Design Thinking is the current buzzword in the industry, but it is an old concept.  My take is that it is at the core of any UX practitioner and that it also is one of the hardest things to implement across departments and gain buy-in on the executive level.  The trendiness of the term opened the door so slightly making Google Sprint the Go-To.

Let's step back to define what "design thinking" and the "design thinking process" are. If we use the fundamentals, then we, as practitioners, can implement them in real-life without being senior management that can summon people to a Sprint Workshop.

According to Tim Cook, Apple CEO, “Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” 

The design thinking process is broken down into the following steps: Empathize,  Define the Problem,  Ideate,  Prototype, Test.  Sprint is one way to approach design thinking. The challenge is that it requires multiple team members and key stakeholders to be available for five full days, which is challenging with multiple locations and full schedules.

A few years ago, I started working with different teams in workshops that found creative solutions by using design thinking processes. It has helped teams win new accounts by showing innovative ideas and expediting the design process, resulting in a more coherent and enthusiastic team. 

Here are a few selected examples


Question-Directed Mind Mapping


Despite being members of the target audience by age, gender and income, the team had made assumptions about the target market and missed defining the problem.  To get them to empathize with the target audience, I ran a mind-mapping workshop that allowed every team member to explore problems the user may encounter while selecting a skin-care product. 

Beforehand, I formulated a few questions to learn more about their Skin IQ and how they select a product. I provided sticky notes for everyone and asked them to write down their questions and answers. After each question, I collected the answers and mapped them against the original question. They learned that they did not know the fundamentals of the science of skin well enough to select the appropriate product. 

We used the outcomes of the workshop to reorganize the website content strategy and pitched creative tools that would help consumers find the right skin-care product.

User Journey Empathy Map  


The team was struggling to create an innovative home page and with what direction to take.  The creative director asked me to come in to help move the project along.

We kicked it off with an Empathy Map, where we mapped the questions and emotions to the disease journey. I printed out the different stages of the journey and taped them against the wall, gave the team sticky notes, and asked each of them to think about what feelings and worries they thought a patient may have during each phase. I guided the workshop toward some of the struggles that I found via secondary research. 

The team used their learnings on the emotional struggles of the patients to ideate on the home page concepts to convey the brand's stand and relate to the patient emotions.

Define the Problem

Matching business goals to the users need

A product owner provided a document for a new features release for the upcoming year and was hoping to get consensus from the various teams on what should be high or low priority for production and development. In the meeting, the team was struggling to integrate and set priority on the features based on the consumer concerns that surfaced in an ethnographic study.

I wrote individual features and business goals on sticky notes and asked the team to do the same with the various consumer concerns from the ethnographic study. I asked them to sort the consumer concerns and lined them up against the business goal to see if there were any trends. At the end of the two hours, it was very clear what had high priority for the consumers. It was then a decision for the product owner regarding what to get started with.

Narrow Down High Priority Consumer Problems and Solutions with Affinity Mapping

The creative team was asked to develop two concepts for a nutrition brand. The two associate directors both thought of creating a new recipe site for the brand. The creative director called me in and asked me to help. I looked over the idea and was concerned that the market was already swamped with recipe sites and applications. It seemed like a very huge reach to make a brand recipe site or application successful.

Instead, I called a brainstorming session with the two associate CDs, the creative director, the project manager, the strategist, another UX designer, and accounts. Instead talking about ideas, I asked the team to write down and sketch as many ideas as they could come up with during the next 20 minutes on sticky notes. After 20 minutes, we pinned up the ideas, found the idea clusters and identified five ideas that seemed original.

As a team we did a quick competitive analysis to see if other similar applications were on the market. We had two or three ideas that could be developed. Both creative directors were happy with the ideas and said “they haven’t had so much fun at a meeting for a while."

The ideas were snatched up by the digital strategy team to find the right time and place to present them to the client. 


White boarding Sessions

Joined UX and account forces.

Joined UX and account forces.

Working with the client’s design team, we spent a day discussing what to present to the senior account team. The team reviewed team roles, process, data, and concepts. Yet, at the end of the day we had nothing to present the following week.

I asked our executive management for permission to stay one day longer to work with the client’s team to develop concepts and wireframes to present the following week. The client’s UX Lead, one of my designers and I remained another day on site for a one-day intense whiteboard workshop. We worked closely with the account leads to sketch out user stories and journeys for the site, came up with three designs with different user experiences, and concluded the work session by breaking down the work between both teams.

Our team took the lead in managing the bigger presentation. It was extremely well-received by the client’s senior accounts. The client’s internal design agency director was also extremely pleased with the approach because previously they had very strained relationships with other agencies. Our agency director of integrated production received an email praising the agency for the new approach.  


Prototyping has become a handy tool to present to clients or internal teams for buy-in.  I wish they would be used for testing concepts. 

Nowadays, there is tons of software out there that will convert static images (or designs) into clickable prototypes.  Invision is becoming a strong contender for designers, since it is very easy to import static images, create hotspots and link them to another page, imitating the user’s mouse click or mobile tap behavior. 

One of the more hardcore software programs I like to use for prototyping is Axure or Just-in-Mind.  The learning curve is a bit steeper, but it helps in generating a quick prototype, wires and annotations. High-fidelity design can be added to them to create a pretty realistic prototype with more complex interaction patterns. 

When in a bind (or a tight-budget situation), sketching out a paper prototype still beats having just a sketch of a screen. Using copy machines and cutting/pasting together screens still works to communicate the concept to other team members.


This is the most overlooked and ignored part of design thinking. There is never a backed into budget to do any UX testing - leading to design innovation in a vacuum. I have been working on getting accounts to integrate it into the UX budget or get permission to do guerrilla-style testing within the company or on the street if there is no NDA to the project.

For one project, I asked the design student body at the university where I was teaching to test a prototype of a software.  We had an informal discussion guide and a camera.  We asked to do specific task and asked to follow the speak-out protocol. The results showed us some of the user-flow issues and missing directions.  We could iterate very fast on the prototype before the software was developed.

For another project, I found a problem area in a user experience after reviewing and overlapping the primary and secondary research.  The main problem was in how people were comparing information to decide what product they would be using (details cannot be disclosed due to the NDA). The UX researcher on the team and I explored the testing objective to gain deeper insights into how people compare the products and how they would make a decision. This result narrowed the problem scope and helped kick-off the ideation to improve the compare feature.