How to Use Design Thinking to Solve Problems

Design thinking is a term for a specific approach to problem-solving. Whether you’re a designer, a developer, a business owner, anyone really, I’m sure that at one point or another, you applied design thinking to solve a problem.

Although the term implies that it’s somehow unique to designers, it’s not. It’s just its name. In this post, we’ll go over what design thinking is and how to apply it to any problem you might be facing. By the end of this post, you’ll see why design thinking is not only important but also practical.

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking isn’t just problem-solving. Instead, this concept heavily revolves around developing solutions. To put it simply, it’s a creative, human-centric process for creating and generating solutions that are both meaningful and useful. It can be described as a common sense approach as well.

This means that design thinking first aims to focus on people’s needs, wants, and goals in order to come up with a creative solution. Ideally, this should be an innovative solution, too. In business, design thinking is often associated with competitive advantages.

Design thinking

The design thinking process is made up of six different stages, including empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, testing, and implementation. Let’s dive a little deeper into what each of these phases means.

Step 1 – Empathize

To empathize means to research the people you’re trying to help, the people you’re trying to solve a problem for. In your research, you will need to develop knowledge about what these people do, say, want, think, or feel. That’s how you will be able to empathize with them.

This doesn’t need to be an over-the-top elaborate research. You just need enough data points to be able to understand your audience’s perspective.

Step 2 – Define

What you are aiming to define are the unmet needs of your users. Take a look at the research insights you’ve gathered and take a look at your problem at hand. Next, look carefully to figure out what isn’t overlapping here.

What areas of the problem or scenario can be improved to meet the expectations of the people you’re trying to help? You’re looking for missed opportunities to address.

Step 3 – Ideate

The third step is where creativity starts to come into the picture. Creativity in ideation can merely mean brainstorming and thinking outside of the box. By creativity, I don’t mean you need to be an artist or anything like that. You just need to let loose with the possible solutions.

Don’t hold anything back, go as wild and crazy as possible here. Mix and match your ideas with your coworkers. Build on top of one another’ ideas. Go nuts. Have fun. Your job here is to come up with as many creative ideas as possible.

Step 4 – Prototype

The purpose of prototyping is to get feedback on which parts of your ideas work, which need improvement, and which won’t work for your problem at all. You’ll need to create actual prototypes of some of your brainstormed solutions from the ideation step.

Quick and dirty prototyping is encouraged here because it will allow for smaller, therefore shorter, feedback loops. However, and this is important, at this point the feedback is still internal. That’s because you want your idea to be as fleshed out as possible before testing it with the actual people you’re trying to help—be them users, customers, community members, etc.

Step 5 – Test

Once you have a few prototypes fleshed out, test them with your target audience.

Return to the people you’re trying to help and get their feedback. You want to know whether your proposed solution meets their needs, wants, and goals. Adapt your prototype based on their feedback as well to get is as perfect as possible.

Step 6 – Implement

Here we are with the final step of design thinking. Once you’re satisfied with the quality of your solution, make it happen and make it real.

Whether you’re designing a landing page or a pet care waiting room, the time will eventually come where you’ll have to turn your idea into reality. You’ll need to make sure that your solution is implemented for its intended audience, you know, the people you’re trying to help as I keep saying.

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, this is one of the most forgotten steps. After you’ve spent so much time and effort into figuring out a great solution, you will need to put time and effort into making it happen. So, don’t hesitate to do so. It might take time, as this isn’t a quick and dirty prototype anymore.

And that’s okay. By far, execution is the more important aspect of design. Don’t forget that anything, including design thinking, is useless if the solution isn’t actualized.

Design Thinking Is about People

Design thinking is not a new term. It just happened to gain buzz over the last few years. Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Muir, and Milton Glaser had been using design thinking in the early 1900s. I mention this because design thinking is about people. The I ♥ NY logo was made with people in mind. The Eames chairs and Muir’s dresses were also made with people in mind. That’s why we still love and buy their products today.

Design thinking can be summarized into three parts: people, brainstorming, and iteration. When we focus on problems that real people have and can freely come up with as wild ideas as we want, we will come up with something impressive. We can even be sure that we will come up with something innovative if we iterate enough on our proposed solutions, especially when we get feedback from our target audience.

If you’re still not convinced, remember that the very first step is gathering knowledge about the people you’re trying to help. Design thinking makes you focus on real people. On Derek, a 17-year-old high school senior who needs help in writing a resume for his college application. Or on Meredith, a 32-year-old single mother of three who needs a reliable cleaning service.

It’s much easier to empathize, innovate, and create something amazing with real people in mind instead of some made-up, faceless personas. Don’t you agree?

Advantages of Design Thinking

Design thinking is important for many reasons. For starters, it focuses on real people who have actual problems and needs. It helps you focus on solving real problems instead of imaginary or assumed ones. The ideation step gives you and your team freedom to come up with solutions, right? Yes, it does. This means that design thinking also encourages innovation whether on a large or small scale.

Another reason to appreciate design thinking is its flexibility. No matter what the problem is, design thinking can help you. Design thinking can help with something as small as a new landing page. But, it can help with something as big as eliminating hunger among schoolchildren.

Don’t forget that design thinking can be applied to anything. That’s why I’ve been trying to avoid industry-specific terms such as “users” or giving specific examples. That’s because I want everyone to find design thinking applicable to themselves whether they’re a developer, a lawyer, an interior designer, or anything else.

What Design Thinking Is Not

Natasha Jen did a great talk about design thinking at the 2017 99U Conference. Her talk was titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit”. I want to briefly touch on some of her thoughts she presented in this talk. I don’t want to glorify design thinking because, as Natasha also believes, sometimes it’s just common sense.

For example, GE produced an MRI machine for children they decorated with all sorts of cartoons for kids, just like they did to the room the machine was placed into. They wanted to make the MRI experience less scary and intimidating for children. Neither Natasha nor I want to downplay GE’s solution, but this is common sense.

Solutions like the GE’s MRI are called intuition. The reason I’m saying this is that you don’t need design thinking for something so simple and obvious. However, something like a foot-activated car door, now that’s something that took a lot more thought into creating. Really, check out Natasha’s talk. It’s pretty great. She dives into these ideas much deeper in the talk.


As you can see, design thinking is mainly a problem-solving approach that anyone can use for any problem. It can help you come up with innovative, competitive solutions. For instance, it can help you make the best possible mobile game. It’s such a flexible process. Give it a try when the next problem comes your way.



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