design thinking

What Actually Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking eschews traditional development processes in favor of an agile, flexible method for developing products and services with a unique focus on the customer.

Design thinking eschews traditional development processes in favor of an agile, flexible method for developing products and services with a unique focus on the customer.

Design thinking definition

Design thinking is an agile, iterative process for approaching design and innovation that centers on users’ desires and needs, and enables your company to pivot as the industry changes and technology evolves. Design thinking acknowledges that there isn’t one way to solve a problem. As such, the methodology encourages questioning, experimenting, observing and innovating in an environment that embraces diverse opinions and ideas.


With design thinking, you won’t rely on traditional corporate hierarchy for ideas and approval. Instead, you’ll create an environment that encourages employees to challenge corporate traditions and facilitates smart, calculated risks.

Design thinking benefits

One of the biggest draws is that it can spur innovative ideas as your team cycles through the inspiration, ideation and implementation phases, oftentimes hitting each cycle more than once as you develop new ideas and explore new solutions. Whereas most frameworks and ideologies are broken down into steps, design thinking isn’t meant to be approached in a rigid, orderly fashion. You can bounce between cycles and processes as you see fit, until the right solution and design are achieved.

As new technologies emerge, design thinking becomes an important means for turning these technologies into user-friendly services and products. It embraces the fast-paced change of technology with a positive outlook that considers every possibility, no matter how “out there” or creative it is. That attitude will be increasingly important as companies find new and exciting ways to make use of emerging technology.

Design thinking principles

In technology, it is used to create human-centered designs that are user-friendly, and to deliver the technology to users in a way that is intuitive and natural. There are a number of core principles that define it. These aren’t meant to be step-by-step instructions, but they are the principles on which your strategy should be founded.

  • Wicked problems: A phrase developed by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, “wicked problems” stands for ill-defined or tricky issues that have unclear solutions and require creative thinking or non-traditional strategies to solve.
  • Problem framing: With design thinking, there is more than one way to view a problem. Problems aren’t taken at face value. Instead, they’re re-contextualized and re-interpreted to find a solution.
  • Solution-focused thinking: Instead of focusing on problems, this model looks at solutions first, which can help improve understanding of the problem.
  • Abductive reasoning: This form of logical inference starts with an observation or set of observations and then asks you to find the simplest, most likely explanation for the problems observed. It’s an important style of reasoning is used to reframe problems or ideas to find several ways to address the problem or opportunity.
  • Co-evolution of problem and solution: When design thinkers work on a problem, they switch between thinking about the problem and looking at ideas for a solution to help come up with even more solution ideas.
  • Representations and modelling: Computer models and physical prototypes are used to identify requirements, which can sometimes be abstract, and to enable your team to test, refine and evaluate new ideas.

Design thinking process

There are four main phases that your team will cycle through while developing solutions and products. Rather than a detailed prescription to follow, it offers a loose structure that you can interpret as needed for your business needs.

  • Inspiration: This is usually the first phase of the design process during which you will try to understand the problem or opportunity. You’ll want to establish objectives, benchmarks, key points of contact, requirements, technology needs and how your solution or product will fit into the industry market.
  • Empathy: Empathy is arguably one of the most important phases and principles of design thinking. When designing solutions, products, services or hardware you need to truly understand the perspective of the client or end-user.
  • Ideation: This phase involves developing as many ideas as possible using both divergent and convergent thinking. You’ll alternate between divergent thinking, which involves a diverse group of people who engage in structured brainstorming, and convergent thinking, which zeroes in on the best ideas to select one to follow through with.
  • Implementation and prototyping: Once you have established a few of the best ideas, it’s time for modeling and prototyping by creating actual products and services that can be tested, evaluated and refined.

Empathy in design thinking

By considering the wants and needs of clients, users and customers, you can develop the best product, software or service possible. You’ll need to approach the process by trying to understand how you can make the client’s life easier, or how the final product can be more enjoyable, practical, efficient or easy-to-use. It’s more than considering the aesthetic of the interface or physical product, and more about understanding how people use technology, what they want to gain from the experience and how you can create a more meaningful experience for the user.

Design thinking jobs

Design thinking can be a part of nearly any job, especially in the technology industry, but there are a few specific roles that call for design thinkers, architects and managers. Technology jobs that require these skills will typically include:

  • Design thinking strategist
  • Design thinking consultant
  • User experience developer
  • User experience researchers
  • Application developer
  • Director of service design

Design thinking workshops and training

If you want to brush up on the principles with a certification or course, you can choose from a number of available programs. These courses are designed to teach you the basics and how to apply them within your own organization.

  • MIT Sloan Executive Education Mastering Design Thinking
  • ASPE Training Design Thinking Course
  • Coursera Design Thinking Courses
  • Introduction to Design Thinking from edX
  • Design Thinking Course from Cornell University
  • IBM Enterprise Design Thinking certification

Sarah White is a senior writer for, covering IT governance, hiring & staffing, and IT jobs.

This article originally appeared in CIO. Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

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