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Design thinking methodology: 5 principles to follow
When user empathy is at the core of product development, everyone wins.
Your users feel seen and heard, and your product development process is resilient and efficient. That’s the power of embracing design thinking.
Last updated1 Jun 2022
In this chapter, we unpack five principles of the design thinking methodology to help you build excellent products and features for your customers.
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A quick refresher: what is design thinking?
Design thinking is an iterative process for solving problems in product development. The main thing to remember about design thinking is that the search for a solution puts the user front-and-center.
It’s a framework that empowers you to ask important questions about your product and how it affects users. If you want to throw out assumptions about your product experience and never hear “that’s how we’ve always done it” as reasoning for a product decision, design thinking is the way to go.
The 5 core principles of the design thinking methodology
The design thinking methodology is made of five principles:
User-centricity and empathy: your users, their problems, and their experience in your product are a priority, not an afterthought
Collaboration: every level and every role can contribute to, and see results from, design thinking
Ideation: the goal is to generate as many solutions as possible for a problem you’ve identified
Experimentation and iteration: the best solution ideas are turned into prototypes you can run experiments on
A bias towards action: ideas are most powerful when executed in real life, so taking action is essential
The focus on user empathy and action is the name of the game in design thinking; everything you do within design thinking ties back to the user and product experience.
Let’s dive into each principle and the role it plays in your work as a product team.
1. User-centricity and empathy
User-centricity and empathy are at the forefront of design thinking. When you explore solutions through design thinking, you do so based on human needs and user feedback.
The approach is about understanding what the user wants, needs, and struggles with when it comes to your product and its role in their life. It involves digging into how they feel about your product.
Think about it this way: if you struggle with customer churn, your business goal might be to reduce your churn rate (or increase your retention rate). But when you prioritize user-centricity and empathy, your actual goal is to improve the experience your customers have when using your product—which in turn positively impacts your business metrics.
Here are a few ways to start understanding your users and prioritizing empathy:
Surveys: ask users for direct feedback in key moments, like when they’re taking longer to complete a task or are about to abandon their session before reaching their goal
Recordings: peek over users’ virtual shoulders to understand what draws their attention, what frustrates them, and where they struggle
User interviews: unbiased, open-ended questions can reveal a mountain of insights you otherwise might not spot
It’s important to remember that the work you do to prioritize empathy never ends; you’ll never be ‘done’ understanding your users. Some of the biggest companies in the world know this: UberEats constantly interviews restaurant workers, delivery drivers, and meal recipients; Apple makes iterative customer involvement part of their design and development process.
Learn more about these (and other) examples in the design thinking examples chapter of this guide.
Hotjar helps us empathize with our users. It reminds us that there are real human beings on the other end. It also confirms that our work as a product development team has an impact, and is making our customer's lives easier. Hotjar helps us empathize with our users. It reminds us that there are real human beings on the other end. It also confirms that our work as a product development team has an impact, and is making our customer's lives easier.
Collaboration is a key dimension of design thinking. It allows product teams to step outside of your usual problem-solving and decision-making patterns and consider diverse ideas and perspectives. It sets the base for innovation and potential product solutions that would otherwise remain hidden.
In design thinking, input from teams like customer support, marketing, sales, customer success, and data or business intelligence is particularly useful in creating a problem statement—an actionable, concise sentence or question that drives your UX purpose and direction.
An effective problem statement is one that considers the entire user journey, start-to-finish—and this is where collaboration comes in: marketing and sales have a deeper insight into the earlier part of the customer journey, while support and customer success understand customer needs and struggles as they use your product.
We really love Hotjar. I share all the insights I find with the team. We get the Customer Success Manager to watch Recordings. UX person to watch recordings. Devs watch recordings. It’s a team effort. It’s democratic learning.
The wide range of skills across different teams is crucial to make your problem statement as useful as possible.
One excellent example of this in practice is Citrix. Knowing that many employees have little or no contact with users, they actively encourage design thinking and focus on the problems that matter to customers (and ultimately benefit the business, too).
See more problem statement examples in the problem statement chapter of this guide.
🔥 If you’re using Hotjar
Share product experience insights that would otherwise remain hidden to other teams. For example:
Use Recordings to show your customer support team the user behavior that led to an issue users told them about over live chat
Use Feedback to give the marketing team in-depth insights about parts of the pricing page that confuse potential customers
Use Surveys to share open-ended survey responses to user onboarding with sales reps who won them over
In design thinking, designers hold ideation sessions to generate as many potential solutions to an issue as possible. Design thinking can’t happen without ideation—after all, it is a solution-focused process. Ideas are its essential building material.
The goal is to propose as many solutions as possible—no matter how 'good' or 'bad' they might be—based on what you learn through user empathy and collaboration on a problem statement.
Here are a few things to keep in mind to get the most out of your ideation sessions:
Create a judgment-free zone: every idea is welcome, and the best way to generate as many ideas as possible is to ensure no one is holding back
No HiPPOs: the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) can make one person's ideas seem more important or relevant than others’, so prevent that by giving all ideas equal space
Use as many ideation techniques as you can: take advantage of brainstorming, mind mapping, brain writing, sketching, and any other method that suits the people involved
Ignore the obstacles (for now): note down and log all ideas that come up during this process, even those that don’t seem feasible given the circumstances and resources you have
With people from different teams and rich, diverse skill sets taking part in ideation, you’ll end up with ideas you can combine, reframe, and consider in different contexts of your product.
💡 Pro tip: make the most of your product experience insights—the data that reveals how your users interact with your product—in the ideation phase.
For example, heatmaps might give you an idea of UX updates that will make the user journey smoother. Or you could compare session recordings between users who completed a task and those who abandoned it to brainstorm product improvements that might help more users reach their goal with your product.
4. Experimentation and iteration
With a bank of ideas, your next step is to narrow them down to a few you can focus on and—most importantly—run experiments with.
Embracing a product experimentation culture is key to product teams that put the customer first. It’s no wonder it also fits into the design thinking methodology. Use product prioritization to choose an idea to focus on and create a prototype you can test:
First, build thorough experiments. Define your goal, build a hypothesis, and choose KPIs you’ll use to measure results. This is essential to understand the true impact of your design thinking solutions. Otherwise, you’ll end up making assumptions and educated guesses (at best) about why a solution worked or failed.
Then, measure and iterate. As you run experiments on your ideas, like A/B tests or funnel tests, monitor results daily and keep an eye on additional quantitative and qualitative insights that give you context about the user experience.
For example, if you tweak a step in your product onboarding for a portion of your users, track the KPIs that measure its success, such as the completion rate. But don’t stop there: look at session recordings to better understand user progression and behavior during onboarding, and set up a Customer Effort Score survey to track ease of use for the original and updated versions.
5. A bias towards action
Much about the first four principles is focused on ideas—relying on empathy for the user to create as many ideas as possible, then testing prototypes in the real world.
The final building block of the design thinking methodology is to consistently and cyclically take action.
Ideas that stay in a team member’s mind don’t have any impact.
Ideas you experiment with have the potential to help a small portion of your users.
And ideas you choose to learn from, tweak, and release to your user base can have a lasting impact on both your users and your company’s success and long-term viability.
Consider the approach that RazorPay, an end-to-end payment solutions provider, took when updating their user dashboard:
Instead of endlessly hypothesizing and making vague assumptions, the RazorPay team released their redesign to just 10% of their users.
Then, instead of only tracking standard web analytics to measure success, they also kept an eye on the score these users gave their experience on a scale from 1 to 10. If the score was low, users could explain their rating in an open-ended survey.
At this point, RazorPay didn’t pat themselves on the back for a job well done—they kept working on the dashboard through multiple iterations based on continuous user feedback.
Read RazorPay's full story here.
Use design thinking to keep learning about your users
As you embrace design thinking and learn how your product team can make the most of it, remember: there’s no end to the process, and you can always use what you’ve learned from taking action to refine the ideas you’ve developed.
Make product decisions based on what your users need
Use insights from Recordings, Heatmaps, Surveys, and Feedback to learn what your users need—and build a product that fits right in.