Design Thinking In Action: A User-Centered Approach

Laura Pickel

Learning Experience Designer at Lyft, Instructor at Stanford, and Teaching Lead at IDEO U

August 15, 2019

Design thinking has become a trendy topic in recent years, with books, workshops, and even entire college classes dedicated to training people in this particular approach to problem-solving. Why this interest in design thinking? Companies want to stay relevant and to stay relevant, they need innovative new ideas. Unfortunately, many companies chase the hot new technology, thinking innovative technology alone can bring them success. They start with a solution, not knowing if there’s an audience for their innovation. Design thinking flips this approach and asks teams to focus on the problem they want to solve first—before creating the solution. When companies take a design-led approach, they can often see impressive results, such as Walmart increasing unique website visitors by 200% or Bank of America driving online traffic by 45%.

The design thinking process may feel familiar to you even if you haven’t formally learned it. However, teams will benefit from formal training in design thinking because it gives teams a shared mindset and language. In my course Design Thinking for Beginners: Develop Innovative Ideas, I introduce the stages of design thinking and provide tools and techniques to apply your learnings. In this post, I’ll share an overview of design thinking and how to apply some of these concepts in the workplace.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving that’s broken into five parts: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The early steps in this process (empathize and define) are for “problem finding” to make sure you’re solving the right problem. The later steps (ideate, prototype, test) are considered “solution finding,” where you come up with a variety of solutions to address the user’s core problem.

For example, let’s imagine the process for redesigning the local library. 

  • During the empathize step, the design team might first focus on understanding the needs of a variety of users (librarians, children, parents, researchers, etc.) 
  • During the define step, they choose a persona or point of view to focus their design efforts. For example, what you might design for a parent would be different from what you might design for a researcher.
  • In the ideate step, the team could generate solutions to address the needs of the user persona they chose in the define stage. 
  • During the prototype step, designers build out one or more of those ideas. This could be a digital prototype, architect’s model, or a digital experience of the library. 
  • And finally, during the test phase, the team tests whether they’ve baked their own assumptions into the solution they’ve designed and get feedback to develop a new iteration of their prototype.

Following this process ensures that you put users first, which means you’ll be more likely to develop a project that will delight them. One of the other advantages to this approach is that it’s versatile and can be applied to a wide range of problems in a variety of fields. Because design thinking focuses on real human needs and values, you can apply it to any project involving real humans with real needs using a product or service.

How can you prove the value of design thinking?

To bring design thinking into an organization, you’ll need to prove its value. Thinking about how you will do this early on will help you on your design thinking journey. Organizations tend to respond best to measurable metrics. They want to show there’s a return on their investment. And if they don’t see measurable ROI, they’ll stop investing in this process. As soon as you have metrics to show, use them!

Early on, many design thinking practitioners use a well-known study to sell the value known as the Design Management Index. The Design Management Institute and Motiv Strategies began analyzing the performance of US companies committed to design as an integral part of their business strategy. The Design Value Index tracked the value of publicly held companies that met specific design management criteria, and monitored the impact of their investments in design on stock value over ten years, relative to the overall S&P Index. This research found that design-led companies have outperformed the S&P by 211%, demonstrating “a significant stock market advantage.”

You may be able to use the Design Value Index to prove enough value to get a project off the ground, but you’ll need to determine the metrics and numbers that matter to your organization. At many companies, this often starts with the number of people trained and the number of projects impacted. But, quickly, that will not be enough.

Be sure to start thinking about how you will measure success early on, whether that’s for individual projects or full-scale initiatives. 

3 ways to integrate design thinking into your work

1. Design thinking for managers: Be a guide on the side

The key to incorporating design thinking into management is to have a more collaborative management style. I’ve heard the phrase, “Instead of being a sage on stage, be a guide on the side,” which applies well in this situation. It’s important to be realistic about how long it will take your team members to pick up new skills. Give them time and space for learning to happen. Try to think of small projects that will allow employees to try out new concepts. Remember that just because you’ve trained your team in design thinking skills, you need to create opportunities for employees to practice so they can apply these new skills.  

The core concepts of design thinking include human-centeredness and rapid iterations. Ask yourself, “How do we create policies to elevate the voice of the user?” and “How do we avoid putting too much effort into our early prototypes?” Building these two ideas into your design cycle is the best way to incorporate design thinking into your work.

2. Design thinking for L&D professionals: Always be improving

Want to incorporate design thinking into your Learning & Development programs? This is one area of the company where applying design thinking is natural. Since employees are your user group, you have easy access to them. 

During a fellowship with the L&D team at SAP, we took a design thinking approach to creating a course for change management. At the start of the project, we brought in execs and managers to learn what they liked or didn’t like about current change management practices at SAP. We conducted the empathy stage by looking at several different points of view. In this case, design thinking led us to decide not to invest in creating a course on change management. We realized we were solving for the wrong problem, something the empathy stage helps us to uncover. 

Rapid prototyping is about quickly making something to put in your user’s hands and testing it to get continuous feedback. This is something L&D teams are already doing, but using design thinking helps you put a process and language around it. Design thinking pushes you to get feedback earlier and more frequently in the process.

Similarly, in my experience as an instructor at Stanford, I use the design thinking methodology for developing my classes and workshops. At the end of every quarter, we get feedback on how class went and then develop new classes/iterations based on feedback. I never think that my teaching is complete. I’m always iterating, finding new ideas based on the feedback we get. The key is to keep it manageable—I find aiming to change about 10% at a time is a realistic goal. 

3. Use storytelling to promote incremental change for design thinking

Humans love stories. We remember events and experiences better when we can tell the narrative of them. In design, we use stories in many ways—to better share our users’ lives and journeys with our colleagues, to fit our prototype into the larger narrative of our users’ lives, and to make the pitch for why design thinking is an important method for our organizations.

To improve your storytelling skills, I recommend focusing on three core principles: knowing your audience, keeping it concise, and drawing on emotions. In my course, Design Thinking for Beginners: Develop Innovative Ideas, we’ll look at each of these concepts in more detail and practice using them.

Many organizations are intrigued by the idea of design thinking. It promises a lot of potential for growth and innovation. However, it can be hard for companies to agree to bring in this new process because they can’t see how it fits within their context. Change is hard for everyone, but particularly for large organizations. They are notoriously slow and bureaucratic. But, if you want to see change, you’ll need to work within the system that exists. So, one additional principle of storytelling for promoting change is to make the change feel incremental, while also inspiring. If it feels like we’re building on existing momentum, sometimes change feels a little less scary.

Hopefully, you now have a sense of the key concepts and stages of design thinking and how they might be applied to your work. If you and your employees would like to dive deeper into design thinking and practice applying each step through practical activities, be sure to check out my course, Design Thinking for Beginners: Develop Innovative Ideas.

About the author:

Laura Pickel is a Learning Experience Designer at Lyft, Instructor at Stanford, Teaching Lead at IDEO U & Udemy for Business Instructor.

Laura has spent the past several years understanding the role design thinking and creative processes can and should play in workplaces. She does this both through her job at Lyft as a Learning Experience designer and the classes she teaches at the Stanford, such as Building Creative Cultures in the Workplace and Organizational Psychology of Design Thinking.

Because she enjoys filling her time with meaningful work, she also works for IDEO U as a teaching team lead on their Leading for Creativity and Designing for Change courses. She is a graduate of Williams College and the Learning, Design, and Technology program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at

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