What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking has its initial roots in business, especially in product design where innovative products are designed to meet people’s needs and thereby understand how to facilitate innovation. Design Thinking was extended and applied to management and soon it assumed the concepts of Systems Thinking, which, has been more established and developed over a longer period of time.

Design thinking refers to the cognitive, strategic, and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for new products, buildings, machines, etc.) are developed by designers and/or design teams.

How does Design Thinking Relate to Customers?

Design thinking also allows you to better understand customers, so you can deliver a better service and improve the bottom line. It can have a significant impact on the health and well being of staff, as well as the way they interact and collaborate. This can lead to better productivity and efficiency throughout. Designing systems, after all, is necessary to enable the conditions for a culture of innovation.

System Thinking

System Thinking allows us to ask better questions before jumping to conclusions.

Systems thinking examines large entities by looking at them as collections of building blocks. Building blocks that are interconnected, with information flowing from one block to another. It also attempts to find patterns of behavior that show different relationships between these blocks, as well as how these relationships might change over time.

By nature, systems thinking mainly takes place behind the scenes. Its focus is on the backstage; on all the processes that are mostly hidden out of your end-users sight, but may have a huge impact on their experience.

What’s Inside System Thinking?

Partnerships, business activities, resources, cost structure, revenue model, pricing, finance, marketing, branding, sales, operations, metrics, innovation strategy. These are some of the missing components inside an organization system that are not overlooked in the design thinking approach. The application of systems thinking applies both internally within the organization and externally across the value chain. These must be considered when implementing new solutions generated from the outcome of design thinking.

Systems Thinking – the Approach Beyond Design Thinking

Systems thinking is an approach to understand, design, systemize the flow of value from various aspects of the organization across the value chain to ensure synchronicity, consistency, integration, and maximization between people, activities, processes, policies, places, and resources. Systems thinking is easily understood and expressed through the big picture and detailed visualization.

Systems thinking goes beyond the organization itself, impacting the external stakeholders, environment, regulations, and how these all work together to achieve a vision of a better system than the existing.

What are the 5 steps of Design Thinking?

Each stage can happen at any time, as often as needed.  The only stage that is mandatory is the Empathize stage, as that will inform everything else your team does and ensure your customer remains at the center of every experience you create.


Your goal at this stage is to gain a better understanding of your users and the problems you’re trying to solve. Notably, the empathize stage is when you’ll learn about your users needs, observe their behaviors, assess the competition, uncover challenges, and define market opportunity. Empathizing with your users is central to the design thinking framework, and essential to building products and experiences your customers will love.

According to a study by Capgemini, 75% of organizations believe that they’re customer-centric, yet only 30% of customers agree. We call this the empathy gap—the disconnect between the experience organizations think they provide versus the one customers actually experience. Empathy is essential to closing this gap. Not only is it a key stage of the design thinking framework, but it’s an underlying element to every other stage as well

If “empathy” feels like a buzzword or jargon these days, it’s easy to understand why: it’s used everywhere. Companies know being customer-centric is the key to success, and having empathy for customers is the best strategy to support a truly customer-focused organization.

Despite all we hear about empathy, however, many teams don’t really understand what it means. Here are a few things to keep in mind as your team strives to make customer empathy a key part of your development process:

Empathy is often confused with sympathy —a mistake that can be costly in product development. empathy is all about understanding experience from the user’s point of view, whereas sympathy is about acknowledging what the user is experiencing.

In many cases, teams may think that they’re being empathetic if they recognize how a design may impact a user; however, only recognizing that impact may actually be sympathetic. Teams need to go a step further to be empathetic: understand the problem users face, so it can be solved. Understanding why customer empathy is so important is the first step to designing great experiences, but it doesn’t stop there. True empathy is putting that understanding into action.

Remember, although empathy represents a specific stage of the design thinking framework, its establishment lays the groundwork for infusing empathy into every stage.

“…the true goal of design is not to be nice to users, but to empower them.“
—Nielsen Norman Group“

“Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and conditions from their point of view, rather than from your own.“ —Psychology Today


At this stage, your goal is to take all of the insights gained by empathizing with your customers and define the customer problem you’re trying to solve. It’s important to remember that the problem you’re solving for should be for your customers—not for your business. Product teams acknowledge the importance of tying product developments back to tangible business results, so it can be tempting to try to solve for challenges on a business level rather than on a customer one.

For example, instead of defining your problem as:

Increasing revenue for our mobile app from Baby Boomer users.

Try this: 85% of Baby Boomers use a mobile device and need apps designed to meet the needs of an aging population.

By framing your problem from the lens of your customers, you’re empathizing with them and keeping their needs at the center of your product’s development. By putting the customer first and validating concepts early, you reduce waste, improve time-to-market, and ensure better customer adoption.


This is an exciting stage of your product’s development. By now, your team has a solid understanding of your customer’s needs and challenges, so it’s time to get creative and come up with a lot of different ideas to consider. This is an important step for thinking creatively and weeding out ideas that aren’t workable —remember, whatever your team decides upon will be turned into a prototype next.

There are many ways teams can approach this stage, but most of them involve some sort of brainstorming or free-thinking activity. The goal of these activities is to get teams out of their traditional mental models, so they can approach the problem from a fresh perspective and zero-in on solutions that they otherwise wouldn’t consider. This stage can challenge some teams as it requires individuals to be open-minded—and sometimes vulnerable—when sharing ideas that might seem far-fetched.

It can also be tough to explore ideas without constraints. If you’ve ever been stuck staring at a blank page when you’re trying to write, you understand this challenge. While being open-minded and creative is the goal, sometimes a few creative constraints can help give teams just enough structure and guidance to avoid idea paralysis.

When a team is new to the design thinking framework, it’s helpful to lay down a few ground rules before beginning the ideation sessions:

Keep your customer at the center of every idea!

Think quantity over quality—the more ideas the better!

Take past ideas and build upon them!

No idea is too far-fetched!


Releasing a prototype of your design lets you iron out the kinks before you’ve written any code, enabling your team to quickly (and cost-effectively) iterate on a design until you’re confident you’ve got it right. Prototypes don’t have to be high fidelity— they can be anything from a sketch on a napkin to a rough wireframe to a video that illustrates the core idea.

But testing prototypes with real audiences can seem intimidating (or even impossible) given the complexity of your idea. Do you really want to hear that your users aren’t all that excited about a concept? Or that some major changes need to be made to make it appealing? Can you even build and test a prototype for an idea that’s not fully formed yet? Would you even want to?

The answers are all “yes.” The prototyping stage is an important step because it directly connects teams with the people at the other end of the experience, enabling teams to empathize with the real problem they’re trying to solve and avoid moving forward with building something no one really wants in the first place.

Testing prototypes, however, can be a challenging endeavor. Not because it’s difficult to do, but because it can be hard for teams to let go of the ideas and designs to which they’ve become attached thus far. After all, if you’ve gone through the Empathy, Define, and Ideate stages, you’ll have a lot of important information about what your target audiences might think about a product or feature. But it’s not until you put something a bit more tangible in front of them—even if it’s a sketch on a napkin—that the idea comes to life and faces the scrutiny of your users.

The important thing to remember about testing prototypes is that what you find out is crucial information that could save your team and company from launching a costly mistake. It may sting a little to realize that your target audience didn’t seem to find value in the feature you want to build. Fortunately, understanding why that feature wasn’t working for them will drive your team to continue to improve until you’ve landed on an approach that users can’t wait to get their hands on. While this may seem like an extra step, the time and budget saved by avoiding a rework from a failed launch make it well worth the effort.

• TEST •

No matter where your product is in its lifecycle —from concept to prototype to shipped—your team should continuously test and iterate based on what they find. Every human insight you gather leads to saved time and budget, the elimination of guesswork, and more confident product decisions. It’s important to remember design thinking is a non-linear framework. Although the test phase is listed last, it, in reality, is something your team will do consistently throughout development.

When you have a concept or idea, you test it. When you’re trying to understand the customer problem, you test. And, when you have a prototype, you guessed it—you test.


At the heart of your product development lives the goal of solving an unmet need for your customers. By effectively leveraging the design thinking framework, you can more quickly and efficiently:

• Surface the unmet needs of your customers

• Reduce risk associated with launching new products

• Generate solutions that are disruptive rather than incremental

• Align teams across your organization

Whether or not you adopt the entire design thinking framework, what’s most important is that you recognize how embracing human insights allows you to better empathize with your customers—thus creating better products and experiences for them.