Lately, most processes and products have taken a customer-oriented turn in development. The question of what customers want and need has overtaken previous ideas of what’s important. That’s how design thinking was born.

What Does Design Thinking Mean?

The process of creating solutions based on the needs and requirements of users is called design thinking. The idea behind this methodology is to explore set tasks and problems by understanding the user. The concept involves quite a lot of brainstorming and experimentation. Businesses are posing questions like “What is important for our customers?” and “Will this be comfortable for the user?”.

Despite the word design in the name, the process can be applied to various spheres of business and life. Due to the nature of the process, those who use it are forced to constantly question the ideas and solutions they have. This approach spikes creativity and innovation when building new products or updating existing ones.

Why Is Design Thinking Important?

Such a perception gives a possibility for businesses to create desirable and interesting products and processes. And, one can never underestimate the importance of user interest. There are a few reasons why businesses may consider switching to the design thinking process:

  • Increased revenues. The connection between user interest and sales is pretty much interdependent. The more customers like the product, the more likely they are to buy it. But, it doesn’t stop at purchasing. This is where direct marketing kicks in. Satisfied customers create free advertising by recommending the product or service to their friends and family.
  • Beating the competition. One of the most important aspects of market survival is being better than others. People vote with their wallets for those who give them the best value.
  • Entering “Blue Oceans”. Since design thinking is all about creativity, it can help enterprises build something new and thus fill a niche that hasn’t been taken yet.
  • Improving the workflow. Not all customers are external; employees and partners are the company’s internal customers. Improvement of internal processes will make their workflow times easier. In return, the organization gets better motivated and satisfied staff.

Phases of Design Thinking

design thinking in ux/ui design

According to different sources, the design thinking process is generally split into three to six stages. The most popular model in use is the one from the Stanford Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design. This model includes five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. We are going to look at each of these steps more closely.

  1. Empathize. This is the starting point of the approach and it concentrates on understanding your users. To do that, one has to understand who they are doing things for and why they are doing them. The information gathered at this step will be used further in the development process. The company concentrates on putting themselves in the shoes of their target group. They aim to find out what the customers wants and how they want it. This generally involves a lot of research and interaction with customers.
  2. Define. The next step is to identify the problem. Quite a few companies come to the realization that they were unaware of the importance of certain features and processes to their customers. At times, what seemed like a minor issue can appear to be a deal-breaker in real life. The companies that do not listen to their customers fail to satisfy their needs and eventually end up being off the market.
  3. Ideate. As soon as you have identified the field of action, it’s time to develop a solution. This is exactly what ideation is about. In terms of design thinking, the more ideas you generate - the better. This is important for several reasons. First of all, when people are given the opportunity to present even the craziest ideas, they are more likely to speak up. Secondly, the more ideas you have, the more choice you have later. Lastly, the active thinking process stimulates outside-the-box ideas.
  4. Prototype. This is the step of one bringing your ideas to life. After analyzing all the suggested solutions, you choose a few to try. To improve the chances of the best outcome, the team produces a few prototypes (or models). Later, they can observe how the solutions work, if (and how) they resolve the issue, how they can be improved, and what are their positives and negatives.
  5. Test. To see the prototypes in action, testing is performed. The first testing is, of course, done within the team. The approved models are then presented to customers, who can try them and give their feedback to the developer. The feedback is an obligatory part of testing as it gives an understanding of whether the team is moving in the right direction, and how they can get better.

Once all the five steps have been taken, the process starts all over again. The continuous nature of design thinking gives an opportunity for the team to learn and improve in the future.

Design Thinking and ‘Outside-the-Box’ Thinking – Are They the Same?

design thinking in ux/ui design

Thinking outside the box is one of the principles behind the design thinking methodology. However, while outside-the-box stands for any non-standard solutions, design thinking is concentrated on human-related solutions. Nevertheless, these two terms connect at the point of a non-conventional approach being used.

Design thinking is rather an idea on how one can think differently. Following the four principles suggested by the members of the HPI-Stanford Design Thinking Program, people can understand which direction they should move in and how to ask questions. In turn, asking the right questions brings us to new creative solutions.

How Can Design Thinking Be Used?

The applications of design thinking are extremely wide, as it can be used in anything at least remotely related to humans. And it is especially true for areas where human interaction is inevitable – for example, UX design.

How Can Design Thinking Be Used in UI/UX?

UI/UX (user interface/user experience) design is a process of its own. It is concentrated on building the best possible solution to satisfy users’ needs. The idea is to make the human interaction as comfortable as possible. In order to achieve this goal, teams work on creating interfaces in accordance with their customers’ needs. So, design thinking can be of great help in formulating any issues faced by the user.

As a UX designer, one needs to understand who their customer is and the customer’s needs and wishes. They are supposed to look at the bigger picture. The whole product or process is to be designed based on the target group. The more issues of the target group a product solves, the more successful it will be. But, we do realize that it’s hard to create a one-size-fits-all solution for anything. That is why many businesses concentrate a lot on the customization of their products.

UX designers focus a lot on the reasons behind a user choosing or rejecting a certain product, which features will be interesting for the user, and how to make them more accessible and interesting. Design thinking can help find solutions for some of those issues. This process helps to ask the right questions in order to identify the exact issue. And, as soon as the issue is identified, the team can start working on creating solutions.

design thinking in ux/ui design

The human-centric principle behind UI/UX design gives an idea of where the solution should be concentrated. However, the thinking and solution methods are not identified by default. In this respect, design thinking can be a part of the UX design process – with design thinking formulating the issue to solve, and UX design mapping it with the rest of the obtained materials and finding proper solutions.

One example of its application is the functionality of apps. Say you are not particularly sure what features your customers would like to see in your future product. In order to determine that, you start off by gathering information. You may check similar existing apps and users’ feedback on them, create a survey, or simply make up a list with your team in a brainstorming session.

Once you’ve seemed to grasp the needs of your customer, you move to the next step: generating ideas. With a bunch of ideas in hand, you choose a few that make the most sense. After that, you create a few models or demo versions of functionality and let your team test it first. It is possible that some models will appear to have low usability and will get rejected after this stage. The ones that go through will be presented to the customers. The important point is that the process doesn’t end here. As soon as the users get access to the prototypes, you can start collecting feedback to improve your list of features.

How Can We Use Design Thinking in Everyday Life?

Design thinking is not only used in business. There are plenty of day-to-day applications for this methodology. We may not always realize that we are using this methodology. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • A child doesn’t want to eat what his mother has cooked for him. Obviously, the mother wants to solve this problem. She empathizes with the kid, understands that he may not like some particular ingredient, and thinks about what she can do. After generating a few ideas, she gives them a try and sees what happens. This way she distinguishes what her child likes and doesn’t like.
  • When asking someone out, a person may have significant concerns as to what the other person likes. So, they define questions for themselves to answer like “Would that girl like flowers?” or “How shall I dress for the date?”, etc. With a few tries, and perhaps failures, they will be able to find the right solution.


Design thinking appears to be a great solution for human-centric issues. It provides a means of determining the right questions. This can later be used to create smart and interesting solutions based particularly on the customer. As UI/UX design is human-related by default – it only makes sense that the methodology is applied within the process.