User eXperience

What is design thinking in UX design?

UX designers use one or sometimes a combination of several frameworks to plan and execute UX processes in stages. One of the most popular of these frameworks is the design thinking framework.

Design thinking in UX is an approach to design that groups all activities into five stages: empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test. This framework aims to ensure that the designer makes innovative solutions by empathizing with users.

In this article, we will look at the design thinking framework in UX design, why it's so popular and how to implement it in your projects.

What is the meaning of design thinking?

Design thinking is a solution-oriented methodology designers use to make user-centric and creative products. Innovation and empathy are the core concepts in this framework.

Unlike problem-oriented processes, a solution-oriented framework lets designers focus on how to solve a problem rather than dwelling on the existence of the problem. They help you rapidly iterate over potential answers until you arrive at suitable and sometimes unique answers.

Design thinking is not exclusive to any profession, in fact, the idea evolved from several fields. Architects, businesses, engineers, etc, use its principles to craft more engaging and innovative products. This widespread adoption is for the right reasons— people want products that innovatively solve their existing problems.

The UX profession is not left out, user interfaces and usability have been the topic of much interest of late. When people interact with products they have certain expectations, and not meeting their expectations results in a bad experience. This inevitably costs the brands.

The first step in providing thoughtful solutions lies in truly understanding the people.

That is why the design thinking framework relies heavily on empathizing with users at various stages of the design process— first, to come up with ideas and then during several stages of refining those ideas into finished designs. The design thinking process is an iterative one.

Why is design thinking important for UX?

You could be wondering— what are the benefits of design thinking for UX designers, and why is it popular?
Below are some reasons why it is widely used:

More innovative products: being an innovation-centric framework, designers have enough room to solve problems in creative ways. By brainstorming ideas that are relevant to real problems, modern and delightful products emerge.

Develop trust with users: the main purpose of the designer thinking framework is to ensure designers have users in mind. By empathizing with them throughout the product lifecycle and making products that speak to them, users can develop trust with the brand.  

Reduce cost: another crucial advantage of a framework is that it streamlines the product design lifecycle to only relevant exercises. Following a framework helps designers channel their resources only to valid information from research thereby reducing waste.

Speed: this goes hand in hand with cost, a framework like design thinking has a clear and well-set-out approach for solution creation. Following these steps leads to faster development of relevant products.

So, now that you have gotten down much of the foundational knowledge, how exactly do UX designers implement the design thinking framework? You might be asking. Let us examine the stages.


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The 5 stages of the design thinking framework

The design thinking methodology captures its core principles of user-centeredness and innovation in five stages. By following these stages, UX designers can easily center the user in the product-making process while injecting optimal creativity.

Design Thinking process by the IDF website
Design thinking stages - image from IDF


Being a people-focused approach to problem-solving, the first step of the design thinking framework is to empathise with people.

Empathy simply means understanding the thoughts, feelings and motivations of the users.

Though the designer already has vague ideas, the empathy stage helps them flesh these ideas out into real problems. In summary, designers empathise with the target audience to find out the problems they face and then design innovative solutions.

On the surface, this is plainly a difficult task as it sounds like you need some serious mind-reading skills to pull it off.  However, there are principles of design thinking and tools that designers use to make the task possible.

Interviews, surveys, user testing, etc, are different tools designers employ to understand the user's perspective and always center them and their needs in the product-making process.

And the interesting thing is— a lot of times, designers might identify the wrong problems or end up designing the wrong solutions, this is why the design thinking process is an iterative one — it makes room for designers to refine and align the products with the actual needs of the users through their prolonged engagement on different stages of product development.

In the empathy stage, the designer tries to understand the user by asking questions:

  • What is the problem of the user?
  • Why do they have such a problem?
  • How do they experience it?

Then using the information from users, the designer creates tools that can help them better see things from the user's perspective, some of them include: empathy maps, user journey maps, user personas, etc.

Example of user persons
User persona based on research data - Image from Venngage


After interacting with the target audience, the next step of the process is to identify their problem. The empathy stage is useless if you fail to develop your feedback into actual problems in this stage.

That is why careful procedures need to be followed, and the designers need to ensure they don't introduce any sort of bias.

Biases in research data are a big challenge to identifying real problems, unfortunately, it is difficult for humans to avoid them. However, there are guidelines for conducting research objectively, e.g, using open-ended questions instead of yes/no variants, strategically avoiding well-known biases such as recency and primacy bias, etc.

The Define stage of the design thinking process is all about creating the problem statement.
A problem statement refers to one or two sentences that describe the problem a user is facing. It represents in very clear terms:

  • Who the user facing a problem is.
  • What the problem is.
  • Where they are facing the problem.
  • How they face the problem.

Another tool, the goal statement represents the possible solution to that problem. This statement which is based on the problem statement clearly states:

  • Who the user in need of the product/solution is.
  • What product/solution they need.
  • Where they are.
  • How the impact of the product will be measured.

These statements are necessary to guide the designer into the next stage of the design process. Without identifying the problems and clearly stating them, the efforts in the Ideate stage might amount to nothing as the designer will likely end up going in the wrong direction.

If design thinking was a journey, think of the Define stage as a signpost that points the designers in the direction of what they need to make.  


At the heart of design thinking in UX is innovation, as the name suggests, designers have to do a lot of thinking. The hyper-emphasis on innovative thinking is one factor that sets this framework apart from others.

Typical design thinking projects involve designers engaging in design sprints to churn out as many ideas as conceivable. Note: the goal of this ideation stage is not to create groundbreaking ideas, it's to create as many ideas as possible at great speed.

Then through several iterations and future tests, the best of these ideas are made into finished products.

The creativity of UX designers comes into play here. Using the problem and goal statements derived from the previous stage, designers try to creatively produce many ideas that can solve the user's problems.

To aid designers in maximising their creativity, there are several popular tools in use in the ideation stage. For instance, designers could use:

Competitive research: this is similar to market research, here, the designer tries to find similar products already existing in the market.

The Crazy eight technique: this is a design sprint technique that involves sketching eight versions of what a concept can look like, each under one minute.  

Image of the crazy 8 tecnique on paper

Storyboarding: involves using pictorial stories to plot out the entire user's journey while experiencing a product.  

Storyboarding of an ordering food app
Storyboarding of an ordering food app

User flows: charts that represent the path users have to take for the maximum positive experience. User flows make use of shapes similar to a flow chart.

How might we?: This is another ideation technique that involves trying to come up with several answers to "how might we" questions e.g. how might we add feature X to satisfy the needs of users?


At the end of the ideation phase, the designers ideally should have key ideas that can stand as solutions to the problems identified in the empathy stage.

In this stage, the designers translate these ideas into a visual layout that users can interact with.

A prototype is not a finished product— far from it, a prototype is an early sample or model built to test early concepts. The iterative nature of the design thinking methodology enables the designers to continually improve this visual layout until it meets the user's expectations.

There are two major kinds of prototypes that user experience designers make:

Low-Fidelity (Lo-Fi) wireframes: these represent the initial ideas obtained from ideation. They are usually in the form of wireframes— visual layouts with no color, design elements or text. They are used to depict the interaction design of a product. Interaction designers use wireframes to test early concepts of the product's navigation and ease of use.  

Low Fidelity Wireframes example - Image from Gravitate design
Image of Low fidelity wireframes - image from Gravitate

High-Fidelity (Hi-Fi) design: after several tests and improvements in the low-fidelity wireframes, the designers develop a high-fidelity prototype.

This is a close representation of what the final product will look like. At this point, the visual designers use UI design principles to combine elements like color, typography and others. Through subsequent tests, this is refined to a final version ready for release.

Example of High Fidelity design for a SaaS tool

Note: the fidelity of a design means how close it is to the expected finished version. Therefore, low fidelity means it's far from the final version and high fidelity means the opposite.  


Tests are very important in the design thinking process. Because it is through them that designers gather feedback to refine their ideas. Interaction designers perform tests using low-fidelity prototypes and visual designers also test their high-fidelity mockups.

The UX design thinking process makes product refinement a priority. Designers need to see how their innovation plays out in the hands of the target users.

  • Are the users satisfied?
  • Is there a better way we could do this?
  • How intuitive was the navigation?

These are some pressing questions designers attempt to answer through close observation of the user's interaction with their prototypes.

Sometimes, feedback can necessitate changing the entire structure of the product, other times the addition of simple elements could be all that is necessary. Whatever the case might be, tests are the major way to continually ensure that users are not left behind.

The type of test that deals with users interacting with a prototype is popularly called a usability test. Usability tests involve trying to capture user behaviour while using the product, e.g, their expressions, click patterns, etc.

These tests can be moderated or unmoderated.

Moderated tests involve physically observing participants as they use your product and taking down observations on the go. On the other hand, unmoderated tests do not require the physical presence of the designer. They can be video recordings or performed through other tools for usability testing like Maze.


The UX design thinking process is backing up many of the innovative products being made today. As a UX designer, this is an important tool you need to understand and use to build your projects. With this framework, you can achieve creative designs that are all about the user.