Design Thinking: Primer for Product Managers

Written by Therese Padilla

Design thinking offers substantial value for any product manager charged with developing a new product that consumers will want to purchase. This comprehensive primer will explore what defines design thinking, the steps in the design thinking process, and the research that has proven its benefits.

What is Design Thinking?

According to an article in the Review of Educational Research, design thinking is defined as “an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign” (Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. 2012).

The process of design thinking was a concept first formulated by Peter Rowe, then Director of Urban Design Programs at Harvard, in his 1987 book Design Thinking. It is a human-centric approach to innovation that entails identifying problems, viewing those problems from the eyes of a consumer, and spurring inspiration for developing a product idea meant to address the problem of that consumer. By keeping the consumer and the specific problem they are facing at the focus of the design process, design thinking delivers products more closely aligned with their needs.

Steps in the Design Thinking Process

design thinking is a process that is adapted to suit a specific challenge
The process of design thinking is often presented as a set of linear steps. While these steps can certainly be beneficial by helping product managers better understand the design thinking process, it is important to know that a practical application of design thinking is often not a linear process. Rather, design thinking is a process that is adapted to suit a specific challenge. It usually entails circling back to repeat steps in the process when problems are identified.

The typical steps of the design thinking process, according to an article published by IDEOU, are as follows:

  1. Frame a Question
    Begin by framing a question regarding the challenges customers face and what they need to overcome those challenges. Framing this customer-centric question to a product development team is meant to kickstart the process of viewing problems through the eyes of a consumer and brainstorming ideas for how those problems can be solved.
  2. Gather inspiration
    Framing a question regarding the problems of a company’s consumers often isn’t enough to understand the challenges they face. This next step in the design thinking process requires team members to go out into the world and observe problems first-hand to gather inspiration for potential solutions.
  3. Generate Ideas
    Once a problem has been identified and inspiration gathered regarding potential solutions, it is now time to begin brainstorming possible solutions that push past the obvious and into the realm of the new and innovative.
  4. Make Ideas Tangible
    Having identified one or more ideas that offer promise, the next step in the design thinking process is turning those ideas into tangible prototypes that can be evaluated and tested.
  5. Test to Learn
    Once your team has developed a working prototype for a new product, it’s time to put the prototype into action and test its performance. This entails a process of testing, gathering feedback, and using that feedback to make any necessary changes or improvements.
  6. Share the Story
    Assuming that the prototype you develop can pass rigorous testing and consistently generate positive feedback, the final step in the design thinking process is to formulate a story that captures what the product offers and what makes it unique. The next step is to share that story with both your customers and your colleagues in a way that will generate interest and enthusiasm.
Learn more about design thinking in Product Management from these two great courses:

Certified Innovation Leader

Certified Digital Product Manager

Research Proving the Efficacy of Design Thinking

There is a multitude of case studies showcasing the benefits of the design thinking process. One enlightening example comes from an article titled “Why Design Thinking Works” written by Jeanne Liedtka and published in the Harvard Business Review in which Liedtka states,
“In a recent seven-year study in which I looked in depth at 50 projects from a range of sectors, including business, health care, and social services, I have seen that another social technology, design thinking, has the potential to do for innovation exactly what TQM did for manufacturing: unleash people’s full creative energies, win their commitment, and radically improve processes.”

In a paper titled ”The core of ‘design thinking’‘ and its application” written by Kees Dorst and published in Volume 32, Issue 6 of Design Studies, Dorst concludes the paper by saying, “We have seen that design practices can relate to the practice of an organisation on at least five different levels: as the design practices that address problems within an existing frame; as design practices that involve framing, where the frame originates from the existing company practice; as the adoption of a new frame that has been brought or developed by an outsider; and as the creation of a new frame through the investigation of themes, in a deeper transformation of the organisations’ own practices.”

These are just two examples of how the efficacy of design thinking has been proven in a research setting. Time and time again, companies that employ design thinking as part of their product development process have been able to enjoy the rewards of bringing to market products that are genuinely innovative and desirable.


https :/ / abs/10.3102/ 0034654312457429 https://www.sciencedirec.tcom/ journaI/ design-stud ies/vol/32/issue/6
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About the author

Therese Padilla

Therese is President of the Association of International Product Marketing & Management. She is a product management professional with broad experience in all areas of product development and management, including consumer products, enterprise software in startups and large corporate environments. Therese created the first product management certification program at the AIPMM which she co-founded in 1998.