to have software that learns about you. We don’t have to build a custom product for everyone. We build a product that learns about you better, and, through customization, you train the product for us.”


Frequently Asked Questions

Design thinking refers to human-centric approaches used to solve problems and address roadblocks in the design process. It can be applied to various types of problems inside and outside product design, and works to be solution-based rather than problem-based.

The 5 stages of the design thinking process include:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test and implement

An example of design thinking is UberEats' app development, where the company has conducted interviews with partners during deliveries, restaurant workers during a rush and customers when ordering a meal to understand the needs of each party and implement features accordingly in its app.

Jessica Powers contributed reporting to this story.

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