What is Design Thinking and its Different Stages?

Consider there are two hospitals A and B. These two were working towards building an app to provide good customer support and service to patients.

Hospital-A approached a problem based method. They had intense internal discussions and figured out some features. They build the app and released it. And most of the people were not satisfied with the app because it failed to solve their problems.

On the other hand Hospital-B tried to solve the problem with the user centric approach. They interviewed stakeholders (in this case patients, doctors, staff) to understand their needs and problems. They ideated on the problems and made the prototypes to see what’s working and what’s not working. Finally they released the app and most of the users were satisfied because the app fulfilled users need and solved their problems.

What is Design thinking?

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.

According to IDEOU, In employing design thinking, you’re pulling together what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows those who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges. The process starts with taking action and understanding the right questions. It’s about embracing simple mindset shifts and tackling problems from a new direction.

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How Design thinking can help your team or organization?

  • Better understand the unfulfilled needs of the people you’re creating for (Customers. Students, Professionals etc.)
  • Reduce the risk associated with launching new ideas, products, and services.
  • Generate solutions that are revolutionary, not just incremental.
  • Learn and iterate faster.

Design thinking is applicable no matter your role or industry. Whether you work in business, government, education, or nonprofit organization, design thinking can help you develop innovative solutions based on the needs of your customers. 

See the 8 great design thinking case studies showcasing the impact of design thinking across a variety of industries and practices.

What are the Four Principles of Design Thinking?

  • The human rule: No matter what the context, all design activity is social in nature, and any social innovation will bring us back to the “human-centric point of view”.
  • The ambiguity rule: Ambiguity is inevitable, and it cannot be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in being able to see things differently.
  • The redesign rule: All design is redesign. While technology and social circumstances may change and evolve, basic human needs remain unchanged. We essentially only redesign the means of fulfilling these needs or reaching desired outcomes.
  • The tangibility rule: Making ideas tangible in the form of prototypes enables designers to communicate them more effectively.

Based on these four principles, The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka the d.school) describes design thinking as a five-stage process. 


These stages are all not always sequential, Teams often run them in parallel and out of order 

And some organizations follow these steps in their own methodology by changing the sequence and nomenclature of few steps

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Src: Medium.com

First stage – Empathize

Empathy is the centerpiece of a human-centered design process. Here, you should gain an empathetic understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, typically through user research. In this stage you’ll do the work to understand people, within the context of your design challenge. It is your effort to understand the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them. 


Second Stage – Define

The Define mode of the design process is all about bringing clarity and focus to the design space. It is your chance, and responsibility, as a design thinker to define the challenge you are taking on, based on what you have learned about your user and about the context. After becoming an instant-expert on the subject and gaining invaluable empathy for the person you are designing for, this stage is about making sense of the widespread information you have gathered. 

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The goal of the Define mode is to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement – this is what we call a point-of-view. This should be a guiding statement that focuses on insights and needs of a particular user, or composite character. Insights don’t often just jump in your lap; rather they emerge from a process of synthesizing information to discover connections and patterns. In a word, the Define mode is sensemaking.


Third Stage – Ideate

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During the third stage of the Design Thinking process, designers are ready to start generating ideas. Ideate is the mode of the design process in which you concentrate on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes. Ideation provides both the fuel and also the source material for building prototypes and getting innovative solutions into the hands of your users. 

Brainstorm and Worst Possible Idea sessions are typically used to stimulate free thinking and to expand the problem space. It is important to get as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of the Ideation phase. 


Fourth Stage – Prototype

The design team will now produce a number of inexpensive, scaled down versions of the product or specific features found within the product, so they can investigate the problem solutions generated in the previous stage.

A prototype can be anything that a user can interact with – be it a wall of post-it notes, a gadget you put together, a role-playing activity, or even a storyboard. Ideally you bias toward something a user can experience. Walking someone through a scenario with a storyboard is good, but having them role-play through a physical environment that you have created will likely bring out more emotions and responses from that person


Fifth Stage – Test

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The Test mode is when you solicit feedback, about the prototypes you have created, from your users and have another opportunity to gain empathy for the people you are designing for. Testing is another opportunity to understand your user, but unlike your initial empathy mode, you have now likely done more framing of the problem and created prototypes to test. Both these things tend to focus the interaction with users, but don’t reduce your “testing” work to asking whether or not people like your solution. Instead, continue to ask “Why?”, and focus on what you can learn about the person and the problem as well as your potential solutions. 

Although this is the final phase, design thinking is iterative: Teams often use the results to redefine one or more further problems. So, you can return to previous stages to make further iterations, alterations and refinements – to find or rule out alternative solutions.


Overall, you should understand that these stages are different modes which contribute to the entire design project, rather than sequential steps. Your goal throughout is to gain the deepest understanding of the users and what their ideal solution/product would be.

Check here how I have implemented the different stages of design thinking process for creating an e-commerce app for handmade painting sales.

How to Improve Design Thinking Process?

This is the best time to start learning Design Thinking methods to stay agile and at the top of your competition. One great way is taking an online Design Thinking course that can be accessed from anywhere. We are providing here a list of best online Design Thinking courses. These are offered by the most acclaimed universities and industry leaders.

Human-Centered Design for Inclusive Innovation by Uni. of Toronto

Design thinking for business strategy and entrepreneurship by the Uni. of Sydney

Innovation & Entrepreneurship – From Design Thinking to Funding by EIT Digital

Human-Centered Design: an Introduction by UC San Diego

Design Thinking for Innovation by Uni. of Virginia

Agile Meets Design Thinking by Uni. of Virginia

Introduction to User Experience Principles and Processes by Uni. of Michigan


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Trending Career Paths, Top Universities and Online Courses in Digital Design


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