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Design Thinking for Everyone: A Guide for Product Development Teams

Have you ever started working with an amazing development team, but later realize they have spent over a year building a product barely anyone uses? Or maybe during a requirements gathering session you’ve encountered a stakeholder who jumps to the solution before actually knowing the problem they are trying to solve, basing solution ideas off of their own preferences?

If you’ve been in software product development long enough, you have probably experienced scenarios like the one’s listed above. Also, you’ve most likely experienced your fair share of project or product fails, as well as questioned the value of what you or your team are developing. A methodology proven to be successful for product teams traversing multiple industries is a concept called Design Thinking. In this post, you’ll learn the definition and steps involved in design thinking, as well as some tools to apply the design thinking process in the workplace.

What is Design Thinking

Design thinking in of itself is not new, but the definition and process of employing design thinking as described here is based on the views that emerged from design firm, IDEO and its founders, Tim Brown, David & Tom Kelley, as well as views popularized by Richard Buchanan. What all of these design thinkers have in common are their theories around applying design thinking across disciplines, in a more integrative approach to service and product development.

Design thinking at its core takes a human-centered approach to innovating, drawing on design tools to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success (Tim Brown, IDEO).

Design Thinking in Five Steps

Design Thinking can be applied to any product or process development efforts and it involves five steps. This five step process originated by Tim Brown & IDEO includes the following:

  • Empathize: This is the first step, and I would argue a step that should remain front and center throughout the design thinking process. Are you and your product development team spending enough time with your current or potential customer(s)? Understanding what is important to them, what they value, and what problems they are trying to solve? By understanding your user(s) and what matters to them you can create solutions that will resonate and actually be used – and valued.

  • Define: Once you and your team have immersed yourself in the empathize step, and you have asked your customer(s) about what they value and what problems they are trying to solve, you can land on a clearer definition of what needs to happen during the development process.

  • Ideate: This is the step that is the easiest for teams and stakeholders to skip to before spending the necessary time on the prior two steps. Once you know your user(s) and defined what problems you need to resolve or what value you need to deliver to them, then you can ideate or start to come up with potential solutions. Otherwise, we will develop solutions based on our own preferences versus from the viewpoint of our user(s).

  • Prototype: Now you’re ready to make those ideas more tangible! Prototypes are low-fidelity designs created for the purposes of testing with users. And because I said “designs” this does not mean they need to be highly creative or beautiful aesthetically. In fact, the less perfect the better, otherwise you and your team are wasting too much time before getting it out there in front of people! I’ll talk about prototypes in more detail in the Design Thinking Toolset section below in this post.

  • Test: Prototypes are for testing, and testing those prototypes ensures you are engaging with your customer(s) and understanding what they need or desire before you and your team build the wrong product. It costs a lot more to jump to a solution in the Ideate phase and build the wrong product (or implement an errant process) than it does to reserve time for prototyping and testing.

The steps above should follow this order, but you and your team may decide you need to return to prior steps – and that’s okay! It’s better for example, to create a few prototypes and retest versus releasing an undesirable product to customers. Also, you may discover this product, feature, or process is not valuable enough to pursue – and that’s okay as well. Think of the time, money, and effort you saved your organization as a result. Lastly, the empathize step is one in particular that should carry through the entire process so that you and your team maintain that human-centric perspective.

Dispelling Design Thinking Myths

When you started to read even the title of this article, “Design Thinking” – did you think any doubtful thoughts such as “this doesn’t apply to me” or “the steps in this process were not what I would’ve originally thought they were.” If so, keep reading since the following are common misconceptions, and perhaps some you are thinking through even as you read this article.

  1. “I Need to be Creative”: Your job title does not need to be “Graphic Designer” or have the word “designer” in the title to lead or facilitate design thinking in your product team. Working with an experienced UX designer is vital in creating and sustaining a meaningful product experience, however design thinking is for everyone on the software development team. If you excel at problem solving and are willing to tackle tough challenges for customers, you have a valuable skill that is vital to the design thinking process.

  2. “My product is old…or boring”: So, what if you don’t work on a high-end web site or mobile app? The tenets of design thinking still apply. And their level of importance does not diminish just because the product isn’t consumer facing, or involves a web or mobile presence. Even if it’s an internal application, you still need to empathize with your user(s) and understand what problems they are trying to solve or what value you need to deliver in order to build a successful product or feature.

  3. “We don’t have time to think about this differently.”: The universal excuse that goes something like…“We are too busy to try something new or change X, Y, or Z now” is a universal fear when confronting with aggressive timelines and changes outside of our control, such as regulatory changes that have to be addressed. But there are simple ways to interject design thinking into your current work. You can interview a current or potential user(s) of your product or feature or create a simple survey to gain empathy for your customer(s). Also, even showing a prototype of what your team is working on with co-workers outside of your product/project team can provide a fresh perspective and test if your team is heading in a clear direction.

Design Thinking Toolset

Now that you know the definition and steps in the design thinking process, you’re probably wondering what tools you can use that will help you and your team walk through this process. There are a number of design thinking tools, but I’ll briefly share three tools that cover the facets of the design thinking process:

  1. User personas: User personas are fictional characters that represent the person(s) your product or new feature is supposed to help. At a glance, it should tell you some of the following pieces of information: name, role, demographic info, key activities, behaviors, and a goal(s)/problem they are trying to solve. You will want to create user personas before writing user stories and it helps encompasses the first step of the design thinking process – empathize. By creating user persona(s), you and your team can use the persona as a constant point of reference to help stay focused on creating value-add features and products that a real person will want to use. Here is a simple overview that provides more details about user personas.

  2. User story map: User story maps offer a visual exercise for teams to talk through a user’s journey, while defining the activities and tasks the user will have to complete to achieve the journey. You can create it using sticky notes or digitally with a tool such as Real Time Boards. The user story map is organized with the top, horizontal row forming the backbone of user activities, and with vertical rows underneath representing the steps needed to achieve the user activity. Since it is much easier to understand with the visual, I recommend Jeff Patton’s User Story Mapping. User story maps do take some time so I recommend for new projects or larger-scale features. User story maps involve the first three steps of the design thinking process – empathize, define, and ideate.

  3. Prototypes: Since prototypes were discussed earlier, let me share with you when you use prototypes and why you should use them. Prototypes are used when you are ready to test out an idea(s) to validate whether you and your product development team are headed in the right direction (or not). It can take the form of simple sketches, a PowerPoint presentation, objects taped together…anything that requires just enough effort to produce and place in front of a customer or stakeholder for feedback. Prototypes take you through the entire design thinking process steps when used at the right time.

Now You Try It!

Are you ready to try design thinking at work? First and foremost, it involves a human-centered mindset, so it’s possible to try even small steps to get your team to start thinking and experimenting from this perspective. Not only will your users benefit from design thinking, but you and your team will be more motivated by your work as you connect what you are doing to the people that will benefit.

Sites Cited:


  • User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product by Jeff Patton



About The Author

Senior Consultant, Project Services

Tammy is a Product Consultant & Team Lead in Cardinal's Columbus office. She is passionate about creating meaningful digital product solutions for clients and loves the challenge of solving customer problems. Tammy is also a certified Product Owner and Scrum Master Professional. Outside of work, you can find her planning her next travel adventure, or deep in a book or conversation.