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Design Thinking: Definition & origin

Design Thinking serves the elaboration of solutions and ideas for complex problems and questions. The Design Thinking process contains of 6 steps: The first three steps are focused on the problem, the next steps on finding a solution. The origin of Design Thinking is in architecture and design. The focus is being laid on the users of a product and their needs. Due to this, it is often counted among the agile methods. But: Design Thinking is not only a method, but also a specific mindset as well as principles and a process including respective tools. Design Thinking is often perceived as a new approach. But: Since the 90s scientists have already dealt with such an user-oriented approach in innovation management. The term traces back to the founder of the design consultancy IDEO, David Kelley. David Kelley is one of the co-founders of the d-school at Stanford University, where Design Thinking is being taught practically. Furthermore, Hasso Plattner, one of the co-founders of SAP, is a firm supporter of Design Thinking and dedicates himself to this topic at the d-school at Stanford University as well as the Hasso-Plattner-institute (HPI).

What are the benefits of Design Thinking and how can it be utilized?

The benefits of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is an innovative approach and a mindset that can be utilized in various topics and areas. Through the systematic and highly iterative process, comprehensible progress and visible results can be reached. A positive error culture (“fail fast“) and the direct communication with end users and customers provide clarity about what they really need and reduces costs. Through a clear user- and customer orientation, direct reference to the currently dynamic market situation is given. This increases the perceived quality of the product for end users and customers. This way, the competitiveness and success of a product on the market can be increased. Moreover, the team members make joint decisions and are actively involved in the process. Hereby, the personal identification with the product as well as the further development of the team members are fostered.

The Design Thinking process: 6 steps to solving complex problems

The process includes 6 steps that are divided into a problem- and a solution space: First, the problem to be solved needs to be fully understood. Only then an individual, suitable solution based on creative ideas can be found. The first three steps address the problem statement and the last three steps finding a solution for the given problem.
Design Thinking is an iterative process: There should be room for demand-oriented switching between the steps and therefore, the process sequence does not need to be followed subsequently.

The Design Thinking process:


At first, the Design Thinking team should become familiar with the problem that needs to be solved in order to get a comprehensive, common understanding of the problem- a fundamental prerequisite in Design Thinking. For this purpose, the problem statement is initially being formulated as a question. By using appropriate techniques and tools, the problem can be broadened or narrowed down as required. The goals of this step are to understand the content and context of the problem statement and to identify the stakeholders. The findings of this step help to refine the problem statement iteratively later and reach a common understanding of the problem to be solved.


In this step, the team learns as much as possible about the end users and their needs: The Design Thinking Team can for example take on the end users’ perspective through field observations and conduct explorative interviews to ask specifically for their needs. This way, deeper insights into their needs can be obtained and documented.


At the end of the problem analysis the outcomes are summarized, categorized, discussed and evaluated. The team’s point of view concerning the problem is formulated as a persona and serves as a starting point for finding a solution in the subsequent process. Supporting methods like storytelling or questioning techniques can come in handy at this process step.


From this step onwards the team finds itself in the solution space. Different brainstorming techniques can be utilized here in order to generate as many ideas as possible, then sort, combine and categorize them. Afterwards, the ideas are rated, and the team decides about them together. Methods like decision matrices or dot voting can be used here. This step is often described as one of the most challenging in the Design Thinking process, since specifically at the beginning, decisions are made based on assumptions.


The chosen ideas become tangible and perceptible through prototypes. In order to build these fast and at low cost, simple materials that make testing functionalities and a user experience possible are used. The prototype step is closely linked to the following test step, since the feedback from testing can be used to improve the prototype. Especially the last two steps in the Design Thinking process build upon the positive error culture of this approach.


The Design Thinking team and end users do the testing of the prototype together. This is not only done in order to receive feedback, but also to revise the problem statement. Different feedback techniques and testing procedures can help receive valuable information and enhance the prototype at this step.

The Design Thinking principles

Design Thinking is based on four complementary principles that answer the following questions: “What is being observed using this procedure?“, ”Who is involved?“, “How is it done?“ and “Where (in what kind of space) is Design Thinking performed?“:

People as the starting point (the “What?“)

People are the source of inspiration in Design Thinking and therefore come to the fore: The problems to be solved and the stakeholder’s needs should have first priority. Only then the technical feasibility and profitability are being looked at.

Multidisciplinary teams (the “Who?“)

In Design Thinking diversely staffed, multidisciplinary teams work together. In literature, different recommendations are given regarding the ideal team size- we recommend a team of 4 – 7 people. An even distribution of multiple subject areas should be given within the team. Furthermore, every team member (the so-called “Design Thinker“) should have broad as well as expert knowledge (“T-shaped professional“) and ideally even expert knowledge in more than one subject area (“π-/pi-shaped professional“). Additionally, Design Thinkers should have a mindset of empathy and resourcefulness as well as inclusive thinking, cooperation capability and optimism. Moreover, the team’s joint creative capacity should be paramount.

The iterative process (the “How?“)

The Design Thinking process is an iterative approach allowing a team to switch between the different steps on demand. The process alternates between divergent and convergent thinking: The unrestricted creation of new ideas and focus on relevant outcomes. The whole process is about experimenting and fostering ideas through deferring criticism as well as pursuing and broadening ideas.

Creative space (the “Where?“)

The Design Thinking team should be provided with a space designed in a way that new ideas and a creative work process with direct interaction with each other is facilitated and nurtured. Therefore, materials like whiteboards, high desks, metaplan boards, flipcharts, pens or note papers (post-its) as well as materials for building prototypes should be available.

Success factors for on-site & remote teams

When teams work together remotely instead of on-site, a digital space that facilitates and fosters creativity can and should be created. Through using digital conference- (e.g. Skype for Business, Cisco WebEx, MS Teams) and collaboration-tools (e.g. OneNote, Mural, Miro) the collaboration can be organized location-independently. More information about the topic of working remotely can be found here: Agile and remote work.

Throughout the Design Thinking process, the outcomes should be documented digitally, so that they can be made available to all stakeholders location-independently. Therefore, a centrally accessible storage location with version management should be used (e.g. MS SharePoint, Atlassian Confluence).

Our conclusion: Design Thinking in practice

Design Thinking can add value in agile as well as classic contexts. It is an approach that can be used for solving problems in requirements engineering, process re-engineering and -optimization in IT service- and process management. Therefore, particularly in the context of migration projects it is an effective, user-oriented approach that takes the ideas and needs of all stakeholders into account and thus paves the way to the best possible solutions.

How does the Seven Principles Solutions & Consulting GmbH convert Design Thinking into added value for its customers?

In our portfolio, our Digital Transformation teams combine long-standing expertise in the areas of requirements engineering, IT service-, process- and project management in classic as well as agile contexts. Our training team’s Design Thinking coaches can support and provide guidance on implementing and embedding Design Thinking – not only on-site, but also remotely – in your company by creating sustainable value by:
  • Identifying your organization’s individual problem statements and map them to the Design Thinking process as part of the order clarification
  • Organizing the Design Thinking space
  • Moderating the Design Thinking process
  • Supporting with a broad range of suitable methods and tools
  • Organizing meetings with end users and customers
  • Identifying improvement potential
  • Embedding Design Thinking into the company context
This way, your company can profit from the benefits of Design Thinking and elaborate creative ideas and user-oriented solutions for your individual problems!


If you have any questions about Design Thinking, want to establish the agile methods in your work process or want to perform an agile transformation, feel free to contact us!