Think Like A Designer Even if You Aren’t One (Yet)

Design thinking sounds fancy, but it’s something you already know how to do!

YOU are a designer, even if you don’t think you are (yet).

No, maybe you don’t have an eye for visual design or possess all of the industry-standard web design tools. What you do have is the thought process of a designer. Let me explain.

Design thinking is a fancy-sounding methodology used in the design process to solve complex problems. Don’t get too caught up on the “design” in design thinking. The methodology is used across a wide range of fields, from education to engineering.

Not convinced yet? We believe that you’re capable of thinking like a designer. Here’s how to up your design thinking and dive into the mindset of a designer.

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What Is Design Thinking?

First things first, design thinking is a tool for ideation and innovation.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to a challenge that prioritizes the user experience. This approach is a non-linear framework that centers on the user’s pain points and seeks to solve those pain points.

“By employing design thinking, we combine what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows those who aren’t trained as designers to use creative techniques, methods, and mindsets to address a vast range of challenges,” according to IDEO U.

Design thinking is typically deployed by teams to better understand a problem and align on goals, but you’ve likely practiced the framework on an individual level.

Still skeptical? There’s more in store. Check out design thinking in practice below with a concise breakdown of the multi-step process.

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Design Thinking Process

A circular graph depicting the five stages of design thinking

Design thinking is an iterative, five-stage process, according to The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Standford.

Each stage fits into one of two categories: convergent and divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is about generating as many ideas as possible, without worrying about whether the ideas are high quality. Divergent thinking is the ultimate brain dump — a practice even non-designers may have done at some point. See, you already think like a designer. 😉 Convergent thinking is where those divergent ideas are organized and refined.

Let’s walk step-by-step through the design thinking framework.

Stage 1: Empathize

The biggest skill UX designers need is NOT technical… it is emotional. UX designers need to empathize with their users to create human-centered solutions, so it’s no surprise that the very first stage in the design thinking process is empathy, which is categorized as divergent thinking.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

“Instead of seeing its primary objective as consumption, design thinking is beginning to explore the potential of participation — the shift from a passive relationship between consumer and producer to the active engagement of everyone in experiences that are meaningful, productive, and profitable,” states IDEO Executive Chairman Tim Brown in “Designers — think big!

Empathy should sound familiar, but if not, consider a time when you’ve expressed support or care for a family member or friend. Maybe you tried to walk a mile in their shoes or listened to their grievances. Congratulations! You’ve practiced empathy and the first stage of design thinking.

In terms of the design process, UX teams practice empathy by conducting UX research, creating storyboards, drafting empathy maps, and crafting user personas.

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Stage 2: Define

The second stage of the design thinking approach is to define the problem. This step of the process is classified as convergent thinking because it seeks to focus and narrow the divergent ideas created during the empathize stage.

To define the problem, UX designers answer the 5 W’s and H — who, what, when, where, why, and how — then create a problem statement.

This is a step you also may take in your life. For example, a problem statement that many people may ask themselves at some point in their life is, “how might I get to bed early so I can go to the gym before work?” Substitute any problem statement that comes to mind for further evidence that you are a design thinker.

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Stage 3: Ideate

Next, UX designers use the problem statement as a basis for brainstorming solutions. Inherently, problem-solving is a divergent thinking practice in the design process, so designers are encouraged to think BIG and innovate. Designers and non-designers are encouraged to think outside the box during ideation sessions to produce innovative solutions for unique problems.

Remember, design thinking is a methodology that you’ve used in your real life. Let’s go back to our previous problem statement.

I am training to run a marathon and it’s imperative that I go to the gym three times a week. Thus, the problem statement: “How might I get to bed early so I can go to the gym before work?” In real-time, I brainstorm a list of things I can do to reach that goal.

  • Set a bedtime alarm
  • Turn down the overhead lights
  • Take a warm shower
  • Try melatonin
  • Read a book
  • Turn off phone
  • Journal
  • Drink a warm beverage

And because this stage is about creativity, I may throw in a few wild cards like investing in a water bed or a new medical treatment.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it is. Designers are tasked with getting down to the nitty-gritty pain points of real users and creating real-world solutions, not pushing a preconceived idea onto an end-user.

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Stage 4: Prototype

The ideation phase encourages creativity and innovation; the prototype phase follows as a process of refining those ideas. Make no mistake — while there are no wrong answers, some solutions are definitely better than others. The prototype stage seeks to weed out the good ideas from the great solutions.

“Now, prototypes speed up the process of innovation, because it is only when we put our ideas out into the world that we really start to understand their strengths and weaknesses. And the faster we do that, the faster our ideas evolve,” according to Tim Brown.

Prototypes are first-stage rough drafts of the final product. They should be functional, but by no means should you feel pressured to lock in the final product. UX designers may create low-fidelity websites or smartphone apps. For my early morning wake-up call, I may draft a nighttime routine to stay on schedule or create a meal plan to simplify evenings. Choose your best idea, create a prototype, and get ready to test.

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Stage 5: Test

Lastly, you MUST test your prototype, whether it’s a web design, product, service, or routine.

This step is the ultimate evaluation of your solution. During the testing phase, UX designers solicit feedback from real users to better understand the user experience. Design teams can also better inform their design thinking for the next stage of the process.

Testing is the “final” step in the design thinking process, but it does not stop here. Design thinking is an iterative process. If a test fails, design teams return to their ideation session, prototype new solutions, and test. Or reconsider the project and complete more user research to redefine the problem.

In my real-world example, I would try turning down the lights at sunset and drinking hot chamomile tea for a week while logging my results. Then, I would try turning off my phone and reading a book instead of scrolling on my phone late into the evening. I would continue this testing process until I found a solution for me.

Design thinking is simply a framework for problem-solving. You are capable of implementing this methodology in all areas of your life or leveraging it into a design career.

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You Are A Design Thinker

There’s a design thinker inside of you, whether you’re an engineer, educator, marketer, or fitness instructor. We know that for sure. We also know that you have a place in tech.

If you’re eyeing web design or if design thinking intrigues you, consider taking our three-minute tech quiz to find out if the tech industry is right for you!

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Desiree Cunningham

Desiree Cunningham is an impassioned writer and editor and the Senior Content Marketing Manager at Skillcrush. She has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications and a MA in English, both from Arizona State University. When she's not working with words, you can find her caring for her house plants, reading, or practicing Pilates.