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What is Design Thinking?


Design Thinking helps to find ideas: teams repeat the work processes until the end result is optimally tailored to the needs of the customers.


  • What is design thinking?

  • Design Thinking explained step by step

  • Implementing the Design Thinking process in everyday life


The design thinking process is based on the workflow of designers. Behind this obvious fact lies an original approach: because the method is not just for designers, as one might assume. Rather, it is about their workflow, which can be transferred to almost all company levels.

The individual work steps are repeated in loops until the problem is solved. This is also called iterative. Exactly which problem is involved depends on the task area.

Design thinking is used in these areas of the company:

  • Innovation finding.

  • Project development and efficient product development.

  • Portfolio development.

  • Analyses.

  • Software development.

Characteristic of the Design Thinking process is the cooperation of multidisciplinary teams. A problem is looked at from different angles, thus original approaches to solutions emerge.

Finding these approaches quickly is becoming increasingly important: with advancing technology and the boom in e-commerce, consumer behaviour is changing. Agile working is needed to react flexibly to dynamic market demands. Design thinking is ideal for this purpose with its repetitive, flexible processing phases and different perspectives.


Tip: The process is always oriented towards what customers need. Therefore, the combination of Design Thinking methods with target groups is excellent for meeting the needs and requirements of customers.


The method was developed by David Kelley, founder and chairman of the Silicon Valley-based design agency IDEO. The scientists Larry Leifer and Terry Winograd developed the Design Thinking process further. This is how an innovation became a worldwide recipe for success.


The Design Thinking process consists of these phases:

1. Build empathy

For whom is the company developing a product or solution? This is what you find out in this phase, for example, by creating the aforementioned personas. Conduct surveys and customer interviews to get as multi-layered an impression of your customers as possible and to understand them.

2. Define vision

In this phase, the teams record in writing the needs of the people for whom a solution is to be developed. But not only needs play a role, challenges, problems and wishes should also be recorded. From the previously collected insights from phase 1, concrete issues that customers are concerned about can now be derived.

3. Generate ideas

This is where it gets really exciting: the task now is to find solutions for the identified and defined problems of the customers. What products or services should be developed to help? Use creative techniques such as brainstorming, brainwriting and brainwalking for this phase.

Brainstorming always requires several participants as well as a moderator, which is why the method is also very suitable if you are looking for a business idea as a team. The optimal group size is 6-12 people. However, even as an individual founder, other brainstorming participants can be found to assist. However, these participants should know the founder, his/her strengths and weaknesses and interests well.

In brainwriting, all the participants' thoughts are written down on a sheet of paper. These are then exchanged and the next participant also notes down his or her thoughts on the paper. The basic rules of brainstorming also apply to brainwriting.

Similar to brainwriting is brainwalking, in which the participants walk around the room. There are flipcharts scattered around the room on which the participants write down their thoughts.

Whichever creative technique you choose, maintain an idea management system to expand the pool of good ideas constantly. The goal is to answer the following question as accurately as possible with good ideas: What do our customers need?

4. Develop prototypes

The ideas collected now lead to simple, easy-to-test prototypes. They should be simple and easy to test because the team has to find out quickly and without wasting resources which ideas have potential and which do not. This is the classic separation of wheat from chaff. It is important to proceed leanly: a term coined by the entrepreneur Eric Ries with his lean start-up method.

The problem is obvious: developing each prototype to perfection costs a lot of time, money and manpower. Only for it to possibly turn out later that the prototype doesn't work. This can be done much more efficiently by developing a lean product like a rudimentary app with basic functions in order to move to the next phase as quickly as possible.

5. Test on the user

Once the prototype is developed, users should test it. But these are not just any users, but potential customers or existing customers who had their say in phase 1. Finally, people should test the prototype who will actually need it. This gives the team valuable feedback, which they can use to jump back to the appropriate phase.

For example, if there is a lot of feedback that the prototype does not solve the customer's problem, you should go back to phase 3 and start brainstorming again. Maybe the idea wasn't good enough or precise enough for the target group?

If feedback comes back that the testers already don't know what to do with the new offer, in theory, the root of the problem could be in phase 2: The customers' experience and expectation horizon may not have been defined precisely enough. Start here again and thus set the Design Thinking process in motion again.

These repetitions continue until good or very good feedback emerges from the tests. Then the final phase begins.

6. Build in the solution

The product or solution has been accepted by users - time for implementation: make the finalised app available in the app stores, offer the physical product for sale, upload the offer for your service on your website. Whatever it is, at the end of the successful Design Thinking process there should be the presentation of the final result. But how does a company implement Design Thinking in its daily operations?


Design thinking sounds quite logical in theory. But this practice is not so easy to implement. We show how to integrate design thinking into everyday life.

1. Pick up the employees

Don't just introduce the method overnight, it won't work. Employees will be much more motivated if you pick them up. Devote enough time to the process and explain to them why implementing Design Thinking into the daily work process makes sense.

Answer related questions and prepare for the meeting on this topic by presenting successful examples. The introduction of the method represents a significant upheaval of everyday work processes. This should not be underestimated. Pick up the staff, so the chances of acceptance of this upheaval are good.

2. Start small

It is a risky idea to use design thinking from the beginning for the most important project. Despite the repetitive feedback loops, agile working also needs to be learned. And that can only be achieved through practice. The team still has to get used to it and mistakes are very likely to happen. This makes it all the more important to try out design thinking in a smaller project. Ideally, this is an undertaking where time is not of the essence.

3. Conduct a Design Thinking workshop

Workshops are a great way to try out Design Thinking. Tackle a fictional problem and divide up the roles. One team puts itself in the customers' shoes and gives information. The other teams develop solutions, ideas and prototypes. Together, the feedback is implemented in loops.

For this, orientate yourself on workshop methods, for example, the "Lego Serious Play" method. The colourful bricks are not only suitable for children to play with. The method is used for strategy development in the workshop, among other things.

This is how the Lego Serious Play method works in a quick start:

  • Get a set of basic building blocks, true to the motto: Keep it simple.

  • Practise small warm-up exercises: build a small tower or house, for example.

  • Now define the goal: Where should the building activities go?

  • Appoint a facilitator.

  • Everyone builds on their own, without talking to their colleagues.

  • Don't think, just let the creativity flow through your hands.

  • Adapt the construction, remove parts, add new ones.

  • Combine, interpret and analyse the models under the guidance of the moderator.

With its playful creative nature, Lego Serious Play can be ideally used for the Design Thinking brainstorming process, because this way of brainstorming works on the thinking-with-your-hands principle, a motor combination that our brain likes.

4. Book a design thinking coach

The external coach offers a fresh outside view of the company structures and identifies processes that need improvement. In addition, the expert is familiar with the method and can quickly answer questions that arise.

Depending on the team's level of knowledge, it can therefore make sense and save time to book a coach instead of teaching yourself the method step by step. When choosing a coach, look for appropriate certificates and meaningful references, as this is a demanding and complex topic.

5. Let yourself be inspired by examples

What does design thinking look like in practice? For example, the way engineer Jeff Chapin implemented it in Cambodia: In a village region, there was a lack of latrines and hand-washing facilities. Together with his team and in close communication with the inhabitants, Chapin developed appropriate systems tailored to the physical and cultural needs.


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