Product Design
November 25, 2022

Design Thinking - Looking Past The Sticky Notes

When you think of design thinking, what comes to mind? You might imagine stock images of people in suits smiling and playing with sticky notes, a diagram with colorful, geometric shapes, or some exciting word you saw in your LinkedIn feed. 

However, design thinking is more than just sticky note organization and product planning. This article will explain the design thinking process and how it can help us generate innovative and user-focused solutions.

What is Design Thinking?

Tim Brown, the Executive Chair and Co-CEO of IDEO, gives us the following definition of design thinking:

"Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success."

If you search for design thinking, you’ll find many articles and talks about this subject. In short, it is an iterative and non-linear process that revolves around the user's interest, seeking to solve complex problems while offering a different way of thinking and practical methods to help grow innovation.

This process contains five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test, and each of these contains different types of tools for us to use. It focuses on achieving practical results and solutions that are:

  • Technically feasible: they can be developed into functional products or processes;
  • Economically viable: the business can afford to implement them;
  • Desirable for the user: they meet a fundamental human need.

Design thinking is an actionable approach that supports user-centricity, creativity, innovation, and out-of-the-box thinking.

Design Thinking in Action

We can apply design thinking in different contexts, not only in design and digital product development. If you have a specific problem, a dedicated workshop will take you through each step of the design thinking process, from building empathy and defining the problem to prototyping and testing ideas. Usually, design thinking workshops take a few days or a week to complete. 

But what does the design thinking process actually look like in action?

Aside from workshops, design thinking can also be an embedded process. Rather than going through the entire cycle, you can focus on just one element, such as getting to know your target audience or conducting user tests. In this sense, the design thinking process can be used to build a general culture that emphasizes putting the user first, collaborating to innovate, and testing early and often.

Design Thinking Process

Now to see this process in action, the design thinking framework can be broken down into five actionable steps which make up the process. In each phase, I’ll write down a few tools that I used in projects:


During this phase, you’ll engage with and observe your target audience to get a clear picture of who your end users are, their pain points, and their needs. The tools that help me empathize with users successively include:

  • Actor Mapping
  • The 5 Whys
  • Focus Groups
  • Observation
  • Mind Mapping
  • Interviews
The man conducting an interview with a woman on a laptop.
Credit: User Interviews by LinkedIn Sales Solutions


The next step involves defining a clear problem statement. This statement will guide you through the entire design process, providing a fixed goal to focus on and keeping the user—rather than the business goal—in mind at all times. This statement should be broad enough to allow for creativity yet specific enough to provide direction. This can be achieved using the following:

  • Affinity Diagrams
  • Empathy Maps
  • Insight Cards
  • Prioritization Matrices
  • Personas
  • Mind Mapping
Affinity map spread across a board.
Credit: Affinity Map by Jo Szczepanska


After defining the real problem, let's go wild with ideas and unleash your creative beast. At this stage, everything is possible, and you can build anything. The goal here is to generate as many ideas as possible. No constraints. No conventions. This can be achieved with:

  • Brainstorming & Brainwriting
  • Customer Journey Maps
  • Positioning Matrices
  • Idea Matrices
  • Scamper
  • Lateral Thinking
Brainstorming lightbulb on a sticky note.
Credit: Brainstorming by AbsolutVision


Now let's grab all the ideas created in the previous phase and start making them tangible. Why? To see if they will actually work. Depending on the problem and potential solution, the number of prototypes needed could vary wildly.

In this stage, we are adding fidelity without going 100% in. For example, if your product is an app, try sketching it out on paper or connecting wireframes to a clickable prototype in Figma.

The important part of this stage is to explore your ideas and make sure they feel right once they start taking shape. You can achieve this with the following:

  • Proofs of Concept
  • Wireframing
  • Staging Prototypes
  • Paper Prototypes
  • Storyboards
  • Role Playing
Wireframe sketch on a notepad.
Credit: Wireframes by Kelly Sikkema


The goal is to test your solutions before you invest in building them all the way. Testing could come in different forms: clickable prototypes, wireframes, in-person experiences, or fully-coded products.

Sometimes this phase leads to redefining your problem, and that’s ok. Testing will help you understand your users even better. You can achieve this with the following:

  • Shadowing
  • User/Usability Testing
  • Secret Shopper
  • Interviews
  • Analysis of the experience

Side Note: It's important to recognize that design thinking is not a step-by-step process but a way to achieve a deeper understanding of your users. They can occur in parallel and are often repeated. However, we typically conduct the empathize phase first.

Final Thoughts on Design Thinking

Design thinking is a great framework that can be applied to suitable projects. I use some of these tools in discovery workshops with clients. The idea behind design thinking is great; however, remember that it can’t be applied to all design projects.

It is not a rigid structure with steps to follow but a path you discover along the way with dead ends, setbacks, new experiences, and knowledge. You often wind up right back where you started several times before finding the right solution.

All of this is great. Think of this as a framework that allows you to repeat steps or move in whichever order you see fit. It can be flexible; adapt to it depending on your time, how many participants, etc.

Create a framework that works for you and helps you follow and obtain those main goals. It's all about generating great ideas, iterating, and improving for better-designed solutions for products and services.

Design Thinking Summary:

  • Revolves around a deep interest in understanding the people we design products and services for.
  • Helps us observe and develop empathy.
  • Enhances our ability to question: in design thinking, you question the problem, the assumptions, and the implications.
  • Assist us in tackling difficulties that are ill-defined or unknown.
  • Generate ongoing experiments through trial and error of new concepts and ideas.

Design Thinking Reading Resources:

  • This Is Service Design Doing – Amazon
  • Creative Confidence – Amazon
  • The Design of Business – Amazon
  • The Design of Everyday Things – Amazon
  • Sprint – Amazon
  • Building For Everyone – Amazon
  • Continuous Discovery Habits – Amazon
  • The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design – Amazon
  • Gamestorming – Amazon