Getting to grips with Stanford’s Design Thinking

Over the past summer I did an online course with Stanford University which was all about “Design Thinking”. Design Thinking is a fairly new approach, established at Stanford’s Institute of Design, and is all about improving design experiences through a collaborative and iterative approach. The key promise which underpins Design Thinking is its usage to tackle really complex problems, going beyond designing the mere functionality of a product.

These are the 5 stages / elements which form the Design Thinking theory (see also Fig. 1 below):

  1. Empathise – As the word suggests, “empathising” is all about understanding the needs of the people that you design a product or service for. IDEO executive Tim Brown is a big advocate of the idea of truly stepping into a user’s shoes, really immersing yourself into your user’s needs. A great example in this respect comes from Brown’s book Change By Design which describes an IDEO employee who wanted to improve the experience of ER patients. The employee subsequently became an emergency room patient himself in order to experience things first hand. During the online design course I learned about observing users in real life, actively engaging with them and ‘leaving the building’. For example, I spent an afternoon in a local Tesco supermarket just to observe people buying their groceries, looking at whether they were browsing, trying to spot if people were distracted at all, etc. The so-called Empathy Map is a great way to visually represent the stakeholder, his/her views or thoughts and actual behaviours (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Define – The main idea behind the “define” stage is to frame problems as opportunities for creative solutions. The focus throughout the design course was very much on creating a comprehensive problem statement outlining the key problem(s) to address (see Fig. 3 below). This stage is all about concentrating on the ‘right’ problem to solve and constantly asking the ‘why’ of a specific problem or need. One thing I realised is that it can be very tempting to already include a potential solution in your problem statement, but the trick is to refrain from that and to restrict oneself to the user problem instead.
  3. Ideate – Once you’ve formulated a problem statement, then it’s time to think of solutions. The purpose of the “ideate” stage is to generate as many potential solutions as possible, without worrying too much about feasibility. Once you’ve got a good number of solutions on paper, you can then start refining this list by taking into account relevant constraints, potential commercial or user benefits, business goals, etc. A way to filter ideas is by starting off with the ‘ideal scenario’ (i.e. no constraints of any kind) and then start working backwards to determine those solutions that are actually – commercially or technically – viable.
  4. Prototype – At Stanford’s Design School they talk a lot about “Prototype to Test”; building low fidelity prototypes to test your solutions as well as to test your understanding of the problem with actual users. It was good to be reminded of the importance of testing prototypes, doing it quickly and in low fidelity. In my view, getting user reactions on your prototypes quickly is what matters most – not to deliver picture perfect or super detailed prototypes (see also the suggestions by Stanford Design School in Fig. 4 below).
  5. Test – The “testing” stage is all about learning what works and what doesn’t in order to improve solutions. One can establish whether something ‘works’ by looking at three criteria: (1) somebody wants it, (2) we can create and deliver it, and (3) doing so has the potential to produce the outcomes that we want as a business. Based on the outcomes of testing, you can revisit some of your solutions or decide on a single prototype to develop further.

Main learning point: individually, the different stages that form “Design Thinking” aren’t that revolutionary in my opinion. Things like ideating and prototyping are already well ingrained into most design and development practices. However, Design Thinking as a whole provides a great framework for innovation and for working through creative ideas. If I had to highlight one aspect which I found most valuable in the design course, I’d choose the “define” stage. Particularly from a product manager perspective, I learned more about the value of spending a good amount of time defining and validating problems, which I believe is crucial if you want to generate insights and build the ‘right’ product to meet user and business needs.

Fig. 1 – The 5 stages that form Design Thinking (as developed by Stanford Design School)


Fig. 2 – Template of the Empathy Map (as developed by Xplane)

Empathy Map2.

Fig. 3 – Outline for formulating a problem statement

Standard formula:

Stakeholder (describe person using empathetic language) NEEDS A WAY TO Need (needs are verbs) BECAUSE Insight (describe what you’ve learned about the stakeholder and his need)

A simple example:

Richard,who loves to eat biscuits wants to find a way to eat at 5 biscuits a day without gaining weight as he’s currently struggling to keep his weight under control.

Fig. 4 – Some suggestions for “Prototyping to Test” by Stanford Design School

  • Start building – Even if you aren’t sure what you’re doing, the act of picking up some materials (paper, tape, and found objects are a good way to start!) will be enough to get you going.
  • Don’t spend too long on one prototype – Move on before you find yourself getting too emotionally attached to any one prototype.
  • Build with the user in mind – What do you hope to test with the user? What sorts of behavior do you expect? Answering these questions will help focus your prototyping and help you receive meaningful feedback in the testing phase.
  • ID a variable – Identify what’s being tested with each prototype. A prototype should answer a particular question when tested.

Related links for further learning:


8 responses to “Getting to grips with Stanford’s Design Thinking”

  1. […] Why? – The centre of an Impact Map should answer the most important question: “Why are we doing this?” This is all about the business goal or vision which a company is trying to achieve. Gojko stresses that goals shouldn’t be about solutions or the scope of the product that you’re looking to build. Instead, the goal should be the problem that you’re looking to solve (see also my earlier blog post about design thinking and creating problem statements). […]

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