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Design Thinking: Innovation and Implementation


The five-step Design Thinking model was developed at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford as a human-centred process for creative thinking, problem solving and innovation. It allows problems which are poorly-defined or unknown to the individual or group to be contextualised and understood in a simple way, and its application can subsequently improve the manner and efficiency of innovation within a group.

It is designed as a general order; however, it does often not correspond in a linear fashion, and the outcomes of many of the steps may initiate feedback loops, returning to another stage or moving forwards past many (hence the arrows in the diagram). Generally, there are five listed stages to the model (though Implement is often included as a final step, once the final product is completed): Empathise, Design, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

The Process

Design Thinking diagram


The first step of the process involves gaining an empathetic connection with the problem which you – as an individual or as a team – are trying to solve. This generally comes in the form of user research (perhaps a focus group or another method of qualitatively studying potential or future customers). 

Empathy is invaluable as it allows individuals to disregard their previously-held assumptions about the situation and can gain an insight into consumers and their needs from an entirely neutral perspective. 

Psychological and emotional motivators are key – one must understand why others are doing what they are doing, and why. This stage generally leads into the Define stage, but obvious revelations – perhaps immediate improvements on a previous design – can allow you to jump to the development of a Prototype model.


The Define stage is when all the information gathered during the Empathise stage is collated and analysed, attempting to identify all the core problems within the current situation. 

The aim is not to yet define solutions to existing issues, it is purely to discuss and understand the situation and associated issues – they should now be able to be summarised in a succinct, human-centred statement, considering the psychological and emotional factors. 

These issues should be viewed from both an objective point of view, and a subjective, human-centric one as per the preceding stage of Design Thinking. The problems discussed during this phase should also lead into the following Ideate stage by asking relating “How could we…?” questions to the problem statement.


Now that you have an idea of the scope and context of the situation presented, this stage is when ideas are developed through active brainstorming processes (of which there are many – find one which works for you). 

With a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, you can attempt to improve on existing pathways or responses, or you can work to develop ideas from ‘outside the box’. It is likely that ideas will arise that are not normally visible when all of the contextual information is not present, and thus this process facilitates the development of alternative solutions to normalized problems. 

From all of the solutions developed, it may be required that they should be re-examined and narrowed down to one or two potential prototypes during the next step.


During this stage, the team or individuals will focus on using their ideas to develop scaled-down products or services, which can be tested in accordance with what was outlined in the stage prior at minimal cost. 

The solutions developed are embedded within the prototypes and subsequently investigated. The prototypes may be tested within the design team, or externally – but generally remain within the organisation for the time being, or with a smaller focus group. 

This stage of the process is entirely experimental, and any ideas may be thrown out during development based on the users’ experiences. Any successful ideas may either be re-examined (returning to the Ideate stage) or immediately accepted for further testing or service. This stage should provide an insight into practical issues encountered with the new product or service, and how genuine users would interact with, and feel about it.


The most successful product identified during the Prototype phase must now be investigated rigorously and in its entirety to check for any major issues or risks which may be embedded. Some of the testing may involve rolling out the service or product to potential customers or users in order to receive feedback on the design. 

Though this is the final stage of the model, any issues identified may cause the process to return to any other previous step (though typically Define, if new issues are encountered) in order to rebuild and evolve new solutions after the first one failed. However, if only minor faults or complications are found, it may be possible for them to be removed without leaving the testing stage of development.

Application and Benefits

Implementing the Design Thinking model can seriously improve the efficiency and effectiveness of innovation and implementation strategies within an organisation. 

The main benefit is the human-centric nature of the process; it puts the opinions and feelings of customers and consumers first in its considerations. The repeatability of many steps of the process mean that it is possible to re-iterate the process until the individual or team is satisfied with the product or outcome. 

The non-linear nature of these stages also mean that everyone can alter the process to figure out which works best for their current practices. Information is continually realised during the process, and it is often the case that this leads to continuous changes to the product or feeds back to earlier stages. Alternatively, the process may be divided, and different sub-teams may work concurrently on different sections. For example, one group dealing with the creative and understanding parts of the process, and another developing working prototypes for testing.