The Complete Guide to Design Thinking

From websites and apps to member portals, today’s organizations rely on robust digital experiences to connect with customers and deliver services. And as industry regulations and technologies rapidly evolve, there’s nothing “set it and forget it” about creating a best-in-class digital experience. Which means there’s almost always another digital initiative on the horizon.

Many organizations are quick to notice when a change is necessary. But it can take quite a bit longer to get a much-needed digital project off the ground. Securing the budget may be a challenge in and of itself. But there are plenty of other reasons projects like these fail to launch. Defining scope, ideating solutions, dealing with legacy systems, and executing on project plans — there are challenges at every stage that threaten to undermine stakeholder confidence and derail projects.

Don’t fret. Despite the challenges, it is possible for you to confidently tackle your organization’s next digital initiative. How? The answer lies in something called design thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

With the word “design” front and center, you can be forgiven for assuming that something called “design thinking” doesn’t have much to do with your particular business.

But while this methodology is rooted in the design process, it is now used widely by many organizations across multiple industries. That includes some of the biggest and most influential brands out there (think Toyota, Apple, and Bank of America). The truth is that design thinking can be applied to any organization or industry.

So what is design thinking, exactly?

Put simply, design thinking is a proven, structured process that enables cross-functional teams to solve complex problems — all while keeping user needs top of mind.

Along the way, design thinking empowers your team to:

  • Uncover insights
  • Identify opportunities
  • Ideate solutions
  • Build alignment

How Design Thinking Works

The design thinking process is actually pretty straightforward. It’s made up of five repeatable steps that build on each other as teams work to identify user needs, clearly define the problem they’re trying to solve, and then generate and test various hypotheses. Teams may cycle through some or all of the steps multiple times as they iterate on their ideas and hone in on increasingly impactful solutions.

The five steps of design thinking are:

  1. Empathize. In this first stage, your goal is to develop empathy for your users by identifying their needs, pain points, and behaviors. By starting with a hearty dose of empathy (before even defining your problem), you ensure that you keep your eyes on the prize — creating an experience your users will love.
  2. Define. Next, you’ll more clearly specify the problem you’re trying to solve. With design thinking, you’ll be prompted to look at each problem from multiple angles (including your current KPIs and business goals) before settling on a well-defined problem statement.
  3. Ideate. In this phase, structured ideation activities form a creativity hothouse that allows your team to brainstorm out-of-the-box solutions.
  4. Prototype. Once you’ve identified a promising solution, you’ll flesh out your ideas in a prototype.
  5. Test. Finally, you’ll test the efficacy of your solution by validating what works and pinpointing issues.

At a high level, each of these stages is pretty self-explanatory. But there’s a lot you’ll need to do and keep in mind to make the most of the design thinking process. To that end, let’s take a closer look at each stage.

Step 1: Empathize

When solving your organization’s problems, it’s tempting to focus on the business goals and KPIs that typically act as your north stars. Of course, those things are critically important. But unless you also keep your end-users squarely in mind, you risk veering off course.

It’s simple: Whether you are launching a new digital product or tool, or updating a legacy system, you need to know who your key users are — and what they need from you — in order to zero in on the right solution.

From the very first step, design thinking helps you do just that.

During this first phase, your only goal is to develop a deeper understanding of — and empathy for — your users. Depending on the project, your users may be your customers or, in the case of operational initiatives, key internal stakeholders. Either way, research is the key to learning more about your target audience’s needs, as well as their experiences, motivations, and emotional states.

At UpTop, we use the following research activities to unveil your users’ mental models and build empathy:

  • User interviews. The best way to get to know your customers? Talk to them, of course! Using a series of carefully crafted open-ended questions, we learn about your users’ goals, challenges, and mental models.
  • Observational user research. Talking to users is critical, but they may not always tell you everything you need to know. With observational user research, we fill that gap by watching as users interact with your (or a competitor’s) digital experience.
  • User personas. Another way we build empathy? Crafting personas that take users from a faceless collection of demographics to “real” people, complete with challenges, desires, and defined personalities.
  • Customer journey maps. Customer journey maps document each of the many touchpoints your users interact with as they complete a task, utilize services, or navigate your digital experience.

Step 2: Define

After developing a deeper understanding of your users and the problem space through research, it’s time to synthesize your findings and clearly define the problem you’ll work together to solve.

When you take the time to identify and frame the problem — and connect that problem to business goals and KPIs — you ensure you don’t miss opportunities. Just as importantly, you prevent your team from wasting time and resources creating something your users don’t want or that doesn’t align with your business strategy.

So how do we go about defining your problem the right way?

To start, we’ll gather all your key stakeholders and review the insights generated by our research. Remember, different members of your organization will view the problems you uncover from different perspectives — and that’s a good thing! Our goal at this point is to review the data and synthesize your divergent viewpoints to align on a common perspective.

As a rule, we’ll focus first on the areas with the potential to yield the largest possible impact. That could be a common pain point among users, a moment of friction causing a high emotional response, or an opportunity for innovation.

To achieve this, you’ll document potential opportunities to solve as a group in the form of “How Might We” questions. For example, if an opportunity involves a less-than-ideal onboarding interface for your member portal, you’d ask, “How might we guide users through the onboarding process?” By translating your problem into an open-ended question, you give your team permission to envision any number of possibilities.

After deciding as a group which opportunity aligns best to your long-term vision, this will act as your central source of truth as you move into the ideation phase.

Step 3: Ideate

Whereas the define phase was all about focusing your thinking, ideation is the time to “flare.” During this phase, our goal is to consider as many potential solutions as possible before honing in on a particular direction.

With design thinking, ideation is a methodical process. That may sound restricting, but in practice the opposite is true. Structured ideation activities give your team a framework to think as creatively as possible and “color outside the lines” in pursuit of the best possible solutions.

Specific ideation activities might include:

  • Crazy 8’s. Stuck in a rut? Give each member of your team eight minutes to generate eight solutions.
  • Sketching. Rather than writing down ideas, ask your team to sketch out possible solutions. Whether the result is a rough wireframe or a series of stick figures, taking a visual approach can drive creativity.
  • Remix ideas. In this exercise, you take your most promising ideas and challenge your team to consider new ways of accomplishing the same goal.
  • Mashup/concept monster. Mashup/concept monster is similar to remixing, but in this instance you’ll apply successful solutions from an unrelated industry, platform, or digital experience to your problem.
  • Affinity mapping and dot voting. Once you’ve got a number of possible solutions on the board, you can use affinity mapping to organize them into like groups. As you do, larger themes (and solutions) will start to emerge. With dot voting, team members can vote anonymously for the solutions they like best.

Using these and other exercises, we’ll generate a wealth of new ideas — and identify the ones we want to put to the test first. In order to proceed, a solution must meet three criteria: It must be desirable to your users, feasible in terms of your ability to execute it, and viable in terms of how it maps to your business goals and KPIs.

Step 4: Prototype

Design thinking gives you permission to innovate freely because you don’t jump right into development mode the moment you identify a possible solution. Instead, we’ll quickly validate your ideas before investing in them.

To do that, we’ll start by building a quick prototype of your proposed solution, which we’ll then share with a panel of test users. At this point, we’re not looking to design and build a high-fidelity version of your solution. Rather, we’ll build just enough detail to translate your solution into an interactive experience, complete with contextual framing and linkable screen flows.

The prototype is a critical part of the process for internal stakeholders and users alike. It quickly crystallizes your team’s vision and gives everyone something to respond to and iterate on. But when it comes to the benefits of prototyping, that’s not all. In general, prototyping earns you:

  • A better understanding of proposed solutions
  • Faster internal buy-in
  • More timely and accurate feedback
  • A clear roadmap for developers to follow
  • Reduced project costs
  • A quicker path to failure and learning

Step 5: Test

Once your prototype is done, it’s time to validate your solution with usability testing.

Usability testing allows us to vet your prototype with the audience that matters most: your target users. Doing so gives us a plethora of useful insights. We’ll identify problems or pain points with our designs, discover ways to make them better, and learn more about your users’ natural behaviors and preferences in the process.

There are two main approaches to user testing. These include:

  • Traditional user testing
  • Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation (R.I.T.E. testing)

With traditional user testing, we conduct a round of identical usability tests with a cohort of users. Once the tests are complete, we aggregate and integrate your participants’ feedback and, if necessary, schedule a second round of testing.

As the name implies, R.I.T.E. testing takes a faster, more iterative approach. With R.I.T.E. testing, we line up a panel of users, same as with traditional user testing. But rather than waiting until everyone has interacted with your prototype before implementing changes, we incorporate certain insights from each individual participant before moving on to the next one. This approach allows us to quickly correct low-hanging fruit or obvious issues, and retest each new iteration with the next person.

Whichever method we use, testing before we build will save your organization time and money in the long run. In addition, having data on the effectiveness of our design can be a powerful tool when trying to get sign-off or budget approval you need from internal stakeholders.

Putting it all Together: Get Ready to Leverage Design Thinking at Your Organization

We’ve already established that design thinking is a lean, effective way to tackle complex issues while remaining focused on your users and their needs. But that’s not all. Design thinking also solves many of the deep-rooted problems that so often plague large digital initiatives.

By embracing design thinking, you will:

  • Get to know your customers
  • Holistically evaluate complex problems
  • “Flare and focus” to quickly zero in on innovative solutions that meet your users where they are
  • Rally disparate teams around a common cause
  • Pre-vet solutions
  • Gain the buy-in you need to get your project off the ground
  • Lay the foundation for a smooth development process
  • Save time and money

Adopting design thinking on your own can be difficult. It likely represents a significant shift in the way your organization currently operates. Want to learn more about how UpTop can help your team implement design thinking and smoothly launch your next digital initiative? Let’s talk.