What Is Design Thinking? A Comprehensive Guide

Design thinking is defined as both an ideology and a process concerned with solving complex problems in a highly user-centric way. Its goal is to inspire creative exploration, enhance innovation, and create new products, services, and processes that deliver value and meaning to users. Applying design thinking process is useful in finding solutions to problems that don’t respond to tried-and-tested algorithms, processes, or logic. This “solution-based” approach is the exact opposite of the “problem-solving” approach that tends to fixate on obstacles and limitations.

To better understand this concept of “user-centricity, it’s helpful to look back at the origins of design thinking. Did you know it’s been around for hundreds of years? However, the term itself was only coined in the 1990s (and started gaining traction after the publication of this .)

Design thinking was originally used as a way to encourage engineers to approach problems in a creative manner, as designers do. Back in 1959, John E. Arnold, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, penned an article called “Creative Engineering,” in which he set out the key tenets of design thinking. In the 1980s, the concept of human-centered design came to the fore. Then, in the 1990s, design consultancy IDEO made design thinking even more popular. As we entered the 21st century, design thinking started to be embraced by the business world. Stanford University’s d.school began teaching design thinking in 2005, seeing the value it could bring to both technical and social innovation.

Ever since, great designers have drawn upon the “human-centric” creative process to solution design embodied by design thinking to build meaningful and effective solutions that address real human needs – from monuments, bridges, and automobiles, to processes, workflows, technology, and software. Most recently, design thinking has been applied to developing a business model for selling solar panels in Africa to the operation of Airbnb. In addition to putting the user front and center of the design process, design thinking principles also ensure that products are both technically and economically feasible.

In this guide, we’ll provide you with a detailed definition of design thinking, understand the purpose of design thinking, show exactly what the design thinking process involves, and underline why it matters, particularly in the world of software development. We’ll also analyze the relationship between design thinking and user experience (UX) design.

What is the Purpose of the Design Thinking Process?

As we touched on earlier, design thinking is an approach to solving problems that puts the consumer’s needs front and center. It’s grounded in observing, with empathy, how people interact with their environments and harnesses an iterative, hands-on approach to creating innovative solutions that resonate with their target audiences and users.

Why is Design Thinking So Important?

In a modern business world that’s obsessed with pragmatic concepts like data, process, and bottom line, “design” is often an afterthought, applied only to touch up a product’s aesthetic or functional value. But such an approach often proves to be short-sighted because it results in solutions that fail to solve real problems experienced by real people. What’s more, in many organizations, the ideation, innovation, and creativity that are the fundamentals of great design are often overshadowed by human biases, assumptions, and subjective behaviors.

Consider this example: After conducting tests for a new recipe for the soft drink, Coke, on 200,000 subjects which indicated that people preferred it over the traditional version, Coca-Cola unveiled “New Coke” in 1985. Unfortunately, sales of New Coke fell well below expectations. This misstep cost the company $4 million in development and a loss of $30 million in manufactured product that it was unable to sell. So, what went wrong? While Coca-Cola did conduct market research, it focused too narrowly on customers’ feedback regarding the taste of the new product; it didn’t fully take into account the power of “softer” aspects of human behavior such as nostalgia, embedded loyalties, and ingrained habits. This famous failure underscores the fact that even the best, most-admired, and successful brands can get it wrong.

Design thinking provides a practical means to sidestep these issues. Its principles involve intentionally gathering and analyzing how people actually use, engage, and feel about products and services instead of how the designer or the business thinks they will. In its purest form, design thinking requires that those doing the developing observe how people use it and apply the insight they gather to improve the product or service until it delivers the optimum experience. This is understood as an “iterative” approach, and it allows prototypes to be quickly developed, tested, and refined, resulting in a swifter time-to-market. Business leaders can also invoke the design thinking process to reimagine their operating models and inject greater levels of innovation into their customer experience strategies and expand their market reach.

What is the Design Thinking Process?

The design thinking process involves bringing together people with different perspectives, abilities, and backgrounds in order to solve problems creatively. It begins when you bring together all of your resources through brainstorming, research, etc., and then narrows down to work on one problem that can be solved within a specific time frame. You then execute this innovative solution by testing it out before implementing it into the real world. The Design Thinking Process has gained increased popularity because of its ability to transform businesses and industries.

To help you thoroughly grasp the design thinking process, we’ll start by stepping you through the basic principles of design thinking and the six phases of its process.

Principles of Design Thinking


Design thinking focuses on creating innovative solutions that are relevant to real people’s needs and responsive to their feedback and preferences. That means that designers need to step into their users’ shoes and accommodate and be empathetic to their unique needs and feedback.


Because the essence of design thinking is aggregating a diverse range of ideas and perspectives, it requires a high level of cooperation, collaboration, and open dialogue. Design thinking works best when development teams comprise heterogeneous, multidisciplinary groups of individuals who don’t necessarily work side-by-side all the time.


Design thinking is all about finding creative answers to problems, both old and new. It requires developers and participants to come up with and share as many ideas and possible innovative solutions as they can. That being said, participants should be encouraged to focus on the quality of their ideas rather than just the quantity.

Experimentation and iteration

Successful design thinking is more than just generating ideas to solve a problem. It also involves building and testing potential solutions. These are known as “prototypes.” Once developed, prototypes are adjusted and improved on in response to their users’ feedback so that shortcomings and flaws may be addressed.

6 Steps in the Design Thinking Process

The design thinking process may be broken down into six primary steps. These steps provide businesses with an actionable framework for designing innovative solutions that will be commercially viable, technologically feasible, and helpful and valuable to real users. So, let’s explore these design thinking steps in more detail:


Empathizing is all about being responsive to real human needs. The first step of design thinking requires developers to get to know their users and understand their wants, needs, motivations, objectives, and frustrations. Members of the design team need to set aside their assumptions, engage with people, invite as many ideas as possible, and observe how they behave in their natural physical environments. This is the only way to gather meaningful insights about them.


This stage is dedicated to pinpointing users’ unmet needs or pain points. Designers must define or reframe the actual problem in human-centric terms. They assimilate, synthesize, and analyze all the information and insights they’ve gathered during the empathize stage. This allows them to isolate the precise problems with a product or service and articulate them in human-centric terms. Next, they start generating ideas regarding potential innovative features and functions that could solve the problems at hand with the least amount of friction or intervention.


“One of the key principles of brainstorming is to suspend judgment.”— Steve Eppinger, Professor @ MIT SloanHere, the design team brainstorms creative ideas. No idea is considered too far-fetched, impossible, or crazy. The goal is to come up with as many new angles and perspectives as possible before a few key ideas can be identified for the next stage. A prioritization matrix can be a useful tool for this exercise. At the end of this stage, the team will have a set of multiple thoughtful, though possibly different, ideas. Champions of change also usually emerge from these conversations, which greatly improves the chances of successful implementation.


Here, the goal is to build real and tangible – albeit scaled-down – representations of the final product. The prototype helps highlight any constraints or flaws. Say the solution is a new landing page. During this phase, the team draws out a wireframe and gets internal feedback. Then they make updates, prototype it again in quick and dirty code, and once more share it with another group. Often, prototyping is carried out on far-from-finished products, which allows for radical changes, including complete redesigns, to occur along the way.


This is a critical stage in the design thinking process because this is where the team looks for the answer to: “is this a solution that meets users’ needs?” In the testing phase, the prototype is placed in front of real customers to verify its impact. In our landing page example, the team will check if the new page helps users, and thus increases conversions or sales on the site. In enterprise software development, the design thinking process rarely ends with testing. In fact, the development team often utilizes the results of the testing phase to go back to a previous step, say Ideate or Prototype, to redefine the original problem statement, identify new software requirements, and generate new solution ideas. This continuous and iterative process is similar to the “build-measure-learn” approach of the lean startup methodology.


This is the most important phase of design thinking, but often, it’s also the most forgotten. At this stage, the vision and ideas recognized in the earlier stages are put into effect. This can lead to true innovation, which can be highly impactful for any organization, but only if the execution is done right. It’s important to note that this six-stage process is not linear but flexible, fluid, and iterative. Each phase can – and does – yield discoveries, so the design team must constantly rethink, redefine, and re-execute what they have already done before.

What Are the Benefits of Design Thinking?

There are numerous reasons to engage in design thinking and make it a part of your organization’s DNA. First, since it’s a user-centered process and involves a lot of iterative and continuous learning through testing, it creates output that addresses the real needs of real users. This results in useful products that improve users’ lives.

Design thinking also encourages design teams to explore multiple avenues for the same problem, rather than making assumptions or relying on tried-and-tested methods. It offers a healthy middle ground between emotion and analytics and intuition and rationale. It also brings multidisciplinary teams together, breaks down silos, and fosters more meaningful teamwork.

Together, design thinking-led divergent thinking and enhanced collaboration result in greater creativity and innovation and can result in better-quality design artifacts than would be possible otherwise. Using the process, businesses can re-evaluate their offerings to stay relevant, grow their markets, boost innovation, and offer greater value to customers. They can also significantly reduce the time spent on design and development, reduce costs, and speed up time-to-market. All of this eventually translates to happy customers, competitive advantage, and a healthy bottom line.

What Industries and Roles Can Benefit from Design Thinking?

Design thinking empowers organizations by championing human-centered aspects within product development processes, resulting in “better-designed products and services that create a positive impact on people’s lives” (IDEO). In short, companies benefit from greater customer insight, improved product competitiveness, enhanced internal collaboration, and a more dynamic atmosphere of creativity.

Design thinking can be applied to create innovative solutions across industries to positive effect.

The Interconnections Between Design Thinking and UX Design

At their core, both design thinking and user experience (UX) design focus first and foremost on users and their needs and challenges. Both ideas are also driven by empathy and the idea of adopting a “beginner’s mind”. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist Monk (d. 1971) UX designers also use many design thinking steps, particularly user research, prototyping, and testing. This allows them to tackle ill-defined or unknown problems (aka “wicked” problems), reframe them in human-centric ways and think out of the box to uncover new, innovative solutions.

Nonetheless, there are also certain distinctions between the two. The impact of design thinking is often felt on a more strategic level and across multiple areas of a business. It focuses on understanding users and business requirements and on exploring technological feasibility to discover possible solutions to a real pain point.UX design is more concerned with solution design and with ensuring that innovative solutions are usable and accessible for the user. UX designers rely on design thinking to get a better handle on what the user is looking for, so they can design fantastic user experiences.

Design Thinking in Software Development

We’ve all heard the phrase: “software is eating the world.” So, you might be wondering, what is design thinking in the context of modern application development practices? The race to digitization continues at pace. And the demand for advanced digital solutions across multiple areas of the human experience creates the need for more innovative technologies and software. This, in turn, has called for a radically new approach to software development – an approach that prioritizes user-centric innovation and creativity, plus holistic thinking and iterative execution.

This is where the application of design thinking principles can prove to be a true differentiator for software development firms. That makes complete sense if you think about it. Because who actually uses software and apps? People, of course. Bear in mind, however, that in software development, the word “design” in design thinking is slightly misleading in that it’s not applicable only for the design stage. In fact, the design thinking process can be applied at each stage of the SDLC, all the way from planning analysis and design, to development, testing, and even maintenance.

As in every other industry or application area, design thinking enables software developers to consistently focus on people and their needs to design solutions that can effectively satisfy those needs. Iterative prototyping is a critical element of the process, with each idea tested to evaluate its capacity to address a customer’s problem.

Design Thinking in Software Development: How it Works

To illustrate this point, consider the color of a clickable button in an app. It’s important to select the right color because it can determine whether a user will actually use the product. The design thinking process allows software development teams to do this so that users find the app useful for their needs. The process gives them a thorough knowledge of the user problem (Define). It also enables them to come up with multiple possible solutions (Ideate), choose the best one, and then create the best possible design (Prototype and Test).

At the development stage (Implement), developers are already clear on the end-users’ needs (and the business’s goals). As a result, they can logically arrange all elements, and create a tailored solution that addresses the users’ problem as effectively as possible, without causing confusion or wasting their time. And at the same time, they can (gently) move customers towards a specific action like Click here, Shop Now, Schedule Demo, Request Trial Version, etc. When users continue to utilize the product, they’re more likely to turn into loyal customers.

Feasibility Checks

By keeping end-users in mind, software development companies can clearly specify all requirements, translate them into end-product features, and test the feasibility of these features right at the initial stage.

Greater Clarity

The iterative and collaborative nature of the design thinking process means that design teams always have clarity on the process at every stage. They can define problems, understand end goals, and visualize the solution they should eventually deliver.


Since each person on the team knows what is expected of them, the process creates greater accountability and minimizes the possibility of buck-passing.

Continuous Improvement

Design thinking is an iterative process. Once user feedback is available, there is greater insight into which features work, and which ones need improvement. This leaves space for continuous improvement and a streamlined process so the product can be enhanced quickly and with minimal hassles.

Design Thinking in Software Development in Action

There are some great resources available online that outline some successful examples of design thinking in action in products and services you’re probably already familiar with. From electric toothbrushes to Uber Eats and Airbnb, you might be surprised at the long and iterative road to success some of today’s most successful and recognized brands traveled.

4 Ways to Get Started with Design Thinking and Creating Innovative Solutions

1. Start Learning and Gathering Insights by Being Empathetic, Observing Others, and Talking to Them

The first place to start as you move forward on your design thinking journey is to understand your target customer better. That’s the only real way you’ll be able to develop products and services that meet their wants and needs. Don’t make assumptions. Reach out to them, sit down, have honest and meaningful conversations, and take all feedback to heart – even if it’s not what you expect.

2. Craft Basic Prototypes to Understand Unmet Needs

Don’t try to “boil the ocean” with your first product or service iteration. You don’t need to invest huge amounts of time or resources in developing a basic prototype. Sketch out your initial thoughts and ideas on a piece of paper or by using basic software programs. Then share them with a few colleagues and stakeholders and listen carefully to their feedback and suggestions. Apply what you’ve learned to your prototype, ask for feedback from a different group, and internalize and apply their inputs. This will ensure you begin the production phase on the right foot.

3. Treat Problems as Learning Opportunities

As you move through the development phase, you’ll inevitably encounter roadblocks and setbacks. Don’t get disheartened or try to find solutions immediately. Look outwards for inspiration and insight by asking pointed questions that might move you closer to understanding the source of the challenge or spark an idea for a great improvement.

4. Balance Your Research Considering the Past, Present, and Future

Your design thinking research effort should ideally be three-pronged: generative research, evaluative research, and validating research. Generative research will allow you to pinpoint new opportunities and explore unmet needs. Evaluative research is where you elicit feedback on things you’ve already tried to inform your iterative improvement journey.  These are both forward-looking types of research and are in contrast to more traditional market research techniques, commonly referred to as validating research. Validating research is more focused on understanding the current sentiment and status quo.  Try to retain a thorough yet balanced research approach that considers the past, present, and future.

A Final Word on Design Thinking

Design thinking can empower development teams with new perspectives. It requires designers to fully immerse themselves in the users’ environment and tap into their feelings, thoughts, and experiences – be they positive, negative, or neutral. This creates insights that can be translated into actionable data to inform decision-making and spark new ideas. The process ensures that any underlying biases or assumptions don’t cloud designers’ judgment. They can quickly set up, test, refine, and reiterate their designs to the point where they’re fit-for-purpose from the end users’ perspective.

At WayPath, we leverage the design thinking process and methodology for all our projects. In the words of Tim Brown (author of Change by Design), we “integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” If you have a good idea and are looking for a reliable and experienced IT Consulting/dev partner agency to bring it to life, contact us to arrange a free discovery call.