June 28, 2023 Read 7 Min

UX Design Process: Design Thinking Approach

Design thinking is a widely accepted process that empowers designers to craft impactful solutions reflecting users’ desires and challenges. It helps add the humane aspect to a digital product. So, if you’re looking to understand the design thinking process within UX design in great detail, we have the answers for you here.

In a digitalized world, many businesses face the challenge of standing out. With more brand-specific apps and websites developed and offered to the masses, the ultimate factor of becoming transcendent is the overall user experience (UX)

A world-class UX design should be a core focus of a digital product because it can foster customer loyalty, encourage conversions, and lead to brand success. Hence, understanding the crux of a UX design process is essential. 

In this article, we’ll descend ourselves into the realm of design thinking. Get a glimpse into its role in UX design and how our designers adopt it in their process.

Design Thinking In UX

Design thinking was first introduced as a philosophy and methodology focusing on a human-centric approach to problem-solving. It encourages an iterative and dynamic process of empathizing with users, problem-defining, ideation, prototyping, and testing. 

Design thinking brings an abode of advantages. Not only is the methodology best for thinking outside the box. It also enables designers to conduct a complete view of designing and encourages collaboration, which invites creativity and innovation. 

Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer constructed design thinking with four rules in mind:

  • The Human Rule – Regardless of the context, all design activity is naturally social. Embracing a “human-centric perspective” is crucial when pursuing social innovations.
  • The Ambiguity Rule – Recognizing uncertainty pushes the boundaries of acquiring new knowledge that deviates from the norm.
  • The Redesign Rule – We must understand that design is always about redesigning. Despite technological and social changes, fundamental human needs remain perpetual. Therefore, the focus lies on redesigning the means of satisfying these needs.
  • The Tangibility Rule – Converting workable ideas into palpable prototypes allows designers to communicate their concepts efficiently. It makes the ideas more accessible and understandable.

5 Stages of Design Thinking

The design thinking process comprises five distinct stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. These stages are meant as guidelines for designers to work flexibly in an iterative, not rigid, manner.

They should be perceived as different instruments used multiple times simultaneously, contributing to the overall design project. Information sourced from the latter stages of the process can lead to repeats of earlier stages. Thus, encouraging that iterative environment and creating truly impactful and user-centric solutions.

Stage 1: Empathize

The first stage focuses on researching the intended users’ needs and gaining insights from an emphatic perspective. Empathy is a significant contributor to a human-centered design process. It enables designers to ignore their assumptions about the world. Ultimately, placing the users’ needs at the forefront of their thinking. 

To best understand users’ experiences and motivations, researchers suggest various methods for accurate insights, including:

  • Shadowing – This process involves closely following and observing users to understand their daily experiences comprehensively. By shadowing them, designers can get their users’ direct “day-in-the-life” experiences.
  • Interviews – Unstructured or semi-structured interviews enable designers to uncover users’ perspectives, drives, and pain points.
  • Surveys –  Well-crafted questionnaires collect quantitative data from a broad user sample, providing designers broader insights into preferences, habits, and satisfaction.
  • Expert consultation – Approaching experts in the area of concern might be the best substitute if designers cannot approach users personally. Experts can provide valuable insights into a particular discipline.  
  • Video Ethnography – With this approach, designers observe recordings of users in their natural environments while using the product. Video footage gives designers a visual and contextual understanding of users’ behaviors, preferences, and interactions.
  • Empathy maps – This method significantly benefits user research and knowledge-sharing across teams by requiring designers to map out the user in four sections: Speech, Thinking, Actions, and Emotions.

By employing these research methods in the Empathy stage, designers can comprehensively understand users’ needs, motivations, and challenges. When empathizing, ask questions like “What are the users’ pain points?”, “What are their goals and motivations?”, and “How can we address their needs effectively?”.

The Empathy stage establishes the foundation for the rest of the design thinking process. It ensures a deep understanding of the users and their real-world to guide the subsequent steps.

Stage 2: Define

Once the insights have been accumulated, the Define stage comes into play. In this phase, designers distill the research findings to define the problem statement through analyzing and synthesizing. By reframing the problem, designers can ensure they tackle the right challenges and align their efforts with user needs. 

In this stage, designers aim to gather valuable ideas to address the issues at hand. Some best practices that you might want to consider adopting while forming the problem statement include:

  • Create human personas – Human personas are fictional characters encompassing the intended users’ characteristics, behaviors, and motivations. Through this personification, designers can empathize with users and develop a statement that accurately describes the problem.
  • Human-centered manner – Problem statements should reflect your users’ needs and preferences, not the company’s. It is advisable to incorporate accounts representing the users instead of product or company-specific statements.
  • Maintain a broad scope – An effective problem statement should allow for innovation and creative exploration. Keeping the message sufficiently broad is vital to encourage diverse ideas; avoid mentioning specific solutions or technical requirements. 

By conducting the Define stage, designers gain a clear understanding of the problems, laying the foundation for creative ideas.A well-conducted Define stage opens the path to the following steps in the process with a clear direction to the solutions.

Stage 3: Ideate

Ideation is the phase where designers use a divergent perspective of creativity and free thinking. The goal is to select a promising idea that directly solves the problem or provides essential elements to overcome it. During ideation, designers can employ many techniques, but some of the widely utilized methods are:

  • Brainstorming – This well-known technique involves generating many ideas freely without judgement or evaluation. Designers in a brainstorming session contribute ideas while expanding each other’s suggestions. 
  • Mind Mapping – A visual technique that generates and organizes ideas, designers actively dissect the problem statement and branch out into related subtopics and associated concepts. Mind mapping pushes designers to visualize the ideation process and facilitates the exploration of various avenues. 
  • SCAMPER – This technique, dubbed: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse, allows designers to explore different aspects of a problem or solution by prompting specific 5 Ws, 1 H questions related to each element. 
  • Worst Possible Idea – This technique constitutes purposely suggesting and evaluating the worst possible ideas tied to the problem statement. By embracing radical ideas, designers can challenge assumptions, break conventional thinking patterns, and recurrently lead to groundbreaking innovations.

Although these techniques are not executed sequentially, it’s typically suggested for the brainstorming and worst possible idea techniques to be used at the beginning of a design thinking process.

Whereas other methods are encouraged near the end of the process, mainly to help investigate and test the ideas. The significance of originality lies in its ability to push the boundaries of conventional thinking and to finalize the ideas that will be materialized in the prototype stage.

Stage 4: Prototype

With the primary objective of identifying the most effective solution for each problem described in the preceding phases, the prototyping phase involves the creation of solutions. These solutions serve as a channel to communicate and validate concepts with stakeholders and users.

To accomplish this, designers would produce inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product, allowing them to carefully evaluate the ideas generated and tackle the flaws presented earlier. Prototypes can materialize in generally two distinct categories — low and high-fidelity prototyping:

  • Low-Fidelity Prototyping – A quick and straightforward representation of a design concept, low-fidelity prototyping uses limited resources and effort to produce a working model.

    This prototyping category focuses on relaying a design’s core functionality and structure of a design minus the detailed visuals or interactive elements. Some examples of low-fidelity prototyping include paper prototyping, wireframes, mockups, ‘Wizard of Oz’ prototypes, and digital prototyping tools. 
  • High-Fidelity Prototyping – The closest model to the final product, high-fidelity prototyping goes into the details of a design concept that low-fidelity prototypes don’t.

    Typically require more resources and effort; these prototypes aim to emulate the visual design, interactions, and functionality of the actual user interface. Examples of high-fidelity prototypes entail digital prototypes using specialized software, code-based prototype, and 3D models, to name a few.

Whatever the method might be, the Prototype stage serves as a critical bridge between ideation and implementation. It provides a better understanding of the product’s limitations and challenges it may face. It also allows designers to acquire a precise perspective of user behavior and penchant, resulting in the refining and iterating processes before the execution of the testing phase.

Stage 5: Test

The test phase involves evaluating, testing, and refining the prototypes fashioned in the previous stages to ensure they meet the desired goals. This phase aims to accumulate feedback, acknowledge assumptions, and make appropriate improvements before finalizing the design for implementation. 

In this phase, designers will engage with users and stakeholders to collect their insights and responses to the prototypes and reflect on the feedback from the previous stages of the design process. Designers employ various methods in the testing phase, such as usability testing, user interviews, surveys, and A/B testing.

However, the focus shouldn’t solely be on the methods; instead, it should focus on the effectiveness of it. Here are some best practices to consider when conducting a test to ensure the most precise feedback:

  • Show the prototype – Provide a brief introduction to the product, the duration of the session, and what is expected of them but avoid introducing yourself as the designer. Refrain from over-explaining how your prototype works and allow your users to experience them firsthand. All you need to do is observe and take notes. 
  • Encourage active participation – Allow participants to verbalize their thoughts by providing prompts and reminding them to express their ideas and expectations out loud. 
  • Adopt the observer role – Resist the urge to interrupt or correct participants if they misunderstand some design aspects. The prototype should be the focus, not the participant. 
  • Pose follow-up questions – Whether it is clarification or inquiring about their emotions, follow-up questions should be relayed even if you have a working assumption of the participant’s meaning.

At the end of a testing stage, designers should direct the information they gathered back to the preliminary steps for reiteration. It should act as a means to identify areas of improvement, refine the problem statement, discover any unforeseen issues, and make data-driven decisions to optimize the design.

The test phase ensures that designers align the final product or solution with user needs and effectively address the identified problem.

Design Thinking Process In Action

Suppose you’re looking for a guide to start your design thinking process; the simplified framework below – courtesy of our UX designer – might be able to inspire your strategy.

However, it’s essential to highlight that designers don’t always conduct these steps in this particular order. How the process is crafted is often based on a plethora of factors tied to the project’s scope, but hopefully, this can give you a working idea:

  1. Empathize – Conduct user research and business needs
  2. Define – Define the problem and requirements for the project
  3. Ideate – Competitor analysis to gauge what is in the market
  4. Prototype – Wireframing and further prototyping
  5. Test – Presenting and reviewing the design with stakeholders
  6. Iterate – Review the feedback, user insights, and repeat the whole process wherever necessary.

Let’s Recap!

If you’re here to get a step-by-step framework for UX design, then we’re sorry to disappoint because the truth of the matter is — a UX design process is not a linear and fixed system with sequential steps that designers have to follow in a particular order. Rather, it is a human-centric philosophy wrapped in a repetitive loop that one embraces to produce a solution, i.e., design thinking. 

So, whether you’re a UX designer, a product manager, or an entrepreneur, we encourage you to incorporate design thinking into your creative process. Learn to embrace empathy, iterate through experimentation, and collaborate with differing perspectives to uncover revolutionary innovations.

Otherwise, if it’s too overwhelming – we are prepared to assist you. Our UX designers, equipped with design thinking knowledge, are ready at your request to materialize your dream digital product. Leave us a message, and we’ll contact you soon!