The Five Phases of Design Thinking

Vladislav Gavriluk

Vladislav Gavriluk

CEO & Founder at Arounda

As the terrain of innovation expands, stakeholders, teams, and organizations apply new ways of thinking to cope with complex or ill-defined problems. Design thinking is one of the leading cognitive methods to foster a human-centered approach at the corporate or individual level. 

As a design firm, Arounda constantly uses design thinking to tackle various challenges. The latest puzzle came with the MintySwap marketplace for crypto collectibles and non-fungible tokens. We had to study the NFT environment to develop a trendy and competitive application. Our skills in switching between different phases of design thinking and focusing on end consumers made the task easier. This article will share our experience and reveal the core design thinking stages.

Table of Contents

What is Design Thinking? 

This article refers to design thinking as a cognitive style leading to innovation in products and services. It puts human beings first and focuses on the ultimate solutions to their problems, questioning the standard methods and assumptions. 

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that may include three to seven phases, depending on the source. We will focus on the five-stage design thinking model offered by Hasso Plattner, the Co-founder of the SAP SE software company and the Founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. 

What are the 5 Phases of Design Thinking Process? 

At a high level, the five-stage algorithm of design thinking is simple: 

  1. Empathize to understand the problem entirely. 

  2. Find the right words to define your users' needs. 

  3. Ideate to challenge assumptions and generate ideas. 

  4. Make a prototype.

  5. Test the solution. 

Now, it’s time to answer the question “What are the stages of design thinking process?” in more detail.


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Stage 1: Empathize. Find a Problem

As marketers, we believe that we know our audience as our best friends. However, we sometimes talk to ourselves rather than customers. Moreover, we look at their problems from many potentially incorrect angles. What a waste of time and resources!

Empathy means understanding real consumer frustrations, barriers, attitudes, and aspirations. That’s the only way to reveal whitespaces and hidden opportunities for brands. Otherwise, a product or a service might lack a viable purpose and miss out on an end customer.  

Here are some instruments to get on the same page with your user:

  • Invest in expert consulting. 

  • Run surveys and interviews. 

  • Collect feedback.

  • Try to put yourself into the physical environment to gain a deeper, personal understanding.

  • Cultivate the curiosity of the people.

  • Gather insights.

For example, one of the bright insights for the redesign of the in-flight meal experience in “L Airlines” came from the interview with an overweight woman who ate a dozen donuts while waiting in the lounge zone. She said she wanted to eat healthy food on the plane. The woman would consider it the airline’s care for her. How else would the company know that passengers value their healthy menu greatly? 

Stage 2: Define. Articulate Your Users' Needs

In the second stage, we combine the research data and observations. Thus, we find patterns and parallels across your users’ current experiences. Numerous methods help with the analysis, from a simple arrangement of sticky notes to processing complex data tables.  

When you have found the common pain point across many users, formulate it in one sentence from the audience’s perspective. For example, senior clients need more seamless onboarding to the app. Avoid emphasizing the company aim, such as “We need to increase our food-product market share among seniors by 5%.”

Once you have a clear statement of the challenge, it’s time to move to the following phases of the design thinking model.

Stage 3: Ideate. Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas

The third design thinking stage is developing solutions to the problem. Again, original ideas lead to efficient solutions, but you can’t get there if rejecting every infeasible guess from the start. 

Ideation usually begins with brainstorming. There are numerous techniques to conduct brainstorming sessions. We selected the three rare yet result-driven ones for your attention:

  1. Brainwriting. People think independently and then present their ideas without discussion. This way, you get the pattern of individual solutions. 

  2. Star bursting. The team creates questions of who, why, and when instead of finding solutions. This way, they concentrate on the problem’s core aspects. 

  3. Stepladder technique. Discussing the problem starts with two participants. Then, other team members join gradually, one by one.    

Other popular brainstorming methods include mind mapping, post-it notes, and SWOT analysis. The only unsupported technique is criticism. 

Stage 4: Prototype. Start to Create Solutions

The prototype’s primary function is to test the idea in the most inexpensive, scaled-down way. You can try the solutions within a team, pass it to other departments, or create a focus group of people. But every case needs a relevant prototype. 

Umpqua Bank in the USA built an entire retail location to test their new concept of the bank where people would love to hang out. They had a computer café with branded coffee and a direct phone line to call the CEO. Customers entered the new location and asked sales associates if that actually was Umpqua Bank. 

Umpqua’s effort to be friendly and bring delightful experiences started in 1994. And it has proved its strength through time. In 2023, the initial local bank had 263 stores across five states in the USA and is in Forbes’ list of the World’s best banks.

Consider implementing prototyping step by step. Usually, there are three phases of prototype in design thinking: alpha Prototype, beta prototype, and pilot phase. The latter brings us directly to the fifth design thinking stage. 

Stage 5: Test. Try Your Solutions Out

The best solution defined in the prototyping stage now passes an exam. You determine how successful the first iteration of the design thinking was through user feedback and qualitative indicators. 

Although testing is the final stage of this five-step model, it opens the next improvement loop. Of course, you can restart the process when the pilot fails. But even if we validate results as excellent, in reality, it might be just 'OK' compared to the second or the third tries of prototyping, testing, and gathering user feedback. 

Also, don’t get confused with going around in circles. Each iteration brings you closer to the optimal product. Moreover, the stages of design thinking aren’t necessarily sequential. Instead, they may occur in parallel or overlap. But the entire design becomes clear and lean along the way.


Design thinking is a cognitive method serving to create innovative human-centered products.

The five different phases of design thinking are:

1. Empathize

2. Define

3. Ideate 

4. Prototype 

5. Test

You can carry them out gradually, in parallel, or looped. Although thinking like a designer might require extra effort, embracing this method teaches teams and individuals to cope with complex user issues. 

The Arounda team often meets challenging projects on the edge of technology. It fosters us to use the most effective approaches, including the design thinking model. In particular, simply dressing up the ideas is usually not enough. So we ideate, prototype, and test them to create a more resilient user experience.

So If you need assistance in complex UI/UX design, branding, or product strategy tasks, just drop us a line!   

Vladislav Gavriluk
Vladislav Gavriluk
CEO & Founder at Arounda
I make sure our clients get the high-quality result from the beginning stage of the idea discovery & strategy to the final digital product.

Frequently asked questions

  • What are the three phases of design thinking?

    Many shorten the design thinking principles to three basic ideas. There are several formulas to state and memorize the three phases of design thinking better: the 3 E's rule (empathy, expansive thinking, experimentation) or the 3 D's (define, design, develop).

  • What is step 6 of design thinking?

    NN Group defines the following 6-step model for design thinking: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Implement.

  • What is the non-linear nature of design thinking?

    The non-linear approach in design thinking arises when you switch between the stages back and forth, carry them out simultaneously, or overlap to create the optimal product for your end users.

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