Design Thinking

design-image“Design thinking” is an emerging topic in new product development (NPD).  Many of the principles will be familiar to New Product Development Professionals (NPDPs) yet the packaging of the concepts allows us to take a novel approach to innovation.

What is Design Thinking?

At its core, design thinking is a cross-functional approach to solving problems is the basis of all of our as new product development practitioners.  What’s different with design thinking is the deliberate consideration of the customer’s viewpoint throughout the development process.  Most structured NPD processes include a multitude of steps and touchpoints to ensure customer needs are included in the development process; however, many firms become insulated and fail to conduct adequate market research early in the NPD process.

Design thinking can be described in five steps:

  1. Empathize,
  2. Define (the problem),
  3. Ideate,
  4. Build (a prototype), and
  5. Test.

After each step, particularly after testing the idea in Step 5, the NPD team must seek feedback and apply learnings.  Sometimes this involves a new iteration of the design thinking process – back to Step 1.


Successful new product development always focuses on the customer first.  In NPDP certification, we discuss the importance of differentiation strategies, for example, to increase the customer focus.  In a differentiation strategy, a firm looks to customers only after clearly identifying the needs and wants of end-users does the NPD team begin to build technical solutions.

Design thinking is quite similar.  An NPD team must engage in deep ethnographic research to gain meaningful customer insights.  Interviews, for instance, should strive to uncover the emotional drivers of a customer’s problem in order to fully identify with their point of view.

In addition, NPD teams should study how customers are currently solving the given problem.  What is the alternative?  How much does it cost?  How difficult is it for the customer to access?  What causes the customer “pain” in using the current solution?

Define the Problem

Once a significant amount of data is gathered regarding customer insights, the NPD team must define the problem.  During this step of the design thinking process, it is not uncommon for teams to devise “personas” and target markets.

Personas are conglomerations of individual customer behaviors and personalities that the team has observed.  Personas represent an idealized customer with a set of problems and emotions that may be reflected by an “average” customer.  Using personas to identify the problem set for an NPD team clarifies the difficulty in the job-to-be-done.  Instead of assuming that a customer has hand tools to assemble a product, the NPD team can turn to the persona to identify situations.

For example, Nancy, a persona assembled from dozens of interviews at a furniture store, is a busy mother of two living in an apartment.  She owns a flathead screwdriver and a hammer.  Nancy has used the hammer to hang pictures on her apartment walls but rarely uses the screwdriver.  Both tools are buried in a shoe box under her bed.

Personas help the cross-functional NPD team better prepare solutions by clearly identifying the emotional and technical aspects of a problem.  Knowing Nancy (even though she is an imaginary configuration of many customers), the NPD team knows furniture must be pre-assembled or come with the assembly tools and simple instructions.


It is the use of personas that further helps the team ideate, or brainstorm, solutions todesign thinking problems.  Often technical and marketing groups can readily identify innovative solutions in new product development.  However, these teams often assume they are the customer and approach the problem with their own backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge.  Using design thinking, the NPD team is forced to look externally and identify a wider swath of problem solutions.

In addition, the number and types of ideas that originate from design thinking brainstorming sessions are generally broader and more successful than in other ideation situations.  Design thinking encourages hands-on problem-solving with activities like collage-building, role-playing, and prototype-building.  Because the NPD team has spent time building empathy with the customer, these solutions are generally more robust and appeal to a customer’s emotional sense as well.

Build a Prototype

As in any NPD process, concept testing is important to gauge whether the NPD team has correctly assessed the customer’s problem and whether the proposed solution will meet the customer’s needs.  Prototype testing is an efficient way to test new product concepts quickly to gain further information regarding customer needs.

Rapid prototyping manes that the solution present in a concept test is not perfect nor final.  In many situations, the NPD team will “fake” the solution that is behind the prototype in order to test other aspects and features of the new product design.

For instance, if you are testing whether customers will buy furniture from a website, you can prototype the website but fulfill orders from a brick-and-mortar store with pre-assembled furniture.  In essence, you are “faking” the order fulfillment, distribution, and delivery steps, but prototyping a key element of the new product (the website) and its interface with the consumer.

Test the Idea

Testing the prototype leads to extremely valuable and rich customer insights.  At this point in the process, many NDP teams find themselves pivoting and/or iterating through the design thinking steps again.  Very often, we do not correctly or completely identify the entire problem that faces a customer in just one iteration of the design process.

Once a prototype has been tested, the NPD team will learn about new challenges or pain points that a customer faces.  This will lead to new empathetic considerations of defining the problem and offering potential solutions.  New or revised prototypes should be tested to ensure customer voices are heard clearly.

Using Design Thinking

Design thinking is inherently part of a standard, structured NPD process.  New product development practitioners should always consider the voice of the customer in upfront problem identification and ideation toward solutions.  Design thinking, as an emerging topic in innovation, forces the NPD team to put themselves in the shoes of the customer to gain his/her viewpoint.  Focusing on design thinking eliminates a common problem with new product development when teams become insulated from the external environment.

Five steps are used in design thinking to help build-in the customer’s viewpoint.

  1. Empathize
  2. Define the problem
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test the idea

To learn more about design thinking, please check our popular, newly released white paper on Design Thinking.  Also you will want to join us for a new product development professional, project management, or engineering leadership workshop.  Click the link to Certification Workshops or take short courses to maintain your credentials at

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