What Is Design Thinking?

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Krithika is a curious marketer and brand evangelist who works at Mobius Knowledge Services. She loves to explore the reason for the human condition. Outside of … More about Krithika ↬

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Have you ever wondered if things could have been done differently? But not sure how? Well, then, do not fall in love with the solution, but fall in love with the problem! Here’s an article to dive deep into how design thinking could do just that.

In a world of fast-paced action and reactions, quality results are something that we all aim for. But how can you make something better? Whether it is a product, a service, or perhaps a process, we aim to make things better. It leaves us to wonder how we are going to design a world that is long and equitable to attain a degree of excellence.

When we are talking about making “things better,” we cannot deny the role of the Kanban system in implementing TQM (Total Quality Management) for Toyota. If TQM did that for manufacturing, design thinking has the potential to bring human-centric solutions for innovations.

Design thinking takes the human-centric approach in order to understand how to deal with the problem before we jump into all possible solutions. We could see its use in various places. The buzz is everywhere, from the social sector to policy making, health care to business. So what is design thinking?

The Meaning Of Design Thinking

Design thinking fosters tackling complex problems in a creative way that prioritizes human needs with a huge emphasis on finding creative solutions with what is technically feasible.

Though it’d be hard to put the definition of “design thinking” in a few words, I’d rather look at design thinking as a philosophy or a mindset to solve complex problems that are too tough to be solved with the conventional and standard practices of problem-solving. Design thinking takes the route to give solutions that are: feasible, viable, and desirable.

Generally, solutions to problems are sometimes overlooked with the conventional approach to solving them, while some approaches are highly rational and analytical while others are emotional. Design thinking might just be the third way that augments the rational, emotional, and functional needs of human problems. Design thinking is not restricted to only building products; any new initiatives that foster innovations can leverage the design thinking principles of problem-solving.

The Origin

While there are no solid indications of the origin of design thinking, design thinking as a mindset could be traced back to John E. Arnold, a professor of Mechanical engineering who pioneered the study of “Creative Engineering” at Stanford University. He was one of the first few people to write about design thinking and considered the seed for design thinking as a movement. His lectures motivate being more imaginative and innovative. His theory of problem-solving focuses on human needs by relating personal, scientific, and practical aspects of the problem.

He emphasizes the importance of approaching the problem like an artist and having humans as the cornerstone for the solutions you want to build. “Creative problems” do not have one right answer.

“The engineer can take on some aspects of the artist and try to improve or increase the salability of a product or machine by beautifying or bettering its appearance, or by having a keener sensitivity for the market and for the kinds of things people want or don’t want.”

— John E. Arnold

The Design Thinking Process

In an effort to contextualize and apply design thinking, it is often identified with a process that guides the values to hold sway on how you approach the problem. This process may not necessarily be linear or sequential but rather a loop that makes sense for the particular problem or use-case one undertakes.

Visualization of the design thinking process, which includes ideate, define, empathize, test, prototype
Design thinking process. (Large preview)


Designing for humans could be tricky. Sometimes the needs or desires are left uncovered and may not be fully reflective of the real problem. While traditional market research processes go by facts, design thinking approaches to address the problem through empathy. Empathy attempts to understand latent needs and translate the current realities of the environment. This helps solution designers understand the people, their behavior, and the context that can explain the problem to build better solutions.

So, the first step to getting inspired by the problem is to understand the people you design for and what motivates them to search for a solution. This is especially very useful for businesses to understand the opportunity space available. Just the way Apple did. While MP3 players were already a thing, iPods changed the way people consumed music. When Sony ruled the consumer electronics market with their Walkman and CDs, Apple revolutionized the world of music with IPods. Apple empathized with people’s problem of carrying around cassette tapes, and iPods changed the game!

In order to identify and understand the pulse of the problem and to contextualize this step, gathering information is key. This is where you talk to people in the problem space to understand what they care about and how they currently deal with the problem. User interviews and their feedback help you get into their shoes.


This is one of the most important steps where the problem gets shaped.

In design thinking, ill-conceived problem statements pave the way to building solutions to “a problem,” not “the problem.”

Let me explain.

For example, you talk to someone about a problem. You record the observation and pitch in a plausible solution to that problem. The user gets excited that your solution might solve that problem. But what really happens here is that you and the person have been discussing just one of the problems among their many other problems. Therefore, their decision to adopt your solution depends on the importance the person gives to the problem that you promise to solve.

Here is where defining the pulse of the problem becomes very crucial. Often, in hindsight, the spotlight falls on the problem you are trying to solve rather than the many other problems the person might actually have.

Hence defining the problem goes a long way to give you leads on how to go about building human-centric solutions.


This is the phase where your observations find a home to be synthesized to create an opportunity for change. You brainstorm to define and redefine the potential solution to create competing ideas to solve the problem. This step ideally helps you to get to the core of the problem.

As said earlier, this is not going to be a linear process, and you might often find yourself going back to previous steps as you work together to challenge the idea or perhaps the problem itself. Thereby you cull out good ideas to implement.


The next phase is the prototype, where you validate your ideas by creating a mockup of your final solution. Your solution takes a tangible form to show evidence in this implementation phase of the prototype. It also shows you the limits and limitations of your idea that are left unaccounted for during the ideation phase.

One of the classic companies which nailed building a great prototype is Uber. Uber focused on solving the core problem of “finding taxis ” in its initial release. The first beta version of the product was a very minimalist app where all the orders were managed manually, where the CEO contacted drivers to book the ride. And it did not have features to pay. The goal was to test and validate the problem of hailing a cab, which is the core benefit of the app. Eventually, when they understood the target market and pain point, they rolled out to improve other features.


The final prototype is then tested with your target group and is reiterated to accommodate the learning that comes your way. The validation takes the final form here and may again require you to revisit some of the previous steps to implement the plan at scale.

Design Thinking In Action: Case Studies

Design Thinking In Social Sector

Malaria, one of the nerving problems in Africa, was one of the top 5 causes of death for children under the age of five. This is a social problem highly complex in nature, and the design thinking approach to distributing mosquito nets helped to combat the disease effectively. The World Health Organization reported a 50%-60% decline in death in countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda and a 34% decline in Ghana.

It was found that the design of nets was unappealing to some people in Ghana. A group of researchers identified a potential solution to address the problem of getting people to use the net. They came up with a human-centered design of nets that paved the way to provide a long-lasting solution to this social problem.

A bed with a mosquito net with two people sitting on it
Human-centered approach in designing mosquito net. (Large preview)


Design thinking has also played a huge role in transforming an almost failing company- Airbnb. Their business was crippling down, and when they got into the problem, they saw a pattern in their ads with the pictures which weren’t working great. The pictures on display were taken on low-quality phones. When looking at the photos on the site, the people who wanted to rent felt that they did not get to see what they were actually paying for. As soon as the founders realized this, they rented a camera to take good pictures of the customer’s property. Gebbia, one of the founders, went on to explain how the design school experience helped them reinvent themselves to serve customers better.


Another household name, Netflix, has come a long way, and design thinking has had a huge part in the decisions that they make. Netflix came up with a DVD rental service delivered straight to the doorstep while other rivals had people drive through the stores to pick movies.

Later when cable started to give on-demand movies, Netflix understood the pain points of the customers and began online streaming services on a monthly basis without having to pay for every single DVD. They built an online directory with a subscription model and delighted customers with the convenience of watching their favorite movies from the comforts of the home.

When picking something to watch took a long time than actually watching, Netflix came up with “previews” that helped people to choose what to watch. As simple as it may sound, the thought behind Netflix’s recommendation system helps to cut down the time people spend deciding what to watch. While change is inevitable, Netflix keeps reinventing itself with a design-thinking approach to uncover innovative solutions focused on the end user in mind.

From renting DVDs to online streaming, Netflix has continuously aimed to understand the end user to design solutions in a human-centric way.

And not just this. The list goes on and on.

Final Thoughts

Design thinking has been evolving itself. People have been contributing to making it more useful to contextualize its use in various fields. Applying the design thinking framework and getting into creating a human-centric solution comes with different shapes, depending on the size and complexity of the problem.

Given its flexibility, design thinking helps you get familiar and comfortable with ambiguity. The approach lets you play around dynamically at various scales, making it a valuable pursuit.

Try it by starting with any problem you want to solve, and let me know how it worked for you in the comments below. I’d love to hear and help if you wish.

Smashing Editorial (yk)