Design Thinking

Christine Dunbar
August 9, 2021

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.

Design Thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we’re designing the products or services. It helps us observe and develop empathy with the target user. Design Thinking helps us in the process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. Design Thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and experimentation: sketching, prototyping, testing, and trying out concepts and ideas.

Design Thinking Phases

There are 5 phases in the Design Thinking methodology. They are Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

Step 1: Empathize

Step 1 focuses on empathizing with your users’ current situation. It encompasses developing a sense of empathy towards the people you are designing for.

There are three steps within the Empathize phase. They include observing, engaging, and immersing.


It is your job to gain insights into what your users need, what they want, and how they behave. Capturing behaviors, feelings, and thoughts when users are interacting with products or services in a real-world setting will help you better empathize with them.


One way to engage with the people you are working with is to conduct interviews with empathy.


Find ways to “get into users’ shoes”. Bodystorming is a great way to do this. Bodystorming is the act of physically experiencing a situation in order to immerse oneself fully in the users’ environment.

There are several tools that you can use to help you and your team better empathize with your users. They include assuming a beginner’s mindset, asking “why-how-why” and the “5 why’s”, conducting interviews with empathy, building empathy with analogies, using photo and video user-based studies, using personal photo and video journals, engaging with extreme users, utilizing story share-and-capture, bodystorming, and creating a journey map. We will focus on assuming a beginner’s mindset and conducting empathetic interviews.

Assuming a beginner’s mindset requires you to forget your assumptions and personal beliefs. Misconceptions or stereotypes limit the amount of real empathy you can build. A beginner’s mindset allows you to put aside biases and approach and strategize with fresh eyes. You and your team can execute this by avoiding judgement, questioning everything, looking for patterns, and listening without thinking how you are going to respond. Pauses in conversation are okay!

Conducting empathetic interviews are a great way to identify with your users. You and your team can execute this by asking why, encouraging stories and personal experiences from interviewees, embracing silence, and asking neutral questions while not suggesting answers.

Step 2: Define

Step 2 involves synthesizing your observations about the users from the Empathize stage. Create a definition of a meaningful and actionable problem statement, which the design thinker will focus on solving. The definition you create will then kick start the ideation process (stage 3). Defining your point of view encompasses creating a meaningful and actionable problem statement. You should preserve emotion and the individual you are designing for, include clear and strong language, include insight into the statement, and ensure that your statements generate several possibilities.

Some tools that can help you in the Define stage can include point of view (POV), “how might we”, “why-how ladder”, and the “power of ten”. You articulate a POV by combining these three elements – user, need, and insight. Insert your information about the user, their needs, and your insights in the following sentence:

  • [User… (descriptive)] needs [need… (verb)] because [insight… (compelling)].
  • Ex. “Pet owners need to find friends for their pets because pets need to socialize and stay happy and active”.

The “how might we” approach includes asking self-reflective questions.

  • Ex. “How might we help pet owners find friends for their pets so that they socialize and stay happy and active?”

One way that you and your team can execute this step is to ask short questions that launch brainstorms based on a problem statement. This will seed step 3: the Ideation stage.

Step 3: Ideate

The Ideation stage is when you begin generating radical design alternatives. The goal of this stage is to explore a wide solution space that includes both a large quantity and a broad diversity of ideas. From this pool of ideas, you can build prototypes to test with users.

Tools that can help you and your team through the Ideation stage include brainstorming, brain dumping, brain writing, brain walking, challenging assumptions, SCAMPER tool, mind maps, sketching or sketch storms, storyboards, co-creation workshops, prototypes, and creative pauses. The one tool we will be focusing on is the mind map.

The mind map is the process through which the participants build a web of relationships. The way you can execute this with your team is to have all participants create their own problem statement, write their own solutions to that statement, and then link their statements to the solutions between them.

Step 4: Prototype

Designers can provide simple, scaled down versions of their product or services, which can then be used in order to observe, record, judge, and measure performance levels based on specific elements, or general behavior, interactions, and reactions to the overall design. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form – a wall of post-its, a role-playing activity, or an object. Prototypes are most successful when the subject has input and interacts with the output. There are two types of tools to use when prototyping – low fidelity prototyping and high-fidelity prototyping. Low-fidelity prototyping includes things such as storyboarding and sketching, while high-fidelity prototyping looks and operates closer to the finished product (ex. 3D models, trial implementation of processes).

Step 5: Test

The final step of the Design Thinking process is to test. This is a chance to gather feedback, refine solutions, and continue to learn about your users. This stage also gives you the chance to return to the Ideation process based on lessons learned and continued methodology.

“Prototype as if you know it’s right, listen as if you are wrong”.   – Diego Rodriguez Telechea

How can you execute this step? Let your users compare the alternatives and share their input and perspective. Show, do not tell.


Design Thinking implementation can result in improved and transformed approaches to strategizing solutions to user problems. It gives teams the opportunity to advance strategic skills and new solutions that will benefit both the team and their clients. For more information, contact ROCIMG at or (240) 912-1699.



Matthew Wells

August 9, 2021



What is Design Thinking? | Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) (

5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process | Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) (

The Principles of Service Design Thinking – Building Better Services | Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) (

Applying Design Thinking to Public Service Delivery.pdf (


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About the Author

Christine Dunbar

We believe in listening to our clients and facilitating robust dialogue to learn the full picture of the project from multiple perspectives. We craft solutions that are tailored to our client’s needs, emphasizing a robust process that engages the correct stakeholders throughout the project so that once it’s complete, our clients can continue to manage it successfully.

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