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In today’s article, The Ultimate Guide to Design Thinking Tools, we will discuss the whole design process in detail along with the design thinking tools needed to create a practical, functional, and aesthetic products.

This article will also explain and discuss the following articles:

Table of Contents

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is the process of finding and solving problems

For a UX designer, every design always begins with a problem. People need a good place to protect themselves from sun and rain, and so a house is made. Back then, primitive people need to cover their bodies when civilization was born, and so clothes were made.

In short, all designs have a purpose. It is a purposeful demand solution starting from the problem.

Design thinking is the process of understanding the essence of problems based on their own limitations

UX designers encounter this problem of reframing all the time, which means, they sometimes find themselves trying to solve an existing problem and at the same time introduce another problem.

For example, lithium batteries are useful as a power backup and have now become one of the best alternatives to power vehicles, reducing our usage of oil/gas. However, the production of lithium batteries has brought river pollution.

This is something that most designers do not want and sometimes they will need to reposition their own problems. We need to see that people do not actually need automobiles. What people only need is a way to transport themselves from one location to another. Thus, the problem at the level of the automobile may be important, however, the most important thing is how to make people commute better and more conveniently. This is a constant deduction of the nature of the problem.

Design thinking is an extreme human-centered process

This may be a point of argument since a lot of design thinking schools only focus on human-centered designs. But what about the extreme users?

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Extreme users are defined as users whose behaviors and needs are extremely extreme. Like for example, a company for household kitchenware whose user segments are the general users. The extreme users of kitchenware products can be professional chefs and disabled people. But why should we pay attention to these extreme users?

Did you know that extreme users can amplify the user's demand for the product? Yes, that is right. For example, if a professional chef does not feel that the tool is unresponsive to use, and disabled people are not inconvenienced to use it, the average user will not even feel this. There will be problems with the design.

Design thinking is a process of incorporating various things into a system

When designers refer to innovation or design, thinking cannot focus on innovation or design. Instead, the design should observe the entire system that involves this innovation.

For example, when designing medical devices, we cannot consider the needs of users individually as the systems should consider many elements such as doctors, the stress involved at work, the patient's mood, hospital space, and the equipment involved. Also, manufacturers, government medical insurance, etc. are all within the scope of innovation. Designers should take these factors into consideration with the systems that surround them.

The Design Thinking Stages

Stage 1: Empathize (Know your users’ needs)

This is the first phase of design thinking, where in you gain real insights into your users and their needs.

This design thinking phase focuses on user-centric research. The goal is to gain an empathic understanding of the problem designers trying to solve. Here, designers consult experts to find out more about the area of concern and conduct observations to engage and empathize with the users.

The research also uses immersion strategies to get a glimpse of the users’ physical environment and have a deeper and personal understanding of the issues involved, including the users’ experiences and motivations.

Using empathy is also important in problem-solving and a human-centered design process as it allows designers to set aside their own assumptions and gain real and valuable insight into users and their needs.

Depending on the time allowance, you may collect a substantial amount of information to use in the next stage. The main aim is to develop the best possible understanding of users, their needs, and the problems that underlie the development of the product or service you create.

Design thinking tools for user research

Exploratory Research

Initial field research was conducted to understand the context surrounding the problem.

Desk Research

A type of research to know the information about the project’s theme based on different sources: websites, books, magazines, blogs, articles, etc.

In-depth Interviews

Is a process to obtain information through dialogue, mainly with users/developers about the product/service/process.

Awareness Notebooks

Instruments are utilized to obtain data where in user is physically distant.

Ethnographic research

Ethnography is part of the anthropology branch, which is a study of human behaviors and cultural relationship dynamics through field research. It achieves its objectives through conversation and observation, and study of the social interactions of people. It can be used with groups, teams, organizations, and in a nutshell, with every kind of group.

This is considered a qualitative method where researchers observe and/or interact with a study’s participants in their real-life environment with no preparation.

A Day in the Life

Simulation of a person’s life or specific situation.

Generation Research

This is about meetings with teams and stakeholders to carry out activities like the presentation of views and experiences with the project.

Focus Group

Is a kind of survey to check the user’s reactions to a particular issue or product. This is an advanced qualitative research technique and is commonly used to understand consumer habits, observing their particularities and individual behavior.

It is conducted by a mediator and carried out by volunteers who meet in person to answer open-ended questions about a specific and predetermined topic.


Involves observing and monitoring a user over a period of time. It records and analyzes the user’s interaction with the product or service.

Stage 2: Define and state the users’ needs and problems

Define is the second stage of the design thinking process, where one defines the problem statement in a user-centered manner.

In this stage, the information during the first stage (empathize) is gathered and organized. This stage will also include an analysis of the observations to define the core problems that emerged and were identified. 

When it comes to defining the problem and problem statement, you need to focus and consider it in a human-centered manner.

This means that you need to pitch the problem based on the users’ needs. For example: “Commuters need a better way to book a taxi during peak hours in order to help them get home faster and safer.   

This stage aims to help the design team collect better ideas to design features, functions, and other elements that solve the defined problem.  

Design thinking tools for defining the users ‘problems and needs

Insight Cards

These are reflection cards based on data gathered from the exploratory, desk, and in-depth surveys. These data are transformed into cards that facilitate the visualization of information.

Affinity Diagram

An affinity diagram is a tool that allows one to organize ideas during brainstorming sessions. The goal is to take large amounts of information and/or insights and understand the essence behind that content.

Essentially, it aims to group ideas based on affinity, similarity, dependence, or proximity, and place them into a diagram within the macro areas that identify a topic to be worked on, subdivisions, and interdependencies.

Concept Map

A concept map is a simplified diagram or visual representation that organizes complex field data at different levels of depth. It shows how two or more concepts or ideas are related to each other, which shows linear reasoning and allows new insights extracted from the information.

It’s usually shown in nodes (boxes or circles) that are hierarchically structured and connected by arcs (lines or arrows). The idea is to create a knowledge system for any topic.

Guiding Criteria

Guidelines must be followed continuously during the development of a project, determine the limits of tasks, and maintain the proposed focus.

Empathy Map

The empathy map is a visual representation of the analysis of the behavioral aspects of the ideal customer. This map can detail scenarios, thoughts, actions, problems, and the needs of the target audience.

The more knowledge about the target audience, the easier it is to understand their needs and easier to help them fulfill those needs, problems, and expectations.


Personas are fictional archetypes that embody the brand’s values and represent the ideal customer’s perspective.

Personas play a relevant role in the customization of solutions, providing insights that can be used to promote personalized experiences.

User journey

A graphical representation of the stages of users’ relationship with the product or service.


Blueprints are serviced-design diagrams that show the relationships between different solutions (like products and services) and their components (people, physical or digital evidence, and processes), that are directly tied.

It is a visual schematic matrix representing the whole system of interactions that straightforwardly characterize a service. It acts like a magnifying glass for the customer journey.


Examining unanswered questions in a company from different perspectives allows for the deconstruction of biases and assumptions about a business, product, or service.

Customer Journey Maps

A customer journey map is a visual representation of every experience your customers have with you, your services, products, and basically your entire brand. This map illustrates all the touchpoints that your customers may have through visuals that tell the story of how they moved through each phase of interaction.

They are often based on a timeline of events, for example, from initial attraction – when a customer-first contact you, all the way through to their final purchase and post-purchase support.

Stage 3: Ideation (Assumptions and creation of ideas)

This is the third stage of design thinking, wherein it identifies innovative solutions to the defined problem created in stage 2.

During the third stage of the design thinking process, designers are ready to generate ideas. With a solid background in having a full understanding of users and their needs in the empathize stage and a good analysis of observations in the define stage to create a user-centric problem statement, the team members can start to look at the problem from different perspectives and ideate innovative solutions to the problem statement.

Design thinking tools for ideation

Brainstorming & brainwriting

It is a creative process to generate many ideas quickly. In brainstorming meetings, everyone writes their ideas anonymously on pieces of paper, which are shuffled afterward.

Co-creation workshop

This is a collaborative meeting held by the Design team that brings individuals together foster innovative solutions.

Ideas menu

The catalog summarizes and makes tangible all the ideas generated in the project.

Positioning matrix

A matrix that communicates the benefits and challenges in implementing each solution. This way, the most strategic ideas are prioritized for prototyping.

Stage 4: Prototyping (Creating solutions)

Prototyping is the fourth stage of design thinking that let us identify the best possible solution.

The design team provides a number of inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product (or specific features found within the product) to investigate the key solutions generated in the ideation phase. These prototypes can be shared and tested within the team itself, in other departments, or on a small group of people outside the design team.

This is also known as the experimental phase aims to identify the best possible solution for each of the problems in the first stages of the design thinking process. The solutions are implemented within the prototypes and each is investigated, accepted, improved, or rejected based on the users’ experiences.

By the end of the prototype stage, the design team will have a better idea of the product’s limitations and the problems it faces. They’ll also have a clearer view of how real users would behave, think and feel when they interact with the end product.

Design thinking tools for prototyping

Proof of Concept

A proof of concept is a realization of a certain method or idea in order to demonstrate its feasibility. This is how an idea is determined whether it can be turned into a reality. This tool helps discover what actually works about an idea or whether it will function as envisioned.

Developing a proof of concept generally requires an investment of time and resources. But by going through this process companies are able to determine a concept’s viability before putting production-level resources behind an untested idea and potentially wasting valuable time, resources, and investment.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

A minimum viable product is the simplest version of a product, service, or functionality to obtain the value proposition’s market validation.

It aims to avoid risks and provides a platform for product validation. It also separates ideas from execution, theory from practice, and the abstract from the concrete.

Volume Model

A three-dimensional representation of a product with varying fidelity levels is used to take the idea and transform it into something concrete.


Wireframing is a prototype used in interface design to sketch the structure of a digital product such as websites or applications. It exemplifies the relationships between its pages and other key elements in the interface.

In detail, it consists of a simple visual representation of the structure and functionality of a single web page or a sequence of linked pages.

Wireframes can be sketched manually or digitally as long as it fulfills the purpose of structuring and validating ideas graphically.


Visual representations of a story through static frames. They are created from drawings, collages, photographs, or any other type of graphic representation.

Staging & service prototype

Staging is an improvised simulation of material artifacts, environments, or even people’s interactions with objects or dialogues. It is used to represent aspects of a solution, as well as test, build, or detail steps in a procedure to improve a product or service experience.

Prototyping on paper

Simple representations of interfaces, drawn by hand, with different fidelity levels to make an idea tangible.

Stage 5: Test (Testing the solutions)

Testing is the fifth and final phase of the design thinking process, where we test our solutions to get a deep understanding of the product and its users.

Designers and evaluators conduct several tests of the product using the best solutions identified in the prototype stage. This may be the final stage of the five-stage model. However, in an iterative process such as design thinking, the results generated are often used to redefine one or more further problems.

The increased level of understanding may help you investigate the conditions of use and how people think, behave and feel towards the product, and even lead you to loop back to a previous stage in the design thinking process.

Then one can proceed with further iterations and make alterations and refinements to rule out alternative solutions. The ultimate goal is to get as deep an understanding of the product and its users as possible.

How to enhance the use of the design thinking tools

Focus on the problem

The reason why a lot of companies often fail to solve problems effectively or meet their goals is that they do not correctly identify the problem from the beginning.

Try to listen and always place yourself in the shoes of your users to have a full understanding of what they need.

Be curious and ask who encounters this problem and why, including the question: Why have previous attempts failed to resolve the issue at hand?

Try to have collaborative conversations with other team members and with everyone who may provide you with a good view of the problem.

Never assume you have understood the problem or the solution. With an open mind, you can find something that you didn’t expect.

Think outside the box

Be ready to unleash your own curiosity and think as much as possible about the solution to the problem. 

Only by becoming curious about everything can you let yourself go, stop the comments, pay more attention to the users and the whole society, and finally perfect the products and services.

Enhance design thinking tools and skills with the team

Design thinking is considered an act of asking questions, understanding, and testing, everyone should participate in it.

Thus, it is only necessary to develop your design thinking tools and skills with the rest of the team members.

Learn and practice the design thinking mindset by implementing this in your role as much as possible. For example, if you oversee integration, think of ways how to test a new approach or understand your employees’ mindsets by collecting feedback through a survey.

You may also promote interest in design thinking if you have team members who want to take the initiative and expand their skill sets. Try to encourage design thinking interest and experimentation within the company.

Design thinking in the real world

Always remember to put an emphasis on design thinking in the real world. Before anything else, be very clear about who the audience is, what will happen to them after they are done, and what kind of feelings they will have. When it comes to designing thinking and utilizing the design thinking tools in all of its aspects, be user-centric and walk into real users instead of focusing on themselves.

The continuous design thinking process

Remember that design thinking is all about continuous rapid prototyping, collecting user feedback, and iterating. Think and record excellent ideas in ordinary times, actively practice these ideas, learn in action, and be taught in failure.

The intention of returning to the design is to find problems and solve problems. Do more innovation and design thinking, think about how to help the team grow better, or think about how to make the user have a more perfect experience.

Create a learning culture

The design thinking process comes and goes. This is what iteration is about. It’s common to revisit topics and projects as there will always be room for improvement.

Always have an open mind to what went wrong by demonstrating that failures are expected and are part of the design thinking process.

Get to see failures as learning opportunities as trying and failing in a new approach opens up to a narrower list of possible solutions. This brings you and your team closer to the method that works best.

Embrace the feedback loop

The goal of design thinking is to find the best possible answer and the best solution. Brainstorming sessions or mind mapping are several tools that could help you get to the best solution. Accept that the best solution is probably not the first solution you have. Thus, a constant feedback loop is essential.

Prepare to do a test and repeat method to find new ways and angles to test all your assumptions. In one way or the other, you will find innovation or solutions to simple to complex problems that you thought you never had.

Always conduct feedback or mind mapping sessions, which create an innovation of space and at the same time prevent mistakes from happening again.


Design thinking offers several solutions from simple to complex problems. It is an iterative, non-linear process that focuses on collaboration between designers and users.

The design thinking tools help brings innovative solutions to life based on how real users think, feel and behave.

We have learned that design thinking is a human-centered design with five core stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

These 5 stages are used as an important guide. The iterative, non-linear nature of design thinking means that the design team can carry these stages out simultaneously, repeat them and even circle back to previous stages at any point in the design thinking process.

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Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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