Design thinking principles for UX designers

To create user-friendly and useful products and services, you need to understand the needs of those for whom they are intended. Design thinking can help you dive deep into the customer experience, ask the right questions, and solve problems creatively. In this article, we'll help you understand what design thinking is, why a UX designer needs it, and which steps it consists of.

What is design thinking


Design thinking is a method and process for solving specific problems, which helps to understand the user, make sense of their problem and find alternative solutions. The correct translation of the word 'design' in the term is to design, construct and create something new.

Most importantly, design thinking focuses on the needs and demands of the individual, not the state, the organisation or managers on the client side.

The idea of design thinking was formulated by Herbert Simon in 1969 in his book Artificial Intelligence. Later, Stanford University scientists developed it and founded Stanford, "a place for researchers and experimenters," which popularizes this approach.

In some companies design thinking is becoming a paradigm and even an ideology, for example at Google, where teams of researchers and developers use this method to come up with and test new ideas.

At the heart of design thinking are three principles:

  1. Empathy: the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes, to understand their feelings and emotions;
  2. Breadth of thinking: the ability to grasp a problem as a whole, and in every possible detail;
  3. Experimentation: the willingness to try, make mistakes and try again.

What is the relationship between design thinking and UX design?

There are many similarities between design thinking and UI/UX design. This is the focus on user needs and managing user empathy. In interface design, the common steps would be the research, prototyping and testing phases.
However, there is a difference between these close concepts. Design thinking focuses on finding solutions to the issues that are troubling the customer, exploring the technical feasibility of possible options.  
Whereas UX design is concerned directly with the implementation of these solutions in terms of usability, accessibility, and increasing user confidence.

How design thinking helps solve UX design problems?

This method is suitable for creating human-centred products and services. It is used to overcome stereotypes and solve problems, often by thinking outside the box.  
Most often, design thinking is used in UX/UI design and development when creating the structures and interfaces of websites and apps. But this method is not only suitable for digital products. It can be used in any area where a specific user problem needs to be solved: from designing a business centre to renovating a park area, from improving the working conditions of couriers to organising logistics at closed borders.

Design thinking works to the benefit not only of end consumers but also of businesses:
  • Helps grow loyal customers because they get a product that is tailored to their interests.
  • Stimulates a culture of innovation in the company because it fosters creative thinking in teams.
  • Accelerates product launches and helps avoid unnecessary waste because painstaking research and free experimentation create successful and viable solutions.

The stages of design thinking

There are six stages in the design thinking process, which can be divided into two phases:
  • Divergent (when information is gathered and different solutions are discovered);
  • Convergent (when one analyses the whole set of ideas and identifies a solution).
Next, let's look at the phases themselves:

The design thinking process goes through six stages:

1. Empathy


A valuable skill is to be able to understand what users do, what their motivation is, what really matters to them and what their problems are. This skill is called empathy, conscious empathy.

A designer has to work in a fast-paced environment where the ability to quickly offer a solution and implement it is valued. In such a context, questions like "Why should we solve this problem?" or "How did you notice this problem?" are perceived as obstacles that slow down the work process. But the same questions help to better understand the causes of the problem and the users' needs.

At this stage, the user's experience and the context in which it is located are examined, their wants and motivations are ascertained, and their requests are identified. The goal is to gather enough information to be able to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” and thus understand the user's problems.

In order to find the points, which are cause for concern, research must be carried out. Research is divided into primary and secondary, according  to the method used to collect information: 
  1. Primary - direct interaction: interviews, observation, conducting experiments;
  2. Secondary - obtaining information from open sources: statistics, trends, media publications. If we are talking about website development, we need to look at competitors' websites, print products, research styles, analyse trends.

2. Focusing


After "empathy," the researchers process all the information they have received and highlight the user's main problem. The point of this step is to formulate a specific issue for further work. 
The focus mode is otherwise known as Point-of-View (POV). The step is to bring together three elements: the user, the user's needs in the context of the problem, and the insight.  
By visualising users as specific people rather than as a socio-demographic mass, you begin to understand who you are working for. Therefore, you need to compose a generalised image of a persona from the characteristics of different users (composite user). 
It is important to visually frame key observations. This is often done by using walls on which stickers with important findings, specific quotes, are glued.
The findings are grouped into clusters based on the similarity of problems. Based on these clusters, a "point of view" is formulated. For example: How can we help a specific person to do something with the service?

3. Idea generation

This is the stage of finding multiple solutions to the single question "How can we help...?", which are derived from the definition of the problem. 
The generation mode allows for all kinds of insights and all kinds of answers. The plurality of ideas allows one to :
  • to discard obvious solutions, increase creativity;
  • to make a collective decision that draws on the strengths of the whole team;
  • to discover sectors that were previously off the radar screen;
  • to create a pool of inherently diverse out-of-the-box approaches.

Active teamwork is like brainstorming. A team of experts from different disciplines must come together in one room in order to fruitfully generate any concepts. Ideas cannot be criticised or discarded at this stage.
Prototyping or mock-up building are used to generate ideas. Bodystorming, mind-mapping and sketches can also be used.

4. Choosing an idea

From all the ideas collected, one should be chosen and concentrated on . To do this, the selected ideas are put through a filter: the selection criteria are formulated. They can be: most impressive, most unexpected, rational. If there are several criteria, each one should have a weight. The criteria ensure that the innovation potential accumulated in the idea generation mode is not lost.
The team votes for one solution or combines several ideas into one.

5. Prototyping

Once a decision has been made, the team begins to confirm or refute its hypotheses.
At this stage, they create prototypes using improvised materials and simple tools to determine the viability of the idea. These prototypes should be cheap and quick so that the idea can be scrapped if it does not work.

Why prototyping is important:
  • increases visibility. One picture is worth a thousand words, one prototype is worth a thousand pictures;
  • reduces the cost of unsuitable solutions;
  • helps you test several options at a time;
  • allows you to highlight variable conditions for testing.

When prototyping, stick to three rules:
  1. Prototype with the user in mind. What do you want to test, what response do you expect?
  2. Identify the conditions you want to change. What exactly is being tested with each prototype?
  3. Don't spend too much time on one prototype, move on to the next prototype before you have time to become attached to the previous one.

6. Testing

Testing helps you get to know the user better, delve deeper into the problem you're working on, and understand whether it's worth developing an MVP. Here it is important to understand how successfully the chosen solution confronts reality. Sometimes testing reveals that the wrong solution was found because the problem was not accurately formulated.

The prototype is given to the user and they observe how they interact with the product. And be sure to record comments: what they find comfortable and what they don't like and why.
If it's about the experience, create a scenario that unfolds around a real situation. If a real situation is not possible, create a situation that is as close to the real situation as possible.

Two approaches to testing
  • Observe: give the user a prototype and watch what they do.
  • set a task: perform a targeted action, such as planning a holiday itinerary with the app.

During testing, ask potential customers what they don't like about your solution and why.
The purpose of testing is to discover inconveniences in use and to understand why they occur. They may not be isolated.

Prototypes assume you are right, but testing will show where you are wrong.
Often developers guess where you need to perfect it, but sometimes discoveries are made. It also makes it easier to understand priorities. If you get three requests a day for "How do I connect to the domain?" This is a clear sign that something needs to change.

You can develop an MVP (minimum value product), release the first version and do more in-depth testing. There is no point in releasing something if nothing is in demand; you need to go back and generate ideas. You have to accept that there will be setbacks, but be grateful that they are minor.

Testing saves resources. Test on time and don't invest a lot of money in development and implementation. The main thing to remember is that development is an ongoing process. You can repeat the whole process, or you can repeat individual steps.

It's not possible to release a perfect product. Users, the environment, the economy, and the political landscape all change. A product has to constantly evolve and survive. There are internal and external reasons for this. More iterations lead to better solutions. You go from a broad concept to a concrete solution that helps real people make their lives easier and more comfortable.

How a UX designer can develop design thinking


Often, the designer is perceived as a doer: developers, marketers, and managers make the decisions, and the designer follows instructions and implements their ideas. This is the wrong attitude. Good design thinking helps to identify multiple solutions to a problem, identify hidden user needs and propose the best solution. 
By developing empathy and the ability to identify the client's needs, perceiving exactly what they are trying to convey and not distorting it through the prism of their perception, you will eventually reach a high bar in your practical work.

The question is, how do you develop this design thinking?

Knowing how to ask in such a way that your desire to help is obvious is a matter of experience and self-confidence. It takes constant practice: the more you do, the better you get. On the experience design course we go through the stages of design thinking in detail, from asking the right questions during the brief to prototyping and testing. Then there's a primer from our ICS team on how to develop design thinking while improving your skills.

Asking questions that will speak to users

Talk to people about what is bothering them. Ask questions about the problem you want to solve, not about the idea. First of all, you need to learn how to listen to the person you are talking to. Understand their emotions, what is going on with them, what their needs are. Then you need to accept this information. Do not argue and impose your point of view, but take what you hear as a given.

To do this we recommend:

  1. Pretend that you don't have a lot of information and that you don't understand anything. Then the person immediately tells more and more willingly.
  2. This level of ignorance allows you not to impose your view of the world and to be as neutral as possible.
  3. Asking five questions "why?" This may look silly, but it allows you to get to the heart of why the user cares about certain aspects of an issue.
  4. Ask indirect questions. For example, ask the person to tell you about the last time they went on holiday, what they liked, what was wrong. In this way, the person will quickly reveal what is important to them.
  5. Avoid closed-ended questions - those that suggest "yes" or "no" answers. How often does the interlocutor encounter a problem? What are the consequences? What is he or she doing now to deal with it?

Foster an atmosphere for generating ideas


In order to gain as many ideas as possible, you need to

  1. Eliminate criticism. When a person hears criticism, they have a defensive reaction and fear blocks the creative flow.
  2. Gather diverse players. It is good to have people from different backgrounds participating in the discussion.
  3. Use the "yes and..." principle. A technique where you unconditionally accept a colleague's idea and develop it. Everyone loves their own ideas and rejects those of others. You need to train your inner sensor so that when you hear someone else's idea, you don't say: “what  nonsense”, but can genuinely agree and propose a development option.

Practice generating ideas

Anyone can come up with a good idea. You don't have to be a genius to do this, you just need to know the right techniques to help you awaken your creativity and ingenuity.

Take note of the following idea generation techniques:

  • Scamper methodology. It sets a certain direction for thinking. It allows you to produce results precisely when free-thinking is not working. In its extended form, it consists of 60 questions and 200 associative words.
  • Six Thinking Hats. This is an advanced version of the classic brainstorming game. It is playful, allows you to look at a task from different angles, and improves intra-team interaction. Each participant alternately "wears" one of the hats, i.e. thinks about the problem from one of the 6 angles.
  • Focal object method. It consists in mentally transposing characteristics of randomly selected objects onto the subject under consideration.
  • Reverse brainstorming. Its essence is that you are not looking for ideas of how to solve a given problem, but how to cause it, and what you can do to achieve the desired effect. This allows you to loosen up your brain and make the brainstorming process easier and more enjoyable.
  • The morphological box method. It is based on breaking down an object into its constituent elements, for which different designs are specified. All this is entered into a table, and then new combinations are searched for, which sometimes give rise to completely unexpected ideas.

Select ideas with the greatest potential

Criteria must be defined to clearly establish the suitability of an idea.
Depending on the specific business, the criteria may differ, but we offer a generalised version:
  • Usefulness for customers;
  • Technical feasibility;
  • The possible profits from the sale.
You can also add your own criteria, but don't overdo it so as not to delay the process too much.

Exercise in prototyping

Ideally, the prototype should be as simple as possible. The following will help:
  1. Storytelling. Make a presentation of the idea, but in the form of a story, more human.
  2. Cardboard and paper mock-ups: cool stuff, you can create interfaces, interiors. Allows you to create a lot of solutions quickly and very cheaply.
  3. Storyboard. Draw a frame-by-frame use case.
  4. Stop-motion. If the product does not yet exist, a video can be shot to convey the atmosphere, the conditions in which it will work.
  5. Bodystorming. To portray the service with the help of people. For instance, a service for travelers is invented which adjusts itself to the user's needs and finds interesting events in different parts of the world. A skit is played out: one person portrays the system, another person portrays the user.;


To make a prototype for a startup, it's handy to use frameworks (software that facilitates the development and integration of different components of a large software project) and prototype code. The most popular is Bootstrap. Instead of drawing, ready-made components are used to quickly assemble a page: input fields, buttons, and so on.

In addition, services can be used to create prototypes:

  • programmes: Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, Sketch 3. There are also programmes for mobile devices to add interactivity to static layouts.


It is extremely promising for an aspiring UX designer to develop design thinking. This will allow you to create a product look that elicits maximum loyalty. Quality user pain research, problem formulation, and idea generation helps to avoid unnecessary waste by testing early in the product launch.

The best ways to develop design thinking are:
  1. Learn to conduct in-depth interviews, identifying real user problems;
  2. learn techniques for creative idea generation;
  3. learn how to create prototypes, both with the help of services and programs and with improvised means.
  4. Improve their skills at specialised courses for UX designers with feedback from industry experts.