The 5 Key Stages of Design Thinking

Collin Harsin

Agile Product Development

Close Banner

Free Template & Financial Spreadsheet

Create your SaaS business plan

Sign Up

So you’ve got an idea that you believe is ready to prototype? You’ll want to follow the design thinking stages in the right order.

Consider creating one carefully. Because this is one of the biggest steps in design thinking.

Once you make a prototype, all its shortcomings are exposed to the world.

Are you prepared for that?

Just to make sure. Below is a brief overview of design thinking.

If you truly feel prepared you can skip to our prototyping section HERE.

What is Design Thinking?

infographic with 5 stages of design thinking

Design thinking is a 5-stage, nonlinear, and iterative process.

The 5 stages of design thinking are:

  1. Empathy

  2. Define

  3. Ideation

  4. Prototype

  5. Test

Each part of the process be repeated without having to restart from scratch. For example, if your prototype fails that doesn’t necessarily mean you begin again at Empathy. You can backtrack to Ideation or Define and continue from there.

However when you begin it always starts with Stage 1, Empathy.

The 5 design thinking stages

These are the main design thinking stages (and how to do them right):

Stage 1: Empathy

Design thinking is human centered and user focused.

To start design thinking correctly you need to create an empathetic understanding of your potential users.

Not to be confused with sympathy(showing concern for another person), empathy is about truly get into your customers shoes and relate at some level with them.

All of this information falls under qualitative research.

Qualitative- This includes listening to your customer while also noticing their behavior.

Some points to touch on with your end users include; their problem, motivations, how their situation effects them, etc.

There are 100s of questions to ask to gather this type of information.

Questions like:

How do you feel about this problem? Has anything come close to solving it? Why didn’t that satisfy you?

Your solution for solving a problem won’t succeed if you can’t relate to those who the problem effects.

Stage 2: Define

Which brings us to Stage 2; Define.

It goes without saying that you can’t solve a problem without understanding it.

This is where you combine quantitative and qualitative data to get a clear picture of the problem.

Quantitative- numbers and statistics. Often how business decisions are done. While overused in business; it does have its uses.

When looking for quantitative data, ask questions like:

What percentage of the population needs this product? What demographics would appreciate it?

With all this data, create a problem statement. These act as a north star that everyone in the org can get behind. Problem statements help keep the group on task.

Ways to format problem statements:

1. User’s perspective:

“I am a young working professional your organization probably looks a lot different through your clients’ and customers’ eyes than it does through employees’ and leaders”

Commercials done by startups often use this one. Because they try to solve problems they as consumers have.

2. User research perspective:

“Busy working professionals need an easy, time-efficient way to eat healthily because they often work long hours and don’t have time to shop and prepare meals.”

If you don’t share the user’s problem. This format may be easier to use.

Having trouble with 1&2 ?

The 4 W’s technique is plug and use. Simply list the 4 W’s and fill them in.

3. 4 W’s technique (who, what, where, why)

“Busy working professionals need an easy, time-efficient way to eat healthily because they often work long hours and don’t have time to shop and prepare meals.”

All these formats have proven effective, so try them out and see what resonates with you.

After you truly understand the problem, Stage 3 starts turning; Ideation.

Stage 3: Ideation

Quality over quantity goes right out the window here.

In a ideation session you want to air as many ideas as possible. No matter how bad. And you often want to look for the worst ones first, as we’ll go over later.

Ideation happens in sessions. And participating in one should be like entering a planet fitness; a judgment free zone.

At the Ideation stage, the goal is to rewire the problem solving portion of our brains.

  • You don’t want to be tried and true.

  • You don’t want to play it safe.

  • You want out of the box and wacky.

  • You want hilariously awful.

The Interaction Design Foundation explains further as to why we need to reset our minds.

Here are some tips for an Ideation session:

Choose a change of scenery.

Do you know how when you enter a familiar place your body reacts in a routine way?

For example: entering a doctors office might make you nervous, entering a football stadium might make you rowdy.

We have trained our bodies to do this; to release certain chemicals in select environments. Being at work is no different. There is a chemical work cocktail. This cocktail can hinder the Ideation process.

A change in scenery introduces new stimuli that aren't attached to the office. People will talk a little more freely and ideas will flourish.

Ice breakers

How else do you get the creative juices flowing?

Ice breakers help foster a laid back environment where people feel free to submit any idea.

Some great icebreakers are storyboarding, mind-mapping, and “worst possible ideas”.

Once you and your team work through a few ideation sessions. One idea will rise above the rest.

Now it’s time to prototype.

Stage 4: Prototype

Here’s where prototyping fits in!

The 4th stage in the design thinking machine is prototyping.

If you think of the first 3 stages as “what ifs?”

  • Empathize - What if this situation was different?

  • Define- What if we really dug into this problem?

  • Ideate- What if we tried all these solutions.

Then think of the prototype stage as the “what now?”.

This is where you take the agreed upon solution from the ideation sessions and create something that is the culmination of the first three stages.

How you handle prototyping will vary. However there are two main methodologies; throwaway and evolutionary prototyping.

Throwaway prototyping- first used in testing computer systems and software. An isolated part of the system was created, sent out for user testing, and promptly discarded. The feedback is then used to improve the main system. Paper prototyping is also considered throwaway prototyping. With computer companies such as IBM and Microsoft using it in the 1980’s. The hope being you won’t become attached to the prototype.

Evolutionary prototyping- after many rounds of iterative testing, the final product is built from the prototype. This is mainly used for large features or whole products. Where discarding it would not be resource effective.

Stage 5: Test

The testing stage is a crucial part of the design thinking process. It is during this phase that designers and stakeholders can evaluate and refine their prototypes based on feedback from users and other stakeholders.

The goal of testing is to gather valuable insights into the usability, functionality, and effectiveness of the prototype, and to identify any areas that require further development or improvement.

By testing early and often, designers can identify and correct issues before investing significant time and resources into a final product. This iterative approach allows for constant feedback and improvement, ensuring that the final product meets the needs of users and achieves the desired outcome. Ultimately, the testing stage is about validating assumptions, refining ideas, and creating a solution that truly meets the needs of the intended audience.

Goals of prototyping: Illicit feedback and validate the idea

Your prototype is a tangible product that is meant to elicit feedback.

The two groups whose feedback is the most important are: stakeholders and end users.

Stakeholder support is crucial to see your vision through. End users are who you're solving the problem for. They should be at the front of your mind throughout the whole process.

The benefits of a prototype far outweigh the risks. They can be cheap, easily customizable, generate real feedback, and can refocus the team. So rapid prototyping is recommended.

However there will be some bumps in the road. Your prototype won’t be on the same planet as perfect and people may not respond to it well. You will have to tweak it many times, and by the end you might get sick of looking at it.

Prototyping, like any part of design thinking, is iterative. So think of the inevitable obstacles as things that move you closer to your goal, not ones that stop you from reaching it.

5 steps to create a prototype led by design

Ready to go full Tony Stark montage?

Here are the steps to create a prototype in design thinking.

5 steps for creating a prototype led by design

1. Take inventory

A prototype is the culmination of everything your team can do and has learned through the design thinking process. While you may not get it right first try. You want to make sure you don’t handicap yourself.

This means:

  • Knowing your team’s abilities and where you are in the process.

A prototype created by a start up will look vastly different than one by a giant corporation. Embrace it. Don’t try to mimic anyone. That defeats the whole purpose of design thinking.

  • Keeping the end user’s problem statement in mind at all times.

Your prototype isn’t for you. It helps solve a problem end users have.

It also means asking yourself questions. Can your team afford to contract out the prototyping? Do you even want to? Will we be prepared to throw our prototype away if it fails?

These are just some of the questions you have to ask yourself before beginning the prototyping stage.

2. Create a list of features your prototype absolutely needs

Stick. To. The. List.

Don’t entertain any ideas of additions before the testing phase. It is very easy for ambition to get the best of us. But that can leave your team attached to the prototype and discouraged if it doesn’t succeed.

Keeping your prototype feature lean also allows for agile development , iterations to be made on the fly; without having to undo a ton of work.

3. Find a format that you believe best validates the idea

For digital products this can range from low-fidelity wireframes to high-fidelity interactable prototypes. Try a variety of forms and don’t marry yourself to one tool or form. If you are having issues with something, switch to another.

4. Build and test

See what the usability is like in the hands of shareholders and users. Take note of what they loved and what they hated. It’s as important to build on the good qualities as it is to fix the bad.

5. Repeat

Keep going. Take the feedback, iterate, and send it back out there. Don’t become attached to what the prototype is, become attached to what the final product can achieve.

3 Examples of design thinking prototypes

Need some inspiration? Take a look at these design thinking prototype examples.

Need some inspiration? Take a look at these prototypes from our design team here at DevSquad:

1. In-progress delivery routes

This product stock dashboard shows days until stock order, velocity, product name, and more.

In progress delivery prototype, design thinking prototype example

2. Product stock forecasting

This product stock dashboard shows days until stock order, velocity, product name, and more.

Product stock dashboard prototype, design thinking prototype example

3. Sales intelligence dashboard

With this sales team dashboard, sellers and managers can track their results.

Sales team dashboard prototype, design thinking prototype example

All of these prototypes are close to the final UX without the color, content, or interactivity. This way people can see what the final product will look like.

3 best tools for creating prototypes

Check out our favorite tools for building prototypes with design thinking.

1. Figma

Figma Landing page

If your trying out prototyping software, Figma is a great place to start and very popular with UX designers. Offering both a online whiteboard in Figma Jam and a all-in-one design hub in Figma itself. Their free option allows you to dip your toes in. And if you love it they have reasonably priced paid subscriptions.

2. Balsamiq

Blasamiq Landing page

If your looking to create your prototype with a paper aesthetic, look no further. Balsamiq is great for click through wireframes. While it doesn’t offer a free option, you can get 2 projects for 9 dollars a month. Long enough to see if you vibe with it.

3. Flinto

Flinto Landing page

Do you despise monthly subscriptions and pray at the church of Apple? Flinto may be just what your looking for. Offering a 99$ yearly license Flinto is made exclusively for IOS. Great for the solo innovator but may be a pass for those with design teams, as it lacks collaborative features.

Prototyping is a crucial step. And the step that has the most pitfalls. So getting it right not only allows prototyping to go smoothly. But also allows the momentum to continue in the testing phase. Good luck and get iterating.

Looking to build a digital product? Check out DevSquad.

Close Banner

Building a product?

Discover the DevSquad Difference

Learn More