A complete guide to the design thinking process

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
August 24, 2023
Women colleagues gathered inside a conference room
A complete guide to the design thinking process
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
August 24, 2023
Learn the five stages of the design thinking process, get practical tips to apply them, and get templates to seamlessly run design thinking exercises.

How many projects have you worked on that stalled because your team couldn’t align on the best path forward? How many more got shelved because they didn’t meet user needs or expectations? And how many got delayed in rounds and rounds of never-ending feedback? 

Thankfully, you don’t have to keep repeating those experiences month after month. The (not so) secret weapon: design thinking.

Design thinking gives teams a new way to approach their projects and overcome some of those well-known challenges. It can help teams understand their users' needs and challenges, then apply those learnings to solve problems in a creative, innovative way. Understanding design thinking can transform your team’s problem-solving approach — and how you work together.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an iterative process where teams seek to understand user needs, challenge assumptions, define complex problems to solve, and develop innovative solutions to prototype and test. The goal of design thinking is to come up with user-focused solutions tailored to the particular problem at hand.

While often used in product design, service design, and customer experience, you can use design thinking in virtually any situation, industry, or organization to create user-centric solutions to specific problems.

Design thinking process 101: Definitions and approaches

The design thinking process puts customers’ and users’ needs at the center and aims to solve challenges from their perspective.

Design thinking typically follows five distinct stages:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Empathize stage

The first stage of design thinking lays the foundation for the rest of the process because it focuses on the needs of the real people using your product. At this stage, you want to get familiar with the people experiencing the problems you’re trying to solve, understanding their point of view, and learning about their user experience. You want to understand their challenges and what they need from your product or company to address them.

The goal of this stage is for your team to develop a user-centered vision of the core problem you need to solve. The idea is to challenge any assumptions or biases teams have, instead using their customer perspective as a guiding source. This is important because it aligns the team on what needs to be considered during the rest of the design thinking process. 

To help you get a solid understanding of the problems you’re solving, you can ask a lot of questions to build empathy with your users. These will invite people to share their experiences and observations to help your team better understand the problem. Then, you can move on to some specific exercises for the empathy stage of the process.

As you build up your understanding of your users, it's helpful to visualize their experience. A common way to do this is to assemble a customer journey map. This helps identify areas of friction and understand customer preferences.

Learn more: 7 types of questions to build empathy for design thinking

Ideate stage

Your priority here is to think outside the box and source as many ideas as possible from all areas of the business. Bring in people from different departments so you benefit from a wider range of experiences and perspectives during ideation sessions. Don’t worry about coming up with concrete solutions or how to implement each one — you’ll build on that later. The goal is to explore new and creative ideas rather than come up with an actual plan.

Key steps in the ideation phase:

  1. Define your problem: Creating a problem statement ensures that your team can focus on solving the right problem and staying aligned with your end-user or customer’s problem
  2. Start ideating: Choose a brainstorming technique to help organize team participation that fits your goal (More on that in the next section.)
  3. Prioritize your ideas: Once you have several ideas, prioritize them based on how well they take into account the customer’s needs‍
  4. Choose the best solution: Choose the best ideas to move forward to either the define stage or the prototype stage
Learn more: The ideation stage of design thinking: What you need to know

Your priority here is to generate as many ideas as possible, without judging or evaluating them. This step encourages designers to think creatively and push the boundaries of what's possible. We’ve put together a list of different brainstorming techniques to help your teams come up with creative new ideas. 

Put it into practice: How to facilitate a brainstorming session

Prototyping stage

At this stage, your team’s goal is to remove uncertainty around your proposed solutions. This is where you start thinking about them in more detail, including how you’ll bring them to life. Your prototypes should help the team understand if the design or solution will work as it’s intended to. 

Here, the focus is on speed and efficiency — you don’t want to invest a ton of time or resources into these solutions yet because you’re not sure they’re the best ones for the problem you’re trying to solve. You just need a functional, interactive prototype that can prove your concept. These are learning opportunities to help you spot any issues or opportunities before you take it any further.

Learn more: A guide to prototyping: the 4th stage of design thinking

Testing stage

The testing stage is normally one of the last stages of the design thinking process. After you’ve developed a concept or prototype, you need to test it in the real-world to understand its viability and usability. It’s where your product, design, or development teams evaluate the creative solutions they’ve come up with, to see how real users interact with them. 

Testing your concepts and observing how people interact with them helps you understand whether or not the prototype solves real problems and meets their needs, before you invest in it fully.

However, design thinking is an iterative process: You may go through the ideation, prototyping, and testing phases multiple times to improve and refine your solutions as you learn more from your users.

Read the guide: Testing: A guide to the 5th stage of design thinking

The relationship between human-centered design and design thinking

These two terms are often used together, because they complement one another. However, they’re two different things, so understanding their differences is important. 

Simply put, design thinking is a working process, while human-centered design is a mindset or approach.

The first step in finding success with design thinking is to foster a culture of human-centered design within your team. This is because design thinking focuses so heavily on the users and customers — the people using your product or service.

To inspire your team, we’ve put together four human-centered design examples — and explain why they work so well.

Benefits of design thinking

For organizations who’ve never run a design thinking workshop before, it can feel like a big change in how you approach the design process. But it can offer many benefits for your business.

Foster a true design culture within your organization

Design thinking is an iterative process — it’s not something you do once and call it done. The more you do it, the more you’ll see a design-focused culture emerge within your organization, which is much more effective than going to one-off creative retreats or setting up expensive innovation centers that no one ever uses.

This mindset and cultural shift can help scale design thinking within the business. But it’s important to know how to avoid  some of the pitfalls companies can face when trying to create a design culture internally.

Learn more: How to use the LUMA System of Innovation for everyday design thinking

Encourage collaboration across departments

Design thinking isn’t just for the designers on the team. The earlier stages of the process — Empathize, Define, and Ideate — are perfect for bringing in people from across the business. In fact, bringing in varied viewpoints and perspectives can help you come up with more creative or effective solutions.

You can use the design thinking process to get more people involved, and help everyone contribute ideas.

Improve understanding of user needs

So many companies say they’re “customer focused,” but lack a clear understanding of what really matters most to their customers in the context of their product or service. Design thinking puts the user front and center, with the Empathize stage dedicated to understanding and discovering user needs.

Learn more: How to identify user needs and pain points

Skills and behaviors needed for successful design thinking

To get the most out of a design thinking exercise, you’ll need a collaborative and creative mindset within your team. The team needs to be willing to explore new ideas, and laser-focused on customer or user needs. 

Here are some specific skills to help your design thinking process run smoothly.

Divergent and convergent thinking

Divergence and convergence is a human-centered design approach to problem-solving. It switches between expansive and focused thinking, giving you a process that balances understanding people’s problems and developing solutions. 

It focuses on understanding a user's needs, behaviors, and motivations, to help you develop empathy for their problems. Then, it encourages experimentation and iteration to help you effectively design solutions to meet those needs.

Collaborative working

Design thinking isn’t a solo activity. You’ll bring in people from different teams or business areas. To get the most out of the process, everyone needs to collaborate and communicate effectively. Teams that are good at collaborating drive the best outcomes, while also making it an enjoyable experience working together.

There are several core collaboration skills your team needs to succeed:

  • Open-mindedness
  • Communication
  • Adaptability
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Creativity
  • Trust
Learn more about why these skills are so important and how you can improve them individually or as a team: 7 collaboration skills your team needs to succeed

Participatory or collaborative design

For many design teams and creative folks, the idea of designing something with other people can be enough to make them shudder. “Design by committee” is their idea of a nightmare. But the design thinking process isn’t about “making the logo 10% bigger” or “using a different shade of blue.” It’s user- and solution-focused.

You’ll get the best outcomes if you bring insights, perspectives, and expertise from multiple stakeholders. That includes at the Prototype and Test stages, as everyone will have ideas to contribute to help you bring solutions to life.

Learn more: What is co-design? A primer on participatory design

Common challenges in design thinking

If your team hasn’t mastered or fully committed to each one of the design thinking steps, you may encounter problems that make it harder to reap the benefits of design thinking.

Here are 4 common challenges that teams face when implementing design thinking practices.

  1. A company culture that doesn't foster collaboration
  2. An inability to adjust to non-linear processes
  3. A lack of in-depth user research
  4. Getting too invested in a single idea
Learn how to address these in Mural's guide on design thinking challenges.

Design thinking tools and templates to help you get started

Using Mural for design thinking

There are lots of tools you can use to run design thinking workshops — including Mural. We help designers work as effectively as possible, so they can get to better solutions quicker. We’ve incorporated some design thinking shortcuts and “hidden” features into our application, making it perfect for in-person or remote (or even asynchronous) collaborative sessions. These include:

  • Use the C-key shortcut to quickly connect ideas with arrows
  • Seamlessly import existing information from spreadsheets
  • Duplicate elements you already created for faster visualization
  • Fit your canvas to your screen and zoom in
  • Get even more options using the right-click menu

And to help you get started, we’ve hand-picked some Mural templates relevant to each stage of the design process below.

Templates for the Empathy stage

The empathy map template helps you visualize the thoughts, feelings, and actions of your customersto help you develop a better understanding of the their experiences. The map is divided into four quadrants, where you record the following:

  • Thoughts: the customer’s internal dialogue and beliefs
  • Feelings: the customer’s emotional responses
  • Actions: the customer’s actions and behaviors
  • Observations: what the customer is seeing and hearing.

Try Mural’s empathy map template

Templates for the Define stage

This exercise helps you understand a situation or problem by identifying what’s working, what’s not, and areas for improvement. You start by listing out the problem, then identifying the positive aspects (the rose), negatives (thorn), and possible solutions for improvement (the buds).

You can use this template to run the exercise individually or in groups. It gives you a way to gather new ideas and perspectives on the problem you’re solving in real-time.

Try Mural’s Rose, thorn, bud template

Templates for the Ideate stage

The round robin brainstorming exercise is a collaborative session where every person contributes multiple ideas. This is a great way to come up with lots of different ideas and solutions in the ideation stage of design thinking, where you’re focusing on quantity and creativity. 

Bringing in ideas from every team member encourages people to share their unique perspectives, and can also help you avoid groupthink. 

Try Mural’s Round robin template

Templates for the Prototype stage

This template helps you map out how an idea will work in practice, as a functional system. Schematic diagramming is very flexible, so it can be used in many types of projects to make sure your idea is  structurally sound. It can help you map out workflows and identify any decisions you need to make to bring your idea to life.

Try Mural’s Schematic diagramming template

Templates for the Test stage

In think aloud testing, users test out a product or prototype and talk through the relevant tasks as they complete them. You can use this template to record the feedback, insights, and experiences of your testers, and identify the success and failure points in your proposed solution.

Try Mural’s Think aloud testing template

Design thinking examples: What it looks like in practice

Design thinking is a very flexible approach that works for companies of any size, from large enterprises to small startups. 

Here are some examples of how companies use design thinking, for many types of creative projects.

IBM uses design thinking to design at scale

IBM was traditionally an engineering-led organization, but now it's shifting its focus onto design, working to spread a design culture throughout the business. One of the main ways of doing that is by launching IBM Design Camps.

These camps are comprehensive educational programs that help people understand the concept of design thinking and how it specifically works at IBM. 

Learn more about how IBM runs design thinking workshops with remote or distributed teams.

Somersault Innovation uses design thinking to transform its sales process

Somersault Innovation has used design thinking methods to help their sales team co-create solutions with their customers. It’s helped sellers become more customer-centric. 

Now, their sellers can create mutual success plans with their prospects, making it easier for them to find a path forward together.

Mural uses design thinking to drive growth

At Mural, our marketing team is constantly following new trends, evaluating metrics, and working to deliver the best experiences for our customers. Design thinking helps us adopt a customer-centric approach by ensuring that we're focused on the right problems. This helps us have the biggest impact on the company’s long-term growth while creating the most value for our users.

David J. Bland planned a book using the design thinking methodology

It’s not just visual creative projects that can benefit from the design thinking process. Founder, speaker, and author David J. Bland used the methodology to plan out his book and collaborate with other team members in the process. In addition to helping him refine and adjust the structure, Bland also used it to gather feedback from early readers and target audiences, which helped get the final product just right.

Support design thinking with tools that facilitate creative collaboration

While we’ve covered some of the skills and behaviors you need to successfully run design thinking exercises, having the right tools can help a lot, too. A collaborative platform helps teams communicate, share ideas, and turn those ideas into solutions together.

Mural helps teams visualize their ideas in a collaboration platform that unlocks teamwork. This helps everyone stay on the same page, while giving them the ability to add their own ideas freely and easily. Mural facilitates effective collaboration both in person and remotely, making it ideal for design thinking workshops for co-located and distributed teams. Plus, it has tons of ready-to-use templates (like the ones we listed above) to help you get started.

Ready to give it a try? Start your Free Forever account today, and run your next design thinking workshop in Mural.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.