A Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking for UX

Design thinking is a phrase you may have heard before. But, do you know what it means and how it relates to user experience (UX) design? In this article, we’ll dive into what design thinking is and how it helps UX designers and other pros solve creative problems.

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  1. Design Thinking for UX
  2. The Five Stages of Design Thinking
  3. Why Design Thinking is Important to UX
  4. Resources to Learn More
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Design Thinking for UX

Design thinking refers to an iterative problem-solving process that focuses on the user. So, if you’re a User Experience Designer, UX Researcher or UX Strategist; this approach is worth considering for your design practice. 
Why? Well, as Designer and Chair of IDEO, Tim Brown puts it, “design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

But, it’s not just about philosophy. Design thinking has become an industry-wide practice because of its user-driven, phased approach to overcoming creative hurdles.

The Five Stages of Design Thinking

Note: the following stages aren’t always implemented in sequential order. These stages can be performed out of order and repeated, as it is an iterative process. 

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Conceptualize
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Stage 1: Empathize – Figure Out What Your Audience Needs

When it comes to human-centered design, empathy is certainly required. To put design thinking into practice, one might consider conducting an in-depth survey of their target audience.  Ask yourself: What makes our audience tick? What emotions do our intended users respond to? Do your best to empathize with your prospective customers. The more you know about your audience, the better you can design products with their needs in mind. 

Stage 2: Define – Identify Your Audience’s Problems
Once you’ve learned about your audience members, you can begin to identify their problems. Analyze the data you’ve gathered in the empathy stage before moving on to ideation. Want to take it a step further? Consider creating detailed personas to keep your design thinking, human-focused.

Stage 3: Conceptualize – Ideate and Innovate 

Design thinking is all about finding new strategies to solve problems. So, it should come as no surprise that ideation is important! If you’re a UX designer, this stage is arguably the most fun part of the process.

Take a moment to think about a UX problem you are trying to solve. How can you think outside of the box? As a designer, what technology do you have at your disposal? Which UX tools can help you elevate your ideas? Remember, during the ideation stage, it is important to create with the consumer in mind

Stage 4: Prototype – See Your Solutions Come to Life
As an iterative process, design thinking relies heavily on experimentation. So, if you’re looking to find a solution to something big or small; consider creating a prototype. A prototype is a way for designers to see their solutions come to life.

Keep in mind that the prototypes you create do not have to be expensive or inclusive of all of your product’s features. Prototyping can be inexpensive and efficient when design teams use scaled models or focus their attention on specific product features. 

Stage 5: Test – Try Solutions Again and Again
After the prototype is created, the next step is to test it. Your team will determine how much testing is needed, however, a general rule of thumb is to test your prototypes rigorously. While testing is often identified as the last stage of design thinking; the process is iterative – so you can try solutions over and over again.

Why Design Thinking is Important to UX

According to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford(2), “design thinking is more than just a creative process…[it is] an approach and a mindset to drive meaningful and sustainable transformation processes in business and society.” In a nutshell, adopting a design-focused mindset can help UX pros create products that propel our society into the future. 

Really? The short answer is yes.

When it comes to user experience (UX) design, understanding human behavior is critical. And, as the world becomes more and more interconnected; user-centered products and problem-solving skills are increasingly important. 
So, why is design thinking so important to UX specifically? Well, in the age of digital innovation, design thinking empowers UX pros to efficiently use technology to address human concerns.

Resources to Learn More


Screenshot of IDEO U's website, an online school presented by design firm IDEO

Interaction Design Foundation

a screen shot of interaction design foundation's website featuring a young woman technologist and UX design courses being advertised


With its phased approach, design thinking can be used to describe a philosophy for finding solutions to a variety of UX problems. So, if you need put users first; learn the ins and outs of this creative process.

Looking for a new job to show off your design thinking skills?
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  1. Brown, Tim. “IDEO Design Thinking.” IDEO, https://designthinking.ideo.com/.
  2. “Shape the Future with Design Thinking.” Hasso-Plattner-Institut, https://hpi.de/en/school-of-design-thinking/design-thinking.html.
  3. “What Is Design Thinking?” The Interaction Design Foundation, https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/design-thinking. 
  4. Dam, Rikke Friis. “5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process.” The Interaction Design Foundation, https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-stages-in-the-design-thinking-process.