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How to Put Design Thinking Into Practice

We’ve recently explored design thinking; an approach that is making waves across the world. As Dr Stuart English, Design Management MA academic here at Northumbria, describes: “ thinking draws on a complexity of information. Its tools and processes could help you to navigate that complexity in order to make new associations, which fuel innovation.”  

Now more than ever, companies are recognising its power, from Airbnb to Netflix, Tesla to Samsung. These companies are looking to this ideology to change the way they view business problems, using it as a catalyst to introduce customer-focused design that works.  

However, as with any new process, getting to grips with what it could mean to your organisation —  and knowing where to start — can feel a little overwhelming. It’s a feeling that might be compounded by the knowledge that there are a lot of different frameworks that you could use to put design thinking into practice. 

Here, we take a look at one approach that you could adopt. We’ll also explore some useful examples to help you discover more about what each phase means in practice.

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Phase 1: Empathise

If we had to describe design thinking in one word, it would be humancentric. That’s why empathy is the cornerstone of this methodology. The ability to understand and share the feelings of your end consumer is imperative. In practice, this means building empathy at every opportunity, constantly striving to see the world through your customer’s eyes.

During step one of the design thinking process, it’s key that your team spends time getting to know your customers —  their unique needs, wants and frustrations — on a psychological and emotional level. This thorough and well-planned research stage could take a variety of different formats, including immersion and observation techniques, but above all, it’s really important that there is a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to design research.  

Example: For the UK Government Digital Service, empathy has a physical home in a dedicated accessibility empathy lab. The lab has been created to allow any government or public sector employee access to a wide array of different technologies and software that people use to interact with their online services, so they can physically experience the barriers that users may face. 

The UK Government’s Dedicated Accessibility Empathy Lab - design thinking

The UK Government’s Dedicated Accessibility Empathy Lab (Source)


Phase 2: Define

With the in-depth knowledge of your customer garnered in step one, you’ll be armed with the tools you need to fully understand the situation at hand and unearth the problem that you are trying to solve. The goal in this stage is to synthesise the findings you’ve unearthed to create a detailed overall picture that provides powerful insight into your target customer. 

You’ll then be ready to create a meaningful, actionable problem statement, or point of view statement, which outlines what it is your project is trying to achieve. As writer Jared Spool posited, “Great designers don’t fall in love with their solution. Great designers fall in love with the problem”. The define stage is focused on finding a problem to fall in love with. 

A good problem statement provides a clear description of the issue that the end design is looking to address. It maintains focus on the customer at all times, rather than any potential desired commercial outcomes. It’s narrowly focused too, framing the problem you’re looking to solve and empowering your team to come up with potential answers.  

Example: DesignBetter’s Eli Woolery explores how Netflix, and a host of other businesses, have reframed their problem statements to disrupt their business model in this fascinating handbook


Phase 3: Ideate

The third phase of the design thinking process is dedicated to generating a set of ideas that could solve your problem statement. You’ll bring together your deep knowledge of your customer (gathered during the empathise stage) and your in-depth understanding of the problem you have chosen to explore (fostered during the define stage) with your imagination. By focusing on thinking outside of the box, questioning the norm, redefining existing solutions, free thought and innovation, the result should be a plethora of potential solutions. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if these ideas are plausible or not; the important thing is that the ideas are generated in the first place.

Although the ideate phase is focused on freedom of thought, it’s really important that the process is steered in the right direction. That’s why there are a number of techniques you can use to help ideation—  from brainstorming to reverse thinking — many of which are explored in this blog by Innovation Management. Another ideation technique is building, where ideas are loosely prototyped. In physically making something, the team might come to points where decisions need to be made which encourages new ideas to come forward. 

Example: Watch an expert from design thinking consultancy IDEO lead a brainstorming session about attracting more visitors to a zoo. You’ll see that in an ideation session, there’s no such thing as a silly idea.  


Phase 4: Prototype

The penultimate step is to decide which of your ideas should be selected for prototyping.  Put simply, the aim of the prototyping phase is to create a scaled-down version of your product which will help you to test your design or innovations before investing money into its development. One approach to this is to ask your team to vote on three different criteria to decide which ideas are pushed forward for prototyping —  the most likely to delight, the rational choice and the most unexpected.

Once you’ve chosen which ideas are going forward, it’s time to get building!  Your prototype could be anything a user can interact with that will spark conversation, help your team iterate and problem solve, and test possibilities without committing to a direction too early on. Depending on the proposal, the first prototype could take the form of a paper model, a wall of post-it-notes, a storyboard, a website wireframe and more. Later in the prototyping phase, when you have a good idea about what it is you’re looking to build and you’ve tested initial designs out, you’ll develop fully functional models that can be tested on real users before they go into development. It might take as many as five different prototypes to get to a product or idea that’s ready to launch into the market.

Above all in this phase, the key is not to spend too long on a single prototype. Instead, you should build quickly with your user in mind, working together to continually optimise design and to ask at every step - “what is it that we’re looking to test? “

Example: Interested in learning more about how to prototype a service, rather than a product? This insightful blog explores the journey IDEO went on with American healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente.  


Phase 5: Test

Prototyping and testing go hand in hand. Without testing your prototypes, there’s no way to understand whether they work in the way you intended for your target user. 

Ideally, it’s best to ask a user to test your prototype in the context of their everyday life. If you wanted to test a new mobile phone, it would be a good idea to ask someone to take it with them and use it in their everyday routine. If you’re looking to test an experience or a service, try to create a scenario which would capture a real situation. From concept testing to A/B testing, to usability testing and more, there are an array of different methods to try. 

Throughout the testing phase, you should constantly be looking to understand more about the user - empathising with how they think, behave, and feel. Because of this, the testing phase might reveal unexpected insights, which in turn bring about more ideas for innovation. 

The results of your tests will allow you to refine your prototype, so it’s really important to test early and often, analyse your results, then take your learnings to prototype again and retest. 


The Only Constant is Change

Although the process we’ve shown here is linear, the joy of design thinking is that it can be conducted however works best for your organisation and there are multiple frameworks you can follow - this is just one example.  

As Dr English comments:

"Design thinking is a complex, non-linear, iterative solution, where the only constant is change. Organisations tend to build themselves around the needs of the time. As the situation moves on, design thinking is able to reimagine the assets of an organisation in relation to the social and economic environment of the time, helping you to iterate and reiterate your product and service offering to make sure it continues to meet the needs of your users.  It helps ideas to be evaluated from multiple perspectives prior to committing to major investment: increasing opportunities and reducing risk.” 

If you’d like to learn more about how this works in practice, Netflix is a great example of a company who have taken this ideology to heart to constantly change their offering to determine the needs of an ever-evolving market.


Hone Your Skills

Design thinking is a methodology we’re passionate about here at Northumbria School of Design. We believe so strongly in its power to enhance a customer’s experience — and therefore bring about commercial success—  that it is at the heart of our Design Management Masters. To find out more about how we’re bridging the gap between the creative world of design and the logical world of business, take a look at the course page

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