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A 5-step product design process

All companies know the pressure to innovate, stay competitive, and meet rapidly changing customer needs. 

Responding to customer issues with creative solutions is one of the most rewarding aspects of product design. But with so many different factors at play, it’s often hard to know where to start in solving difficult problems or generating new design ideas.

Last updated

8 Sep 2022
Product design process

A strong product design process can give teams a flexible structure to guide user-centered innovation and design. This article shows you how to use the design thinking process to get clarity on what’s most important to users and design brilliantly.

Use Hotjar for confident, user-centered design thinking

Learn how a steady stream of product experience insights can improve your design process

Why use a product design process? 

A tried-and-tested product design process is an important framework that structures your research, design, and development priorities and steers you through the full product design lifecycle. 

Following a process prevents you from skipping crucial steps in solving product problems and finding opportunities. Having a centralized process and plan helps set clear expectations for product designers and keeps different stakeholders aligned and in the loop.

Great design processes don’t stifle creativity: instead, they give you just enough structure to think outside the box and innovate without getting stuck in any particular design stage.

Why design thinking matters

Product design is not a rigid, one-size-fits-all structure: using a flexible process helps you feel confident in understanding your users, solving problems, and achieving your goals. 

We recommend the design thinking process, which you can adapt to your company’s needs, jumping between steps and circling back as necessary. 

Design thinking is an iterative, hands-on methodology that helps teams identify and reframe problems, then generate and test creative solutions. It is especially useful for understanding undefined, complex problems with many unknowns attached because their answers change depending on multiple contextual factors. Think of questions like:

  • How to stay competitive?

  • How to prioritize new features?

  • How to create a smooth, accessible end-to-end user experience (UX)?

Design thinking helps you break down problems into manageable stages and reframe questions around human-centered user needs. 

Design thinking is a useful resource for problem-solving. Teams can use design thinking to solve ill-defined or unknown challenges...because it allows them to reframe issues in a human-centric manner and focus on what matters most to users.

Josh Pelletier
CMO, BarBend

Key benefits of design thinking are: 

  • It’s user-centric and helps you empathize with the customer

  • It’s evidence-based, relying on testing and observing users

  • It gives you clarity on complex problems

  • It minimizes uncertainty and improves your confidence in design decisions

  • It produces innovative solutions

  • It stops you from falling into assumptions and using design patterns out of habit

  • It keeps the team and stakeholders on the same page

  • It’s hands-on—it’s not about endlessly conceptualizing but rather doing 

  • It’s non-linear and flexible, so you can tailor the process to your needs 

  • It improves efficiency with an agile approach to early-stage feedback that stops you wasting resources on unpromising ideas

A 5-step design thinking process that gets results

The Stanford Hasso-Plattner Institute’s five-phase approach to design thinking has helped brands like Google, IBM, and Airbnb boost innovation—so you’re in good company! 

Follow our guide to maximize results at every stage. 

The five steps in design thinking are: 

  1. Empathize 

  2. Define

  3. Ideate 

  4. Prototype

  5. Test

Remember: you don’t have to follow these stages in order. Use this guide as a starting point, then move back and forth across the steps and refine the formula to fit your current needs. 

See how real companies have used design thinking to solve user issues: check out our pick of product design examples.

1. Empathize

Product design begins and ends with user needs. 

Start by getting close to your user to understand who they are and what they want. Focus on the problems they need solved, using the jobs to be done (JTBD) framework to understand why customers are using your product and what they’re trying to accomplish. 

It’s important to observe user behavior in this phase—focus groups and lab testing are useful methods. 

But building real empathy with users means going beyond behavioral observations to understand what they think and feel. 

Building customer empathy is best done through immersive user research that lets you live the user’s experience. 

Talk to your users as much as possible. 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.

#Want to see exactly how users experience your website? Use Hotjar Session Recordings to track their movements and see where they’re getting stuck.
Want to see exactly how users experience your website? Use Hotjar Session Recordings to track their movements and see where they’re getting stuck.

Pro tip: don’t let your assumptions run the show. Design thinking is all about going beyond what you already know about your users and product. When designing surveys and interviews, make sure you don’t ask leading questions and encourage respondents to give honest, open-ended feedback that will help you better understand them. 

2. Define

Once you’ve built empathy and understanding with your customers, it’s important to synthesize your insights and make them actionable.

Map out user personas, focusing on the key tasks of different user types. Visualize your users by plotting their thoughts and issues on an empathy map, where you can spot recurring patterns. 

Next, use these insights to define a clear problem statement that centers on your users’ needs. Your problem statement should be targeted enough to offer clarity on the specific issue you’ve identified, but broad enough to leave space for a range of possible solutions.

For example, let’s imagine you’re a product designer for a language learning app. Maybe you’ve identified a key problem such as 'How to grow our active user rate?' Using design thinking, you would reframe your problem statement in terms of your users and their jobs to be done.

You might define a problem statement like this: ‘Our users want to engage in small chunks of language learning on the go through our mobile app, and to see the cumulative impact of their learning efforts. How can our product design better meet these needs, engage users, and keep them active?’ 

Pro tip: welcome overlap in different steps of the design thinking process. Even once you’ve defined your problem statement, keep building empathy with users through surveys and feedback tools that will help you validate your problem statement and assumptions.

3. Ideate

Now that you’ve deeply understood the problem, it’s time to start generating ideas for solutions. 

The key here is maintaining an open, creative mindset. At the ideation stage,  you have more specific, granular problem statements to work with than in the empathy-building and user discovery phases. But you need to leave space for new ideas to successfully innovate. 

Run dedicated ideation sessions and focus on creating a non-judgmental learning culture so the design team can play with ideas, have fun, and make mistakes. 

Use techniques designed to get you thinking outside of the box like: 

  • Brainstorming: throwing out as many ideas as possible in a group to cultivate creativity

  • 'How might we…?' statements: ask your team to collaborate in discussing ideas to accomplish specific results—for example, 'How might we get customers to feel more confident making purchasing decisions on our app?'

  • Worst Possible Idea methods: here, your team deliberately tries to find the worst possible solutions to their problem to inspire creative thinking and reverse engineer-generated solutions

At the beginning of the ideation process, you should focus on quantity over quality, giving your team the confidence to innovate and put forward ideas. 

Once you have several ideas on the table, narrow down possible solutions by deciding which possibilities are viable and best meet core user needs. 

Ideation empowers designers to let their imaginations run wild, challenge the status quo, and approach challenges from new perspectives. Additionally, it enables teams to collaborate and develop ground-breaking solutions together. For successful ideation, create a judgment-free environment that allows all participants to voice their ideas, even the most outlandish or unconventional ones.

Taylor Murchison
SEO Growth Director, On The Map

4. Prototype

A key design thinking principle is turning ideas into testable prototypes as soon as possible. 

Once you’ve defined promising solutions to your users’ problems, produce several minimum viable products (MVP) that implement these solutions.

Because design thinking entails prototyping, all products undergo numerous rounds of testing and user input at MVP level. With a sound design thinking methodology in place, you are far more likely to meet client expectations, as users are involved directly in the design and development process.

Kevin Cook
Chief Product Owner, TrackRight

Pro tip: collaboration is key to developing great prototypes: get designers and developers working together to mock up solutions and identify possible flaws. You can use basic paper models to get user feedback and refine your ideas further before developing interactive prototypes with full design functionality. Product design tools can also help you here.

5. Test

The last step in the design thinking cycle is testing your solutions with real or potential users. Experimenting before you invest in new designs or products helps you effectively deploy your resources and makes sure the final result will delight customers.

Run usability, A/B, and split testing with dedicated focus groups of target users. 

Deploy different product design testing methods like user interviews, surveys, and carefully placed widgets that gather opinions on design elements and the overall product experience (PX). Ask specific, targeted survey questions, but make sure you also ask big-picture product design questions so users can express themselves fully.

Make sure you also collect voice-of-the-customer (VoC) insights to learn what users are thinking in their own words. For a full picture of the product experience, complement this qualitative data with neutral observations of user behavior. Sometimes there’s a difference between what users say and what they do, and using a varied testing toolkit will give you a clearer sense of what’s going on.

Start by using tools like Hotjar’s Heatmaps to observe users' scroll and click patterns and see which elements are going unused. Then use this information to go deeper and understand why your users are displaying these behaviors. 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.

In the testing phase, a product is put to the test in the real world, where it can be observed and evaluated by real people in real time. This is the time to check if you’ve framed the problem correctly and collect user feedback specific to the prototype that helps you understand your users and uncover needs they hadn’t previously expressed.

Adam Wood
Co-founder, RevenueGeeks

Pro tip: some teams add a sixth step, ‘Collaborate’, right after testing. Collaboration is crucial throughout the whole design thinking process, but it’s especially important after testing to share the insights you gather with all stakeholders. Use integrations with communications tools—like Hotjar’s Slack integration—to speed things along!

Putting users first with design thinking

Design thinking helps you meet your product goals by putting users first

Following a flexible design thinking process helps teams generate opportunities for competitive innovation by focusing on customer delight.

To find creative solutions, you need to deeply understand the product problems you’re trying to solve. Use real user insights to shape successful product design processes. 

Use Hotjar for confident, user-centered design thinking

Learn how a steady stream of product experience insights can improve your design process

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