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Last updated on 6/30/20

Innovate with Design Thinking

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Design thinking is about understanding, exploring, and bringing ideas to life. It's a human-centric approach that can be used for products — both physical and digital — as well as for services and experiences. This process is not limited to designers. In fact, design thinking workshops are a fantastic way to involve all kinds of people who may bring insights to a project. Sometimes the most unlikely participants will spark great innovations or make you think differently about a problem!

Depending on your needs and time constraints, workshops may be as long as one day or even a week. They should be interactive and collaborative to get teams working together towards a common goal.

Let's break down the design thinking process

Design thinking as a process can be broken down into understanding, exploring, and bringing ideas to life. There are different models for design thinking, but they all contain similar steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

5 phases of design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test
The 5 phases of design thinking

In the EMPATHIZE phase, you're learning as much as you can about your users. Depending on your area of study, this may mean observing them in their home or workplace and watching them use technology, conducting interviews, or participating in an activity through participant observation.

In the DEFINE phase, you're looking at the problem you want to explore, based on your research and understanding of the problem. This may be crafted through a "point of view" statement that provides context for a problem. Another way to think of the define phase is to consider how you can re-frame the problem or opportunity. You can ask a question that starts with, “How might we…?” which is open-ended and gets people thinking differently about a problem. 

In the IDEATION phase, you're creating TONS of ideas - even if they seem a bit out there. This is not the time to jump to solutions. Pick one concept to PROTOTYPE and imagine how your product or service might look using simple and affordable materials.

In the TESTING phase; you're getting feedback from users in order to help improve and iterate your prototype. Throughout the process, you'll revisit different phases as needed before you ultimately IMPLEMENT your creation.

Different approaches to design thinking

Stanford's d.School

Design thinking is a popular school of thought used by Stanford's d.School [d=design], IDEO (both the global design company, and the non-profit branch), and the Nielsen Norman Group

The phases of design thinking according to Stanford's d.school.
The phases of design thinking according to Stanford's d.school

You will find more resources from Stanford's d.school throughout this course. 


IDEO.org's approach to human-centered design is broken into three phases, inspiration, ideation, and implementation, using divergent and convergent thinking to arrive at solutions.

IDEO.org focuses on applying design thinking to social issues, such as improving the lives of those who live in poverty. They created the Design Kit , which can be downloaded for free, to give people the ability to help make a change.

Nielsen Norman Group

The two diagrams below from the Nielsen Norman Group demonstrate the fact that design thinking is not linear, but a process where different phases are revisited throughout the process.

Circular diagram of the design thinking process from the Nielsen Norman Group.
Design thinking is iterative
A linear diagram of the different phases of design thinking with arrows showing that you revisit different steps.
The phases of design thinking of revisited throughout the design process

The results from each step may get you thinking about something else you need to research or test. The goal is to create something that can be implemented and released into the world.


Google Ventures (GV) calls their workshops Sprints (and they have a book with the same title!). GV Sprints are framed as 5-day workshops with one day dedicated to mapping, sketching, deciding, prototyping, and testing.

Jake Knapp introduces a Sprint in 90-seconds. [1:37 min]  

The structure of these sprints is based on tools and techniques which have been prototyped and tested at Google Ventures. (They also use "How might we" questions.) The process is a variation on design thinking. You will see more of the GV videos throughout this course to provide additional and alternative tools that can be used in any future workshop you host. 

Remember, feel free to be inspired and adapt tools from different processes! There is no single approach to conducting a workshop.

Looking ahead

In part one of this course, you will see the various considerations for hosting a design thinking workshop along with additional resources. In part two, you will see a workshop in action and revisit the design steps and thinking process.

Let's recap!

  • Design thinking can be applied to digital and physical products, services, and experiences.

  • Design thinking should be collaborative and interactive to get participants thinking differently.

  • The design thinking process is typically broken down into the following phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement.

  • An essential component of the design thinking process is empathy building. It helps the designer better understand the customer or user.

  • "How might we...?" is an open-ended question that helps participants think differently about a problem.

  • Stanford's d.School, IDEO, the Nielsen Norman Group, and GoogleVentures each has its' own spin on the design thinking process.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement