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  • Cameron Warren, University of North Carolina

The Design-Thinking Process: A New Way to Solve Problems

My curriculum as a Business Administration Major is meant to prepare me to manage a company. Part of managing a business is being able to make decisions that will best support the business, its wealth, and its various stakeholders. Recently, I learned about a different approach to problem solving in my business communications marketing course: the Design Thinking Process. The Design Thinking Process originated from Stanford University’s Design School and was created by David Kelly. The definition that Kelly provides for design thinking is the “designer’s sensibility and methods to match customer needs to determine a viable business strategy.”1 The five steps of the process are: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

The empathize phase outlines the importance of being able to understand our audience within the context of our assignment. To understand our audience, we must observe, engage, watch and listen. Through these observations, we can learn their needs and values within the current context of their lives. Engaging with others gives us the chance to ask questions about our audience. The questions we ask can lead us to find deep-rooted values and needs that we otherwise could not see through observations. Finally, by watching and listening, we can begin to contextualize and draw conclusions about this information.

When we draw conclusions about the information we receive in the empathize phase, we begin the define phase. In this phase, we must define the user, their needs, and insights gained from the empathize phase. After this step, we can generate solutions to the problem we are looking to solve. The solutions we create define the start of the ideate phase. It is important to note that we are not looking for the “right” solutions, rather, we are encouraged instead, to come up with a broad range of solutions, regardless of whether they are feasible or possible. From the solutions we have created, consider a few to bring to the next phase, the prototype phase.

The prototype phase is about articulating your ideas into something that can ultimately be interacted with, whether it is a product or experience. Through this process, you create low-cost prototypes. Not all of these prototypes will succeed; it is important to fail early and start againwith the next prototype. Through these failures, you can identify aspects of the prototypes that you hope to test in the next phase.

The test phase and prototype phase are intertwined with one another. Though, the test phase is specifically centered around obtaining feedback. The key differentiator between the prototype phase and test phase are the assumptions we have. During prototyping, we assume that the solution is right, but during testing, we assume that the solution is wrong. By providing this assumption, we remove implicit bias from the prototype and allow ourselves to find flaws and imperfections. Through these flaws and imperfections, we can learn how to create a better solution.

Admittedly, the Design Thinking Process frustrated me. As a business major working towards becoming a business professional, I am taught to tackle a problem and immediately come up with a solution. I have learned that, while some decisions can be made this way, the majority of them can’t. Many of the problems we need to solve do not have an easy solution in sight. For example, creating a new product for sale or generating a new service cannot be made overnight. Or rather, they can be, but they will not generate long-term success for the company.

Traditional decision-making does not take into account a potential stakeholder’s perspective, opinions, views, or experiences. Thus, when a business forms a solution, it is usually generated under a host of assumptions, rather than with quantitative or qualitative data. I mention this because according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of small businesses fail in their first year and 50% fail in their fifth year.2 While many factors can contribute to this failure, it usually isn’t because the product or service isn’t innovative enough or good enough or because the product or service isn’t needed. More likely than not, businesses fail when they stop listening to the people that they hope to sell to. The Design Thinking process can be a true life-saver for a business and it can teach business professionals to be comfortable with ambiguity and failure and build creative confidence.

1 Logan, B. (2017, October 16). Design Thinking: 7 Reasons You Should Embrace It. Retrieved from

2 Gaskin, S. (2019, April 29). 7 common financial mistakes small training businesses make (and how to avoid them). Retrieved from

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