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Problem-Solving and Design Thinking

Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving process rooted in a set of skills. The approach has been around for decades, but it gained traction with the publishing of “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown, CEO and president of design company IDEO.

Since then, the design thinking process has been applied to developing new products and services, and to a whole range of problems. In simple terms, Design Thinking is a methodology that aims to tackle highly complex problems.

Design Thinking fosters an outside-the-box approach, with a huge emphasis on creativity, innovation, and the needs of the user. The Design Thinking process is used to apply the Design Thinking ideology to real-world, wicked problems. It offers a solution-based approach to problem-solving.

Unlike problem-based thinking, which tends to fixate on obstacles and limitations, the Design Thinking process is all about outcomes. It provides a non-linear series of steps that you can follow to come up with innovative, actionable ideas.

The Five Steps of Design Thinking


Empathy provides the critical starting point for Design Thinking. The first stage of the process is spent getting to know the user and understanding their wants, needs and objectives.

This means observing and engaging with people to understand them on a psychological and emotional level. During this phase, the designer seeks to set aside their assumptions and gather real insights about the user.


The second stage in the Design Thinking process is dedicated to defining the problem. We will gather all of our findings from the empathise phase and start to make sense of them: what difficulties and barriers are the users coming up against? What patterns are observed? What is the big user problem that the team needs to solve?

By the end of the define phase, we will have a clear problem statement. The key here is to frame the problem in a user-centered way; rather than saying “We need to…”, frame it in terms of the user: “Retirees in the Bay area need…”

Once we have formulated the problem into words, we can start to come up with solutions and ideas.


With a solid understanding of your users and a clear problem statement in mind, it’s time to start working on potential solutions. The third phase in the Design Thinking process is where the creativity happens, and it’s crucial to point out that the ideation stage is a judgement-free zone!

Designers will hold ideation sessions in order to come up with as many new angles and ideas as possible. There are many different types of ideation technique that designers might use, from brainstorming and mind mapping to bodystorming (roleplay scenarios) and provocation—an extreme lateral-thinking technique that gets the designer to challenge established beliefs and explore new options and alternatives.

Towards the end of the ideation phase, you’ll narrow it down to a few ideas with which to move forward.


The fourth step in the Design Thinking process is all about experimentation and turning ideas into tangible products. A prototype is basically a scaled-down version of the product which incorporates the potential solutions identified in the previous stages. This step is key in putting each solution to the test and highlighting any constraints and flaws.

Throughout the prototype stage, the proposed solutions may be accepted, improved, redesigned or rejected depending on how they fare in prototype form.


After prototyping comes user testing, but it is important to note that this is rarely the end of the Design Thinking process. In fact, the results of the testing phase will often lead you back to a previous step, providing the insights you need to redefine the original problem statement or to come up with new ideas you hadn’t thought of before.

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.

Whether you’re establishing a Design Thinking culture on a company-wide scale, or simply trying to improve your approach to user-centric design, Design Thinking will help you to innovate, focus on the user, and ultimately design products that solve real user problems.

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