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4 inspiring design thinking examples and the valuable lessons they teach

Design thinking is a powerful tool for product teams, but what does it look like in practice? How have successful companies applied it—and why does it work?

Last updated

9 May 2022
Best-Practices

From tech products, healthcare, travel, and even non-profit community programs, design thinking has proven to be a useful problem-solving tool for innovators and entrepreneurs alike.

We’ve rounded up four design thinking examples that show the incredible effects this methodology can have on a company’s success. In these examples, we examine how each organization used the design thinking process to improve their product—and what you can learn from their experience.

The tools you need to design a product customers love

Use Hotjar to understand how real users experience your product—so you can improve it for them and keep them coming back for more.

Why design thinking works

Design thinking has made its way into various industries in the past decade. As a creative approach to innovation and problem-solving that focuses on users, the practice of design thinking covers everything from physical consumer products like smartphones and laptops, to digital systems built by SaaS brands, and even community-oriented projects in wellness, banking, and self-improvement.

Today, probably every tech company you can think of is using design thinking in one way or another. Some of the world’s leading brands—think Apple, Google, IBM, and Samsung—have adopted the design thinking approach, and the methodology is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. 

Why does it work for every one of them? The answer is pretty straightforward: design thinking helps product teams understand not only what will make a great product, but also how and if they should do it. It can (and has) transformed the way businesses across industries solve problems and meet customer needs.

The power of this methodology is to quickly test whether an idea, solution, or enhancement can bring real results to customers. This creative and experimental approach helps teams better understand how to create products that are not only usable, but above all, useful.

☝️ Fact: design-led companies consistently outperform their competitors

This user-first approach, coupled with early and frequent testing, helps minimize risk, drive customer engagement, and ultimately boost the bottom line. In fact, design thinking offers a proven competitive advantage.

According to a recent five-year study by McKinsey & Company, companies that consistently followed design thinking practices generated roughly 32% more revenue and 56% higher returns for shareholders than those that did not. This higher success rate was true across banking, consumer goods, and med tech industries. 

4 examples of design thinking to inspire you

Right now, you may think: “This is great, but how will it help bring my product to life faster?” To make your vision more tangible, let’s look at four exceptional examples of design thinking done right. 

Remember: at one point, these companies were standing exactly where you are. The more you know about successful design processes, the more you can take some of their best aspects and use them to enhance your own products.

1. Airbnb

Airbnb knows a thing or two about design—as they should, considering two of the company’s founders are designers. In 2008, they teamed up with an engineer to solve one essential travel problem: where to stay.

How Airbnb uses design thinking

To do that, they knew they had to get into the heads of the people who were going to use Airbnb and see what they were actually looking for. Their solution involved traveling to New York, renting a camera, and spending time with customers in their homes to take good pictures of the houses. It wasn’t scalable or very technical, and they did it with no preliminary study—they were only guided by intuition.

The team took a chance, skipped what they had learned at school about how a business should work, and followed the steps of the design thinking methodology: empathize, define, design, prototype, and test. Then, they doubled their income overnight.

Today, design thinking is still part of Airbnb’s DNA and is embedded in everything they do: it’s how they foster creative culture, iterate on their product, and make meaningful connections with a global community of travelers—all by putting the human experience at the center. Here are a few design-led projects that have happened over the years at Airbnb:

  • The “Snow White” project: a user journey visualization that illustrates the critical moments of truth within the host, guest, and hiring processes in three stories.

  • Empathy travel: a program that immerses team members into the customer experience. Every new employee has to take a trip in their first or second week at Airbnb and document it.

  • Design Language System: design teams often struggle to reach a cadence that balances the creative process and cycles of continuous innovation. This process led to the development of Airbnb’s new Design Language System, a collection of components defined by shared principles and patterns, as well as a suite of internal and third-party tools that allow their teams to work smarter and with more alignment.

Design is fundamentally about making decisions through the lens of what will be useful and engaging to people.

Alex Schleifer
Chief Design Officer, Airbnb

What Airbnb has achieved through design thinking 

Their unusual and more creative approach paid off. By implementing design thinking principles, Airbnb has singlehandedly defined the experience economy and set themselves apart as an industry leader. 

From a program that listens and responds to hosts' feedback, to encouraging gestures that create customer delight at moments where the product experience might break, Airbnb has used design thinking to solve incredibly complex and interesting challenges, including:

  • Dealing with a unique global inventory of homes and experiences

  • Understanding how people get inspired and plan travel

  • Creating tremendous freedom for bold, creative thinking and making for employees

As for revenue, the company has gone from $200 a week to revolutionizing tourism and achieving a valuation of $110 billion. Guests have booked over 1 billion stays, and there are 5.6 million global listings in 100,000 cities and over 200,000 regions.

#Snow White storyboards at Airbnb
Snow White storyboards at Airbnb

 What you can learn from Airbnb 

  • Put the human experience at the center: product teams at Airbnb know that their work is about building a software-enabled trust system, so people can safely share their homes, their passions, and their time with travelers. Trust is what brings together what is desirable from a human point of view, with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. Alex Schleifer, Chief Design Officer at Airbnb, shared that their teams always ground themselves in real human behaviors and needs through research, whether they’re dealing with machine learning or a new emerging interface.

  • Never stop experimenting and iterating: while Airbnb is data-driven, they don’t let data push them around. Instead of developing reactively to metrics, the team works proactively, often starting with a creative hypothesis, implementing a change, reviewing how it impacts the business, and then repeating that process.

  • Take measured, productive risks: individual team members at Airbnb make small bets on new features, and then measure if there’s a meaningful return on the bet. If there’s a payoff, they send more resources in that direction. If not, there’s a lot to learn from failure.

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

Airbnb doesn’t rely on (big) data analytics and A/B testing alone. Instead, they combine quantitative insights with people’s ability to synthesize and make sense of data from all sources.

Sasha Lubomirsky, former Head of User Research at Airbnb, said that “a lot of design thinking is about being creative [but it is also] about looking at what we know, triangulating information that we have, and having that inspire creativity.”

You don’t have to collect, analyze, and distribute UX research data manually. Use Hotjar’s product experience insights tools to collect and analyze different kinds of information, then use what you learn to enhance the user experience.

Hotjar’s tools combine behavioral and attitudinal research methods through a blend of quantitative and qualitative data. Use Hotjar Surveys and Feedback widgets to collect voice-of-customer (VoC) feedback, and Heatmaps and Session Recordings to round out the picture with behavioral insights.

 2. UberEats

UberEats’ use of design thinking is nothing short of inspiring. Their evolution shows that creating the future of an industry takes empathy, innovation, and an appetite for complex logistical challenges—elements that make design thinking a successful problem-solving approach.

How UberEats uses design thinking

The design team at UberEats constantly uses design thinking principles to fuse modern, state-of-the-art technology with the fundamental act of enjoying a meal. And it’s safe to say they've had a successful implementation.

Immersion, iteration, and innovation power the UberEats design team on their mission to make eating effortless. Their approach allows them to solve complex logistical challenges with new technology that complements people’s deep connection to food. Let’s take a closer look at some actionable design thinking projects:

→ Immersion 

  • The Walkabout Program: UberEats designers are routinely sent to a city to learn about its transportation infrastructure, delivery and restaurant industry, and overall food culture.

  • Fireside Chats: they invite delivery partners, restaurant workers, and customers to gain feedback on the app.

  • Order Shadowing: they test their prototypes by watching their customers’ real world experiences while using it.

To understand all our different markets and how our products fit into the physical conditions of each city, we constantly immerse ourselves in the places where our customers live, work, and eat.

Paul Clayton Smith
former Senior Design Manager, UberEats

→ Iteration 

  • Swift iteration: UberEats product teams know they need to rapidly build products so their customer base can grow quickly. Swift iteration allows them to move fast and ensure they get the design just right.

  • Rapid field testing: researchers and designers take mock-ups and prototypes into restaurants, inside delivery vehicles, and into people’s homes to test products in the places they’ll be used.

  • Multivariate testing: the team simultaneously tests multiple versions of a feature to quickly determine which performs the best. Shipping multiple options at once, rather than sequentially iterating on one version, helps them find the best-performing design faster.

  • Operations team experiments: they test concepts and designs in a single city to quickly gauge opportunity. For example, the first version of the “Most Popular Items” category in UberEats menus started as an operations team experiment in Toronto before later iterations were released to all users in all cities.

→ Innovation

  • Innovating on experiences: the UberEats product team always takes the opportunity to innovate on user experience and evolve from the traditional model of food delivery. This includes providing drivers with the option to do both rides and deliveries so they can stay busier and earn more money while online with Uber, designing a restaurant sales dashboard to let chefs monitor the demand of individual dishes and tweak recipes to improve their menus, and creating the “Under 30 Minutes” menu for people who want to leverage the speed of Uber to get food fast.

  • Workshops, conferences, meetups, and talks: they routinely gather representatives and use the design thinking methodology to look at challenges in new ways. They share experiences from similar services to generate insights and inspiration, then run creative exercises to generate a wide range of ideas. These same designers also attend numerous out-of-office conferences, meetups, and talks related to the restaurant industry, cuisine trends, and food technology.

  • Insights from other food innovators: the team stays inspired by observing how other companies are shaping the future of food. Seeing how others innovate in similar problem spaces helps their product teams think differently and generate new ideas about their products and services.

#The UberEats ecosystem. People order on the UberEats App (left), restaurants manage orders in the Restaurant Dashboard (center), and delivery partners deliver items using the Driver App (right).
The UberEats ecosystem. People order on the UberEats App (left), restaurants manage orders in the Restaurant Dashboard (center), and delivery partners deliver items using the Driver App (right).

What UberEats has achieved through design thinking

Today, UberEats is the fastest growing delivery service, with a $2.8 trillion addressable market, making up 22% of the company’s total bookings in 2019. They’ve already:

  • Expanded to over 80 cities worldwide 

  • Provided restaurants with new ways to reach customers and build their businesses

  • Created another, often easier option for delivery partners to earn money with Uber

  • Invented new ways for hungry people to find and enjoy the food they love

Now focused on growth into new markets and growing from 3% to nearly 25% of Uber's revenue, the UberEats design team hasn't had time to slow down. 

What you can learn from UberEats 

The UberEats design thinking experience is a valuable lesson for a brand’s ability to move quickly, build empathy with customers, and make complex services run smoothly. Here’s how you can apply these lessons to your own product:

  • Empathize with the user experience: UberEats designers are constantly interviewing and prototyping with the people who will be using the product the most: restaurant workers, delivery drivers, and meal recipients. Once you find your target, you can observe, create design thinking problem statement examples, and iterate as soon as you identify opportunities to reduce assumptions and improve your design. 

  • Observe the design in use: UberEats takes every opportunity to hear from users directly. They follow partners on deliveries, visit restaurants during the rush, and sit in people’s homes while they order dinner. Watching how your product is used in the wild helps you better understand the needs of your customers, how well your designs address those needs, and what challenges exist in the real world that you can’t replicate in the office.

  • Iterate quickly and innovate constantly: the UberEats team uses design thinking to stimulate novel solutions to the problems and opportunities their product addresses. If you’re in your own ideation phase, take note of the UberEats innovation workshops, where team members from many disciplines gather to brainstorm possible improvements. These structured brainstorms shake up the mindset of the team, push their creativity, and spawn innovative ideas.

💡Pro tip: you don’t need to travel to your customers’ homes to get their feedback. Use Hotjar to talk directly to them or watch them interact with your product. 

Heatmaps help you identify click and scroll patterns, and Session Recordings let you track the entire user journey within your product. Deploy Feedback widgets to learn what users think while browsing, and understand blocks in navigation. 

These tools help your design team see what your customers see, which is crucial at the testing stage, when you’re often too close to the design to understand the experience from the outside.

#Hotjar Session Recordings allow you to watch your users as they experience your web app to help you evaluate if you're meeting their needs

An example of a Hotjar Session Recording

3. Citrix

Citrix-design-thinking-examples

Design thinking can do (and has done) wonders for tech products and their users. But that’s not all it can do. For Citrix, a cloud company that enables mobile work styles, the change was felt more on an internal level, by building a culture of design thinking.

How Citrix uses design thinking 

Reweaving the Citrix corporate DNA meant harnessing the creative capability of their employees by developing design thinking leaders

It began when several senior executives attended the design thinking boot camp at Stanford’s d.school. They returned from the boot camp with a new vision for product development processes. One complete overhaul of internal processes later—and rethinking how the company innovated and built products—and Citrix had become a leader of design-driven excellence and innovation.

Since then, Citrix has developed an internal team that works to empower all divisions of the company—from executives to individual contributors—to make innovation and customer focus central to their thinking. Often referred to as a ‘center of excellence’ for design-driven innovation, this new organization brings design thinking and doing to the highest levels of executive leadership.

Through several programs, the customer became the center of our focus, from how we set the product roadmap to how we tuned the existing product set. We challenged ourselves to push beyond the status quo. 

Julie Baher
former Group Director, Customer Experience - SaaS Products, Citrix

The new Business Design team started to infuse design thinking into the organization from multiple directions: 

  • Top-down: by continuing to enlist VPs and key employees in the Stanford programs, which helps key stakeholders understand the language and tools of design thinking, gain an external perspective on their work, and be motivated to support design thinking initiatives.

  • Sideways: by holding design thinking workshops for mid-level managers and individual contributors, empowering them with a means of tackling key challenges.

  • Bottom-up: by leveraging various employee touch-points—such as global meetings, the company intranet, and new-hire training—to disseminate key messages about what it means to have a design thinking approach.

#A design collaboration room at Citrix
A design collaboration room at Citrix

What Citrix has achieved through design thinking

Citrix teams have already run more than 50 projects using the design thinking methodology, focusing both on the employee experience and the customer experience. The customer has become the center of their focus, from how they set the product roadmap to how they tune the existing product set. 

At a company level, this has meant almost 4000 employees who have participated in a form of hands-on design training, an improved learning experience for customers, better use of product data to improve customers' support experience, and a successful legal compliance training workshop redesign.

Across the industry, results include:

  • Return on investment: on the compliance training project alone, Citrix calculated a conservative estimate of $3 million savings over the first four years. By streamlining the course rollout process, reminders, and curricula, they estimated savings of 3,600 hours of employee time in 2013, and over 9,000 hours in 2014.

  • Respect and recognition: Citrix products have won more than 20 awards since they adopted a design-focused approach. The organization has been recognized as one of Forbes’ Most Innovative Companies. Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute has also selected Citrix as a partner in cutting edge research on evaluation tools for innovation.

#Design leader Catherine Courage speaking about igniting creativity to transform corporate culture at TEDxKyoto 2012
Design leader Catherine Courage speaking about igniting creativity to transform corporate culture at TEDxKyoto 2012

What you can learn from Citrix 

  • Design thinking beyond buzzwords: while Citrix teams practice design thinking every day, those outside of this methodology might see it as some form of magical thinking. To make others care about the practice behind the buzzword, relate it back to the business and highlight relevant examples of design thinking’s business impact. Then, make the connection between examples from other companies and the challenges facing your organization.

  • Highlighting the value of design thinking to your team: often, as companies scale, many employees have limited or no contact with the user, especially for people in non-design or leadership roles. Luckily, through structured activities, you can teach people to focus on the problems that matter to customers and improve the bottom line. As employees evaluate and explore ideas earlier, you’ll waste less money on the wrong issues.

  • Pitching to (and getting buy-in from) leadership: leaders need to know two things—what design thinking is and how it meets business goals. At Citrix, the strategy for obtaining executive buy-in was to get a few senior leaders on board, first. Once they bought in, other leaders started showing up, wanting to learn more and engage their teams. Following this example, draw up a list of the key leaders and influencers in your organization. Ask yourself: where do you see seeds of innovation popping up? Who is looking to engage more with your customers?

4. Apple

No list of exceptional design thinking examples would be complete without mentioning Apple's approach to innovation, management, and design. 

Today, the company may be most known for its physical products—like the iconic iPhone, iPad, and MacBook—but it was their iOS platform strategy that started their journey as an industry innovator.

They designed the initial product as a platform, with an architecture that could accommodate the development and production of the derivative products. Decades later, this decision allowed for innovations that put the user’s needs at the center—like facial recognition software, an intuitive user experience, a transformed music-listening experience, and more.

How Apple uses design thinking

From its product designs to Apple stores, everything is founded on design thinking principles. 

After Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he started to apply the design thinking characteristics that reflected his vision for Apple products:

  • Focusing on real people’s needs and desires, rather than only the needs of the business

  • Building empathy by helping people learn to love Apple products

  • Prioritizing the design, rather than the engineering work, by having designers consider both the form and function of the product

  • Building simple yet user-friendly products, rather than complex hard-to-use ones

Apple makes no secret of what drives everything that happens inside its massive compound in Cupertino, California: its users. From the smallest detail of Apple packaging to what the company calls its ''largest product'' (Apple stores), the user experience is never far from Apple employees' minds.

Their operating system was built by focusing on what consumers wanted, and then figuring out how to achieve it on the technical side. Apple’s products start with design, based on what people need and want, and are not limited by technology. The engineers are then pushed to use the same kind of creativity and innovation to make it happen.

The company puts a premium on design thinking in all its products, from digital to physical. That starts with figuring out what customers really want, developing products based on identified needs, and then creating prototypes and testing them to see how successful they are.

Our products are all about the people who use them. What drives us is making products that give people the ability to do things they couldn't do before.

Tim Cook
CEO, Apple

What Apple has achieved through design thinking

Apple’s entire product development process may be one of the most successful design thinking examples ever implemented. With a valuation exceeding $2 trillion, there’s a lot that designers can learn from Apple and introduce into their own design environments.

Their dedication to continuous discovery and innovation has produced a series of user-centered technological hardware, operating systems, software, and services that set an industry standard. Examples include tools you (probably) use everyday—like the Apple TV, iMac, iPad, iPhone, MacBook, Apple Watch, AirPods, Bridge OS, iOS, App Store, FaceTime, iTunes, and iCloud.

#Suite of Apple products
Suite of Apple products

What you can learn from Apple 

Apple’s history with innovation provides a clear lesson about how design and innovation can turn company failure into market success and a leading position in a competitive market. Here are a few actions you can apply to your own design thinking strategy:

  • Integrating customer experience into the product: customer experience has always been integrated into Apple’s product design and development. A lot of it empirically drives with iterative customer involvement into the design and development stages, through a constant testing and feedback process. Usability testing and improvement through user feedback should become an important step in your product development process.

  • Constant iteration of the product: the defining trait of an Apple product is that it continually evolves. Apple understands and promotes the importance of design as a motivation for continued innovation, rather than a static approach that assumes a single conclusion.

💡Pro tip: stay on the continuous discovery track by integrating Hotjar into your routine.

Continuous discovery allows your product team to question assumptions, learn how users really think, and constantly improve the products you deliver. 

Using tools like Hotjar gives you a constant stream of information on what your customers are feeling, how they're experiencing your product, and what their specific needs are.

Integrating Hotjar product experience tools into your routine can help you:

  • Discover opportunities to optimize by watching recordings of users during the sign up flow or after a feature launch

  • Spot unforeseen problems by creating a routine where you check feedback regularly

  • Gather new product ideas on an ongoing basis by using surveys

3 key takeaways to implement design thinking into your workflow

There’s a lot more that can be said about design thinking, but it’s actually a very straightforward concept. Implementing this methodology into your workflow becomes easier when you follow these core tenets:

1. Focus on customer problems first

It can be tempting to focus on creating a flashy, high-tech product. Instead, focus on what your users are asking for. Run user interviews and use Hotjar Surveys and Feedback widgets to send out a mix of full-scale surveys and quick questions on the fly. Watch Recordings to see what your users see and identify their pain points.

Whether it’s a new app, a community service, or a physical product, the best thing you can do to innovate successfully is keep your user in mind at every step in the design process. 

2. Generate and iterate on ideas 

When you understand the problem, the ideas will follow, and the way to a solution is more straightforward. It’s your job to refine these ideas through rapid prototypes and iterations that can lead to breakthrough outcomes.

As you interact closely with your customers and start to have great ideas for products, don’t be afraid to put together a round of product experimentation to prove the value. Run usability, A/B, and split testing with dedicated focus groups of target users. Use surveys and carefully-placed widgets to gather opinions on design elements and the overall product experience (PX).

Remember that design thinking is not a formal step-by-step process, but a framework and mindset. It’s focused on a bias towards action, a human-centered viewpoint, and continual experimentation. The core idea is that by deeply understanding customer needs, opportunities for innovation will emerge.  

3. Use feedback to focus and refine ideas

Listening to and working with customers can help you move quickly from ideas to useful solutions.

As a designer, it’s easy to disconnect from your users. Don’t be afraid to take risks and immerse yourself in the experience of those who will actually interact with your product. Then, implement their feedback and test your results. Eventually, you’ll land on that final iteration with the potential to change the world around you.

For a full picture of the product experience, collect voice-of-customer (VoC) insights to learn what users think in their own words. Complement this qualitative data with neutral observations of user behavior.

Start by using tools like Hotjar’s Heatmaps to observe users' scroll and click patterns. Then, watch Session Recordings to follow the entire user journey across your site or product, and use Feedback tools to ask users what’s behind their decisions.

The tools you need to design a product customers love

Use Hotjar to understand how real users experience your product—so you can improve it for them and keep them coming back for more.

FAQs about design thinking examples