What is design thinking?

What is it that we’re talking about, when we’re talking about design? We may first encounter design as aesthetic treatment and styling—certainly important, but not, of course, the entire story. Stylistic design is often seen in contrast with design as a process for tackling tough problems.

Design thinking is an abductive approach to complex problem solving that leverages the designer’s empathetic mindset in order to understand people’s unarticulated needs and identify opportunities for solutions. This is a human-centered innovation process that can be applied to a wide range of challenges: design thinking can be used to create everything from products and services to business models and processes.

Design thinking has a rich 30+ year history, underpinned by academic work at Stanford University’s design school and spearheaded in the business world by design firm IDEO. In his 2009 book on design thinking, Change by Design, IDEO CEO Tim Brown outlines it this way: “Design is about delivering a satisfying experience. Design thinking is about creating a multipolar experience in which everyone has the opportunity to participate in the conversation.” Jordan Shade, a global facilitation lead and design researcher at IBM, describes the cooperation and cross-pollination inherent in design thinking as “having radical collaboration with a really diverse group of people who can think divergently, and not just jump into the first idea that comes along their way.”

Design thinking and business thinking are not opposites or poles, but they do provide different perspectives and ways of problem solving. While business thinking methods may rely upon inductive approaches—with an emphasis on financial optimization or technical prowess—design thinking, in contrast, emphasizes a humanistic and holistic view that integrates people’s needs into the mix, working with oftentimes incomplete information, to imagine what could be. “I see them as being, if not highly overlapping, very complimentary in most cases,” says Shade. “Design thinking has a very natural tendency to be impactful to business.”

“It's not as simple as [just] identifying a problem. ‘Yay! We found something that customers are frustrated with. That’s a business opportunity!’” says Travis Lowdermilk, a senior UX designer at Microsoft. “It’s also responding to that problem in a way that customers feel like A) it not only solves [it], but B) it solves it in a way that customers find valuable.”

As our rapidly evolving creative economy has increasingly shifted value to industries and jobs focused on knowledge work—such as science and technology—design thinking has increased in importance. The 21st century marketplace is characterized by digital disruption and change brought on by emerging technologies. Traditional business thinking methods can overemphasize analysis and deliberation, making it difficult for organizations to react quickly.

In contrast, design thinking emphasizes learning by doing and agile, iterative solutions that can have startlingly effective results.

Companies as varied as Apple, Cisco, GE, IBM, Intuit, Kaiser Permanente, Microsoft, Nike, and Samsung have used design thinking to innovate their products and services. For example, GE’s health care division used design thinking to better understand the needs of customers for its MRI machines, which resulted in an improved experience for children and families.

Doug Dietz, a designer at GE, realized that their machines were not providing a positive patient experience when he witnessed the tearful reaction of a young girl as she and her family approached the MRI scan room. The girl was so terrified, in fact, that she required anesthesia to undergo the MRI. Dietz took an empathetic, human-centered design approach to solving this patient experience challenge, eventually prototyping a series of kid-friendly adventures that used the MRI scanner as a prop in a story, decked out with various decals and decorations. The stories about pirate ships and space ships also integrated the MRI technician, who facilitated the scripted adventure. What were the results of this imaginative solution? Delighted kids and families, and improved experience at hospitals as fewer children required sedation to undergo an MRI.

As we can see from this example, design thinking can help organizations identify opportunities, unlock innovation, and improve their businesses. While the name and number of its key principles may vary depending on which design thinking model we subscribe to, its basic elements always include some flavor of these: research / problem definition, ideation, and prototyping / testing.

Researching and defining

Design thinking draws upon user-centered research techniques, including ethnographic analysis, for understanding customers and users. During the first phase of the design thinking process, our goal is to understand and empathize with the people for whom we’re designing. We can do this by observing and interviewing people—immersing ourselves into the context of use to better understand the user journey, pain points, and unmet needs. This information will become inspiration for the next steps in the process.

Bill Hartman, the innovation strategy partner at Boston-based firm Essential Design, believes design teams are empowered and inspired through field research and contextual inquiry. “When we do design research programs here at Essential, we always try to bring a member of the client’s project team with us in the field. So, as we are developing empathy for end users, they too have empathy for what we're seeing, what we're hearing, what we're learning. And, they can be advocates for that first-hand understanding of challenges and goals with their teams over the long haul.”

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Field research provides the basis for Essential’s design thinking process, enabling the team to gain insight into the user’s world. “I think that storytelling and doing things like ethnographic studies, that not only find facts but also create opportunities to ask smarter questions, is really the necessary fodder,” Hartman explains.

So, how should we approach field research?


We want to know why people do what they do, and how they do it. Time spent observing people in context, seeing them in their everyday routines and typical environment, is invaluable for discovering unknown behaviors, uncovering unmet needs, and identifying future opportunities.

We will also converse with people and listen to their stories as we seek to uncover what is meaningful to them. We need to fully understand their needs and goals—what they feel, value, and believe.

Problem Finding

After conducting design research, we’ll try to make sense of the inputs and synthesize the information we’ve gathered. In doing so, we may discover valuable insights into user behavior and identify real opportunities. What patterns are emerging from the data? What is bubbling to the top? We want to address the right challenge that is most meaningful to our audience.

Travis Lowdermilk describes how his team brought a new perspective to sense-making for design research at Microsoft. “We looked at the way intelligence officials analyzed all the data signals that they’re getting. … In that business, it’s all about finding the thing that’s sitting right in front of you, that everybody’s overlooking. It [has some parallels] to trying to identify customer problems and looking for business opportunities. Sometimes those things are staring right in your face. You just don’t see it because you don’t have a sense of awareness or mindfulness about what’s happening around you.”

Finding the right problems to solve is an increasingly important part of design. “The first thing that comes to my mind around what's needed in the design community, especially around technology, is more wisdom. I say this because I think we are good—we often talk about making the right thing and making the thing right—and I think we're pretty good at that, to a certain scale or a certain scope. At the same time, I think we need to be thinking bigger and probably more systemically,” said Kristian Simsarian, chair of the Interaction Design Program at the California College of the Arts in an interview on the O’Reilly Design podcast.