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What Is Design Thinking, and How Can SMBs Accomplish It?

Jackie Dove
Jackie Dove

See how some of the most successful companies solve users' problems.

Have you ever hit a point where your business seemed to fall flat? Processes are humming along, but without that oomph, you perceive roadblocks and friction that prevent your customers from getting the most out of your products or services, or maybe you want to expand or innovate but don't quite know how. Despite wanting to improve, as an entrepreneur and business owner, you sense that something is wrong or missing. How can you find it? How can you fix it?

One way is to employ design thinking techniques to analyze the state of your company from the perspective of its clients and customers to determine your next moves. Design thinking has evolved as a respected nonlinear problem-solving protocol that applies professional creative design principles to general business strategy. Google, Airbnb, Apple, Microsoft, SAP, Netflix and many other companies employ this technique.

Design thinking means taking the time to analyze what you need to change and deciding on specific steps that structure and tailor your approach to suit your company's goals. It concentrates on first identifying problematic issues in your operation and then focusing on implementing solutions.

Design thinking approach

There are many corporate and industrial permutations to getting started with design thinking, but most of them involve some form of the following activities, as outlined in the Design Thinking Bootleg, published by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (also known as the Stanford empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. You don't need a large team to achieve this – even solopreneurs can benefit from this concept.


In seeking solutions to business challenges, the most important part of gathering insights is to delve deeply into your customers' experience with your product or service – to put yourself in your customer's shoes. This part of the research involves both observing customer interactions with your product or service and questioning users on the barriers they face that make their experience with your company less than rewarding. You want their views on how you can improve your product.

The most important part of empathizing is to uncover the emotional connection your customers have to your company. Let go of your own preconceptions and value judgments as you listen to customers and immerse yourself in their needs and points of view.


Stating exact problems makes it easier to search for solutions. After examining responses from your customers, narrow down the issues you need to address and clarify the exact problems you want to solve. A combination of user feedback and company-based interpretation helps you to formulate a problem statement – a vision of your company's problems that will lead to solutions.


This is another way of thinking conceptually and imaginatively – outside the box. This phase of design thinking encourages gathering a wide sweep of ideas, often through brainstorming, that generate radical proposals and methods of solving the problem. At this stage, all ideas and an attitude of experimentation – regardless of immediate practicality – are welcome. Seek to challenge assumptions and heighten awareness as you start to explore possible solutions.

The ultimate goal at this point is not the be-all, end-all answer, but to explore and eventually settle on a prototype to test with your customers. This ensures that your future solutions will work the way you want them to.


By the time you get to the prototyping stage, you have identified the problems you want to solve and considered a wide range of solutions. Now it's time to start considering a rough draft of your vision using a whiteboard, stickies or index cards.

The best way to prototype is to pull in all participants, including the customers who helped you with their views as well as your in-house team. This launches a second conversation with customers at a point where you have taken their concerns into account. Here is where you find out what they think of your proposed solutions.

Consider this stage a way to reinforce empathy, refine results, and explore multiple approaches and constraints. Where does your solution fall short? Does it need more of something and less of another thing? Prototyping helps you narrow down what works and what doesn't in a setting where all interested parties have input. You can even tease out a single variable first to test user responses or just let users lead the way to the prototype.


Each stage of the process presents another opportunity for you to empathize with your customers and gain greater insight into your business issues. Testing reveals whether your interpretations of the issues are true, letting you further refine your prototypes and retest them until your solutions are satisfactory to your clients.

Just because you have reached this stage doesn't mean the problem is solved or the solution will work. Sometimes it means the opposite: You may have to go back to the drawing board – to circle back to the empathy and define steps and start the process all over again, perhaps with a different emphasis to synthesize what you have learned so far. These iterations continue in a loop until everyone is satisfied with the results. In fact, at each stage, you may find the need to return to square one.

Testing with users is critical to refine your solution and better understand your customers. Allow users to experience the prototype and follow up with additional interviews about what works for them and what doesn't.


How do you find out what customers think and feel? You ask them. If you're in design thinking mode, there's a bit more to an interview than just asking a question and getting an answer. With design thinking, you are exploring customer views with a purpose and listening for key elements from which to draw specific conclusions for solution-oriented prototyping and testing. Use your team – if you have one – to plan interviews, carefully group questions into categories and allot time for free conversation.

Questions can be framed as "Why?," "Tell me about …" and "How do you feel about …" regarding how customers interact with your product or service. Empathy is a primary goal here too. You want questions to sound neutral, you want to encourage background information, and you want to set up opportunities to interpret body language.

The Bootleg document recommends paying special attention to extreme users – people who demonstrate special or unusual needs, interests, and behaviors – and pair them with parts of your operation that you want to explore in an extreme way. The purpose is to expose fresh ideas and approaches that will work well for all users. Then, gather your notes to group and prioritize results and share them with your team.

Point of view

Before you start to think about specific solutions, state the problem based on your research so far. The POV statement should be written in plain language and perhaps focus on a specific customer or user as opposed to a broad demographic. It should emphasize a change in overall direction rather than a specific solution to a problem.

As you gather ideas, try to seek alternative influences from different industries to gain perspective about analogous problems. This analytical exercise may give you further insight into the challenges your company's users face.


Brainstorming is useful throughout the design thinking process. While gathering as many ideas as possible, select which ones to follow up on for prototyping. First focus on ideas that excite, charm or fascinate, and then redefine your user base by characteristics, such as age group or nationality, that may cast a different light on the information and uncover new patterns and themes.


Because design thinking is productive and often successful in inspiring innovation, it's not just a convenient concept for a project but a way of life for your company that will add value over time. It starts with understanding your clients or customers, but it translates to teams and entrepreneurs who recognize that the company exists not only to prosper, but to create products and services that people genuinely love.

Image Credit: REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock
Jackie Dove
Jackie Dove Contributing Writer
Jackie Dove is an obsessive, insomniac freelance tech writer and editor in northern California. A wildlife advocate, cat fan, photo app fanatic, and VR/AR/3D aficionado, her specialties include cross-platform hardware and software, art, design, photography, video, and a wide range of creative and productivity apps and systems.