The word ‘design’ might seem misleading at first, however, Design Thinking is not just about designing — at least not in the strict sense of the word; nor just for designers. In recent years, people from every walk of life, and every profession or discipline, have been adopting this mindset. 

What is Design Thinking?

Such was the case with SaaS startup teams and entrepreneurs, who embraced Design Thinking when they discovered that a designer’s creative approach to problem-solving was actually what was missing all along, in newly founded startups. Up until then, startup teams did not really understand their customers, nor the problems they were facing; therefore, they could not empathize, and offer solutions. Everything changed when Design Thinking came into the picture.

But, let’s take things from the start, to understand what Design Thinking is, and what it has to offer to aspiring startup teams and their customers.

What is Design Thinking?

At its core, Design Thinking is a creative, user-centered, problem-solving process. It revolves around empathizing with customers and the challenges they face, in an attempt to readdress these challenges in alternative ways that ultimately lead to innovative solutions. 

Design Thinking allows teams to explore problems that their users can’t solve, because, more often than not, they are uncertain, and vague. Teams tackle these problems through a five-stage process — which we’ll see in more detail below — that involves empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing. Ideally, the process doesn’t end in testing; adding an evaluation stage certainly makes for a more wholesome Design Thinking process.

The 5 and a half stages in Design Thinking

As it happens with any problem-solving approach, Design Thinking needs to follow a certain process, in order to solve a problem. This process progresses through five stages, followed by a measuring, and evaluating phase. It is important to note here, that the stages in Design Thinking are not necessarily sequential. 

Besides, this is a creative process and, although it requires a structure, it also requires freedom to maneuver through the stages in a ‘disorderly’ manner; of course, based on the project undertaken, and its particularities. So let’s see the stages one by one, to get an idea.

Observe and Empathize with users

Empathy is crucial to the Design Thinking process; it allows teams to step into their customer’s shoes and gain insights into their needs and problems. This is probably the most immersive stage, where the customer’s problem becomes the team’s problem. Thankfully, design thinkers know that every problem has a solution; but, where can they start putting two and two together?

Typically, the process of finding the solution starts with research. This involves observing, gathering, and recording any useful information from reliable sources — such as, experts in the area of concern or people who faced similar problems and managed to overcome them.

Define user needs

This is the stage where the team starts analyzing, and synthesizing everything they’ve gathered during the “empathize” stage, to make problem statements; that is, to define the main problems of their customer — which may deviate from what was assumed to be the initial set of problems. In this stage, design thinkers usually create personas to keep in touch with the human aspect of this intricate problem-solving journey.

Ideate, turning problems into questions

After the team has understood their customer’s pains and defined their needs, they can, at last, start making the right questions. To put it another way, these are the questions that will help start forming the solutions. This is the “thinking outside the box” stage, where the team brainstorms to come up with new ideas that may lead to the solution of the problem statement they’ve previously created.

Prototype for unmet needs

The team, then, starts experimenting upon these ideas, usually producing low-cost, scaled-down prototypes of the product. That’s how they examine whether the ideas they’ve generated can meet the customer’s needs. Afterward, drawing from the UX data, the prototypes are either:

  • accepted, and further tested
  • improved, and re-examined, or 
  • rejected. 

Test and learn

In this stage, design thinkers start testing the accepted prototypes to generate results. However, these results may not be the final solution. Upon examining the findings, they often realize that they need to redefine the problem — to understand the product, and its users better. So, even during this phase — which might be considered initially as final — they can make alterations and refinements. It’s the only way to rule out solutions with hidden weak spots that would have otherwise proven to be ineffectual, in the long run.

Evaluate and share your findings (this is the “half” stage)

Design Thinking is an iterative process. This means that design thinking teams are always focused on finding the optimal solutions and share their findings. And there’s no better way to do that, than evaluating what they’ve got so far. So, they tend to return — time and again — to previous stages, to make further iterations, alterations and refinements, in order to find new, better solutions. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the goal throughout the entire Design Thinking process is to gain the deepest possible understanding of the users. After all, this is a continuous process, where design thinkers are in constant search of gaps in the deliverables, to tweak their product to perfection. 

Why is Design Thinking so important? (And what does it offer?) 

Today, more than ever, products, services, processes, teams, and even entire startups are in need of transformation. Yet, transformation can only be achieved by sloughing off whatever is of no use anymore and creating something new; something better. 

This entails looking failure in the eye and seeing an opportunity for novelty. Design Thinking embraces this mindset, helping teams tackle any challenges, using inspiration and experimentation.

An assistant in User eXperience (UX) design

The main objective of the Design Thinking process is to meet the customers’ needs, and solve their problem(s). To do so, as mentioned, the team needs to have the human aspect, and (human) requirements in mind. How are these requirements satisfied? Through user experience design, of course. To that end, Design Thinking offers the mindset — and tools — to provide a seamless UX to customers.

Science leads the way

Design Thinking depends on data, analytics, practical experimentation and examination to bring about desirable changes and find innovative solutions. That goes to say, whereas art is inspiration and creation, here, science is the compass; a stepping stone to gain different perspectives, to see opportunities in adverse situations and expand their knowledge.

Dealing with the unknown

The unknown, for Design Thinking, equals opportunities to learn and grow. It’s through the unknown that design thinkers draw ideas and get inspired. Indeed, ideas are conceived in the womb of the unknown. One cannot be creative without having a space to create, right? That space, in Design Thinking, is the unknown; the place to turn to, to make ideas tangible, tackle ambiguous problems, create prototypes and find solutions.

Thinking “outside the box” 

Vital to the design thinking process, ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking is observing problems through a wider lens, to explore, discover and redefine. Thinking ‘outside the box’ is a crucial part of the ideation process — closely linked to the element of the unknown — where teams bring the true nature of the customer’s problem to light, discard old assumptions and put new ideas into action. 

Innovating and disrupting

Disruptive innovation lies at the heart of Design Thinking. That’s how Design Thinking itself was developed, in the first place. Today, Design Thinking is changing the way startup companies bring value to their customers; as it brings the focus from the product to the person (the human aspect); and from the cumbersome machine-centered reality to the world of positive user experiences.

Storytelling as a superpower

For design thinkers, storytelling is a powerhouse of inspiring, insightful communication. Design Thinking focuses on asking questions, analyzing, synthesizing, and empathizing with the needs and problems of customers. The only way for teams to achieve this is to step outside their microcosm, and dive into the customer’s world. Hence, storytelling is the process that bridges the gaps between the aforementioned elements. 

To elaborate, storytelling is a means of sharing experiences, and knowledge. It is a creative way to explain and gain perspective — often through the use of personas; and, by extension, learn through vivid verbal — and implicit visual — accounts. 

A paradigm shift in how a project is conducted, with Design Thinking

Inspirations, Ideation and Implementation

For a design thinking team, inspiration, ideation and implementation are three core activities to solve problems, in a human-centered way. In fact, the team is always on the lookout for inspiration and new ideas to put to the test. So, when they take on a project, it’s important for them to remain open and inquisitive; also, to take nothing for granted and to see ambiguity as an opportunity for progress. 

Desirability, Feasibility and Viability

Having an open heart and mind, design thinkers feel the customers’ pains and desires, and immerse themselves in their story. They draw on the customers’ desirability to examine whether these desires can be realized technologically; and, whether they are financially sustainable

Create choices, make decisions

After coming to a conclusion, regarding the user’s desires and whether they can work on realizing them, it’s time to set off the “thinking outside the box” process. This is a critical phase where the team brainstorms and zooms on as many different ideas as possible. 

After collecting and sorting these ideas, the team starts to synthesize, looking for patterns that can lead to solutions; or opportunities for iterations. All in all, by the end of this phase, decisions have to be made regarding the product, and how it can be modified to offer an enhanced user experience.

Hope, Insight and Confidence

In Design Thinking, if one is to unlock greater potential and learn how to creatively solve problems, hope, insight and confidence are key. These three elements help tap into a higher level of creativity. What we mean by that is deeply understanding the problems of the other (user), making a ‘mantra’ out of them, and believing that the solution is out there — waiting to be found.

It’s a non-linear process

It’s important to highlight, again, that there’s no rule on following the stages of Design Thinking in the exact sequence they’re usually presented. And with good reason, as Design Thinking is a creative, flexible, non-linear process. That being the case, its stages can occur in any order — some may even occur simultaneously — and can be repeated iteratively.

Design Thinking in Lean Startup

At first glance, Design Thinking and Lean Startup seem to be mutually exclusive, however, the two methods are highly complementary. What’s more, together, they’re part of a holistic innovation mechanism. To elaborate on this, let’s have a look at the points where both approaches converge:

  • They both serve customers’ needs; while aiming to innovate in the face of uncertainty. 
  • Both include tinkering, tweaking, and testing.
  • They promote the idea of being willing to fail often — and, as early as possible — along the process. 
  • Both offer the tools to come up with new concepts, features, and products.
  • Also, they’re all about learning as much as possible from customers, and the market.
  • And, they both embrace the notion of iteration, consistently seeking feedback from customers to analyze, synthesize, and reframe.

Within this framework, Design Thinking offers the input for a structured assumption, testing, and validating, passing the proverbial torch to Lean Startup, to achieve product-market fit, as soon as possible. In other words, it all starts with the Design Thinking way of empathizing and ideating; then, the Lean Startup process picks up on those insights, to iterate fast towards innovation and market success. 


All things considered, Design thinking can help teams develop practical solutions for their customers’ problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process, helping create better products. Products that, on one hand, satisfy the customers’ unmet needs; and, on the other hand, offer a seamless user experience — if done correctly, at least. 
Design thinking is a dynamic, iterative process that improves efficiency and, as such, coalesces perfectly with the Lean Startup approach, to help companies embrace new opportunities for development and growth. By ‘Running Lean’ through the prism of Design Thinking, startups improve customer loyalty, and build a strong identity.