Apply the Design Thinking Process in Your Business

Design thinking is here to stay. A growing number of businesses and industries are taking this innovative approach to solving problems from a human-centered perspective, since design thinking can be used to improve existing products and services, as well as determine which new ideas can best serve customers and attract new clients. It also aims to solve complicated problems by focusing on the user, bringing principles of user experience and design into the decision-making process around any type of business activity.

While the design thinking process is known for its use by designers, it is also used by innovators in all aspects of life, including in business, music, art, and science. With a human-centered, problem-solving approach, design thinking methodology can empower businesses of all kinds to effectively and innovatively approach their concerns. You can implement this framework in your business as well. With the right education and training, design thinking principles can improve your decision-making process in any industry.

What Is the Design Thinking Process?

The design thinking process helps people and companies solve problems by taking a holistic, user-centered view of the issue. At the heart of the design thinking process is an approach that believes the end user of your product is key — and that decisions should be made that help you to satisfy the needs and concerns of your customers. The design thinking process doesn’t just lead to happier customers — it can also generate increased business because your services are fulfilling a real need.

Design thinking is based on methods that designers use, but also involves engineering and architecture thought processes. UX designers use design thinking to tackle complex issues in product development, aiming to find solutions to complicated problems through an ongoing, iterative process that encourages constant experimentation to find the next step toward a real solution.

There are four major principles of design thinking, as laid out by Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. Click through the dots below to read more.

#1 – The Human Rule: All design activity is social in nature, aimed at humans as a group.

#2 – The Ambiguity Rule: Ambiguity is inevitable when finding solutions, so experimentation is key.

#3 – All Design Is Redesign: Human needs remain unchanged, but technology and circumstances can advance to make new things possible.

#4 – The Tangibility Rule: Making things tangible through prototyping can enable designers to communicate their solutions more effectively.

A graphic that highlights the four major principles in design thinking.

You can learn design thinking at The UX/UI Boot Camp at UT Austin to help you implement these principles in your own work. Design thinking training can give you tools, exercises, and process examples to guide your own work toward greater innovation and creative solutions.

The 5 Design Thinking Steps

There are five main steps to the design thinking framework that teams can use to align with user needs. When teams apply design thinking, they can understand their users and customers more fully, creating powerful solutions that solve problems and drive business forward.

The first step in design thinking is to understand the perspective, concerns, and needs of the customer or target audience. Here, designers are encouraged to go beyond their own assumptions about what consumers think or the way they interact with the world. Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings about users’ needs and interests, undermining innovation by relying on past experience. Instead, designers should actively observe and interact with customers in order to find out directly from them what they find important.

For example, you can observe customer behavior during software use or shopping at a store to see what they prefer, what draws their attention, and what causes frustration. You can also interact with the product or service as a consumer yourself — to understand, firsthand, what the user experience is like. Qualitative interviews can also be part of this process. These interviews involve discussions with users to understand their attitudes, feelings, and experiences. This phase helps designers discover actual user opinions and build empathy for their concerns, feelings, and needs.

As you bring together the consumer data collected during the empathy step, your next task is to clearly define the problem that needs a solution. Focusing on human-centered concerns rather than strictly business concerns is key, as business success will proceed from appropriately responding to users’ needs.

The process you employ to define the user problem can be anything from physical tools like sticky notes, to software designed for this purpose. By clustering different sets of user feedback together, it’s possible to identify common themes which will point you in the right direction. And, by reflecting on diverse subsets within your cluster groups (e.g., life stage, use case), you’ll be confident that any resulting conclusions reflect the full spectrum of user experience. This will also help you to understand whether multiple problems must be considered, or if there is predominantly one issue to be addressed across your key user groups.

Now that you have defined the problem, you can begin to think about possible solutions. In the beginning of the ideation step, it’s important to be genuinely open-minded during brainstorming. You want to collect and generate as many ideas as possible before excluding them in order to encourage creativity. Don’t worry about feasibility or idea quality at this time.

After ideas are generated, you can evaluate each of them with team members, discussing the ideas, further refining them, and providing clarification. This is a creative process where all team members are invited to explore their vision, thinking outside the box and without constraints.

Prototyping is the next stage of the design thinking process, where all ideas are transitioned into prototype form. The prototyping step is full of trial and error, as experimentation can help you and your team identify which solutions are best suited to address the identified concern. You can develop smaller, scaled-down, or temporary versions of the product or service you wish to create in order to get feedback from customers as well.

Using images or a paper version to help consumers envision your final approach can be helpful, as low-cost lightweight prototypes can easily be changed and updated. This process is completely iterative, so you do not want to dedicate too many resources to one prototype before reviewing the idea with users to gain their feedback.

After you’ve created, adapted, and changed early prototypes of potential solutions, the next phase is testing the product as it will appear to customers. This is still a process of interaction and adaptation — user feedback will be critical before moving forward to implementation.

Testing is how you make sure that your approach actually meets the needs of the customers you empathized with in order to develop a solution. You can bring your solution before focus groups or limited markets, as well as observe groups of people directly interacting with your solution. Before moving forward into production, ensure tests solve user problems or fulfill user needs, going back through the process if necessary to obtain an optimum solution. While there are steps to the process, it is not linear — you may need to rethink earlier steps as you make new discoveries throughout the process.

A graphic that showcases the five design thinking steps.

While these are the five design thinking steps, you may also consider a sixth part of the process: implementation. After you have gone through this iterative process, you are ready to move forward by putting your solution into production and implementing it.

Benefits of Design Thinking Principles

Design thinking can provide tremendous benefits to your business. By thinking outside the box and putting users at the center of your approach, you can adopt creative, innovative problem-solving techniques that open up new doors to creative ideas. As a result, you can offer higher value to customers, stay relevant in a changing market, and innovate in your field. This approach can help to drive sales goals and expansion to new markets more effectively than other traditional approaches. In many cases, you may find significant cost savings through design thinking, as the iterative testing and prototyping process prevents you from bringing unpopular changes to market.

Design thinking combines the best of human emotion and analytical, scientific consideration, helping you address a range of customer concerns. As a result, you can bring new products to market faster which leads to a more positive return on investment. Customer retention and loyalty can also benefit from design thinking, as customers feel their needs are being met.

If you are looking to become a UX designer or simply enhance your business, design thinking offers the benefits you’re looking for. A design thinking education at a UX/UI bootcamp could help you achieve these benefits in your company.

How to Learn the Design Thinking Process

You know that design thinking can be beneficial for your business, but the next step is to actually learn it. If you work for a larger company, UX and design thinking experience can propel your career forward, and if you are an entrepreneur, fully understanding the design thinking process can help you make the right decisions for continued expansion and growth.

One great way to learn design thinking is a UX/UI bootcamp. These programs fit around professional life and student obligations while providing viable design thinking tools to use on the job. A UX bootcamp curriculum can teach both the design thinking mindset and the critical skills to apply it in day-to-day decision making.

The University of Texas at Austin offers a UX bootcamp covering a curriculum that includes design thinking. You will learn about user-centered design research, UX interviewing, user testing, prototyping, and more, empowering you to implement design thinking in your company.

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Design Thinking in Business

While design thinking is often associated with design, it is useful across industries — from software development to healthcare to education. This type of framework helps you to solve problems regardless of the industry and opens the doors to innovation. Here are just some of the fields where design thinking can be applied for improved outcomes and elevated customer loyalty.

Design Thinking in Healthcare

Design thinking can be applied in healthcare by focusing on the needs of patients and providers. While medicine itself is based on strictly understood, evidence-based approaches, both patients and providers have a holistic experience with healthcare that is not limited to the delivery of medical care. Everything from the check-in and appointment booking to the patient follow-up is part of the healthcare experience. Design thinking can encourage people to reach out for the healthcare they need and feel greater comfort and satisfaction when accessing these services.

Design Thinking in Education

Many educational projects look for ways to improve their teaching process and overall outreach. Design thinking can be a great way to identify unnecessary roadblocks or bureaucracies and highlight new ways of delivering material that fits into busy people’s lives. In many ways, tech bootcamps, like a UX bootcamp could be thought of as an implementation of design thinking in education. Meeting students’ needs for shorter, intensive programs that are focused on immediate career goals and in-demand skills, while still providing a meaningful educational experience, is evidence that design thinking in education works.

Design Thinking in Marketing

Design thinking’s utility in marketing is apparent — mainly because consumers respond to messages that address their own concerns, frustrations, and goals. By applying design thinking in marketing, you can move forward with campaigns that address customers’ key concerns and needs rather than investing in a campaign that may not be impactful or, worse yet, negatively perceived. The empathy and define stages can help you make sure your message is correctly focused, while the ideate and prototype stages can fine-tune your campaign to optimize its impact on your target audience. Finally, the test step will confirm that your campaign is engaging, relevant, and resonant in the marketplace.

Design Thinking in Sales

Similarly, design thinking in sales can help you find a new way to increase top-line sales. Because design thinking focuses on the needs and concerns of the customer, your products will be that much more attractive, causing customers to buy your product more regularly. The creativity and innovation embedded in the process can also help you to come up with new approaches that can drive sales forward beyond what traditional techniques can accomplish.

Design Thinking in Management

Design thinking can also empower your approach to management. Here, you might look at employees and team members as your customer base. You can use this method to improve employee retention and satisfaction on the job. Not only will this boost production and effectiveness over the long term, it can also help organizations retain workers during the post-pandemic labor shortage. Employees who work in an environment where they feel their voices are heard and their needs are met are more likely to focus on collective goals and accomplishments, as well as enhance overall job performance.

Design Thinking: Use Examples

Companies in a range of industries use design thinking to improve their businesses and achieve greater results. Observing and learning from these examples can help you get started in implementing the design thinking process in your own company.

Design Thinking Process Example 1:

When Airbnb started, it was a struggling startup, not the powerhouse we know today. However, by listening to customers and observing the site, the founders discovered that low-quality pictures in the early days of the site were discouraging customers from booking stays. By working with early hosts to improve picture quality, revenue doubled in just one week! It was this experience that began Airbnb’s ongoing focus on using design thinking principles to constantly push forward in their innovation.

Design Thinking Process Example 2:

Nordstrom is known for being customer-centered, but the company also explicitly uses design thinking principles. One insight design thinking provided was customer concerns about online shopping — specifically, customers worried about not knowing how items would look on them. Nordstrom addressed this customer concern by developing new apps that would allow people to virtually try on clothes. Throughout the process, they worked directly with customers to understand their needs and, as a result, their online business took off.

Design Thinking Process Example 3:

Many people identify savings as a goal but do not open savings accounts or use them frequently. However, Bank of America found out that planned savings was a barrier for many customers. By using design thinking and working with their customers, they developed the “round-up” system. This enables people to “round-up” their transactions and deposit those round-up amounts into their savings account. As a result, this project significantly increased savings account usage by providing customers with an innovative solution they did not know they needed.

Design Thinking Template and Exercises

There are a wide range of exercises and design thinking templates you can use in your business. For example, sketching out an empathy map to understand consumers’ thoughts, actions, and concerns can help you get started. Cause and effect diagrams can help you see how business decisions affect customer reactions, and other tools, like storyboard templates and a lean UX canvas, can be implemented throughout your planning process as well.

There are other exercises derived from design thinking that can also be integrated into your business. For example, creating personas — that is, understanding the user who will interact with your product or service — can help you throughout the design thinking process, moving toward testing and implementation.

Design Thinking Tools

You can use some favorite office software tools, as well as some newer technologies, to empower the design thinking process. Video conferencing tools like Zoom can dramatically empower the empathizing stage, as you can easily interview and connect with customers on a global scale. Meanwhile, the definition and ideation phases can be accomplished via tools like Smaply and SessionLab, respectively. You can use tools like InVision to whip up fast and easy prototypes, and tools like UserTesting and PingPong can aid in the testing process.

Learn the Design Thinking Process Today

It is important to fully understand the design thinking framework so your business can reap the benefits. By directly addressing customer needs, you can set your business firmly on the path to escalating growth while increasing ROI. Education and training can give you the tools you need to bring this innovative approach to your company. Start your design thinking journey today with The UX/UI Boot Camp at UT Austin.

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