1a. What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a way to creatively tackle complex problems. It's a human-centered process, meaning solutions are developed based on a deep understanding of what people need, think, feel, and do.

Design thinking can be used to solve big and small problems in a variety of domains. For example, it has been used to find new ways to bring fresh water to rural communities, and to create mobile phone technologies to help transfer money between family members.

In this course you'll learn how to use design thinking in your local campus community, and in your broader work as a transformative leader.

An introduction to design thinking


Design thinking focuses on understanding a problem through an exploration of what people need, think, do, and feel, and then continually testing and refining ideas to come up with a final solution. It frames problems through the lens of what people need, rather than assumptions about what a solution should be.

Try it out!

To see the value of this approach, try this simple exercise. Grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, and draw a line down the middle of the paper so you have space for two sketches. If you’re not comfortable sketching, you can also write down a few bullet points about your ideas for each of the two prompts below (and don’t worry, we’ll practice sketching later on in the course).

  1. First, imagine you’ve been asked to design a new bicycle. Take a few minutes to draw an idea for a new bike.

  2. Now imagine you’ve been asked to design a way to help students get to class more easily. Take a few minutes to draw an idea for a product or service that could help students do this.

People vs. solution focus

How are your two sketches different? Starting with the solution already in mind (a bicycle) likely constrained your thinking. But starting with a human need (to help students get to class more easily) may have helped you think more broadly about potential solutions, and likely encouraged you to come up with an idea that went beyond the concept of a bicycle.

Prompts grounded in real human needs can help us develop more creative and broader solutions to existing problems. Starting with human needs can also help ensure our solutions are actually valuable to the people who will be using them.

The stages of the design thinking process


The design thinking process may vary from project to project, but typically involves some combination of the following six stages.

In the rest of this module, we're going to discuss each stage in more detail, by looking at the inner workings of a design team who was challenged with improving life for people living with epilepsy.

Understanding more about epilepsy

Epilepsy is a particularly complex and misunderstood medical condition. 50,000 people die from related causes each year in the US. The design team’s goal was to help patients and their families gain a better understanding of their condition, so they could make better decisions about their care. 

To learn more about Epilepsy, see: "What is Epilepsy?" from the Epilepsy Foundation.

Stage 1: Empathize

Understand what people need, think, and feel

Developing a sense of empathy is about trying to understand what it's like to actually live someone else's life. To do this, you will:

  • Figure out which people are impacted by the problem you want to solve, and talk to them.
  • Visit these people in the environments where they are typically located, such as their home, school, or place of work.
  • Ask open-ended questions that help you understand their point of view.
  • In addition to talking to people, take time to observe them doing tasks or activities related to the problem. Remember, sometimes what people say and what people do can be quite different.

These activities are typically referred to as "user research."


Case study: Epilepsy challenge

The first step in the design team’s process was to empathize with the people that live with epilepsy, and their caregivers, to better understand their needs, activities, and challenges. Interviews with patients, family caregivers, and clinicians were conducted to gain a diverse perspective on life with epilepsy. The design team visited people in their homes and work environments.

Stage 2: Analyze

Look for patterns in the data you've gathered

Analysis is about making sense of what you heard and observed during user research. You'll look for themes and patterns in your data, such as:

  • Cultural or social beliefs that could make certain types of solutions more or less acceptable.
  • An activity that most people are doing today that is difficult or frustrating.
  • Smaller problems that need to be solved before a bigger problem can be addressed.
  • Statements about what people want or wish for.

The patterns that emerge will help you decide which problem you should actually focus on solving, and the design principles for an ideal solution. You may find that the problem you need to focus on differs from the problem you thought you were going to address at the beginning of the process.


Case study: Epilepsy challenge

As the team analyzed their data, they noticed a pattern: many patients and caregivers wanted to understand what caused their past seizures, so they could better predict when future seizures might occur.

Stage 3: Ideate

Generate potential solutions

Ideation is all about generating many possible solutions to the problem you've identified. To do this you will:

  1. Generate as many ideas as you can, to explore a variety of potential solutions.
  2. Sketch or write a description of each idea.
  3. Brainstorm and refine ideas with other people for added inspiration and new points of view.
  4. Refine your ideas using your design principles.

As ideation concludes, you'll begin narrowing in on a handful of concepts that seem most promising.


Case study: Epilepsy challenge

The design team began generating ideas for potential solutions. One concept stood out: a wearable device that could collect data about the patient and their environment, with a smartphone app that would help them understand which factors might trigger their seizures.

Stage 4: Prototype

Build small and quick examples of your most promising solutions

Prototyping is the process of quickly testing out your ideas so you can figure out how to refine them. To do this you will:

  • Sketch or put together a cardboard version your concept.
  • Focus on communicating 1-2 key ideas about a concept, not making the prototype perfect.
  • Plan to make multiple prototypes in your process, as you learn from users what works and what doesn't.

Case study: Epilepsy challenge

The design team prototyped many different forms for the device so they could gather feedback from patients around topics like where they would wear the device on their body, and whether they would prefer the device be visible or hidden.

Stage 5: Evaluate

Have people test your prototype and give you feedback

Evaluation is all about gathering feedback on your prototype to quickly identify aspects of the concept that may need to be changed.

A few things to keep in mind during evaluation:

  • Sometimes during evaluation you will discover that a concept is not going to work - at which point you can create a new prototype for one of your other most promising solutions.
  • You may need to conduct several rounds of prototyping and evaluation before you land on a successful concept.

Case study: Epilepsy challenge

During evaluation, the team learned that people wanted flexibility in where they would wear the device. Some people wanted to wear it on their wrist, and others wanted to wear it on their stomach. The used this insight to refine the physical design of the device so that it could be worn in a variety of locations.

Stage 6: Iterate

Make changes to your idea and then repeat prototyping and evaluation

Iteration is about responding to the feedback you received during evaluation, and revising your prototype so that it better meets people's needs. To do this you will:

  • Use the feedback you received on your prototype as a guide.
  • Make changes to your prototype and repeat the evaluation process.
  • Recognize that you may go through several rounds of prototyping and evaluation to come up with a great design.

Sometimes iteration may involve going back to even earlier stages of the design thinking process: for example, you may realize that a new question has emerged about what people actually need or do - and you will need to return to the empathize stage to investigate that topic.


Case study: Epilepsy challenge

The final device design can be worn in a variety of places on the body. The device collects information about the body's status and environmental conditions, like humidity. The information is processed to make predictions, so that with the associated smartphone app, patients can receive warnings before a seizure may occur. You can read more about the process, and the final design, here.

Applying what you've learned

Henry is working on a project to encourage more students to ride bicycles on campus. Match his activities with the relevant stage of the design thinking process:

  • Henry builds a cardboard version of his idea for a new bicycle basket.
  • Henry talks to students who do and don’t ride bicycles on campus, to better understand what they need, think, do, and feel.
  • Henry generates ideas for new products and services that might encourage more students to ride bicycles on campus; one of the ideas he has is for a new type of basket that will attach to a bicycle to help students carry their books and laptops to class.
  • Henry observes students riding bicycles on campus to understand what may be challenging or frustrating about the current experience.
  • Henry makes changes to his bicycle basket concept concept after receiving feedback from fellow students.
  • After Henry talks to students, he looks for patterns across the discussions to help him understand what problem he should solve, and which principles an ideal solution will need to incorporate.
  • Henry shows the new bicycle seat concept to students to get their feedback and ideas for improvement.

What to expect in this course

What to expect in the upcoming modules

Today you were introduced to the design thinking process. The rest of this course will explore design thinking in more depth - through a mix of written and video content, interactive activities, and discussion with fellow Scholars.

You'll also have the opportunity to try design thinking, using different tools and techniques, to tackle a problem in your local campus community. As the course concludes, you’ll identify ways to use design thinking in your own work as a transformative leader.