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11 best design thinking tools and software for each stage of the process

The design thinking process might have just five steps (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test), but there are hundreds of tools you could use for each—and that’s way too many to learn about and master. 

The good news is that there’s a lot of overlap, and plenty of tools work great at multiple stages of the process.

Last updated

12 May 2022

In this guide, we take you through some of the best design thinking tools for each stage, and show you how to build your design thinking toolkit around putting users first.

Design thinking starts with empathy

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

1. Hotjar

#The team at Spotahome empathizes with users by watching a Hotjar Recording
The team at Spotahome empathizes with users by watching a Hotjar Recording

Sure, we’re a little biased 😊, but we think Hotjar is the best tool for design thinking, and the one you need to start with. Why? Design thinking is a user-centric process that starts and ends with empathizing with users and getting customer feedback on your updates

Hotjar’s tools are designed to collect insights that help you put users and data at the heart of every product decision.

I find Hotjar gives me empathy for the user. I can see their experience directly and notice how frustrating it can be.

Luke Calton
Product Lead, Hussle

What it is: Hotjar is a product experience insights platform with two parts: 

  1. Observe: including Heatmap and Recording tools to see how users are clicking and navigating

  2. Ask: including Survey and Feedback tools to hear directly from users

Design thinking stages: Empathize, Test

How to use it: Hotjar has a free plan to get started with. Once you’ve signed up, you can capture live product feedback ‘in-the-wild’:

  • Get an overview of the most- and least-clicked elements on any page with heatmaps—check that key CTAs and features aren’t getting ignored. 

  • Get qualitative insight into a user’s browsing journey across multiple pages with session recordings—find bugs and see what users do before exiting or performing a desired action. 

  • Hear directly from users with on-site surveys—ask what they’re trying to achieve with your product, and what’s holding them back.

  • Collect actionable product feedback—allow users to tag any element and express frustration or delight.

We also practice what we preach: the Hotjar product team uses Hotjar in-house to guide product decisions and create a better user experience. In their words, “it’s like stepping inside your visitors’ and customers’ minds.”

 2. UserZoom

#An example live user interview conducted using UserZoom
An example live user interview conducted using UserZoom

What it is: UserZoom is a cloud-based UX research platform for conducting live user interviews, card sorting, tree testing, and other user research activities remotely. 

Design thinking stages: Empathize, Test

How to use it: UserZoom’s pricing is custom, so you’ll need a product demo before getting started. Once you’re set up, you can use the platform for remote user research sessions: 

  • Real-time, moderated sessions—ideal for the ‘Empathize’ stage and finding out more about user challenges by asking follow-up questions.

  • Unmoderated sessions where users follow pre-selected tasks—better for the ‘Test’ stage and learning if your prototype works the way you intended before rolling it out. 

You also have the option to source your own participants, or use UserZoom’s recruitment engine. 

3. EnjoyHQ

#User interview notes organized in EnjoyHQ
User interview notes organized in EnjoyHQ

What it is: EnjoyHQ, from the UserZoom team, is a UX research repository for importing, organizing, and searching through user research data in one place. 

Design thinking stages: Define

How to use it: EnjoyHQ is a self-service tool, so you can sign up anytime and there’s a free plan to start with. You can import user interviews and get auto-transcriptions from audio and video, and search by keyword to filter relevant user data—ideal for the ‘Define’ stage—so you can quantify common pain points across user research channels, from surveys to interviews. 

The product team at Hotjar also uses EnjoyHQ to keep their user research in a single place.

No more searching through emails, message threads, and Drive docs. Now all of our research is in one place and easy to filter.

Martina Pérez
Senior Product Designer at Hotjar

4. Miro

#A Miro whiteboard empathy map template
A Miro whiteboard empathy map template

What it is: Miro is an online collaborative whiteboard platform.

Design thinking stages: Define, Ideate

How to use it: Miro has a free plan and plenty of ready-made templates—try the empathy map template to visualize user needs. You’ll likely use Miro the most for the ‘Ideate’ stage of design thinking, as it’s ideal for real-time and async brainstorming sessions—you can even digitize IRL sticky notes to add to boards.

🔥 If you’re using Hotjar: use Zapier to automatically create cards in Miro from Hotjar Feedback and Survey responses.

5. MindMeister

#A mind map exploring ways to increase feature usage, created in MindMeister
A mind map exploring ways to increase feature usage, created in MindMeister

What it is: MindMeister is a cloud-based collaborative mind mapping and brainstorming tool.

Design thinking stages: Ideate

How to use it: MindMeister has a free plan to get started with. Try using a mind map to help the creative process when brainstorming ideas and evaluating solutions in the ideation stage of design thinking. You can invite people to view, contribute, comment, and vote on ideas, making it easy to get input from as many team members as possible. 

6. Figma

#An example prototype built in Figma
An example prototype built in Figma

What it is: Figma is a collaborative design tool with two core functionalities: Figma, an all-in-one design platform, and FigJam, an online whiteboard for teams. 

Design thinking stages: Ideate, Prototype, Test

How to use it: Figma and FigJam have free plans and can be used for three parts of the design thinking process

  1. Ideate: start with FigJam, and use the whiteboard to brainstorm potential product solutions. 

  2. Prototype: take your ideas to Figma to design and comment on shareable prototypes. 

  3. Test: use “Observation Mode” to view how users interact with your prototype—similar to what you’ll see when you watch a session recording on a live product. 

The Hotjar product team uses Figma (and FigJam) for brainstorming, prototyping, and usability testing.

It’s a visual space where designers, copywriters, and product managers can easily work together on shared projects.

Eddie Machado
Product Design Lead at Hotjar

7. InVision

#The InVision document dashboard
The InVision document dashboard

What it is: InVision is an online whiteboard and team collaboration platform to brainstorm ideas and prototype designs. 

Design thinking stages: Ideate, Prototype, Test

How to use it: start with Freehand (there’s a free plan), InVision’s collaborative whiteboard tool, to brainstorm and vote on design solutions for the ‘Ideate’ stage of design thinking. Then, use InVision Studio to design wireframes and prototypes and create shared design libraries to save time and allow non-designers to build designs. You can share prototypes via public links to solicit feedback and comments, and use the InVision iOS app in "user test" mode to test designs in user research sessions. 

8. Balsamiq

#An example wireframe built in Balsamiq
An example wireframe built in Balsamiq

What it is: Balsamiq is wireframing software. You can download Balsamiq on Windows and Mac, or use Balsamiq Cloud for collaborative online wireframing. 

Design thinking stages: Prototype

How to use it: Balsamiq doesn’t have a free plan, but unlike most design thinking tools, you can buy a one-time desktop license (there's a 30-day free trial available) or sign up for a cloud plan. Balsamiq is solely for the ‘Prototype’ stage of design thinking. Use it to wireframe and evaluate design solutions before moving forward to the testing phase. 

9. Google Optimize

#Creating a new experiment in Google Optimize
Creating a new experiment in Google Optimize

What it is: Google Optimize is a website experimentation platform for creating A/B and multivariate tests.

Design thinking stages: Test

How to use it: anyone with a Google account can use Google Optimize for free; sign in and create split test variations using the visual editor without coding knowledge. You can set up experiments to target cohorts based on various parameters, including geographical location and user behavior (e.g. visiting a specific page). Google Optimize also integrates with Google Analytics, so you can target experiments to specific Google Analytics audiences.

🔥 If you’re using Hotjar: add empathy to your Google Optimize tests by collecting qualitative session recording and survey data during experiments. Filter your user insights by Google Optimize ID, and you’ll learn why a test wins (or loses), so you can continue iterating within the design thinking process.

10. UserTesting

#An example UserTesting session with video of a user navigating a mobile app
An example UserTesting session with video of a user navigating a mobile app

What it is: UserTesting is a human insight platform for remote user research and prototype tests. 

Design thinking stages: Empathize, Test

How to use it: UserTesting has custom pricing plans, so you’ll need to request a trial to get started. Once you’re in, you can use the platform to test an app, product, or website on a target audience (sourced by UserTesting), and get video feedback. This helps you empathize with the user experience during the first stage of design thinking, as you’ll hear people narrate what they like (or don't like). You can also test prototypes—UserTesting’s platform integrates with some of the prototyping tools we covered above, including Figma and InVision.  

UserTesting is ideal if you’re designing a mass-market product with a wide appeal, since the test participants are recruited and won’t be your real users. If you prefer to observe and talk to actual users ‘in-the-wild’, you’ll get better user data from tools like Hotjar Recordings and Surveys

11. Maze

#An example user test created in Maze
An example user test created in Maze

What it is: Maze is a product research platform for user research tests including prototype testing, tree testing, and the 5-second test. 

Design thinking stages: Empathize, Test

How to use it: Maze has a free plan to start with and integrates with Figma and InVision, making it easy to A/B test prototypes during the ‘Test’ stage of design thinking. Maze also works well for the ‘Empathize’ phase if you use “Maze Discovery” to collect feedback from users on what’s working (or not) in your product. When you create any user test in Maze, you’ll get a shareable URL so you can recruit real users via email, social media, or in-app messaging. You can also attract testers by paying for additional credits and using the “Maze Testers Panel”.

Fewer tools, more action

If you've read this far, you now know some of the top tools for every design thinking stage: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. But design thinking isn’t done in a straight line, and there’s no single 'perfect' tool for each stage.

The most effective way to make an impact is to start with empathy and let your users guide you through the rest of the process, while keeping your tech stack as lean as possible—for example, Hotjar + Figma alone will get you most of the way there. 

Design thinking starts with empathy

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

FAQs about design thinking tools