Design Thinking: A step-by-step approach

Design Thinking: A step-by-step approach


What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a methodology that solves problems by placing humans at the forefront of the solution. By using a process that designers have been using for years, people from all disciplines can solve complex problems with elegant solutions. Don’t let the word ‘design’ scare you though, you don’t have to be an artist to utilize a design thinking process. Design thinking can be broken down into five parts: understanding, synthesis, making, testing, and communicating.

1. Understanding

When you’re designing a solution to a problem it’s important to accurately define the problem and reaffirm that the problem you’re trying to solve is actually an issue other people have. In this step, interviews are key. Interview the people that you are solving a problem for and really listen to them. It’s important to come in with some questions in mind, but ideally, you should let the interview flow and let their responses dictate the conversation and try to get them to tell stories or answer questions that elicit an emotional response.  Take notes on what they say and what their body language says.

2. Synthesis

Now that you’ve interviewed a couple of people who might use your solution, it’s time to make sense of all the data. The best way to do this? Sticky notes. Write down all of your notes on to sticky notes with each sticky note only having one fact or quote from your interviews. Place all of the sticky notes on a wall or surface and start to group them together based on themes you see and start to come up with several themes about what you think the solution could be. Finally, look at your themes and revisit the initial problem you were trying to solve. Do you need to pivot your ideas entirely, or were you on track? Do you need to solve a different, more fundamental problem to address the original problem? This step is one of the hardest, but once you try it out for yourself it’s not so bad.

3. Making

Now comes the fun part. You’ve redefined your problem in the synthesis stage and your mind is buzzing with ways to make your solution a reality, but now’s not the time to get bogged down by decision fatigue: pick an idea and go for it. The point of the making stage is to prototype quickly so you can iterate on your design because it’s never going to be perfect the first time around.

4. Testing

Now that you’ve got a prototype it’s time to test your solution to the people you’re targeting, and ideally, you should test the same people you interviewed. See how they interact with your solution and make notes. Try to get them to interact with it with minimal input from you to see if your design is intuitive. Your design will almost certainly have some flaws the first couple of times, but the beauty about the design process is that it’s supposed to be an iterative process. After you’ve tested, go back to step 3 and prototype again as needed until you come up with a great solution.

5. Communicating

You’ve designed an awesome solution to a problem so now you’ve got to share it to your audience. The key here is to focus on storytelling, highlight the people you interviewed, what problem you solved, and how. Focus on the emotions behind the problem and your solution, and remember, everyone loves a good story.

The design process is a fun and effective way to place humans at the center of the products and solutions we design. Whether you’re designing a way to create a more sustainable world or the next Uber, consider using the design process as a framework for coming up with a solution.

If you want to learn more about the design process, I recommend:

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design found at

Any course in UT’s Center for Integrated Design! The courses are open to all majors and feature some interesting topics like designing for AI and Augmented Reality. More information can be found

An Interview with Dr. Paul McCord

An Interview with Dr. Paul McCord

Voting for Science

Voting for Science