Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design

Table of Contents

Navigating today’s rapidly evolving world calls for innovative, user-centered solutions. That’s where design thinking comes in. It’s a comprehensive process that hinges on understanding people deeply, challenging assumptions, and reframing problems. In this article, we’ll introduce the key pillars of an effective design thinking seminar and discuss the role of human-centered design in this process.

We’ll discuss the significance of empathy and how it forms the backbone of design thinking. We’ll also examine the role of small data, which helps bridge the gaps left by big data, painting a more holistic picture of your users. We’ll walk you through the 5-point framework of design thinking made famous by companies like Ideo, a cyclical, iterative process that goes from understanding to ideating, prototyping, testing, and finally implementing. Within this journey, we’ll delve deeper into human-centered design, identifying key roles, fostering understanding of users, exploring ideation and prototyping, and finally, debriefing and outlining the next steps. So, let’s delve into the dynamic world of design thinking!

Design Thinking Pillar: Empathy — Walking in Their Shoes

The practice of empathy is essential in Design Thinking. It’s all about truly understanding the individuals for whom we’re designing solutions — their experiences, their needs, and their challenges. Here’s how you can cultivate empathy and create a stronger bond within your team:

Practice Active Listening

Active listening forms the basis of empathy. It involves fully concentrating, understanding, responding, and then remembering what is being said. This skill goes beyond just hearing the words that someone is saying. It’s about paying attention to how they’re saying those words, the emotions behind the words, and understanding the complete message that they’re sending.

Come Rested

To truly empathize, you need to be present — and that’s hard to do when you’re tired. So ensure you’re well-rested before your meetings and workshops. This will allow you to be fully engaged in the conversation and have the mental clarity to truly understand your beneficiaries and team members.

Take a Few Minutes of Silence and No Distractions (Meditate)

Starting your sessions with a few minutes of silence or meditation can help create a calm, focused environment. This practice encourages individuals to clear their minds, reduce stress, and increase mental clarity, helping to improve the quality of the empathic connection. By eliminating distractions, you’re not just physically present but also mentally and emotionally engaged.

Showcase and Celebrate Each Other’s Diversity

Diversity is a strength in a team. Everyone brings unique insights, perspectives, and experiences to the table. By showcasing and celebrating this diversity, you’re not just promoting inclusivity, but also encouraging empathy. It allows team members to understand and appreciate the different paths everyone has walked, and brings everyone closer together.

Show Appreciation to Each Other (Appreciation Roundtable)

Holding regular appreciation roundtables is another way to foster empathy among your team. Encourage everyone to share what they appreciate about their fellow team members. This could be acknowledging someone’s hard work, their creativity, their resilience in the face of a challenge, or their ability to always bring a smile to people’s faces. 

When people feel seen, heard, and appreciated, it creates a positive work environment. Not only does this strengthen team bonds, but it also reinforces an empathetic culture. And when your team practices empathy with each other, it’s easier to extend that empathy to the beneficiaries you’re designing for.

Remember, empathy is not a switch to be flipped on during certain moments but a lens through which we should strive to view all our interactions. Practicing these methods will not only make you a more effective designer but also foster a more collaborative and understanding work environment.

Design Thinking Pillar: Leveraging Small Data

In our data-driven world, we often overlook the small, subtle details in favor of overarching trends. But it’s often in these minor details — the small data — where we find the most significant insights.

Small data is essentially qualitative data — anecdotal, observational, and seemingly insignificant on its own. But when combined with quantitative big data, it can paint a holistic picture of your beneficiaries’ lives. Here’s how you can leverage small data effectively:

Individual Interactions

Each interaction you have is an opportunity to collect small data. Pay attention to the nuances, like how they express their problems or how they interact with your product or service.

Field Interviews

Field interviews, where you observe and interact with beneficiaries in their natural environment, can yield invaluable small data. These interactions can reveal details about beneficiaries’ lives that they themselves may not consider significant enough to share in a formal interview setting.

Bonding with Beneficiaries

Small data often reveals itself in the context of a relationship. The more you can bond with your beneficiaries, the more likely they are to share those small, yet significant details of their lives. This can help you connect the dots between big data trends and individual behaviors.

Martin Lindstrom once said, “Big Data is all about finding correlations, but Small Data is all about finding the causation, the reason why.” Embracing empathy and understanding the power of small data is the key to unlocking that ‘why.’ These approaches give you a deeper, more nuanced understanding of your beneficiaries, ultimately guiding you toward more effective, impactful designs.

Design Thinking Pillar: 5-Point Framework

Design Thinking is a human-centered, iterative approach to problem-solving that involves understanding the user, redefining problems, and creating innovative solutions to prototype and test. Let’s delve into each of the five steps of this powerful framework:


The Define phase is where we consolidate our observations and synthesize them to define the core problems that we have identified up to this point. We’re compiling information to identify the needs of the beneficiaries, their problems, and insights about them. The aim is to develop a deep understanding of our users and the issues they face, to frame problems from their perspective, and to prioritize what problems are the most critical to solve.


In the Ideate phase, we’re ready to start generating ideas. We’ve grown to understand our users and their needs in the Define phase, and we’re armed with an array of innovative solutions. We use ideation techniques (like brainstorming, worst possible idea, and SCAMPER), challenging assumptions and creating a vast amount of ideas in ideation sessions that encourage free-thinking and divergent approaches. The mantra here is quantity over quality, and the goal is to generate a plethora of ideas that you and your team can then filter and cut down into the best, most practical, or most innovative ones.


In the Prototype phase, we start to create solutions. This is an experimental phase where the aim is to identify the best possible solution for the problems identified during the first two stages. By the end of this phase, the team will have a better idea of the constraints inherent to the product and the problems that are present, and have a clearer view of how real users would behave, think, and feel when interacting with the end product.


During the Testing phase, the design team will rigorously trial the solutions developed in the Prototype phase in smaller, controlled batches. This can take the form of user interviews, surveys, or A/B testing, to name just a few. The data collected from this stage is used to inform understandings, bring about changes and adaptations to the design, leading to iterative testing and refining of the design. In this step in particular we must navigate through vanity metrics and focus on the true results users and your business are receiving.


In the Implement phase, the solution is brought to market. After successful testing, the product is ready to be implemented and made available to the public. This is where we roll out wider or commercially launch our solution, but it doesn’t mean we’re done — constant monitoring for potential improvements is key.

Human-Centered Activities: Getting to a Solution

The ideation process is arguably one of the most important stages of Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design. It begins with a deep understanding of the user, which then fuels idea creation, prototyping, and finally implementation.

Key Roles in a Design Thinking Workshop

In order to effectively utilize Design Thinking, a team needs diverse perspectives and expertise. Here are the essential roles:

  • Facilitator: The facilitator guides the team through the process, keeping everyone on track without influencing their creative output. They’re not the boss — a top-down approach could stifle creativity and inhibit open communication.
  • Decider: This person is the final say in the decision-making process. They listen to the team’s input and make the ultimate call on what direction to take. 
  • Customer Expert: The Customer Expert knows the target audience intimately. They’re crucial in providing insights into user behaviors, needs, and motivations.
  • Business Expert: The Business Expert understands the organization’s goals, strategies, and limitations. They ensure that solutions fit within the context of the business and can be feasibly implemented.
  • Prototyper: The Prototyper turns ideas into tangible products. They work closely with the rest of the team to ensure that prototypes effectively embody the proposed solutions.

Depending on the project, additional roles such as a Tech Expert or a Market Researcher may be necessary. Ultimately, a successful Design Thinking team is one where every member feels empowered to share their insights and ideas, fostering a collaborative, creative environment.

User Understanding 

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of your user is the cornerstone of this approach. This involves:

  • Needs, Wants, and Feelings: Understand your user’s needs, wants, and emotional landscape. This will give you insights into what drives their behaviors and choices.
  • Language: Pay attention to the language that your users use. This can give you valuable insights into how they perceive their world and your products or services.
  • Empathy Mapping: This is a crucial tool in the ideation process. It’s a four-part grid that helps you to understand what your beneficiary says, thinks, does, and feels. By focusing on these four aspects, you can gain a deeper understanding of your beneficiaries and use this knowledge to guide your ideation process.

Ideation for Human-centered Ideas

After you’ve gained a comprehensive understanding of your user, you’re ready to start ideating. Here are some activities to facilitate this:

  • Root Cause Analysis: Before you start brainstorming solutions, it’s important to understand the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve. This involves asking ‘why’ repeatedly until you get to the underlying cause of the problem.
  • Rapid Ideation: This is a brainstorming technique that involves writing down as many ideas as possible in a short amount of time (usually 5-10 minutes). The aim here is to encourage free thinking and discourage self-censorship.
  • Grouping and Organizing Ideas: After the rapid ideation session, group and organize the ideas into themes. Discussing trends and openly working through ideas will lead to a deeper understanding of the problem and potential solutions.
  • Worst Idea Session: This may seem counterintuitive, but brainstorming the worst ways to solve the problem can be incredibly insightful. It helps to identify potential pitfalls and blind spots in the ideation process and can even lead to unexpected breakthroughs.
  • Journey Mapping: This is a visual tool that represents the process users go through to achieve their goals. It can help you identify pain points, opportunities, and key interactions. This understanding can fuel your ideation process, helping you develop solutions that are genuinely beneficial to the user.


After the ideation phase, it’s important to critically evaluate and select ideas for prototyping. This selection process should consider feasibility (can we build it?), viability (will it sustain in the market?), and desirability (do people want it?). This careful balance of innovative ideation and pragmatic decision-making leads to solutions that are creative, practical, and impactful. 

Debrief and Next Steps

Finally, hold a debriefing session. Ask: What did we learn? What went well? What could have gone better? Be sure to provide and receive feedback. Then, clearly assign the next steps for each member. Whether that’s creating an MVP (minimum viable product) or taking the prototype to the customer, everyone should have a clear path forward.

By following these steps, the Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design framework will lead to innovative solutions that truly resonate with your beneficiaries. Happy designing!

Join our Mailing List
Business woman making the leap to data-driven digital marketing with Exp1st

Make the leap

to data-driven marketing.

Schedule a free strategy session with our digital strategists today to explore your marketing strengths and opportunities!