A beginner’s guide to design-led thinking

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Everything you need to know about this process for creative problem-solving.

Read time: 4 minutes

  • Design Thinking puts customer needs and wants first 

  • It is a mindset that you must nurture and grow

  • Most use a five or six-step process

What is Design Thinking? 

Design Thinking is an approach for practical and creative problem-solving that aims to improve people’s lives by creating good experiences. What is meant by experiences? In Design Thinking, experiences are the way a person ‘feels’ and what they ‘think’ while they’re doing something. So, when designing a product of service, Design Thinking requires you to think about the needs and wants of a person. For example, after struggling to get good coffee in their hometown, the founders of Starbucks visited Milan, known for its world-beating coffee and customer service, to understand the customer journey and replicate it in the US.  

On the topic of innovation 

Three aspects make a product-service solution successful, according to Design Thinking: desirability (by people), feasibility (the technology), and viability (good business). The fourth quality in this era of climate change is sustainability. To truly innovate, it’s important to find the sweet spot between these elements. In Design Thinking, products must be wanted, fill a customer need, and fit into their lives. For that reason, it’s important to start with desirability. For example, Apple only found success once Steve Jobs introduced Design Thinking, with the iPod being a crowning achievement. 

Design Thinking is a mindset

When you incorporate Design Thinking into your routine, it’s possible to identify more opportunities for innovation. To do so, focus on people. That means understanding human needs, behaviours, emotions, and values. Be curious, inquisitive, and open. Curiosity is one of the most important tools for Design Thinking. Ask why something is the way it is. Use simple language to describe your ideas. Diverse teams will help you to understand complex ideas and unlock your business potential. Finally, the best way to learn is through experimentation and learning from failure. 

Design Thinking process

There are many different schools of Design Thinking, including Stanford D.School Design Thinking, IDEO, double diamond, IBM Design Thinking, Google Design Thinking and more. Each one has its own merits and is worth studying if you want to learn more. Most follow the same principle or flow, starting with understanding and ending with the release of a product or service.  


Design Thinking at the Stanford D.School is broken down into five steps:

  • Empathise. Empathy is an important element of Design Thinking. It means having a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for. Empathy is being able to see through other people’s eyes to understand their needs and desires. What you should look for here is research and collection of data, both quantitative and qualitative. To be a successful observer it is important to drop your assumptions, be humble, listen, show compassion and be curious.

  • Users. Identifying your users is a challenge for most startups and SMEs. In Design Thinking, it’s important to focus on extreme users, which are the people on either end of the spectrum of the users of a product or service. On a bell curve, you have new users on the left, the mainstream in the centre, and the heavy (extreme) users on the right. Extreme users need more or less of something to meet their needs. Identifying these qualities is key to making a good product or service using Design Thinking.

  • Product research. Here you test product concepts, evaluate ideas, examine competitors, and price products. When attempting to understand an existing product, a top tip is to sketch it. Another tool is the empathy map. This captures knowledge about a user’s behaviour and attitudes. Empathy maps vary but often feature a user at the centre of a large piece of paper, surrounded by sections about what the user is feeling about your product or service. 

  • Define. At this point, design thinkers analyse the data collected thus far to define the problem. Sometimes it will become clear that more data is needed, so practitioners will take a step backwards. Be a child, ask questions, and be sure to remove judgement. 

  • Ideate. This is everyone’s favourite part of the process — a chance to throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Design Thinking asks for volume and diversity of ideas and solutions. Keep in mind that this stage is about quantity over quality. To find your prince, you may need to kiss a lot of frogs! Try to reserve judgement to encourage a strong flow of ideas. 

  • Prototype. The final stage is about experimentation, turning ideas into physical products or services. Fail early to learn cheaply. 10 prototypes will give you more data than two. Sam Farber, Founder of kitchen utensil brand Oxo, created more than 100 prototypes to ensure the grip on his vegetable peeler was perfect. It’s important to develop and iterate on the prototype until you have a final product. 

What next? 

Design Thinking is a design-led approach to problem-solving. It seeks to identify ambiguous or empathic conditions of a problem through an iterative process. At its heart is the question, ‘how can we improve our users’ experience to grow our business?’ Design Thinking helps us to understand our customer base and build products or services with them in mind. And once you know what your customer wants, the sky is the limit.


Ana Aranda

Edinburgh Eagle Lab Engineer

Since I was a child, I have been passionate about how the thing work and how the things are made. My curiosity led me to study Product development and manufacturing Engineering.

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