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A 5-step design thinking process for user-centric problem solving

Design thinking is a continuous process of innovation used to identify problems and iterate solutions by focusing on users. You can follow a design thinking framework to improve the design of anything—from SaaS products to social policies.

Last updated

4 May 2022
5-Step User-Centric Design Thinking Process + Framework

There are plenty of variations on the design thinking process, but each one has the same core principles: start with your users, focus on their problems, and iterate solutions. 

In this chapter, we take you through the five most common stages of the design thinking process and give you practical steps to follow as part of your own design thinking methodology.

Design thinking starts with your users

Hotjar Heatmaps, Recordings, Feedback, and Surveys help you empathize with your users—and design products that resonate.

Step 1: empathize with your users

The first step of the design thinking process is to empathize with your users, which means learning who they are, and understanding their goals and challenges when using your product—so you can focus the rest of your time on creating an exceptional user experience. 

For example, summarizing the feedback and insights you collect into a simple user persona (a fictional representation of an ideal or existing customer segment) or empathy map will help you keep users at the center of product development, and give you a point of reference as you go through the design thinking process.

#A simple user persona example summarizing a user group’s goals and barriers
A simple user persona example summarizing a user group’s goals and barriers

Since design thinking in general, and empathy in particular, is less of a one-and-done activity and more of a cycle of continuous learning, the sooner you start talking to and learning from your users as part of the design process, the better.

Here are some practical steps you can follow to get started right now:

Empathize with your users by watching session recordings

#The team at Spotahome watching Hotjar Recordings
The team at Spotahome watching Hotjar Recordings

Session recordings are a great design thinking tool that recreate a single user’s browsing behavior across multiple pages. You’ll see first-hand where they click, scroll, and spend time, which gives you insight into how they’re using your product and where they’re getting stuck. That’s extremely valuable information to help define your problems in the second step of the process. 

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 customers’ lives easier.

Juan Fernandez
Head of Product, Audiense

Ask users what they think with on-page surveys

The simple survey question Smallpdf used to empathize with their users

The simple survey question Smallpdf used to empathize with their users

On-site (or on-page) surveys are simple surveys designed to collect voice of the customer (VoC) feedback ‘in the moment’ from any page. Unlike quantitative feedback from multiple-choice or Net Promoter Score® (NPS) ratings, qualitative feedback from open-ended questions tells you what users think, feel, and believe about your product.

Real user problems feedback we collected about our Recordings tool using an on-page survey 😅

Real user feedback we collected about our Recordings tool using an on-page survey 😅

If you’re using Hotjar

Use one of our free survey templates to start collecting user feedback straight away. 

The product research survey template is a great starting point to identify who your users are, what they think about your product, and what problems they’re having. These insights will be invaluable as you move through the design thinking process and start ideating and prototyping solutions to the most common issues affecting your users.

Fill in an empathy map

#Hotjar’s free empathy mapping template
Hotjar’s free empathy mapping template

An empathy map is a one-page visualization of a user group’s behaviors and attitudes, summarizing what you’ve learned so far about what users say, do, see, hear, think, and feel about the user and product experience. 

Empathy mapping gives you a single source of truth that’s easy to share with your stakeholders (who may be removed from the product’s end users), helping you get buy-in for design changes along the way. 

Step 2: define problems 

You might have successfully found 99 problems in Step 1, but if they're not defined, you don’t have one you can solve. The second stage of the design thinking process is about defining problem statements based on an analysis of the insight you collected from your users. 

At this stage, you’ll have found big, small, simple, or complex problems. The goal here is not to think about solutions, but to define the most common issues you’d like to fix

Here are some practical ways to distill the user data you collected in Step 1 into actionable problem statements.  

Analyze survey feedback to find common issues

#A graph created from open-ended question responses
A graph created from open-ended question responses

The most effective way to analyze qualitative questions is, ironically, to quantify responses into categories. 

But don't ignore the specific words your users choose—these are a highly valuable resource when you’re working on messaging; simply quantify the survey responses to understand which problems affect the most users, i.e. which problems, when solved, will have the largest positive impact on UX.

If you’re using Hotjar

You can export Hotjar Survey data as an .CSV or .XLS file and use our free open-ended question analysis template to categorize and create graphs from responses, giving you a visual overview of the most common survey responses.

Filter session recordings to review common user issues

#Hotjar Recordings filters
Hotjar Recordings filters

While there’s nothing stopping you from loading up on popcorn and watching every available recording, you’ll get a lot more out of replays when you filter them, and only focus on the sessions that match a specific user issue or segment with high business impact.

For example, you could filter recordings to watch users who clicked on an 'upgrade my plan' call-to-action in your product, and see if the upgrade flow works as intended. 

If you’re using Hotjar

Filter sessions by rage clicks (where users click in frustration) to quickly learn which elements are irritating users. You’re only limited by your imagination, so apply as many filters as you like and save them as segments for quick access next time you watch recordings.

Create actionable problem statements

Using the data and insight you collected so far, you should be able to write a problem statement: a concise and actionable summary of a user problem that requires solving. For your problem statement to be actionable, provide context that defines: 

  • What the problem is

  • Who it affects

  • Why it needs to be solved, and 

  • Where it’s taking place.

For example, imagine you’re a Product or UX Designer for a graphic design platform. An actionable product statement could look like this:

"Users on our premium plan import transparent images because they cannot find our background removal feature button, causing them to get frustrated and waste time and effort on tasks our product is designed to solve."

Learn more and see additional examples in the problem statements chapter of this guide.

Step 3. ideate solutions

#An early brainstorming session at Hotjar
An early brainstorming session at Hotjar

Now that you understand your users and have defined their biggest problems, Step 3 focuses on ideating as many potential solutions as possible

There are no rules or wrong answers when ideating: the goal is to dream up as many outlandish, creative ideas as possible without judgment or prioritization. However, you’ll still need to focus on solutions to the key problem statement(s) defined in Step 2.

We use the idea bank to capture all ideas, wherever they come from. Even if we think they're terrible ideas, we still write them down, and that serves two purposes. One, we want the person who made the suggestion to know that it's been captured and it's up for consideration. Two, we do this because what might not be a great idea now, for whatever reason, might become a great idea in the future.

Jack Berglund
Chief Product Officer at Doodle

Since not everyone gets creative in the same way, here are some popular ideation techniques for your next suggest-fest:

  • Brainstorming: coming up with ideas as a group

  • Brain Writing: privately writing down ideas, then sharing and discussing them as a group

  • Mind Mapping: mapping ideas around a central topic and its subtopics

  • Worst Possible Idea: purposefully finding a terrible solution (for example, improving retention by giving users $1000 in credit if they try to leave) and then seeing if it can inspire a good one

Get ideas from other teams by sharing key user insights

If you only remember one thing about the ideation process, make it this: ideas are better when shared, broken down, and remixed with others’, so make cross-functional collaboration a priority at this stage of the design thinking process. In practical terms, that means sharing your key user insights and user problem statements with team members and stakeholders to solicit ideas from as many diverse perspectives as possible.

If you’re using Hotjar

Take advantage of the Highlights feature and share clips and snippets from session recordings and heatmaps to demonstrate key user problems and get ideas from across teams.

Our developers don't talk to customers. Showing them Hotjar recordings of user sessions makes them empathetic when our users stumble, and it gives them a sense of pride when they see a user complete a task they just worked on.

Stephen Ippolito
Product Manager, Marlin

Step 4: prototype the solution

In Step 4, your goal is to prioritize and prototype an idea (aka a solution) that was generated in Step 3, so you have an MVP (minimum viable product) that can be tested later.

Let’s say you had a productive Step 3 and got 100 potential ways to solve your main problem. You can’t prototype every idea, so you need to prioritize a solution to prototype

Prioritize solutions

#The Doodle product team’s idea bank in Airtable
The Doodle product team’s idea bank in Airtable

To narrow down your ideas, you can use a product prioritization tool to keep track of and assign values to each idea, following a standard prioritization framework like ICE (Impact, Certainty, Effort). This works particularly well if you're part of a distributed design team and need to collaborate with your teammates asynchronously. 

You can also manually evaluate ideas by creating post-its for each idea and mapping them onto a prioritization grid that plots high-to-low user value against feasibility. Your best ideas will give high value to users and be easy to implement (aka feasible). 

Design wireframes

An example wireframe from UX design tool Balsamiq

Simple wireframes give you a shareable overview of a proposed change. Your wireframes may also spark further ideas from the team, which is why it’s essential to treat the design thinking process as non-linear. For example, it’s fine to go back to Step 3 to iterate your prototype before moving on to the testing stage. 

Step 5: test with users

Now you’re at the final step of the design thinking approach, and it’s time to test your prototype on real users, gather insight, and measure impact. If this step seems familiar to you, that’s because it’s a slight variation to Step 1: ‘empathize’, albeit this time with a narrower focus on the specific change you’re testing.

Within the design thinking process, you might find that the hypothesis you thought was true is not what your users are looking for. Then you need to take what you learned, go back, test and iterate again.

Martina Tranström
Product Design Lead at Hotjar

Here are some practical ways to test your prototype to confirm it achieves your goals before rolling out changes: 

A/B test solutions on real users

#Setting up an A/B test with Google Optimize
Setting up an A/B test with Google Optimize

A/B testing allows you to test a design change on users and measure its impact over the original version, known as the ‘control’. 

You can (and should!) still collect user insights during tests—view session recordings, heatmaps, and even ask users for feedback when they’re in an A/B test variation.

If you’re using Hotjar

Although Hotjar doesn't have an A/B testing feature, it has integrations with some of the top A/B testing tools, including Google Optimize and Optimizely.

Test prototypes on users

If you’re not ready to A/B test solutions on a live website, you can test prototypes on users by inviting them to a focus group or prototype testing session.

Tools like UserTesting allow you to test anything from static images to high-fidelity prototypes and collect qualitative feedback from real users or a matched audience. The benefit of this type of testing is that it requires little time to set up and doesn’t have any impact on the live product. 

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Congratulations: you’ve made it to the end of the design thinking process! Or have you? 🤔

Just because you finished Step 5, doesn’t mean you’re done—you may need to go back to Step 3 to generate more ideas, or back to Step 4 to prototype a different solution. Design thinking is never really ‘complete’ because the process is non-linear and iterative. 

Remember that you’re designing for humans in the real world, not robots in a vacuum: your users will always have problems, and you’ll always need to find solutions. That’s why we recommend you bake in a continuous cycle of user research, problem defining, idea generation, solution prioritization, and testing into your design workflow.

Design thinking starts with your users

Hotjar Heatmaps, Recordings, Feedback, and Surveys help you empathize with your users—and design products that resonate.

Design thinking process FAQs