Design Thinking: What It Is and Examples

It all starts with understanding the problem you’re solving.
Jeff Link
July 13, 2021
Updated: July 14, 2021
Jeff Link
July 13, 2021
Updated: July 14, 2021

Two years ago, Jon Kolko, chief operating officer at Austin-based design consultancy Modernist Studio, arrived at the home of a 20-year-old photography major at the University of North Texas who was considering dropping out. The student, whom Kolko referred to by the pseudonym Kendra to protect her anonymity, was nowhere to be found.

Kolko, who was previously the vice president of product design at Blackboard, was there with his colleague, chief design officer Chad Fisher. They were interviewing Kendra as part of the discovery phase of the design thinking research their firm was doing for Texas OnCourse, a state-funded college and career planning resource. They had been hired to improve a website intended to help students transfer from community colleges to four-year programs more seamlessly.

The first step of their research was to figure out what was going on in the minds of students like Kendra. What preconceived ideas did they have about college and professional success? How did they make academic decisions? What barriers did they face to enrollment? In essence, they were framing the problem by gathering ethnographic research — what many experts consider the first step of design thinking.

Tim Brown, chair of the design consultancy IDEO, has blogged about design thinking for a decade. He describes it 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.”

There is broad consensus among experts that the method grew to prominence after being taught in Stanford University’s beginning in 2003 and, thereafter, adopted as a product and business development strategy by IDEO founder David Kelley.

“[Design thinking] is 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.”

Today, it’s applied as a product development and brand positioning strategy by high-profile software firms like Intuit, Samsung and Google, and its efficacy has been affirmed by scholars like Jeanne Liedtka, a professor in the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Liedtka cites 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.”

Further, she explains that design thinking’s focus on assembling diverse teams to reframe problems and experiment helps “get around the human biases (for example, rootedness in the status quo) or attachments to specific behavioral norms (‘That’s how we do things here’) that time and again block the exercise of imagination.”

Though there’s compelling evidence design thinking is effective, its application varies widely depending on a company’s customers and who it wants those customers to become.

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Modernist Studio conducted in-depth qualitative interviews to understand students' college enrollment decisions.
Image: Shutterstock

It’s Focused on Qualitative Research, Ideation and Testing

Most experts agree design thinking is an iterative, early stage framework for creating products or building or 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. The process tends to work best at early stages of product development. Startups may use it to learn 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.

Here, Anders Wallace, a user experience and user interface designer at NBC, describes the five stages of a design thinking framework:

What Is Design Thinking?

  1. Customer discovery: 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. Problem definition: 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. Ideation: 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. Design and testing: This phase brings the idea into the world through the creation of physical models or digital wireframes and prototypes. These models are tested with users to see where the product is addressing problems and where it still might need improvement.
  5. Implementation: 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. 


It’s Human Centered

At the early stages of the customer discovery process, immersive in-person interviews —  often hanging out with people for hours at a time to “walk in their shoes” — help form an organic understanding of the problem from the user’s eyes.

Let’s consider Kolko and Kendra again, for instance. When Kolko and his colleague arrived at Kendra’s house, they found the home in disarray, full of unopened merchandise boxes.

“And as we start to get deeper and deeper into this conversation, it turns out that her dad is actually deep in debt,” Kolko said. “And I’m not going to be able to build that mental picture, if I’m asking her to fill out a survey, but I’m able to build it sitting next to her for three hours.”

Kendra expressed her predicament like this: “Photography is not a big job industry. I know a few people have legit careers, but it seems improbable.”

“You arrive at a sort of mental ball of understanding around why a 20-year-old is making decisions around the quote-unquote rest of their life for all sorts of reasons an adult might assume are bad.”

The results of the interview and others like it were deeply revealing. In addition to learning that students harbored troubling misconceptions about the link between their majors and career prospects, Modernist Studio learned that two-year college students were making profound life decisions largely based on geography— how close universities were to their homes — and the alma maters of their parents.

The occasionally opaque language on ed tech platforms, and their UX designs, were important too. Some students were mystified by the meaning of terms such as “credentials” and “credit-hour units.” Accounting emerged as the most frequently chosen major among interviewees, not, apparently, because of its exciting career prospects, Kolko said, but because it appeared first in an alphabetically arranged drop-down menu.

“So you arrive at a sort of mental ball of understanding around why a 20-year-old is making decisions around the quote-unquote rest of their life for all sorts of reasons an adult might assume are bad,” Kolko said. “And that translates both into, strategically, what is the product we should make to help them, down to the details of what, literally, is on the screen.”


Design thinking informed the product design and brand strategy of the Colgate Hum.
Image: Colgate

It’s Where Product Design Meets Brand Positioning

Deeply understanding a target user’s lived experience not only helps avoid unintentional prejudice that might color decision-making about a product — it also helps clarify how to talk about that product to potential customers, Wallace told me.

In an earlier role at Colgate, he worked on a team that applied design thinking to the development of a smart toothbrush called Hum.

What Colgate was trying to do, he said, was understand the interests and desires of potential Gen Z customers. How could Colgate create a product that would be appealing to young people?

An outside agency went on home visits and conducted qualitative interviews, which informed the design of the physical toothbrush and the features of the app, which were intentionally left spare. The research also influenced the direction of a flashy branding campaign with the tagline, “Brushing gets better when you hum.”

“Design thinking is as much a case of designing products as it is communication marketing: How do we speak to people?”

“The people they feature in their ads, their diversity; the color tones, the semiotics, the ways the images communicate what they’re trying to say are very different from a lot of their older messaging, which is a little more traditional,” Wallace said. “So design thinking is as much a case of designing products as it is communication marketing: How do we speak to people?”

Judging by editorial opinion, the design thinking framework appears to have paid off. A review of the toothbrush in Wired by writer Medea Giordano gave the “especially cute” toothbrush a nine out of 10 rating.

As with other high-performing products born from design thinking, it is difficult to say how much credit the strategy deserves and how much success stemmed from the behind-the-scenes work of product and design teams doing their jobs well. Still, few would dispute the brush had its desired effect on Giordana, a converted smart toothbrush skeptic.

“The Colgate Hum is the first [smart toothbrush] I tried that delivered on its promise to make brushing better,” she wrote.

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Design thinking can be seen as a complement to A/B testing.
IMage: Shutterstock

It’s the Flip Side of A/B Testing

Zack Onisko is CEO of Dribbble, a website where designers and creatives can display their work and employers can go to find them. He calls design thinking “the yin to the yang of Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup,” which leans heavily on user analytics and A/B testing as strategies for success. 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.

“We get drunk on A/B testing, right?” Onisko said. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Let’s just go test something,’ instead of making a decision. But to adopt the kind-of-Silicon Valley best practice of A/B testing, you need enough traffic to get results of significance.”

The other problem with over-reliance on quantitative approaches is that conversion metrics can be deceptive as a measure of performance. In Onisko’s days as vice president of growth at Hired, when he was managing a 45-person team of product and marketing professionals, one of his responsibilities was to keep watch on click-through rates for a button on the homepage that led to job listings. Week over week the conversion rates were increasing — an encouraging sign, on the surface.

“We get drunk on A/B testing, right? It’s very easy to say, ‘Let’s just go test something,’ instead of making a decision.”

“Then my head of sales comes over, fuming, one day, and he’s like: ‘Hey, all our account managers have to hop on a call. Because clients don’t even know what the hell our business does,” Onisko said.

Stripping the site of explanatory text and imagery, in other words, had boosted conversion rates at the expense of users’ understanding. By bringing a more diverse group of stakeholders to the table earlier in the process, design thinking presumably would have revealed the human costs of the trade-off.


Plant-based menu options at Burger King developed from design thinking.
IMage: Impossible Foods

It Views Designers and Consultancies as Knowledge Brokers

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, who is founder and chief design officer of the Los-Angeles based 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.

At Speakeasy, teams of three work independently to develop ideas and share their recommendations with clients, typically in two- to three-week cycles. Guided by tools like V.J. Kumer’s 101 Design Methods, they follow Albert Einstein’s mantra: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Speakeasy’s recent work with Burger King is a good example. Based on the success of the Impossible Whopper developed by Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods, Burger King hired the firm to better position plant-based meal menu options for specific consumer targets. Magalhaes mined his network of 250 independent researchers, designers and planners to fill important roles. Rather than investing the time to become an authority on vegetarian fast-food options or assigning the task to someone on the agency’s payroll, he hand picked the right people from his professional network.

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

For a restaurant chain whose menu has historically read as a bacchanalian visual homage to beef, design thinking helped identify a new customer base whose tastes and environmental ethics weren’t reflected in current offerings; this insight inspired the strategy behind cheeky television spots, such as Cows Menu.

Design consultancies 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.


Machine learning is converging with design thinking to understand customers and serve their needs.
IMage: Shutterstock

It Telegraphs Who You Want Your Customers to Become

Design thinking’s current obsession with user experience optimization has its share of critics. One of the most outspoken is Michael Scharge, a research fellow in MIT Sloan School’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. He has consulted with Prudential, Pfizer, Microsoft, Amazon and Google on innovation and performance management.

Design thinking as it ought to be practiced, Scharge said, goes beyond the present-day functionality of a website or mobile OS. It looks to the future and asks the question, “Who do you want your customer to become?”

Scharge, who worked closely with Nicholas Negroponte, the Greek architect and co-founder of the MIT Media Lab (back in the ’80s when it was still called The Architecture Machine Group), calls design thinking an “investment in the customer and clients’ capabilities, their creativity, their competence and their human capital.” Like Magahaes, Scharge takes a broad, somewhat Bauhaus view of who is equipped to be a designer and what their role is.

“Nicholas didn’t have a degree in computer science. He was an architect. The Media Lab wasn’t in the school of computer science. It was in the School of Art and Architecture. Still is,” he said. “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.”

Prototypes are key to striking this balance, he 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.”

Design thinking at its best, he told me, happens at companies like Salesforce, which leverage user insight to encourage customers to behave the way customers want.

“In 2015, how many design thinkers said, ‘How do we want our user experience to learn about the customer?’ Everyone’s asking it now.”

“They pioneered the function of the customer success manager,” Scharge said. “Not an account person saying, ‘Are you happy with our software suite?’ but people actually trying to get users and departments and teams to get more value from what Salesforce has to offer.”

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.

“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,” Scharge said. “Everyone’s asking it now.”

“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.”

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