June 28, 2023 Read 8 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 world where digitalization is becoming a quintessential part of a business, it is now a challenge for many organizations to stand out in the digital landscape. 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 one of the core focuses of a digital product primarily because it has proven potential to cultivate customer loyalty, encourage conversions, and eventually lead the brand to success. Hence, understanding the crux of a UX design process is essential. 

In this article, we’ll submerge ourselves into the realm of design thinking, its role in the UX design process and get a glimpse into how Snappymob’s designers implement it.

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, but it also enables designers to take a holistic view of designing and encourages collaboration, which invites creativity and innovation. 

According to Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer, design thinking is constructed with four rules in mind:

  • The Human Rule – Regardless of the context, all design activity is inherently social, in which embracing a “human-centric perspective” is crucial when pursuing social innovations.
  • The Ambiguity Rule – Recognizing the inevitability of uncertainty will push the boundaries of acquiring new knowledge and abilities that deviate 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, making them 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 to be a guideline for designers to work flexibly and not in rigid, sequential steps because, again — design thinking is iterative. 

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 and place the users’ needs at the forefront of their thinking. 

With the primary goal of achieving the best possible understanding of users’ experiences and motivations, various research methods are suggested to attain the most 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 – Through well-crafted questionnaires, designers can collect quantitative data from a more extensive user sample and gain a broader point of view on users’ preferences, habits, and satisfaction levels. 
  • 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, recordings of users in their natural environments are observed. Video footage gives designers a visual and contextual understanding of users’ behaviors, preferences, and interactions.
  • Empathy maps – A tool that significantly benefits user research and knowledge-sharing across teams, this method requires designers to map out and consider 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, it is essential to ask questions such as “What are the users’ pain points?”, “What are their goals and motivations?” and “How can we address their needs effectively?”. 

The Empathy stage sets the foundation for the rest of the design thinking process, ensuring that the subsequent steps are guided by a deep understanding of the users and their real-world needs.

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. 

The goal of this stage is for designers to gather valuable ideas to establish features, functions, and other elements to solve 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 to be solved, laying the foundation for generating 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 evaluate and select a promising idea that either directly solves the problem or provides essential elements to overcome the problem. 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, enabling 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 is carried out to provide 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. Various methods and techniques can be employed 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, the information gathered should be directed 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 the final product or solution is well-aligned with user needs and effectively addresses 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 is essential to highlight that these steps aren’t always conducted 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!