Design Thinking: From Empathy to End-product

Lotte, Digital Content Specialist

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an ideology and a process of creative innovation that puts the main focus on the end-user and the way they perceive the interaction with the design of a product. This way of thinking about design is very human-centered, and all decisions and actions are aimed at understanding the end-user’s ways of thinking, in order to deliver the best end-product possible.

“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 cases.”

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Although Tim Brown initially focussed the concept on designers, design thinking isn’t exclusively focused on designers in particular. Because design thinking is involved in all aspects of software development, everyone who is involved in these processes must orient their way of thinking and methodologies on the experience of the user. In the process of design thinking, you need to have the ability to look behind the walls of technical specifications and limitations, and inside the head of the end-user. As a design thinker, you have to shift your focus from the project itself to the target audience of your product, and have a great sense of empathy and understanding of the individual mind. It’s design like we all know it, but with a hint of your non-cognitive skills to support you in the process.   You can compare design thinking to other practices within a (software) company, like Growth Hacking. You might have read in our article about this particular way of digital marketing, growth hacking is a very iterative and agile way of working. It exists in a constant loop of processes, instead of one static linear process. Just like most modern business strategies, design thinking also involves a very Agile way of working. There is no written recipe on how you should design or develop something, which is why you need a process existing of multiple testing phases, with continuous moments of feedback from end-users. That’s where you get to know the pitfalls and opportunities of the project you are working on, and how to find the right solutions.

Customer-centric approach, empathy, and intuition

The success of your end-product relies on the extent to which your product is aligned with the ideals and needs of the people who are going to use it. All steps within the process of software development are executed from a customer’s perspective, rather than a company’s perspective. In order to be able to think like your target audience, you’ll need a special recipe of empathy and intuition. Empathy is crucial for understanding the end-user and materializing their needs into a sleek design and satisfying user experience. Next to that, intuition is essential for filling the gaps that remain after the input of your target audience. This intuition is based on your experience with similar projects in the past, your knowledge about (design) practices and its potentials, and your ability to provide your own input, closely aligning with the vision of the end-user.

human-centered thinking & brainstorming

The purpose of design thinking

Design thinking involves a lot of contact with your target audience by means of surveys, questionnaires, interviews, and iterative testing. Because design thinking is based on Agile methodologies, recurring moments of testing and feedback are a core element in the process of conceptualizing, designing, and developing an application. The more testing the better, as each moment of testing and feedback provides new insights into how your target audience perceives your product, and what aspects you need to change in order to reach maximum satisfaction. It’s a way of working towards quality by means of quantity. A/B testing is an example of effective trials of Agile testing, using two different designs/prototypes and compare the effects of both on the end-user.

Five phases in the design thinking process

The five phases involved in the process of design thinking form a crucial framework of trial and error. That framework eventually provides the entire team involved in the process of product development with sufficient information to pick the right solution and create a viable end-product for the end-user, successfully competing with possible competitors. Important to keep in mind is the fact that the separate stages of the design thinking process aren’t bound to a specific order. They are intertwined with other phases and are repeated iteratively. It’s not a step-by-step manual you follow to reach an end-stage. The phases should be seen as different elements that contribute to the process of a project, rather than a leading guide.

five phases in design thinking

Phase 1: Empathize & understand

The first stage entails a process of empathizing, in which a designer gets familiar with the target audience and market. This stage might be the most essential stage, as it builds the fundamentals of the entire end-product. This stage is also the most human-centered, as it focuses fully on the end-user, who they are, their needs, and their visions. This moment of, let’s call it brainstorming, revolves around the core skill of practicing empathy in design thinking: interviewing. You need a defined list of human-centered questions for your target group, in order to encapsulate their exact needs and wishes. Examples of questions like these are:  

  • What is the specific need for this product and why do you think it adds something to the current market?
  • Why do you need this app, and how would you use it?
  • What tangible benefit will you receive from the app?
  • Next to a few basic main features, are there features you envision adding in the future?
  • How do you expect your target audience to behave within the app?

  These sample questions are fully focused on the experience of the end-user of the product. Only when it’s clear why and how the product will be used by your target audience, can you begin formulating fitting solutions.

Phase 2: Market research

The second stage is the definition stage, where you organise and conceptualise all information you have collected in the first stage. You want to find and define the problem, so you can start creating innovative problem-solving solutions. Next to the information you gathered based on the needs of your target audience, it’s also essential to look at your competitors in the form of extensive market research. It’s one thing to create an app that fits your end-users’ wishes, it’s another to make it stand out from existing competitors and make it more special and interesting than what’s already on the market.

Phase 3: Ideate, ideate, ideate

In the third stage of ideating, it’s up to you to come up with solutions based on your own intuition, experience, and skills. It’s the phase of filling in the gaps that got left behind after gathering input from the target market. If you’re on the right track, you have a clear image of what you are making, for whom, and how you’ll be making it. It’s now up to you to glue all that information together, and formulate a concrete step-by-step process towards your end-product.

Phase 4: Scale down & prototype

The fourth stage is all about prototyping. In other words, you create a scaled-down version of your end-product for your audience to try out. By now, you should have a clear image of how you want the product to look like, and how it’s supposed to function, based on your end-users’ input and your own intuitive additions and adaptations. A high-fidelity and interactive prototype must function in such a way it gives your target audience the opportunity to test it out like it is the actual finished product.

Prototypes slow us down to speed us up. By taking the time to prototype our ideas, we avoid costly mistakes such as becoming too complex too early and sticking with a weak idea for too long.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Important to keep in mind is the fact that prototypes and testable scaled-down versions of the end-product can vary in levels of fidelity. This can vary between a fully functional and already far developed product, and a so-called clickable demo of mockups with no code behind it whatsoever. The latter is generally easier to adapt to your user’s needs, because you don’t have the burden of starting your code from scratch if your end-user isn’t satisfied. However, a further developed interactive and functional prototype provides your users with a more precise model of the end-product, but it has the additional risk of wasting a lot of effort, money, and time on a prototype you’re not fully sure of if the end-user will like it.

Phase 5: Iterative testing

In the last stage, the iterative test stage, you deliver the scaled-down version of the end-product and let your target audience make a test-ride. In order to receive viable and useful user-feedback, you’ll need a defined list of questions you want to have answered, focused on the functionalities of your prototype and how users experience these functionalities. Like the entire concept of Agile and design thinking, prototyping isn’t a linear process. On the contrary, you and your end-users are very likely to test out multiple prototypes before you can agree on an end-solution.   Even after defining and conceptualising a fitting solution, there’s always space for improvement, like adjusting the design, adding new key features, or improving already existing features to make them more powerful and more aligned with the needs of your end-users. Once you have the validation of your users for the existing features, you can invest in more complex and advanced technologies, without the risk of having to begin from scratch if your users don’t like it. In the case of design thinking, but also growth hacking and other agile business strategies, failure is actually a good thing. You have to fall down a few times to know what and what not to do. Remember: quality is best achieved by quantity. This is exactly why this continuous improvement cycle is so important. Not only do you create a more precise image of the ideal end-product, you also raise the level of empathy and understanding with your end-user while going through this entire testing phase. Every obstacle within these phases will teach you more about how the end-user thinks, and vice versa. And that is precisely what you aim for within the process of design thinking.

Design thinking at Lizard Global

Lizard Global is what they call a “Lean Startup” that implements the philosophy of design thinking by means of Agile methodologies, which means that all our processes are focused on creating value for our clients and end-users. Our way of working consists of two core elements: the end-user problem, and the end-user solution. Design thinking is the leading force behind the end-user problem. As we explained in this blog, before we are able to define a fitting solution, we need to fully understand the problem. And to fully understand the problem, we have to empathize with our clients and end-users. Our end-user problem phase therefore consists of three parts: empathizing by means of human-centered questions, defining the problem based on our user’s answers, and defining a tailored solution.   When we successfully pass the phase of defining the end-user problem with the methodology of design thinking, we begin the development of our defined solution. We do this by means of Scrum Sprints, which consist of iterative processes of app development. We build, provide opportunities to test out our product, analyze the feedback of our end-users and improve. Every Sprint is based on that iterative and Agile process towards a perfect end-product.   The Agile process of prototyping at Lizard Global consists of a continuous flow of designing and developing, until we end up with an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) that can be released to the market. An MVP is a term based on the mentality of Lean startups, and focuses on collecting the maximum amount of knowledge from your end-users with the least possible effort. You create a minimum set of essential features, and build further on this after you receive feedback from your end-users. An MVP is a prototype at heart, but further in the process of development. Once we have gathered insights into our end-users and their feedback on our prototypes, we start creating an MVP. The core idea of MVPs is putting minimal effort into creating a functional product and sharing it with as many people as possible to receive as much viable feedback as possible. You can say that a prototype helps to understand the feasibility of a product, while an MVP revolves around validated learning about your target audience.   All the while as we develop the product, we use the practice of design thinking to achieve the best possible results. The concept of design thinking runs through our entire process of software development, from conceptualising an idea to designing and developing the product and guiding it onto the market. At Lizard Global, we involve every team member in our ideology of human-centered thinking and working. Our sales team, marketing team, product owners and project managers, UI/UX designers, and developers all highly value the input of our end-users in order to create the best innovative and sustainable solutions possible.