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What is design thinking and why does it matter?

Solving problems is a pivotal part of product development. But some issues that come up during product development are more complex than others, and it can be difficult to find the right solution—or even know where to start looking.

That's where the concept of design thinking comes in, keeping users at the center of every process by combining problem-solving with deep empathy.

Last updated

16 Jun 2023

Reading time

9 min


design thinking

This guide gives you a comprehensive overview of design thinking as a problem-solving approach. In this first chapter, you'll gain a strong understanding of what design thinking is, why it’s relevant, and how it helps you design products that you’re proud to bring into the world—and that your users will love.

Design better products with empathy

Use Hotjar to understand your customer’s habits, behaviors, frustrations, needs, and wants—so you can design a frictionless, user-centric experience.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach to product development that places an emphasis on the user to help teams identify issues, reframe them, and generate creative solutions.  

It’s a solution-based ideology, process, and collection of hands-on methods to solve complex problems in a user-centric way. Design thinking is most useful for addressing problems that are either ill-defined or unknown, by helping you:

  • Redefine the problem with a user-centric mindset

  • Identify the challenge worth solving

  • Develop ideas in brainstorming sessions

  • Adopt a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing

Who is design thinking for?

Despite its name, design thinking is not exclusively used by designers. Instead, it’s a human-centered approach to innovation practiced across science, art, engineering, and business.

In the world of product development, design thinking has been incredibly successful in showcasing relevant solutions for real problems. With it, teams can do better UX research, prototyping, and usability testing to uncover new ways to meet users’ needs. 

Design thinking helps you focus on achieving practical results and solutions that:

  • Meet and solve a real human need

  • Can be developed into functional products or processes

  • Are economically viable

It also aims to turn ideas into tangible, testable products as quickly as possible, and make changes and improvements before building the real thing.

💡 Pro tip: don’t base your entire product on assumptions. Use design thinking to go beyond what you already know about your users and product. 

Engage with your users as much as possible; run interviews, watch screen recordings to see what your users see and identify their pain points, and use Hotjar Surveys and Feedback widgets to send out a mix of full-scale surveys and quick questions.

#With Hotjar Recordings, follow users along their journey on your web app to discover how you can continue to optimize its design

Understand what users really think about your site with Feedback

5 things you need to know about design thinking

Design thinking has long been considered the holy grail of innovation. But before you incorporate it into your own workflows, you need to understand what it is and why it’s so popular. 

1. Design thinking came about as a way to teach engineers how to approach problems creatively—like designers do.

The concept of design thinking was fathered by John E. Arnold, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. From there, it began to evolve as a way of creative thinking and problem-solving, leading to IDEO’s iconic 90s run and Stanford University’s d.school design thinking course as an approach to technical and social innovation.

Today, design thinking gives us the opportunity to reimagine the world and the products, systems, or institutions that reinforce the ways people relate to each other. Some of the world’s leading brands are using design thinking to drive innovation and results—from Apple to Google, and from Samsung to IBM and GE. 

Dive into the Design Thinking Examples chapter of this guide to learn what actions your product team can take related to design thinking.

2. Design thinking means approaching a problem with a designer’s mindset, from the user’s perspective.

As a designer, you have this amazing power of wide-eyed curiosity. What does the world—or even just one person—need in terms of product, user experience, strategy, or complex systems? Can design help achieve it?

A designer is uniquely equipped to deal with these complex problems, with an inquisitive approach that embraces empathy, optimism, iteration, creativity, and ambiguity.

As a solution-based approach to innovation, design thinking draws techniques from the designer’s toolkit to solve problems in a creative and innovative way. The designer’s mindset helps you observe and develop empathy with the user—it asks about what they want and need from your product, and how you can use design to bring that to life.

💡 Pro tip: combine quantitative metrics with qualitative feedback to inform designs and keep users at the center of your work. 

Hotjar’s Feedback widget and Surveys give you clear voice of the customer (VoC) data to back up your discoveries, and Recordings and Heatmaps give you quantitative metrics on where customer issues lie with your current products.

#Collect actionable product feedback so you can identify what needs to change—and how to change it

Collect actionable product feedback so you can identify what needs to change—and how to change it

3. There are 5 principles that are pivotal to design thinking. 

The five principles of design thinking are reflected in the design thinking methodology; here they are in summary:

  1. User-centricity and empathy: human-centered design thinking keeps people at the center of every process. A good designer knows that when you stay focused on the people you're designing for—and listen to them directly—you can arrive at optimal solutions that meet their needs.

  2. Collaboration: design thinking techniques and strategies belong at every level of a business. Innovation comes from diverse perspectives and ideas, and should involve colleagues from various departments to create a cross-functional team.

  3. Ideation: design thinking is a solution-based framework, so the focus is on coming up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible. These are not necessarily new (or good) ideas, but they can become the foundations of new solutions to be tested with prototypes.

  4. Experimentation and iteration: the early and frequent testing of your solutions is inherent to the design thinking process; this way, you can gather feedback and make any necessary changes long before the product is fully developed. 

  5. A bias towards action: design thinking is an extremely hands-on approach to problem-solving. That means turning ideas into tangible prototypes and testing them in real-world contexts—an essential way to assess new ideas and identify the changes needed to make them work.

Learn more about these five principles in the Design Thinking Methodology chapter of this guide.

💡 Pro tip: in design thinking, prototyping is carried out on far-from-finished products, to understand users’ iterative experiences with a work in progress. 

Getting your product ideas in front of real users for feedback can be daunting, but the basis for prototyping early and often is intended to keep you from forming attachments to ideas that may or may not be worthwhile.

Sometimes the key to user empathy is sharing or co-creating a prototype with your users and getting their feedback. By testing your prototypes with real users in context, observing their reactions, and getting feedback, you can refine your point of view, learn more about your users, and make the next iteration of the product that much better.

#Hotjar Heatmaps make it easy to visualize complex data and understand it at a glance

#Hotjar Heatmaps tools

Source: Hotjar 

4. Design thinking is a solution-based framework, not a problem-focused approach. 

The way you look at a problem can dictate the way you solve it. Design thinking offers an alternative to problem-focused approaches by highlighting what is working (or could work), rather than emphasizing deficits, limitations, and weaknesses.

A problem-focused approach helps to identify the problem, why it exists, and when and where it becomes a pain point for your users. The approach lets you analyze a situation and figure out where the breakdown is occurring—but you still need to figure out what comes next.

A solution-focused approach, on the other hand, helps you solve the problem. Beyond identifying the problem, and when and where it occurs, this approach lets you identify strategies to resolve the issues that are causing the problem in the first place. 

In product development, solution-based approaches tend to yield more positive results and better products. A user-first approach like design thinking simplifies everything across product teams, marketing, sales, and client services, because customer goals and success metrics are the centerpiece.

A solutions-driven organization does everything from the users’ perspective first, allowing you to:

  • Gain empathy with users’ habits, behaviors, and needs: discover new opportunities to improve the user experience by empathizing with users and seeing an unbiased view of their experience

  • Design a frictionless user experience: identify pain points in the user experience and design a solution that balances both user and business needs

The focus is on coming up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible, thinking ‘outside the box’, looking for alternative ways to view the problem, and identifying innovative solutions to the design thinking problem statements you’ve created.

For a closer look, read the Design Thinking Process and Framework chapter of this guide.

5. Design thinking is an iterative and non-linear process that encourages constant experimentation.

The design thinking process fosters creativity, innovation, and user-centricity, and helps you come up with actionable solutions. As noted above, the process outlines a series of principles, or stages, that bring this ideology to life: 

  1. Empathize: getting to know your users and their challenges

  2. Define: homing in on what problem needs to be solved

  3. Ideate: outside-the-box thinking about solutions and angles

  4. Prototype: creating something tangible that users can then try-out

  5. Test: exposing your prototype to real users to determine if your solution is valid or needs some work.  

You can carry out these five-stages in parallel, repeat them, and circle back to a previous stage at any point in the process. 

For example, even once you’ve defined your problem statement, you should keep building empathy with users—use design thinking tools like surveys and feedback software to validate your problem statement and update your assumptions.

The purpose of the process is to allow you to work dynamically to develop and launch innovative ideas. Regardless of how you choose to implement the design thinking process, the goal remains the same: to approach complex problems from a human perspective.

💡 Pro tip: design thinking embraces the principles of continuous discovery to evolve, adapt, and refine ideas and turn them into valuable solutions for your users.

Don’t be afraid to hop back and forth between different stages of the design thinking process to start thinking out of the box. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, go back to your users. Teams can always benefit from building more user empathy with tools like Hotjar Feedback or Surveys.

Intuitive and simple Hotjar Surveys are perfect for capturing all types of feedback

How design thinking helps teams build better products

Design thinking is a tool for creativity, innovation, and problem-solving:

  • It helps designers gain an understanding of user habits, behaviors, frustrations, needs, and wants.

  • It allows managers to foster a culture of user-centricity at every level of business.

  • Most importantly, it helps teams create ground-breaking products that users actually want.

Design thinking empowers teams to get their ideas out and share them. It holds the space for you to be ambiguous and messy, knowing you're moving in the direction of the outcomes you're looking for. It’s a way to start, and be willing to have 100 sketches on the floor that won’t work, before finding the one that does—from ambiguity to clarity, refinement, and launch. 

Design thinking can impact and provide innovative solutions to issues product teams truly care about:

Tackling complex challenges

Design thinking encourages creative problem-solving. It pushes you further into the process of questioning: questioning the problem, the assumptions, and the implications. 

A good design thinking framework will give you new perspectives on the lives of your users—including the challenges they face in your product, and the moments that delight them. Having this empathy can give you the insights you need to solve hard, worthwhile problems.

This is especially useful in a product development context—whether it’s designing a competitive product, optimizing internal processes, or reinventing an entire business model.

Moving faster, with iterative speed

Design thinking stops you from falling into assumptions and designing patterns out of habit. Instead, it shifts the focus from your problem to the solution that works best for your users. 

Designing a product with insights from user observation is much more productive than starting from scratch. This shortens the development process by helping you design better products that your users actually want, from the get-go.

Design thinking also helps scale the design process through large organizations. It keeps the team and stakeholders on the same page and improves efficiency with an agile design thinking approach to early-stage feedback that stops you wasting resources on unpromising ideas. 

Meeting and exceeding customer expectations to ensure customer delight 

Empathy is at the heart of design. It connects you—the designer—to the people who will benefit from your work, empowering you to create products that ultimately meet real human needs.

Design thinking revolves around a deep interest to understand the people you're building for, creating the conditions for innovation to happen over and over again.

With design thinking, teams have the freedom to generate real solutions. It’s not just about coming up with ideas—it’s about turning them into prototypes, testing them, and making changes based on user feedback.

🔥 How we use the design thinking framework at Hotjar

At Hotjar, we ‘live and breathe’ design thinking and use this framework to deliver work in any part of our company—from Marketing to Product Teams.

Here are the four key product experience insights tools we use to produce granular insights that help our designers empathize with users:

  • Heatmaps: see where users click, navigate, and scroll to discover which elements attract attention and which get overlooked.

  • Feedback widgets: gather on-site user feedback to hear from customers in the wild.

  • Recordings: watch playbacks of users navigating your product to zero-in on issues, pain points, and bugs.

  • Surveys: gather VoC data both on- and off-site by sending out either short- or long-form surveys.

Minimizing uncertainty and improving confidence in design decisions

Product development can be fraught with obstacles. Your team either collects a lot of backward-looking data, which doesn’t tell you what current or future users really want, or you make risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence. 

Design thinking is a strategy-making tool that shifts the focus to human behavior. By using imaginative, human-centered problem solving, you can identify new strategies and unlock new markets. Design thinking also plays a key role in reducing assumptions for product teams, and ultimately enables you to better understand users and deliver products that delight them

Developing this type of deep empathy with your target users means you’ll be able to design products they really want, and will use and come back to.

Put users at the center of your designs, every time

Use Hotjar to understand your customer’s habits, behaviors, frustrations, needs, and wants—so you can design a frictionless, user-centric experience.

FAQs about design thinking: