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Design Thinking

What is design thinking and how can this method help you to develop innovative, customer-oriented ideas in project management?

Project Management ABC D for Design Thinking

Have you ever been in the situation where a great new product with innovative features has been developed in a company where you worked? Have you also experienced how such a product turned out to be a flop after its market launch because customers had no need for the product?
Then design thinking could be a way for you to ensure that your next development is an absolute sales hit.

Design thinking is a systematic approach to complex problems and for the development of new ideas. In contrast to many other methods, design thinking follows a customer-centric approach. In this way, concepts can be developed which, after weighing up cost-effectiveness, feasibility and desirability, represent a superior solution from the customer’s point of view.

The method was founded by the Stanford professor Larry Leifer, the computer scientist Terry Winograd (Larry Page’s trainer) and David Kelley (founder of the innovation agency IDEO) and is based on the intuitive working methods of designers.

>>Design thinking is a way to develop truly innovative ideas that are not only implementable and make economic sense, but also solve important problems for your customers.<<

Basic idea of Design Thinking

A basic assumption of design thinking is that three equal factors should be considered for innovations: people, technology and economy. An innovative product should therefore be attractive for customers (desirability), implementable for the company (feasibility) and at the same time make economic sense in order to assert itself. However, many companies mainly focus on the feasibility and profitability of a new idea. The design thinking approach, on the other hand, is mainly oriented towards customer needs, so that the customer is the focus of the entire process.

3 factors in design thinking: people, economy and technology


1. Multidisciplinary teams

The basic idea of design thinking is that interdisciplinary teams in particular can create real, outstanding innovations. The process therefore aims to bring together as many different experiences, opinions and perspectives as possible with regard to a problem. Teams are therefore put together in such a way that they come from different disciplines, departments and hierarchical levels. This leads to an exchange of specialist knowledge and methodological skills – the entire team has broad knowledge and problem-solving skills. In addition, each member has their own point of view and their own experiences. In particular, people with a so-called T-profile are particularly well suited as team members. Here, the vertical bar of the T stands for specialization and expertise in a certain area, while the horizontal bar stands for openness, interest and curiosity.

2. Variable spaces

Variable rooms are important in order to improve communication among team members and to optimize the possibilities for finding solutions. This means that the team is provided with a large room with flexibly movable furniture, mobile partitions, plenty of space for notes and sufficient working material such as whiteboards or post-its. In this way, the thoughts and knowledge of individual team members can be made visible to everyone. But retreat rooms are also useful so that you can work on the solution undisturbed if necessary.

3. Iterative process

The process model of design thinking is mainly intended for a rough orientation and structuring, whereby there are different models, each of which differs in details. The individual phases of the process do not necessarily have to be run through one after the other. Rather, jumping back and forth to other phases at any point in time is desired. However, it is advisable to consider all phases of the process when finding a solution.

The design thinking process in detail

Classic design thinking is an iterative process with six phases:

Design Thinking Process

1. Empathize

In this phase, the first thing is to get all team members on the same page and to define the existing problem precisely. Because in order to find an optimal solution, it is crucial to understand the requirements in detail. What exactly is it about? What is the customer’s real problem? These are questions your team should answer in the first phase of the process. In order to ensure that all team members are aware of the general conditions within your company, they should also speak to various departments in your company. The aim of this first phase is therefore to define the problem and to stake out the solution space.

2. Define

This second phase is about putting yourself in the shoes of the customer. For this, discussions with your customers are important. Listen carefully so there are no misunderstandings and try to understand your customers’ needs and priorities. You can also ask for a demonstration of how your client is currently solving or working around the problem, as this will also help you to learn a lot about their motives. Then look back at the results from the first phase and compare them with the new findings. Were all assumptions correct or are some hypotheses not tenable? Try to think from the customer’s point of view and put your own point of view in the background.

3. Point of view

The goal of the third phase is to develop a conceptual framework for the solution based on the assumptions and observations gathered. The findings from the first two phases are combined to form an overall picture and thus an ideal first customer is developed. This ideal customer comprises the group of users who are particularly affected by the initial problem and at the same time are as open-minded as possible to the solution yet to be developed. To ensure that all team members in the following steps always keep this ideal customer in mind, you can create a persona. This means that the ideal customer is precisely described and given a name.

4. Ideate

The next step is to develop ideas on how to solve the problem of the defined target group or persona. To do this, start by collecting ideas without any evaluation. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and look at solutions in other industries. This helps you to break away from your established Best Practices and can thus lead to truly innovative ideas. Afterwards, the collected ideas are discussed, spun out and prioritised. In this process, each team member should contribute his or her specific knowledge and experience so that the compatibility of economic viability, feasibility and desirability can also be checked. With these three central aspects in mind, an idea is then selected that fulfils the most important aspects for the client and for which a prototype is created in the following.

5. Prototype

When modelling your best ideas, creativity and (manual) dexterity are most important. At this point, you have an initial ideal customer in mind, you have convinced yourself of their problem by engaging with them and you have developed ideas on how their needs could be met. Now the task is to sculpt such a solution.
These frameworks will help you do that:

  • Always remember that prototypes are disposable. Therefore, do not invest too much time and energy in them.
  • Focus on prototypes that you can develop within the current team.
  • Keep in mind that a prototype should be fit for purpose and therefore not a finished solution.

Now you can get creative with the realisation. Use pen and paper, handicraft materials, press releases, role-playing games, Lego or illustrate your prototype with completely different solutions. The only thing that counts in the development is that you give your customer the opportunity to get involved in your concept so that you can get feedback from them.

6. Test

Now it’s time to get serious, because this is when you present your concept to your customers and gather feedback. Keep in mind that it’s not about convincing the customers of your idea, but about seeing how they interact with your solution. Consider in advance under which conditions the prototype can be considered a success and then ask your customers for criticism or requests for improvement. It is possible that a prototype will not receive good feedback, for example, because mistakes were made in the assumptions made in the first stages of the process or the prototype does not fulfil the most important functions. In this case, you should discard the prototype and go back to the first steps of the process with the knowledge you have now gained. This way, you can create a new prototype that is more appealing to customers. However, it may also be sufficient to adapt your prototype a little to the feedback you have received and improve it. Be open to your customers’ ideas here. It is common that there are several test phases in the design thinking process until the customer needs are optimally met. Once your client is satisfied with the prototype, you can complete the process and implement the solution.

areas of application

Design Thinking is used in numerous areas because its open, creative, but at the same time systematic approach makes it flexible to use. Whether in product development, marketing or project management, Design Thinking can be used to solve a wide range of problems.
Especially in project management, Design Thinking allows for a new perspective – away from the technical side towards understanding the customers and their needs. This is important because a purely technical superiority as a market advantage in global, fast-moving competition is not sufficient and can hardly be maintained. In order to strengthen the competitiveness of a company, innovative, customer-oriented ideas are needed also in project management. However, many project teams lack the means and ideas to master innovative tasks. Design thinking with its multidisciplinary teams can be a good solution here to approach a problem openly and from different perspectives.



  • process that is easy to understand and apply, with a strict customer focus
  • Strong commitment and engagement of team members
  • Possibility to develop truly innovative ideas and concepts


  • Very costly in terms of time and human resources
  • The process could be overstretched, as there is always a search for improvement possibilities
  • In classic Design Thinking, the subsequent implementation step is missing
  • Due to the customer focus, other factors can be pushed into the background, e.g. economic efficiency, which can then cause difficulties when implementing the solution.


Since design thinking can bring you innovative solutions from new perspectives and is also oriented towards the wishes of your customers, we think it belongs in every project management toolbox. So don’t be afraid of the greater effort, try it out and be curious about what great ideas emerge.

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