Design Thinking

Design Thinking is an agile tool developed in the 1990s in Silicon Valley. What was originally intended as a method to create innovative products and services, has advanced to a comprehensive methodology of creative teamwork.

  • It brings unexpected solutions, changes in work culture, and improvements in team performance.
  • It focuses on both stakeholder and human needs, empathy, and values different points of view.
  • It is about trying to quickly produce various innovative solutions by creating prototypes and then concentrating on the idea with the greatest potential.


Map - Hintergrundbild

Empathize: You must gain empathy for the stakeholder by observing, engaging with and listening to who they are and what is important to them. Discovering real needs, inferring insights and creating a persona are the first steps.


Define: Based on what you have learned about the stakeholder, you have to define the challenge you are taking on. The goal is an explicit expression of the problem, the so-called point-of-view. Although it may seem counterintuitive, a more narrowly focused problem statement tends to result in greater quantity of higher quality solutions when generating ideas.


Ideate: Here you focus on generating solutions to address the challenge. It is not about coming up with the right idea, but generating a broad range of possible solutions, e.g. through brainstorming.


Prototype: Three ideas that receive the most votes (choosing your own criteria, e.g. the rational choice, the most unexpected) are carried forward into prototyping. A prototype is an artifact that is quick and cheap to make, and something that the stakeholder can interact with, for instance a role-playing activity or a gadget that has been put together.


Test: Prototype and test are intertwined because you have to consider what and how you are trying to test before creating a prototype. Through testing – ideally within a real context of your stakeholder’s life – you get feedback, learn about your solution and your stakeholder. It is the chance to refine prototypes and solutions that makes them better.


Implement: The best idea, process or project is turned into a concrete, fully conceived action plan.



The success of Design Thinking is based on three key factors:

  • People: The team consists of people with different backgrounds, sometimes also from different departments to foster ideas that go beyond disciplinary borders. Diversity is one of the key principles to overcome the internal barriers of silo-thinking.
  • Place: Creative workspaces invite the team to visualize their thoughts and share results. A free and flexible working environment enhances idea generation. Such a workspace should contain, for example, whiteboards, movable furniture, and material for prototyping like LEGO bricks. The room has to be adapted to the needs of each project.
  • Process: The process is divided into five iterative loops (see graphic above) and visualized as a circle, but the steps can be performed in various orders. A culture open to errors and iterations are central to Design Thinking. Iterations occur during the whole process multiple times, but also on a smaller scale within each of the individual steps.


Further readings

  • Plattner, H., Meinel, C., & Leifer, L. (Eds.) (2018). Design thinking research: Making distinctions: collaboration versus cooperation. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  • Website “openHPI” of the Hasso Plattner Institute ( offering free online classes and tutorials on IT and Design Thinking topics.