What are the Five Stages of Design Thinking?

In a recent content piece, we explored the key principles of the Design Thinking discipline and shared exclusive insight from OPEX Week: Business Transformation World Summit 2020 speakers Monica Stitt, Former Director Strategy, Planning and Program Operations at Amway, and Rob Kenny, Senior Director Operational Excellence at Moderna, who revealed how Design Thinking has helped move their own transformation projects toward success.

The approach of choice for many of the world’s leading organizations including IBM, General Electric, Infosys and Lego, Design Thinking principles have been shown to contribute significantly to elevating the success rate for innovation. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, the design company that popularized the term Design Thinking, describes it as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

On the path to operational excellence and in pursuit of business transformation, Design Thinking offers a way for implementers of change to apply a systematic approach to handling problems and generating solutions, while encouraging ‘out of the box thinking’ that results in the creation of the right features for the right people. Here, we look at the five stages that make up the Design Thinking process to help you get started in introducing this discipline to your own organization.

The Design Thinking discipline seeks to reduce the ambiguity and risk present in innovation by relying on insight gained from real world experiments, rather than historical data or market research. It is a non-linear process and comprised of five stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

1. Empathize

The first stage of any Design Thinking project involves gaining an empathetic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve through use of user research. This user research should seek to identify the wants and needs of the end user in relation to a particular problem. The goal of this stage is for the team behind the improvement project to ‘become the user’, setting aside their own pre-existing assumptions about the problem in order to outline the unmet or unarticulated needs of those actually experiencing it.

2. Define

This is where the insights and observations made during the Empathize stage are gathered and analyzed to define the core problems at hand. Like the first, this stage is focused on developing an understanding that can create a clear picture. As they combine the information and insight gained, teams seek to frame the problem in a human-centered manner and create a defining ‘problem-statement’. From here the team moves into the third stage of Design Thinking, Ideate.

3. Ideate

This stage of the Design Thinking process is all about idea generation. Here, teams use the information gained during the previous stages to form logical ideas. The intention is to brainstorm as many ideas as possible, thinking “outside of the box” to identify possible solutions to the problem-statement that was defined in the previous stage. Adopting the mentality that ’there are no bad ideas’ from the outset of this stage enables teams to engage in free-thinking and expand the problem space. During the end of the ideation process, teams shortlist the best ideas for solving the problem.

4. Prototype

This stage is focused on experimentation and is an opportunity to learn by doing. Here, the team will produce numerous scaled-down versions of the subject of the improvement project or features found within it based on the shortlist defined during ideation. It is important to note that this stage is not about validating finished ideas, but about improving, re-examining or rejecting the ideas created in the previous stages on the basis of the users’ experiences.

5. Test

The fifth and final stage is an iterative process. Here, the team tests the prototypes created in the previous stage to see how well they address the problem identified during stages one and two. The results generated during this stage may be used to make alterations and refinements, and even redefine the problems or further inform the understanding of the users involved. The team may continue to work on this stage until they have the result they desire.