5 stages of Design Thinking: How to apply it to your projects

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Natalia De la Peña Frade

Tiempo de lectura

8 minutes


August 4, 2023


Can you imagine there was a foolproof way of finding innovative and brilliant solutions to any problem? Well, today is your lucky day. It exists, and it’s called Design Thinking. 

If you want to know more about this magic wand for solving problems, read on!

What is Design Thinking? 

First things first, let’s define Design Thinking: it’s a method that facilitates creative problem solving in an innovative way. As its name would suggest, it’s the way in which designers approach people’s real needs to offer innovative solutions. 

Does this mean that this is a methodology that’s exclusive to design teams? Negative. It’s a useful tool in any professional sector and in a wide range of contexts. We could describe it as ‘putting on the designer’s overalls‘ to flip the problem and see it from their perspective.

Design Thinking mixes the skill sets of creative thinking and rational thinking. Of creativity and reason. Of the best of both worlds, to provide a fully-rounded solution: innovative, useful, possible, and profitable. The solutions provided by Design Thinking focus on three factors:

  1. People’s needs (desirable solutions)
  2. Business requirements (economically viable solutions)  
  3. The possibilities offered by technology (technologically feasible solutions)

What is Design Thinking used for?

Got a complex problem that can’t be solved using traditional methods? Design Thinking is your best ally against this type of setback: the ‘wicked problems‘.

I’d love to go into more detail, but Design Thinking has many, many applications, and I’d be here all week if I expanded on each one. It is used to design or improve products and services, but also business models or processes of any kind in personal or professional projects. It’s like potatoes, it goes with everything. 

Benefits of Design Thinking: Why use this methodology?

Optimize work systems, innovate to close new operating schemes, revolutionize the way your company makes strategic decisions… There are so many benefits of Design Thinking that I can’t list them all. 

In business, for example, innovation is what makes companies manage to adapt to changes and stay in the market. Thanks to Design Thinking, costs and risks are reduced as incorporating design into work processes increases the chances of success. 

‘In the 90s, when people talked about innovation, they really meant technology. Now, when people talk about innovation they really mean Design’

Bruce Nussbaum, Managing Editor Businessweek Magazine

In education, Design Thinking contributes to developing the empathy of students, and enhances inclusive attitudes and teamwork. It’s never too early to learn that the sum of the talents of the entire team is powerful and always results in better solutions.  

The 5 stages of the Design Thinking methodology

Like love languages, there are 5 phases of Design Thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

There are different ways to apply this methodology. In general, it is an iterative process or loop, which feeds back in pursuit of a specific objective: to perfect a solution. It involves working on the points of improvement detected in the last stage (testing) and starting the process again. 

However, it is not an exact science; the order of the steps is not always followed. Some teams omit or modify some of the stages according to the needs of the project, or carry out more than one stage in parallel. 

You can do the same and adapt the methodology to suit you. Understanding the 5 stages of Design Thinking will help you find the most convenient way to apply it. Here are the basics to set you on your way:  

1. Empathize

The first stage involves investigating and understanding the problem for which we want to find a solution. The keys are to listen and empathize. When you focus attention on your audience and care about meeting their needs, you can come up with innovative solutions that really impact their lives. 

A good idea is for the people that the solution is intended for to participate in the creative project, especially in this first phase and in the final testing phase. 

This not only boosts empathy, but also ensures that resistance to innovation is very low. People feel that they are part of the process and easily subscribe to the solutions that are proposed. 

2. Define

It’s time to target the problem. By analyzing the information and observations collected in the first stage, you can state the problem and begin to plan how to deal with it by setting a goal.

If the people who will benefit from the solution are not part of the project, it is advisable to create archetypes or profiles to represent them, describe their behavior, and humanize the process. 

3. Ideate

In this phase, you’ll go about creating multiple ideas, as many as you possibly can. This way you’ll have a battery of options to choose from. Make use of all your creativity and your capacity for innovation; you’ll need them. Here the key is to look for new alternatives, new solutions to the same old problems.

The most useful techniques for this are brainstorming or using sticky notes to note down ideas. You can do this digitally or on paper. 

4. Prototype

Prototyping is bringing ideas to life. The prototypes are an intermediate step, prior to the final solution. Experiment with ideas, invent, build, communicate, and identify options. 

The important thing here is not to focus on validating, but on experimenting as inexpensively as possible.

5. Test

How do your solutions work? Staging is key in this phase. Generate immersive experiences in the context in which your solutions are going to be used or, at least, in an environment as similar as possible to help understand the solution you’re putting forward. 

You can ask for feedback on your prototypes from both your team and the people you’ve designed them for. This can give you very valuable information to help you polish them and even a new approach that can bring you back to the start of the iterative process of Design Thinking once again. 

In this stage, interviews or tests are carried out to evaluate the proposed solution. Team dynamics such as focus groups are also used.

How to apply Design Thinking techniques

If we’ve convinced you and you want to apply Design Thinking to solve a problem that has arisen, we’ll now show you several inspiring creations that will help you find solutions with this methodology. 

Empathy maps

This type of map can help you describe a company’s ideal customer with the analysis of 6 aspects related to human emotions. You ask questions that help you get to know the client and how to relate to them or save time. A genially like this one is all you need to get started:


Empathy Map

Mind maps

Mind maps are ideal for representing ideas, notes, or even random words around a main concept. They’re useful for memorizing or retaining information about a specific topic, as well as sorting and classifying it by topics or subtopics to generate more ideas. 

This template is sure to help you out:


Brain Mindmap

Outlines, drafts, and lists

If your goal is to design a product, getting an overall idea or a bird’s eye view before prototyping would be ideal to allow you to prioritize, highlight solutions, and weigh up several ideas. This genially will save you countless headaches: 


SWOT Analysis

Presentations and infographics

We know the process is important, but imagine also knowing how to present it to others in an attractive, clear, and concise way. This interactive template is perfect for getting the attention of your audience and introducing them to all its features.


Tech product card

Need more reasons to use Genially in your designs? Here are four.

‘Being an entrepreneur is not about money or fame, it’s about the ability to solve problems in society and the passion to create opportunities where people only see problems’

Steve Jobs

How to get your mind into design mode: The basics of Design Thinking

To put on your design cap, the first thing to do is to give your creativity a boost. Here are five things that will help you follow the Design Thinking process:

  • Collaborate

Whenever you can, involve people of different profiles in the search for solutions, using collective intelligence. This will help the flow of innovative ideas.

  • Boost your empathy

Put yourself in the shoes of both the people you’re designing the solution for and the people on your team. This is the most effective way to achieve better results.

  • Apply visual storytelling

Convey your ideas using a visual approach. You can use visual elements such as icons or images in your story. Using visual thinking, you’ll put your creative intelligence to work and your innovative capacity will skyrocket.

  • Trust

Be optimistic. In Design Thinking there’s a place for everyone; anyone can be a driver of change and creation. It doesn’t matter how big or small your budget or the problem you’re facing. Believing in your own creativity is the key to innovation.

  • Experiment 

Dive in, create different solutions, act, and learn from your mistakes. It’s not just thinking, it’s creating. This way, the design and innovation process will be complete.

Design Thinking and iconic brands: 5 examples of idyllic results 

After this barrage of information that we’ve offered you, are you still not sure how Design Thinking can help you with your project? Check out these examples of 5 brands that have designed or redesigned their business models using this methodology. 

  • Uber. The quintessential ride-hailing company practices empathy when it uses immersion strategies in its target markets to understand their gastronomic culture and people’s needs, conducts A/B tests to select the best solutions, and organizes innovation workshops on a regular basis.
  • Nike. Yep! Nike puts both its audience and its team at the center of its strategies. When they launched the trainers with air bubbles in the 80s, they were offering an answer to the needs of their audience, combining innovation and design. 
  • Apple. As Steve Jobs said: “Being an entrepreneur is not about money or fame, it’s about the ability to solve problems in society and the passion to create opportunities where people only see problems.” With this premise in mind, and through Design Thinking, they managed to unite design, technology, and simplicity, the bases of all their most successful products. 
  • Ikea. The fact that the company has committed to sustainability and putting the needs of its customers at its epicenter is a sure sign of their use of our favorite methodology. Design thinking and its different stages have had a lot to do with the growth and expansion of the Swedish giant.              
  • Zara. This textile giant was essentially born out of Design Thinking: a company that offered fashion designs at an affordable price for most pockets, meeting the demands of society. 

To sum up, if you haven’t already, let yourself fall in love with Design Thinking. It’ll make your projects more innovative, creative, and, therefore, more successful. Are you already using it?

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Natalia De la Peña Frade
Content creator: I try to write things you like to read

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