The Design Thinker Blog

Theory, practice, and stories from the field. 


Design Thinking in Action: Insights from the field

Nov 03, 2018

A question I often get is, how do we put Design Thinking into practice? This is a complex question to answer because Design Thinking is flexible and can be applied in many ways so, context is important. In this article, I attempt to answer this question with specific examples from the field.

The Stages of Design Thinking

In practice, Design Thinking happens in stages: Understanding, Conceptualizing, and Experimenting. It is important to remember that while these stages are described in a linear fashion, in practice Design Thinking is iterative. The iterative nature of Design Thinking means that stages are cyclical rather than linear.

The Understanding Stage: The purpose of this stage is to discover the challenge, understand who is impacted by it and, how they are impacted by it. Here we ask questions to learn, we remain curious, and refrain from judging or moving into solving mode. We focus on understanding a situation from other peoples’ perspectives. In this stage, empathy, being externally focused, and collaboration are important.

Tools and techniques that are helpful in this stage

1) Empathy profiles
2) Journey mapping
3) Interviews
4) Focus groups

The Conceptualizing Stage: The purpose of this stages is to imagine what may help alleviate the challenge. This stage is all about generating ideas. At first, the quality of ideas is not as important as the number of ideas generated. So, begin this process by welcoming all ideas no matter how wild they sound. Reserve judgment for later. In this stage, collaboration, ideation, risk taking, visually expressing ideas, and human-centeredness are key.

Prompts to guide conceptualizing possibilities:
1) How might we…
2) What might help…
3) What if…

Tools that are helpful in this stage
1) Sticky notes
2) Large sheets of blank paper
3) Dry Erase Boards
4) Markers, crayons, highlighters, pens, pencils

The Experimenting Stage: A foundational principle of Design Thinking is learning by doing. In this stage, we test out ideas to see if and how they solve the challenge. The goal here is to find ways to quickly and cheaply test out ideas to see how they might work in the real world. In this stage, it is important to take a risk in trying something out, use failure as learning opportunities, and to build on ideas to get to a viable solution.

Techniques for this stage
1) Role playing
2) Piloting
3) Creating mock ups
4) Sketching and diagraming

Tools that are helpful in this stage
1) Construction paper
2) Glue and tape
3) Markets, crayons, highlighters, pens, pencils
4) Scissors

In practice, it is so easy to turn Design Thinking into a process. I see it happening all the time and I myself am guilty of starting down this path. Don’t fall into this trap. The true power of Design Thinking is its flexibility and adaptability. To fully reap the benefits of Design Thinking we have to continue to see it as more than a process or a methodology. We need to remember that Design Thinking is a philosophy, a mindset, a set of concepts that inspire creating innovative yet pragmatic solutions to complex challenges. So, while Design Thinking happens in stages and each stage has a specific purpose, there are many ways in how you can facilitate each stage.

Examples from the Field

The Understanding Stage in Action: A software company experiencing decline in sales wanted to understand why customers were abandoning their software in favor of a competitor’s product.

In Design Thinking, understanding why customers are leaving is not as important as learning how we might serve our customers better. To answer this question, the software company engaged in creating empathy maps of their customers. They did this by first gathering their customers’ demographic data to answer the question, ‘who are our customers?’. This exercise resulted in identifying 3 distinct customer groups.

Then the company organized and conducted interviews with representative customers from each of the three customer groups. In these interviews, they focused on understanding the software needs of their customers. Questions asked included; describe the work your company carries out? How does software help you in your work? What features in a software program would make your job more enjoyable?

This work in Understanding, uncovered that this company had two customer groups, each of whom had very distinct needs. Customers in Group A were cost conscious small businesses that had basic software needs. For these companies, simplicity and low cost were the most important. Customers in Group B were also cost-conscious businesses, but their software needs required accommodating virtual collaboration, high level of security, and global technical support. While initially, the sales team thought there were 3 distinct group, their working in understanding their customers revealed only 2.

With this understanding, the company was able to redesign their product offering to cater to their customers’ specific needs.

The Conceptualizing Stage in Action: Ken a successful consultant had recently published a book based on his years of experience as a consultant. After, many years in field, Ken learned that most of what he knew about business, he learned by doing. Some of these lessons were learned the hard way and could have been avoided. He was often asked by young professionals coming into the industry for advice. He found himself writing long emails giving others advice. He decided to catalog these emails and eventually a book transpired but now that the book was published Ken found the audience that was eager for his advice had disappeared.

Our first session to discuss this issue was a virtual meeting, where I asked the question, ‘how might we find your audience?’. The initial response to this from Ken was “I have no idea”. So, I decided to take a step back and ask, who is your audience? Who did you write this book for? We used this information to create an empathy profile. Once we had a profile, I went back to my original question, how might we find your audience? This time, ideas started flowing. While Ken spoke, I created a mind map of his ideas. When the ideas stopped, we ended the session, deciding that we would each review the ideas on our own and then regroup.

At our next session, a few days later, we focused on grouping the ideas until we identified 3 channels for reaching Ken’s audience. We concluded this session with the decision to test our three ideas with others through focus groups. This set the team up to move into the Experimenting Stage.

The Experimenting Stage in Action: A retailer with poor customer reviews recognized that they needed to make some changes if they were going to continue to be in business. The retailer conducted online surveys to gather details about what might create a better customer experience. Through their surveys, they had collected a robust set of data that offered many options, so much so that the retailer felt overwhelmed with potential options…a bit of analysis paralysis if you will.

To get the team moving forward, we created a journey map of the customers’ existing experience outlining; what the customers might do before they entered the store, what they did while in the stores, and actions once they left the store. The journey map provided a way for the team to visualize where changes could be made. Using stickie notes, the ideas collected through the survey were posted along the customer journey. Through this exercise, the team identified changes that might enhance the customers’ experience.

To test out if the changes the team came up with would actually enhance the customer experience, the team engaged in a role-playing activity. One evening after the store closed for business, the team gathered to experiment with the proposed changes. We used a role-playing technique to test out potential options. Some team members played the part of customers while others resumed their roles as employees of the store. They acted out the changes that they planned to make. Initially, everyone felt a bit silly but after a few attempts the team started to identify why some ideas would not work and this was valuable information to have before trying it with customers. However, even better, is that they started to see how some ideas needed to be tweaked and the tweaking process evolved into brand new ideas. After several iterations of tweaking and testing through role play, the team finalized the process they wanted to implement. They created an updated customer journey map to show what the new process would look like. This session ended with the decision to test out the new way of doing things, with a test group of real customers. The team decided they would invite 5 or 6 customers to help them try out the new process giving customers an opportunity to provide input into how the store would do things in the future.

Lessons from the Field

  1. Meet them where they are and build from there. Design Thinking does not exist in isolation. It would be great if we could go out into the world and only use Design Thinking in its purest form. To date, I have not found one client engagement where this was possible. Instead, what I’ve had to do is figure out how Design Thinking applies to the work my clients do. In other words, I have to meet my clients where they are and build from there.For example, in the case of Redefining the Retail Experience, this company has a very strong Six Sigma culture. When I was engaged, the client had already collected data through online surveys and analyzed the data using a Six Sigma approach. As a Design Thinker, I would have preferred to engage with customers directly to collect data. However, the client had obtained useful information that provided insights into the customer experience. We built from where the client left off by plotting the data they had on a journey map so, we could get a deeper level of understanding of the customers’ experience. In taking this approach, I was able to demonstrate to the client how Design Thinking can fit into how they work.
  2. Show don’t tell. Early on in my practice, I thought it was necessary to lecture my clients about Design Thinking and provide them with all of the background and theory behind it. I quickly learned the best way to get clients to embrace Design Thinking was to get them doing it. Now, I just get to it and provide background information as we go.For example, in the case of the Software Company, I started with asking the team to tell me about their customers, they started gathering demographic data, then I asked them to tell me about what their customers see, do, hear. Only after they started answering these questions did I introduce the Empathy Map and explain what they were doing and why. At this point, they had already bought into the value of understanding their customers in this deeper way.
  3. It’s okay to start small. Ideally, it would be great to get companies using Design Thinking to its fullest extent in everything they do, to have everyone in an organization bought into the Design Thinking way of working. In real organizations, this approach rarely works.My best advice to you is if you want to embed Design Thinking into your work with clients or within your company, start small. Introduce one or two concepts. Try using Design Thinking with one project, or with solving one problem and build from there. It is easier to create buy-in for Design Thinking once people have experienced it in action.
  4. Not just a Process or a Methodology. When we get into the work of Design Thinking it is easy to turn it into a methodology with steps to follow but, remember Design Thinking is not about following steps or checking off tasks. Design Thinking is about employing empathy, questioning the status quo, daring to imagine what could be, and confidently testing ideas while remaining humble to learn what will and will not work. Design Thinking provides guiding principles that enable us to design pragmatic solutions to complex challenges. So, embrace the fact that developing solutions occurs in stages but, don’t become ridged to these stages. Know the tools that are helpful for each stage but don’t feel an obligation to use them. Adapt the process to what the situation demands.

My Favorite Resources

Ready to get start? Want to learn more about putting Design Thinking to practice? Here are some of my go-to resources.

Book Online Resources
Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers – Dave Gary, Sunni Brown, James Mcanufo



This is Service Design Doing: Applying Service Design Thinking in the Real World – Marc Stickdorn, Markus Edgar Hormess, Adam Lawrence, Jakob Schneider


Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers – Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie

Facilitation Ideas and Tools



Everything you need for Journey Mapping


dSchool Resources for Action


IDEO’s Design Kit

Hopefully, this article has provided you with some insights on what Design Thinking looks like in action as well as inspired some ideas on how to incorporate Design Thinking in your work.

*Please note: The scenarios shared in this article are based on real life client projects, however, names and other identifying information have been modified per the clients’ request to protect their privacy.


Get new content delivered to your inbox.

You're safe with me. I'll never spam you or sell your contact info.