Design Thinking: A UX Researcher’s Quick Start Guide

Are you wondering how design thinking helps UX research?  Do you want to better understand your users and define their problems effectively? Design thinking is the key!

Design thinking is a user-centered approach to problem-solving. Also called human-centered design. It empowers researchers to arrive at that a-ha moment. The moment when you legitimately understand the real problem… and how to solve it

But, isn’t that what UX research does?

Yes, and no. Design thinking is a creative problem-solving process. UX research is a data-gathering process.

Design thinking kicks off the whole UX research process with empathy exercises. These define the persona your product helps.

By incorporating design thinking principles into your research process, you can develop a holistic understanding of your users' experiences. This leads to more successful problem discovery.

That’s right. Discovery.

Solutions are a dime a dozen if you don’t understand the real problem. That is the beauty of design thinking. It helps empathize at deeper levels.

You stay in the question until that “a-ha moment” of problem discovery.

In this guide, we will explore the principles and methodologies of design thinking. It provides you with practical techniques to uncover and define user problems with precision and empathy.

Let's begin our transformative journey into the world of design thinking. Elevate your user-centered research skills!

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a creative problem-solving process. It helps us come up with innovative solutions to problems. This design process can be used on digital products and tangible products.

Start with empathy (knowing what others think and feel). It involves defining (understanding people’s needs). It’s about iteration (thinking of lots of ideas). And prototyping (trying different approaches to find the best solution). Lastly, it requires a testing phase (taking the prototypes for test drives to see what works).

Design thinking is like being a detective, which is very fun.

It investigates problems people face and how to make their lives better.

It pushes us to think outside the box, be curious, and empathize with others. This creates meaningful and useful designs.

So, it’s a way of thinking. Or better yet…it’s a mindset. A mindset that helps us view people and problems through a different lens.

It helps us make things that work really well for the people who use them.

The Benefits of Design Thinking for UX Researchers

Design thinking can be particularly beneficial for UX researchers. It’s like a pep assembly at the start of a project!

By using design thinking, UX researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the problem their product will solve. While having fun and finding satisfaction!

UX research methodologies and design thinking methodologies are very similar. The main difference is design thinking is a powerful tool for defining problems.

On top of that, design thinking can also help UX researchers in a few other powerful ways:

  • Foster empathy: Researchers try to think and feel like their users. They use particular exercises to really put themselves in their users’ shoes. This helps them understand what users really need and want. And that’s how they can make solutions that work perfectly for them!
  • Encourage collaboration: Teamwork makes the dream work. Design thinking is all about working together with stakeholders. Designers, developers, and business experts all have a role. When they join forces, they can come up with effective and smarter solutions. It’s like having a super team brainstorming session! Together they can empathize, ideate, and prototype solutions.
  • Iterate and improve: Getting better step by step! Design thinking is like a continuous cycle of testing and improving. Researchers try out their solutions and see what works and what doesn’t. Then, they make them even better.

Overall, design thinking is a valuable approach for UX researchers. The main goal is to design effective solutions that meet the users’ needs. Design thinking is a creative problem-solving approach that does that.

Design Thinking Vs. UX Research

Imagine UX research as a super zoomed-in microscope.

It lets us examine every tiny detail of how users think and behave. It helps us gather lots of data. You discover important insights about user needs and preferences. It’s like looking closely at individual puzzle pieces to understand how they fit together.

Now, think of design thinking as a wide-angle lens.

It allows us to see the whole picture of the user experience. It helps us see the context and challenges users face. Design thinking encourages us to work together and think creatively. It finds innovative solutions. It’s like taking a step back and seeing the entire puzzle, understanding how all the pieces fit together.

So, UX research helps us study the small details. Design thinking helps us see the bigger picture and come up with exciting solutions.

By using both approaches, you can understand users deeply. Also, you create amazing experiences that meet their needs.

The 5 Basic Steps of Design Thinking

Consider design thinking steps to solve the following problem for a business owner. Her/His employees are chronically late. It’s causing some tension.

Involve the five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Step 1: Empathize – This means understanding why employees are consistently arriving late. Maybe they face difficulties with transportation, have trouble waking up early, or encounter other challenges. Listen and talk to them about their experiences. You can better understand their reasons for being late.

Step 2: Define – Based on what you learned from talking to the employees, you can define the problem more clearly. For example, you might discover that employees are struggling with waking up on time due to irregular sleep patterns. They might face long commute times. So, the problem could be defined as finding a way to help employees arrive on time despite these challenges. “How might we help employees see the value in being on time to work?”

Step 3: Ideate – Ideate – Now it’s time to brainstorm ideas to address the issue. Here are a few examples that came from the ideation stage:

  • Creating a flexible work schedule, allowing employees to start and end their workday at different times.
  • Implementing a carpooling or transportation assistance program to reduce commute time.
  • Offering incentives or rewards for punctuality, such as recognition or small prizes.
  • Providing resources or workshops on time management and establishing healthy sleep habits.

Step 4 & 5: Prototype/Test – Once you have some ideas, you can choose one or combine a few to create a prototype solution. For instance, we might create a trial period where employees can choose their preferred start times. This tests the flexible work schedule idea. You could also organize a transportation assistance pilot program. This is for employees who have long commutes. By trying out these prototypes, we can gather feedback and see what works best.

Remember, design thinking is an iterative process. It simply means you can refine and improve your solutions based on feedback and observations. You rarely get it right on the first attempt!

By using these steps, you can come up with creative and effective solutions. It’s an empathetic approach to addressing the issue of chronically late employees.

Design Thinking in Practice: Transform the Project

Maya, a UX researcher, was assigned to study a mobile banking app. She met with a diverse group of participants. They ranged from college students to elderly individuals. She began by asking open-ended questions.

Instead of approaching the study with preconceived notions or biases, Maya practiced active listening. She set aside her assumptions. She encouraged participants to freely express their thoughts and emotions. She created a safe space for open dialogue.

During one particular session, Maya met Daniel, a middle-aged man who had recently lost his job due to a company downsizing. As she sat across from him, Maya noticed the deep lines etched on his face. They revealed the burden of his struggles. Daniel shared how he had been using the mobile banking app to manage his limited finances. However, he felt overwhelmed and confused by the complex interface.

Maya's heart sank as she witnessed the frustration in Daniel's eyes. She realized that her research was not merely about improving the app's usability. It was about alleviating the financial stress and anxiety experienced by people like Daniel.

Inspired by this profound moment, Maya embarked on a mission to eliminate bias from her research process. She recognized that everyone had their own unique stories, challenges, and perspectives.

With each study, she made a conscious effort to question her assumptions, challenge her biases, and empathize deeply with her participants. In the end, Maya was able to come up with more meaningful potential solutions.

Empathy Stage: Why do you start there?

Have you ever had an experience where you thought “This is exactly what I needed”?

Providing people with exactly what they need takes empathy.

You have to care.

It is hard to care if you don’t understand.

Empathy helps us break free from assumptions and biases we may have about users. Instead of relying on guesswork or what we personally think is best, we use empathy research methods.

We gather insights directly from the real users themselves. We conduct interviews, surveys, observations, and other techniques. We listen to and understand their perspectives.

By starting with empathy, we can develop a deep sense of compassion and care for the users. It helps us develop a genuine desire to create designs that meet their needs and solve their problems. This user-centered approach leads to more effective and impactful solutions. Solutions that are tailored to the users’ wants and expectations.

As a UX researcher, embracing empathy in design thinking will allow you to challenge assumptions. You can create designs that are meaningful and user-centered. It sets the stage for a successful and impactful UX research process.

Challenges in Implementing Design Thinking

Implementing design thinking poses challenges.  Particularly in obtaining buy-in. It requires a mindset and cultural shift, which can face resistance. 

Gaining support from stakeholders is difficult due to its departure from traditional decision-making processes. Design thinking emphasizes empathy and iterative prototyping. This conflicts with efficiency and risk aversion.

It demands time, resources, and a tolerance for failure. This can be met with skepticism in organizations favoring certainty. 

Overcoming these challenges entails strong leadership, effective communication, and showcasing tangible benefits. These are needed to foster a design-thinking culture.

Resistance to Change

One of the biggest challenges in implementing design thinking is resistance to change. People may feel comfortable with the status quo and may not be willing to try new approaches. This can be especially true in organizations that have a hierarchical structure. Change can be viewed as a threat to established power structures.

To overcome resistance to change, it is important to involve all stakeholders in the design thinking process. This can help to build buy-in and support for the new approach. It is also important to communicate the benefits of design thinking and how it can help to solve problems more effectively and efficiently.

Discomfort of Ambiguity

Ambiguity is an inherent part of the design thinking process. It involves exploring uncharted territory and open-ended problems. Design thinkers must navigate through uncertainty. They must embrace the discomfort of ambiguity to uncover innovative solutions. Embracing ambiguity allows designers to explore multiple perspectives, challenge assumptions, and discover breakthrough ideas. This can lead to transformative outcomes.

The discomfort in ambiguity arises from the uncertainty and lack of clear direction or answers. It challenges our desire for clarity and can be unsettling. But, it also presents opportunities for creativity, growth, and embracing diverse perspectives.

Lack of Understanding and Resources

Another challenge in implementing design thinking is a lack of understanding about what it is and how it works. Many people may be unfamiliar with the design thinking process. They may not know how to apply it to their work.

To address this challenge, it is important to provide training and education about design thinking. This can include workshops, seminars, and online courses. It is also important to provide resources and support for those who are new to the process, such as templates, guides, playbooks, and examples.

Time Constraints

Design thinking can be a time-consuming process. This can be a challenge in organizations where time is a precious commodity. People may feel that they do not have the time to engage in the design thinking process. They think it will take away from other important tasks.

To overcome time constraints, it is important to prioritize the design thinking process. Make it a part of the organization’s culture. This can involve setting aside time for design thinking activities, such as brainstorming sessions and prototyping workshops daily, weekly, or monthly.

Even fifteen minutes a day would begin to change mindsets.

It can also involve delegating tasks and responsibilities. This ensures that everyone has the time and resources they need to participate in the process.

Overall, implementing design thinking can be a challenging process. But, it is one that can yield significant benefits for organizations that are willing to embrace it. Address resistance to change, provide education and support and prioritize the process. Organizations can overcome challenges and reap the rewards of a more innovative and effective approach to problem-solving.

When do you use design thinking?

The fast answer is…all the time! Basically, design thinking can be used in any field where a problem needs to be solved innovatively.

Here are five examples of problems that could use an innovative approach:

  1. Redesigning a classroom layout to foster collaboration and creativity. Consider the needs and preferences of both students and teachers. 
  2. Develop a user-friendly mobile app that simplifies the process of budgeting and financial planning. Design for individuals with diverse income levels and financial goals. 
  3. Designing an inclusive playground that accommodates children of all abilities. It should promote accessibility and ensure a joyful play experience for everyone. 
  4. Creating a sustainable packaging solution for a consumer product. Considering the environmental impact, user convenience, and cost-effectiveness. 
  5. Redesigning a healthcare experience. Consider improving the patient journey through a hospital by streamlining processes. Enhance communication. Create a comforting and supportive environment for patients and their families.

Anytime humans are involved in a problem, design thinking is the ideal process. This user-centric design process creates solutions that are meaningful.


Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving that focuses on understanding what people need and want. It helps designers come up with better and more innovative solutions.

Design thinking encourages teamwork, trying new things, and making changes based on feedback. It’s not just for designers – anyone can use it!

By using design thinking, individuals and organizations can be more creative and empathetic. They create products and services that genuinely meet customers’ needs.

It’s a valuable tool for solving problems and being more innovative in any industry.

A Fictional Case Study: CelebrateRite: A Design Thinking Approach to Simplify Birthday Party Planning for Parents

CelebrateRite is an innovative mobile application designed to assist parents in planning and organizing memorable birthday parties for their children. By employing the principles of design thinking, we aim to create a user-friendly and intuitive app. It simplifies the party planning process. It helps alleviating stress and ensuring a joyful celebration for both parents and their little ones.

The first step in the design thinking process is to empathize with the target users. In this case, parents planning birthday parties. Through interviews, surveys, and observation, we gain insights into their pain points, needs, and desires. Specifically when it comes to organizing such events. Common challenges may include time constraints, lack of ideas, budgeting concerns. There is always difficulty coordinating various elements of the party.

With a deep understanding of parents' needs, we can now define the specific goals of the CelebrateRite app. These objectives may include providing a wide range of party theme ideas. Includes are offering a comprehensive checklist of tasks and timelines, facilitating easy communication with vendors, and ensuring adherence to budget constraints. By defining these objectives, we create a clear direction for the app's development.

In this stage, we generate innovative ideas to address the defined objectives. Brainstorming sessions may involve the creation of feature lists, wireframe sketches, and user flow diagrams. Potential features may include:

1. Theme Inspirations: A vast collection of creative and age-appropriate party themes with accompanying decoration ideas, games, and activities.
2. Budget Tracker: A built-in tool to help parents set a budget, track expenses, and receive alerts if they exceed predetermined limits.
3. Vendor Marketplace: A curated directory of trusted vendors for venues, entertainers, bakers, and party suppliers, along with reviews and ratings.
4. Task Checklist: A customizable checklist outlining all essential tasks, deadlines, and reminders to ensure a smooth planning process.
5. RSVP and Guest Management: An integrated system to send invitations, manage RSVPs, and keep track of guest lists.
6. Collaborative Planning: A platform enabling seamless collaboration between parents, allowing them to share ideas, tasks, and notes.
7. Personalization: Options to customize invitations, decorations, and party favors, reflecting the child's preferences and interests.

Transforming ideas into tangible prototypes helps visualize the app's structure and features. By utilizing user interface (UI) mockups and interactive wireframes, we can present the app's functionality. We can also gather feedback from parents and potential users. This iterative process ensures that the final design aligns with their expectations and needs.

Test and Refine:
In this crucial stage, the prototype is tested by parents to evaluate its usability, effectiveness, and overall experience. User feedback and observations are collected, allowing for iterative refinements and improvements to the app's design. This continuous feedback loop ensures that CelebrateRite evolves into a reliable and user-centric tool.

CelebrateRite offers a comprehensive and intuitive solution to alleviate the challenges parents face when planning birthday parties. Developed by design thinking, the app combines convenience, creativity, and effective communication. CelebrateRite empowers parents to create unforgettable celebrations while reducing stress and maximizing the joy of the special day.

*This is a fictional app and case study designed to inform on the design thinking process.