What is Design Thinking?

Whether you are trying to launch a new successful product or you are studying it in your MBA, you probably have heard about the Design Thinking process: This magical “full of post-its” process through which you can devise anything.

But… What really is the “Design Thinking”?

Design Thinking is a process that allows developing new products or services by observing potential customers’ behaviors and motivations.

It is similar to the scientific method, but focused on designing new products or services.

This process gives some guidelines that keep the designing team away from reaching useless conclusions.

It consists on 5 steps or stages:

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

* Check the “Entrepreneurship Templates” page; you’ll find an open Excel sheet with the scheme below shown as well as a full basic “Design Thinking” process Template.

“Design Thinking” scheme representation.

Now, we’ll now explain all these steps in detail but first; let’s find out when should this methodology be employed.

When using the Design Thinking process?

This methodology is interesting when launching new products.

Approaching a client, guessing his/her preferences can be sometimes a difficult task:

  • The designing team can be very excited, but you never know how the client will behave.
  • Your cultural background can be different from your customer’s.
  • The customer experience can be rarely extrapolated.
  • etc.

Traditionally, companies have been doing try-and-error based on their previous experience without any guidance, but with this method there is a certain path you can follow.

So, if you want to launch a new product or you would like to re-focus a pre-existing product, you should give this methodology a chance.


* Within the “Starting your own business” page, we proposed a methodology for choosing the Business idea that best suits you. Although it could sound similar, it is not: this methodology is focused on releasing a product.

Design Thinking 5 Steps

As you’ll see, the steps we’re about to explain are purely common sense based.

However, don’t just focus on the main titles, the “beef” is inside: the methodology itself, and how should you tackle each factor.

1. Empathize

Without a doubt, this is the most important step, and what really makes the difference between a good analysis and a terrible one.

Empathize is to truly know which are your customer’s deepest Motivations (Insights) and Needs.

Let’s see which is the difference between an Insight and a Need:

Customer Insights

Whether you call it Deep motivation or Insight, it is related with feelings rather than reason.

A proper product should not be launched and hope that everybody will love it:

  • There must be a profound sociological study about what is inside your customer’s mind.
  • You product should fulfill a “deep need” that is usually hidden at first glance.
  • Your customer should feel something “transcendent when purchasing your product.


You may see all these requirements a bit exaggerated, but if you think about any product you really love, you’ll find out that it means something to you:

  • Maybe it makes you feel more connected to your friends or family (a mobile phone, for example).
  • Or it gives you the freedom you were so much time looking for (a motorcycle, for example).
  • It makes you feel more handsome (clothes, bags…).
  • … Or it simply reminds you an important moment in your life (specially if it is a present).

There is always “something else, don’t forget about it: successful products mean something for the people owing them.

Customer Needs

The perfect product not only means something for you but it also saves you time or helps you in a certain way. It has a practical purpose.

When trying to identify a “customer need”, it is common to directly ask the customers if “they would like to”_______ something.

This is the biggest mistake you can make when researching market needs since you’ll receive “false positives” that will make you work hard in pointless products nobody need.


What is a “false positive”?

  • A “false positive”, as its name indicates, is a misunderstood market need that is confirmed by a customer interview rather than a customer behavior analysis.

As we explained in the “Market Research” page, you should always check what people do or how do they behave instead of listening what they say.


Let’s give an example so you understand better what a “false positive” is:

Supermarket Wrong analysis example


Imagine you are designing a customer service robot that suggests the healthiest items for whoever requires it within a supermarket.

You then move to a sample supermarket and start asking the customers:

– “Would you like to have a customer service robot that suggests the best items for you?


Then you realize that everybody answers, “yes” to that question.

But… what a surprise when once installed it, nobody uses that robot.


How is it possible? Because you asked the wrong questions.

This example is very illustrative.

If you had focused on the customers’ behaviors you would have realized how useless this robot would be.

Why? Because it doesn’t fulfill a real customer need.

  • A proper market need analysis should have been as follow:

Supermarket Right analysis example


You start observing how the customers decide what to purchase and conclude that:

  • 75% have a closed list.
  • They are not opened to purchase un-usual things.


Then, you start asking the customers:

How many times have you doubted about what to buy in the supermarket?

– I don’t remember at all… If I have any doubt, I just check the food composition list on the package.

Are you usually open to change your purchasing list?

– No at all… just for certain little whims.

Would you pay for suggestions?

– I don’t think so…


Hence, after observing and asking you state that:

  • People never have any “nutritional” unsolved issue that can’t be solve by just checking the package.
  • They are not open to variations.
  • They are not willing to pay for suggestions.

This would have been the perfect Market need analysis:

  • Analyzing facts.
  • Not biasing your study.
  • Focusing about objective behaviors.
  • Not doing badly conducted yes/no questions.


By taking these two factors into account; both customer’s Insights and Needs, you are ready to move on through the next step: Define your product.

2. Define


Once you have identified your customers’ real Insights and Needs, you can start defining your product.

This product definition can be a “list” of characteristics that fulfill all what you learned in the previous step, without any filter.

It vital that no filters are applied at this stage, since by now, you don’t know for sure where are you headed or how your final product will look like.

It usually ends up with a long wish list that seems not to have any connection between all the features listed.


So far, these two steps (Empathize and Define) seem not very impressive, don’t they? But let us explain why are they important with the perfect example of what happen if you don’t Empathize and Define properly your customers’ needs:

Juicero - Design Thinking failure example

On 2013, Dough Evans launched a company called Juicero.

It was supposed to be “the Nespresso of the juices”.

They offered a special machine that squeezed some fruit-filled-bags at very high pressures giving “fresh” juice as result.

The point is:

  • It was supposed that these bags could only be squeezed by means of this special press.
  • Each bag cost over 5 dollars (we don’t remember exactly the price).
  • The machine was wifi-connected in order to automatically purchase new fruit-bags.
  • The overall machine cost was 700 dollars.

Suddenly, the people discovered that these bags could be easily squeezed by hand, being the machine completely useless.

And… $5 for one juice not fresh at all… seemed to be a bit excessive…

Apart from the obvious fraud and disloyal publicity, the main mistake they committed was not identifying nor defining properly the customers’ needs:

  • Who needs a $700 wi-fi connected squeezer with $5 refillable bags, when you can buy a ton of fresh fruit with that amount of money?

Just 5 moths after the product release, the company went bankrupt.

This recent example (2013) shows that not all that “smells like innovation” is good “per se”, so be careful when approaching your clients and be sure that you are identifying and defining properly your customers’ needs.


And now, comes the magic. The best part of Design Thinking: the Idea stage.

3. Idea

As its name indicates, in this stage you must try to figure out how approaching your customers’ Needs and Insights with a new product.

At the beginning there will be plenty of ideas linking together all the points previously found. But in the end, it will be necessary to narrow the list down.


Everybody loves the Idea stage although there are 3 things you must ensure in order to develop it properly:

1. Be optimistic, but also realistic.

  • If you smell a market need, go on! But be prudent. You may have committed any misinterpretation.
  • Moreover, you must take into account the current technological advances and whether you can have access to them or not.

2. Don’t innovate just for innovating.

  • Today, innovating seems to be the new “religion”, but sometimes you just have to offer the same product but improved.
    • Think about the “Juicero” example above explained.
  • Innovation means taking a lot of risk, so group your ideas by their feasibility so you can judge them in equal terms.

3. Don’t lose the focus.

  • When there are different kinds of ideas, it is quiet common that you like ones more than others, but you should never forget that it is not about you it is about the customers and the market.

It is very common to start aiming to all the customers’ needs without any discrimination, but in this stage you should apply different filters in order to end up with just one or two feasible ideas.

  • Your target is this: one or two final feasible ideas.

Check how many Kickstarter ideas have had to be withdrawn. They tried to over-innovate, but finally got nowhere.


And now that you’ve got your final idea… Let’s prototype.

4. Prototype

At this stage, you have picked one or two final ideas and it is time to start building them up.

If the ideas have been elaborated and chosen properly, you should have not a huge problem when developing them.


Now, it is extremely important to guarantee 2 things:

1. The prototype must fulfill the customers’ requirements.

  • There is a thin line that divides between a new fantastic product and a “curious expensive thing your friend’s just bought”.
  • Never forget about the customer experience.
  • No matter how hard you tried, if the prototype/final product does not offer a pleasant experience, you should never release that product.

2. Your prototype must work.

  • It is not just necessary to fulfill your customers’ requirements… It must be a solid product.
  • It must be a strong product, not a weak “curious” thing that will never be used since it fails from day to day.


In order you to understand better these two factors; we’ll explain the “PDAs” example and why the iPhone was so successful:

PDA versus iPhone example

At this point, we ignore if you remember what a PDA is.

The Personal Digital Assistant (aka PDA) was the very first touchable device that allowed the customers to have a personal digital schedule as well as different computer tools, scientific calculator…

  • There were also PDAs with Internet access and different Microsoft packages (like Excel or Word).


However, as soon as Apple released its iPhone, the PDAs died immediately. Why?


The main iPhone features announced, were:

  • Being touchable.
  • Having Internet access.
  • Being a phone (obvious).
  • Having different apps.


There are several reasons that made the iPhone to success, but regarding those compared to the PDAs’ characteristics, we can easily say that there was “nothing” new a good PDA didn’t have… Or there was?


Theoretically, a same-price PDA had practically the same characteristics an iPhone offered, but once you had a PDA at your hand and an iPhone, there were no comparison possible:

  • The iPhone response was immediate, while all PDAs were a bit “slow”.
  • The screen was not “plastic-based” but a hard-glass one.
  • It was not necessary to use the “pencil” but just your fingers.
  • The Internet access was fluid and the interface (finger-screen) was smooth.
  • There were lots of easy-to-install apps, while in the PDAs you almost needed computing skills.
  • …. And it was much stylish; with just one button. Nothing else.


There was no comparison possible.

The iPhone really fulfilled the customers’ needs with a strong product, not just theoretically but practically.

This is the perfect example for understanding why is so important to have a strong product that meets the expectations of your customers:

  • You may have identified the correct Insights, you may have the best idea… but if you fail in the final product, you have just wasted a lot of work and effort.


The final step is closely related with this last statement: you must Test your product.

5. Test

Ok, it is important to meet the expectations, give a strong final product, but… how can we know it? Which feedback should we listen to?

Listen to your customer and analyze his behavior.

Once you have your prototype ready (or a certain service you want to offer) the best investment you can ever make is to “give almost for free” your product to final customers and hear what they have to say.

* Why almost for free?

  • It is something psychological: if you don’t pay for something you won’t be as critical as you would have been if you paid for it.

Release a controlled amount of products or services with a special launching offer, and hear what do they tell you:

  • Whether it is what they expected.
  • Problems that could be solved.

With this feedback you have to go back to the Prototype, Idea, Define or even Empathize stage, depending on how good did you do it.

The better you did it, the fewer stages you’ll have to move backwards.

So, this is it: the “famous” Design Thinking process. As we often say:

By following these steps we can’t guarantee that you’ll find the perfect product that will make you rich, but not following any of these premises, you’ll need a lot of luck for fulfilling your customers’ needs.


Launching a new product is something exciting, but if you don’t be careful about how approaching your customers, you’ll drive blindfolded.

The Design Thinking process is a guideline that may help you when developing a new product.

It consists of 5 stages:

  1. Empathize.
  • In this stage, you should identify:
    • Customers’ Insights:
      • The deep motivations that make them to behave or act as the do.
    • Customers’ Needs:
      • What could be really useful for them.
  1. Define.
  • In this stage you should:
    • List all the conclusions reached in the previous stage.
    • Start defining potential solutions for them.
  1. Idea.
  • In this stage you should:
    • Start figuring out different product approaches that could fulfill your customers’ requirements.
  • You should also ensure:
    • Being optimistic but realistic.
    • Not innovate just for innovating.
    • Don’t lose the focus on the customer.
  1. Prototype.
  • In this stage you should:
    • Build feasible final products for your customers.
  • You also must ensure:
    • Fulfill the customers’ requirements.
    • Guarantee a solid working final prototype.
  1. Test.
  • In this stage you should:
    • Distribute your final prototype among potential customers and receive feedback.
    • Go back to a certain stage (if required by the customers) in order to improve the final product.


By following these steps, you’ll start understanding what your customers really need, how they “feel”, what they want… and how can you fulfill their expectations.

©2021 - consuunt


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