The 5 stages of design thinking [updated]

The 5 stages of design thinking (and how they can help your app development process)

Whether you’re designing a new toothbrush, a stoplight, or a mobile app, the process of bringing a new product into the world can be a challenging one. You’re often faced with unknown or poorly-defined problems, and it can be hard to know where to start.

Your job is to identify and prioritize the problems, match them to the right solution, and ultimately build a product your users will love. That’s a lot to get done. So, how to find a method in all this madness? 

Design thinking offers you a framework for solving creative challenges. As a method informed by human-centered design, it centers real people at the heart of the creative design process. 

Let’s explore the 5 stages of design thinking in detail.

The 5 stages of design thinking

5 stages of design thinking infographic BY MRJANZEN 1984
MrJanzen1984, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Empathize

two people wearing aprons looking at mobile phoneConduct sessions in which you observe people, ideally ones who represent your target demographic. Watch how they navigate real-world situations, and ask them questions about the challenges they face. Pay attention to what they say, as well as the emotions they express. Use this information to better understand their wants, needs, and desires. 

The interactions you experience and the behaviors you observe will help you identify problems faced by actual people. Keep in mind that these problems are not necessarily the ones you set out to solve. 

Stay open throughout the process. Ask questions, observe with all your senses, and carefully document as much as possible. Information can be collected through recordings, surveys, or through direct observation and note-taking. The point is to become deeply familiar with the challenges of your target users.

2. Define

Working from the insights you gathered in step one, define the main problem your user is facing that you can address. 

Articulate this in a clear problem statement, similar to a user story in agile methodology. Your problem statement captures the essence of the problem you’re trying to solve and who you’re solving it for. It will help you stay focused on your user’s needs as you proceed with the steps ahead.

3. Ideate

group workshopping at table with laptopsThe process of ideation is one of brainstorming and generating ideas. Sometimes it’s called “blue sky thinking.” Your goal is to find creative ways to solve the problem you identified in the previous step. At this point there are no limits and no judgements; all ideas are on the table.

Brainstorming in collaboration with a diverse team is ideal. Your chances of catching a great idea are higher when you include a variety of perspectives.

Collect all your ideas in one place. A white board is a great place, and if you’re working remotely, a collaboration platform like Google’s Jamboard can fit the bill.

4. Prototype

Once your team has collected an array of ideas, it’s time to choose one and build a prototype. The most basic prototype could be just a napkin sketch, but it’s better to provide something that simulates the product you’re aiming to build. The best option is an interactive prototype which your prospective user can hold in their hands. 

The more tangible your prototype, the better. This way you’ll be able to observe your concept in action, and adjust your product as necessary.

5. Test

woman looking at mobile phone in cityFind a group of users who represent your target demographic so you can test your prototype in a real-world setting. After presenting them with your prototype, observe them utilizing your product and take note of their interactions. 

Are there areas where they got confused or stuck? Did the product address the problem you identified? Observe their natural behaviors, and if possible, ask them to narrate the experience

Give your users some basic instructions, or ask them questions to suss out more information. If possible, try not to insert yourself into the process or convey too much information, as some users will want to please you by providing the answers they think you seek.

Take notes or make recordings during testing and throughout the 5 stages of design thinking process. Remember: the data you collect from these sessions will be invaluable and can be integrated into your product at any future stage.

Design thinking is iterative

close up for people at a table and one person taking notesSince design thinking is iterative, the design thinking process involves cycling back through previous steps. Any time you collect new information, or make a relevant observation, you may adjust your problem statement, or tweak your solution. With each cycle, your orientation may shift, but should result in a better prototype.

Conducting every step in order is not as important as staying true to your human-centered approach. After testing, you might return to ideation, or you might build a new prototype. There is no strict right or wrong to this process–it should serve you and your goal of building a product that will delight your users.

Applying the 5 stages of design thinking to your development process

Stay focused on solving real-world problems and you’ll have a better chance of producing a successful product. This process also helps you avoid feature creep and project bloat, and keeps your work targeted and your product lean.

In the end, designing a web or mobile app is not that different from designing a toothbrush or a stoplight. Especially when you take a human-centered approach and use the framework of design thinking. 

Interested in trying out this process, and putting together a working prototype? We’re happy to start a conversation. Or if you’re already working through the development process and need some help with the UI/UX design, we offer those services as well. Contact us here.

Want to learn more about design thinking? Check out the resources at IDEO or the Stanford D-School.

Editor’s note: Addie Kugler-Lunt expanded and updated this article in July 2022.

LimeTech is a creative tech company with a focus on app development. We help brands grow their impact by building digital products that please customers and solve business challenges. Our work includes strategy, design, content, and tech planning. Check out our portfolio or reach out to start a conversation about your project.

design process    design thinking    human centered design    mobile app development    mobile applications    product development    prototyping    

YaMabrook launch announcement

YaMabrook launch announcement

Today we announce the official launch of the YaMabrook mobile app, and share some of the work we did in the early stages of the product development process.

Read more
Everything is agile [updated]

Everything is agile [updated]

Back in the 90s, software development was a laborious, time-consuming process, and products could easily take three or more years to build. This time-lag meant that the entire landscape could shift before a product reached the market. 

Read more
Nice to meet you, color! Color terminology explained. [updated]

Nice to meet you, color! Color terminology explained. [updated]

Building on our article “Hello, Color!”, we cover some common color terminology. This helps you have conversations with designers when you’re creating the look and feel of your app. Here we go with “color terminology explained”!

Read more

Contact us

Type of project
*Don’t worry – we won’t share your email.(Required)
*Don’t worry – we won’t share your email.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.