What Are the 5 Stages of Design Thinking?

Learn more about the design thinking framework and how UI/UX designers use design thinking to tackle important user problems.

Design thinking is a popular methodology that inspires a human-centered approach to design. It is used by many design teams at some of the world’s most successful tech companies. The design thinking process is broken up into five specific design thinking stages: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

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design thinking stages

What Is the Design Thinking Process and Why Is It Necessary?

The design thinking framework helps inspire creative thinking and strategies that lead designers to create user-friendly products that help solve a particular problem.

It’s important to note that the design thinking phases are not necessarily on a single, defined linear path. Different stages might spark new ideas or showcase new findings in the user journey that will inspire new iterations of phases that had already been completed.

When using the five stages of the design thinking methodology, creators will constantly examine new and untested angles. Read on to find out how.

Design Thinking Stage 1: Empathy

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At this stage in the design thinking methodology, designers sit down with real people and absorb their points of view, world, and introspections without bias.

Without attempting to master empathy, designers face an uphill climb when solving human-centric problems. When designing a product or service, empathy in design thinking builds a crucial and necessary bridge between the target user or audience and the product, project, or service being designed.

Some steps that are often taken during this stage of the design thinking methodology are:

  • Consulting subject matter experts about their insights
  • Engaging more personally with an issue to gain a better understanding of a user’s POV
  • Having in-depth conversations about the topic with other designers
  • Immersing oneself in a physical environment

The empathy stage is a crucial moment in the design thinking journey, as it helps to uncover the motivations and experiences of an audience that will ultimately be engaging with a designer’s product. Without the empathy stage, truly solving a user problem is nearly impossible.

Design Thinking Stage 2: Define

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This stage of the process involves designers succinctly articulating the challenge or problem they need to solve with their design. After empathizing, a designer integrates their researched understanding into the human-centric issue at hand and outlines the problem statement.

In this stage, designers will analyze their observations completed throughout the empathy stage, and work on synthesizing that information. Forming a problem statement that is succinct is an important part of this phase that ensures a human-centered approach by focusing on the end-user. So, instead of focusing on what the company might need to do, the definition stage of the design thinking process should help state what the user needs as a way of defining the problem.

For example:

  • Company-centered thinking: "We need to increase our educational software sales by X%."
  • Human-centered thinking: "Students need great technology in order to successfully master tech concepts."

Design Thinking Stage 3: Ideate

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The ideation stage leans heavily on the ability to invent. Designers who have captured the human experience fully during the empathy stage set out to ideate around creative solutions for solving the defined problem. Thinking outside the box is the name of the game, as, during this stage, designers often don’t worry about budget or scalability.

At this point, designers should have a workable understanding of their user base, so this is an excellent time to get creative and not dwell too much on limitations. An example of a popular technique in the ideation phase is an exercise called "worst possible idea." By inverting the search for a solution into a brainstorm of what would not work, this process sets the design team up for success by helping build up trust and confidence. Since no idea can technically be "wrong" in this process, designers build up good practices of sharing their thoughts with confidence.

In this stage, the more ideas a team can put together, the more opportunity is created to investigate and test to see if they work to solve the user’s problem.

Design Thinking Stage 4: Prototype

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Without testing a newfound ideated idea, designers would have a tough time actually solving the problem comprehensively. At this stage, the prototype of an idea is required—but the ramifications are still flexible. Prototypes can be sketches, models, or digital renders of an idea. (Professional designers and design firms usually put budget towards prototyping something more comprehensive.)

Prototyping will usually involve the creation of small-scale, inexpensive versions of the product. These can include specific features in order to target individual problem-solution scenarios, and set the stage for decision-making conversations around what works and what doesn’t.

In the prototype stage, the goal is to fully understand all ramifications or roadblocks around making the product come to life completely. Ideally, prototyping should also uncover additional user experience problems and set up designers with a clearer view of user behaviors, reactions, and expectations.

Design Thinking Stage 5: Test

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The testing stage of the design thinking process requires real users to generate real data. However, the final stage of design thinking is not necessarily the last thing designers will do. Remember, design thinking is built upon a foundation of iteration, so many designers roll out multiple prototypes to test different change factors within their idea. Without a comprehensive testing stage, user experiences and solutions have difficulty scaling.

Testing is often an iterative process. Designers can expect to go through a series of changes, edits, and refinements during the testing stage. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for the testing phase to “restart” some other design thinking processes such as ideation or testing, as newfound ideas might spark additional potential solutions that require an entirely fresh approach.

What Is a Design Sprint?

Design sprints allow teams to zero in on critical business goals by utilizing a compressed version of all five stages to design, prototype, and test efficiently. During a sprint, designers cover the entire five stages of the design thinking process within a week. This works because sprints don’t necessitate full feature-building or a product launch. Sprints are a good opportunity to shortcut some of the rabbit holes that happen as a result of iteration: instead of waiting for a final product launch to begin testing, designers can get clear-cut data from a prototype.

It’s important to maintain structure throughout the spring to stay organized and efficient, so a detailed day-by-day plan of specific deliverables is crucial to outline before diving in. These deliverables should include a path for the spring week, a target to solve for, sketching and critical evaluation, choosing testable prototypes, storyboarding, and finally, customer interviews and reactions.

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