Design Thinking: Definition, Stages, and Examples of Its Application

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term design thinking ? Maybe for you, design thinking is synonymous with innovation, thinking out-of-the-box , having new breakthroughs, and so on. Actually, you’re not wrong.

The three word phrases are indeed the desired results from the process of doing design thinking . Usually, the ability to do design thinking is needed in jobs related to product design, user experience, UX designer , architecture, and others.

Design thinking does not only apply in this job, it is also needed in business. Design thinking does have advantages such as cost savings and guaranteed return on investment (ROI), making users more loyal, and saving development time.

That said, design thinking is also very important for startups . Startups invent, test products or services and often fail before getting funding to continue their innovation. Startup must be able to define a problem and answer it with the product results. Design thinking is where it comes into play.

So, what is meant by design thinking ? What are the characteristics and application? Continue to read the information below so you can understand design thinking .

What is Design Thinking?

On the internet, you will find many definitions of design thinking . According to the “Interaction Design Foundation”, for example, design thinking is referred to as an iterative process of understanding users, challenging assumptions, redefining problems, and creating solutions.

Meanwhile, the “Career Foundry” said that design thinking is an ideology as well as a process for solving complex problems that emphasize the interests of the user. Simply put, design thinking is an approach or method of solving problems both cognitively, creatively, and practically to answer human needs as users.

Design thinking includes processes such as context analysis, problem finding and framing, idea and solution generation, creative thinking, sketching and drawing, modeling and prototyping, testing and evaluating.

The essence of design thinking includes the ability to:

  • Solving complex problems.
  • Turning strategy into solutions.
  • Using abductive and productive reasoning.
  • Using non-verbal, graphic or spatial modeling media, for example, sketching and prototyping.

Design thinking gives us space to fail. Learning from failure, we must understand why we failed and why we have to fix it. Design thinking is also linked to recipes for product and service innovation in business and social contexts. Some of these recipes have been criticized for oversimplifying the design process and downplaying the role of technical knowledge and skills.

John E. Arnold was one of the first writers to use the term design thinking . In ” Creative Engineering ” (1959) he distinguishes four areas of design thinking. According to Arnold, design thinking can produce, among other things:

  • New functionality, i.e. solutions that meet new needs or solutions that meet old needs in entirely new ways.
  • Higher level of solution performance.
  • Lower production costs.
  • Salability improvement.

Thus, according to this initial concept, design thinking encompasses all forms of product innovation, including especially incremental innovation (higher performance) and radical innovation (new functionality). Arnold recommends a balanced approach: Product developers should explore opportunities in all four areas of design thinking.

Even though it has many meanings, there are four characteristics that you will always encounter in design thinking .

1. Solution-Based or People-Centered

The interests of humans as users are the main focus in the design thinking method . Hence, design thinking plays the role of identifying problems that are being faced by humans and answering these problems with solutions that are useful and effective for them.

In other words, design thinking relies heavily on solutions to answer these needs. This kind of approach will require someone to come up with something constructive to solve a problem.

Solution-based thinking is summed up in research by Bryan Lawson, Professor of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, which compares the process of problem solving by a group of scientists vs a group of designers. Lawson said that groups of scientists tend to identify problems ( problem-based ), while groups of designers prioritize problem solutions ( solution-based) . So, solution-based is carried out experimentally in order to find the right solution.

2. Hands-On

One of the stages carried out in design thinking is prototyping, turning ideas into real products. This stage allows direct testing from the design team on semi-finished products. Hands-on characteristics will not exist in a business that does not use design thinking . For example, with the rise of coffee shops which are increasingly mushrooming in big cities.

The existence of coffeeshops with the same business model and offerings will only make the competition in the coffeeshop industry more stringent. The rise of coffee shops also does not try to question the problems that exist in coffee enthusiasts. As a result, no solutive product is produced.

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3.Highly Creative

Some say that being creative means being able to create something new. There are also those who argue that a creative person can connect things that were previously unrelated. If you look at it, the point is the same, that creativity demands novelty.

This characteristic is closely related to design thinking . Solving problems and answering them with solutions is the main goal of design thinking . However, the solution offered must also present a fresh concept in order to attract users.

If the solution already exists, isn’t it natural that users aren’t interested in your offer?

4. Done Repeatedly or Iteratively

Design thinking always starts with looking for problems. Why bother looking for trouble? This is because user behavior and desires are constantly changing. Not only that, in fact, users do not really know what they want.

That is evidenced by the words of Henry Ford, the founder of one of the largest car companies in the world, Ford. “If I asked what the user wanted, they would say a faster horse,” he said. Even though in the end Ford didn’t produce horses, at least he managed to contribute something faster, right?

Users don’t know that what you produce will end up being something they need the second it appears in plain sight. Design thinking exists to bridge this gap. It will be used continuously to offer this invisible desire, until the results are able to answer what the user really needs.

Process in Design Thinking

Design thinking is not a new term. The idea of ​​using a design approach for creative problem solving has long been discussed by experts since the 1960s. Experts contribute their thoughts to each other, thus forming the concept of design thinking .

It was John E. Arnold who first put forward the term design thinking in his book “Creative Engineering” in 1959. Then, in 1965, L. Bruce Archer responded to this idea by arguing that design thinking needed to be done systematically.

Herbert Simon, an American sociologist and psychologist contributed his thoughts through his article entitled The Sciences of The Artificial which was published in 1969. Simon introduced 7 steps to using design as a creative approach to problem-solving .

It was the essence of Simon’s concept that later inspired the 5 stages of design thinking that are commonly known today. This concept became more popular after being applied by David Kelley and Tim Brown to the design company they founded, IDEO. They see that companies are less creative in handling extreme cases that happen to them.

These five stages do not have to be sequential, but can also be implemented non-linearly. That is, in certain stages, you might find an insight that makes you have to improve results at other stages.

In addition, these five stages can also be moved/changed in order, or carried out simultaneously, and repeated several times to open up opportunities for the best solutions.

For more details, see the chart below.

Stages of Design Thinking

1. Empathize

Empathize in design thinking is a crucial early stage. Although these five stages can be carried out in parallel, most projects start with this stage. In this stage, you have to put empathy to know the users and understand their wants, needs, and goals. This stage also requires the observer to leave his assumptions about the user for a moment and begin to understand the mindset of the user.

To get away from assumptions, you can ask what the user is doing ( what ), how is he doing it ( how ), and why is he doing it ( why ). These three questions will help you make objective observations.

In order to understand users from the psychological to the emotional side, you can interact directly with users. However, currently, there are many ways that can be used to understand users. For example, such as analyzing product feedback and identifying user behavior on social media.

2. Define

After collecting data related to users, your next task is to analyze that data. Next, identify the problems or obstacles experienced by users. The define stage in design thinking itself is carried out to mention the problem statement .

In naming the problem, make sure you are using the user’s point of view, not emphasizing the action the company should take. For example, you find that there is a need for hand protective fluid to protect yourself from the Covid-19 virus.

From there, state the problem with “Indonesian people need…” instead of “Our company has to make…” This will help to clearly distinguish the problem statement and not confuse the company about calling a problem with a solution.

3. Ideate

With knowledge of user complaints and clear problem statements, now is the time for you to compile creative ideas as problem solutions. This is where the creative process begins. The Nielsen Norman Group defines idea as the process of generating a series of ideas based on a particular topic, without any attempt to judge or evaluate them. So, here, you are free to explore any ideas.

However, formulating creative ideas is not easy. Some ideas will be considered interesting and others will just end up in the trash. Therefore, at this stage you are required to think out-of-the-box . If you have trouble coming up with brilliant ideas, you can follow some of the ideation methods that are often used, such as brainstorming, mindmapping , and bodystorming ( roleplay ).

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4. Prototypes

After choosing the most genius idea, you have to make a visualization of your idea. This stage does require experimentation to turn ideas into something visible. The prototype itself is an unfinished product, a simulation, a sample that can evaluate the ideas and designs that you have designed, for example, like a beta version in making a website. This stage is important for testing whether the product that has been worked on so far is in accordance with what was planned.

At this stage, the solutions offered can be accepted, repaired, redesigned, even rejected. Therefore, the function of this stage is to re-question whether the existing product can answer user problems.


As the name implies, at this stage, you have to test the prototype to the user. Sometimes, testing is optional. However, testing will provide its own advantages, namely product reviews . From there, you can maximize the product again from feedback from users.

Even though this stage is at the end, it does not mean that the design thinking process has been completed. As previously said, design thinking is a non-linear method . The testing process may reveal deficiencies or gaps in other design thinking processes .

In that case, you have to fix the result of the incomplete process. For example, after testing it turns out that the user doesn’t really need it. It could be, the problem statement that you formulated is not quite right. So, you have to repeat the identification of the problem in the define stage , then redefine the ideas as problem solutions.

Example of Application of Design Thinking: Case Study of Gojek

This time, you will find out about Gojek’s success in finding problems and providing solutions using design thinking. The founder of Gojek, Nadiem Makarim, is worried when many people don’t believe that ojek can be a professional job.

He answered these doubts through an innovative invention in the form of an application to connect online motorcycle taxi partners and passengers with Gojek. As of 2020, Gojek has accumulated 38 million monthly active users, won the unicorn title in May 2017, and became decacorn two years later.

The following are the stages of Gojek’s discovery using design thinking .

1. Empathize

Nadiem said that the motorcycle taxi sector is very valuable. This stems from his personal experience, preferring to take a motorcycle taxi instead of bringing his own car to avoid Jakarta’s traffic jams. Nadiem found that the community also felt the same anxiety and needed alternative transportation.

On the other hand, because he often rides motorcycle taxis, Nadiem can understand the ins and outs of a motorcycle taxi driver who works 14 hours a day and does not see his wife and children, but only gets 4 passengers. Nadiem is concerned about the fate of motorcycle taxi drivers.

2. Define

Nadiem tries to answer the existing problems by emphasizing that consumers face traffic jams every day. On the other hand, there is uncertainty about the income of a motorcycle taxi driver, even after working many hours a day.

Apart from that, Nadiem also saw that when there were many motorbike taxis available, there were not many passengers who needed his services. However, when passengers need it, the motorcycle taxi is not there. Nadiem said, this causes market inefficiency. Therefore, Nadiem felt he had to make a new breakthrough to accommodate this.

Potential problem statement: “People need alternative transportation to avoid Jakarta traffic jams and motorcycle taxi drivers need income certainty (passengers)”.

3. Ideate

Capitalized on public anxiety over Jakarta’s traffic jams, the plight of motorcycle taxi drivers, and the formulation of the problem statement above, Nadiem formulated several solutions. One of them, and which will be the basis for making its current product, is to create a link between the needs of passengers and motorcycle taxi drivers.

4. Prototypes

In 2010, Nadiem created a call center for conventional motorcycle taxis with 20 drivers. After receiving a positive response from the community, Gojek then developed its application.


In 2015, Gojek released the Go-Ride application to see the community’s response. It wasn’t long before drivers started registering in droves, from 20 people initially to 800 people in 2015. Gojek has succeeded in becoming a liaison for online motorcycle taxi partners with customers who need alternative transportation to avoid Jakarta’s traffic jams. In addition to these main services, Gojek is also increasingly developing its business in food delivery services, goods, purchasing of goods, cleaning services, and others.

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