InVision presents

Design Thinking Handbook

by Eli Woolery

What is design thinking? More than a methodology or framework, design thinking combines the problem-solving roots of design with deep empathy for the user. The design thinking-based framework popularized by the Stanford can help your team take on the thorniest challenges with insightful solutions.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to put design thinking into practice in your organization.

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Why we need design thinking
Tackle complex challenges

What is design thinking? More than a methodology or framework, design thinking combines the problem-solving roots of design with deep empathy for the user. The design thinking-based framework popularized by the Stanford can help your team take on the thorniest challenges with insightful solutions.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to put design thinking into practice in your organization.

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The heart of design

Designers work to solve others’ problems but the most insightful and innovative design work begins with empathy. Slip on your users’ shoes and seek to gain understanding with an open mind. You’ll be surprised what deep needs and insights you can uncover.

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Reframe the problem

A single image of the earth from the moon shifted the course of environmental history. A new point of view on a design problem can shift your perspective just as much. Learning to reframe your point of view based on insights from your users can be a powerful design tool.

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Beyond basic brainstorms

Ideation early in the design process helps teams get aligned and find potential solutions to investigate. While most teams use some form of ideation, design thinking can lend new structure and spark the brainstorming process.

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Get smarter, faster

The smartest design teams build prototypes throughout the design process. Rather than discover issues after the expense and time spent on building a complete product, challenge assumptions and solve disagreements through iterative prototyping.

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Early and often

Prototyping forms a key step in solid product design, but the best design teams go a step further and test their products with real users. Observing how your end user approaches your product gives you the most important feedback of all.

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The heart of design

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Imagine that you live in a remote village in Nepal. It’s winter and freezing sleet pounds the nearby roads, making them nearly impassable. You’ve just had your first baby, a little girl, and she’s premature and severely underweight. The room that you’re in, while warm to you, feels like an ice-bath to the baby. Without help soon, she will almost certainly die from hypothermia. What do you do?

Worldwide, about 15 million premature babies are born every year and the most common preventable cause of infant mortality is hypothermia. As designers, we solve the problems of others, and solving the problem of infant mortality due to hypothermia seems like an extremely worthy design challenge. This is exactly what a team from Stanford’s set out to accomplish as a project for the class Design for Extreme Affordability (often known just as “Extreme”).

The team ended up with a novel, innovative solution—but they never would’ve arrived there if they remained within the bubble of Stanford’s campus. They needed empathy to see the problem clearly from the perspective of hospital staff, doctors, and most importantly, parents of the child in danger.

Initially, the design team thought redesigning existing hospital incubators to be simpler and more cost effective would be the easiest solution. But when team member Linus Liang toured a hospital in Nepal, he noticed something strange—the incubators were sitting empty. After interviewing a doctor about this, he learned that many homes where these babies were born were 30 or more miles away on rough rural roads, and that the parents faced the fight for their babies’ lives at home, without much hope of making it to a hospital.

The Extreme team used this insight to inform their decisions about the product’s direction. Instead of a cheaper incubator (the initial concept, but likely ineffective given the evidence) they decided to design something to help babies at home: a portable incubator, much like a tiny, heated sleeping bag, which they named Embrace.

While prototyping the Embrace, the team interviewed many moms, healthcare workers, and shopkeepers who helped them iterate on solutions. By showing prototypes, they learned about critical barriers to adoption:

  • In a village in India, a mother explained they believe Western medicines are very powerful, so villagers often halve doses. The warmer on the Embrace had a temperature indicator, and this mother indicated that other mothers would only heat it halfway to the ideal temperature. This information led the team to iterate on the design, removing the temperature strip and changing the design to showcase an “OK” indicator.
  • The team also learned that in many communities, electricity is unavailable or unreliable. So they designed a version of the warmer that could be heated using hot water.

With these insights, the team was able to create a product that was easy to use correctly in the locations it was designed for. They formed a company based on this product, grew it to 90 people, and have helped over 3,000 babies.

By using empathy and focusing on the people who would use the product—in this team’s case, a literal journey that exposed them to the feelings and challenges of their users—the Embrace team came up with a product that saves lives.

Practicing empathy

Empathy is the foundation of the whole design thinking process. Using a beginner’s mindset and immersing yourself in the user’s experience is a great way to uncover deep needs and insights. It also ties directly to the Guess less principle of product design. In this Empathize section of our course, we’ll dive into a case study where empathy helped create an innovative product for Bank of America. We’ll then walk through some exercises you can employ to gain more empathy for, and insights from, your own users.

How can empathy help us design better products? To find out, try this exercise, adapted from the Wallet Project exercise taught at Stanford’s It should only take about 15 minutes. (Go ahead, we’ll wait for you.)

Case study:IDEO and Bank of America’s Keep the Change program

Let’s try a thought experiment. Put yourself in the state of mind of someone living paycheck to paycheck. For some of us who as designers spent time freelancing and waiting … and waiting … to get paid by clients, this might not be a hard thing to imagine.

What are some of your biggest fears? Getting your water or heat shut off because you can’t pay bills on time? Maybe things are bad enough that you worry you won’t make rent and could get evicted.

You probably don’t have time (or the means) to worry about setting up a savings plan. A 2013 study at Princeton showed that being in this state of mind actually impairs the brainpower needed to navigate other areas of life.

So how do you go about designing a banking product for someone stuck in this vicious cycle? In 2004, the design firm IDEO tackled exactly this challenge for Bank of America. Their target users were not restricted to people in this demographic, but the insights that lead to Bank of America’s innovative “Keep the Change” program came in part from extreme users.

Such users had unconventional ways of solving banking problems, which gave the IDEO team ideas for a banking service that would help address the needs of people having a difficult time achieving a sense of control over their finances.

IDEO was given the challenge by Bank of America to find novel ways to entice people to open accounts. The bank was hoping that IDEO’s human-centered, ethnographic-based approach to design would bring innovation to an industry that’s typically very conservative and reluctant to change.

To accomplish this, IDEO embedded themselves into the Bank of America team and conducted observations in several cities across America. They spoke to families and individuals, learning about spending and banking habits. As IDEO synthesized their observations, they began to notice some interesting patterns.

Often, mothers were in charge of the finances. This was during the early 2000s, before online banking and mobile devices had more or less replaced the idea of a balanced checkbook. Some moms had a practice of rounding up the number in their checkbooks; this made addition easier, but it also gave a small buffer in spending.

Armed with this insight and the knowledge that many of these families had difficulty saving what money they had, IDEO came up with a service idea. People could enroll in a savings account that would round up purchases made with debit cards. Then, the overage would be transferred to a savings account automatically. In addition, the bank would match the money transferred to savings to a certain dollar amount.

As you might imagine, this program became very popular—and not only with people who had trouble saving money. Ever since the program launched in September of 2005, more than 12.3 million customers have enrolled, saving a total of more than 2 billion dollars. Of all new customers, 60% enroll in the program.

When we interviewed Faith Tucker, the former Senior Vice President & Product Developer at Bank of America, she was clearly proud of the emotional impact this service had on people who found saving money difficult. The amount was largely inconsequential—it was more about the change in mental state and feeling of empowerment that these customers gained.

To a certain degree, it removed the feeling of shame that came along with being unable to save money, which was replaced with pride at taking more control over finances.

In the film DESIGN DISRUPTORS, Julia Zhou (VP Product Design, Facebook) and Mia Blume (Product Design Manager, Pinterest), talk about the importance of having empathy for your user.

Establishing empathy remotely: the camera study

Product teams need to move fast, and they’re often working on a strict timeline. It can be hard to convince stakeholders that user research—in the form of an ethnography—can be completed quickly and still have an impact.

However, there are some great techniques available to do exactly that. If you’re highly constrained on time and budget, try a Minimum Viable Ethnography, pioneered by user research expert Erika Hall of Mule Design.

If you have a little more time, try a user camera study. The advantage of this approach is that you get a semi-unfiltered view into the day-to-day environment of your users and you gain insights that may not be available via a phone or video interview.

Here’s a step-by-step guide for the study:

Empathy as the heart of design

Empathy is a journey into the feelings of others. Sometimes it’s a physical journey, like the one the Embrace team took to Nepal. Other times, it’s a virtual journey, where users share their screens with you or collect pictures of their environment in a camera study. Whatever your methods include, a good empathy study will give you new perspectives on the lives of your users—including the challenges they face, the things that keep them up at night, and the moments that delight them. Having this empathy can give you the insights you need to solve hard, worthwhile problems.

Without empathy, IDEO would not have been able to help Bank of America create a product that helped their financially strained customers feel empowered about saving money. Embrace wouldn’t have been able to create a product that’s saved the lives of thousands of premature babies. Empathy connects designers to the people who will use our products, empowering us to create products that ultimately meet real human needs.

As humans, we evolved to have a powerful sense of empathy. The primatologist Frans de Waal writes that the power of empathy to help people collaborate is one of the reasons we became so successful as a species. Wield this power as a designer and you’ll have the foundation, and the heart, to create great products for humans everywhere.



Reframe the problem

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In 1968, when Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft to circumnavigate the moon, the crew had one photographic mission: to capture detailed images of the moon’s surface. As the astronauts rounded the dark side, Earth became visible—a brilliant blue and white marble. Earth was remarkable not only for its serene beauty from this perspective but also for its apparent fragility. The only life-sustaining planet in our solar system is dwarfed by the vast emptiness of space.

With the photograph from this event, which became known as “Earthrise,” the Apollo 8 astronauts inadvertently sparked a spontaneous reframing of the environmental problems threatening our planet. No longer were we on a vast planet with seemingly endless resources, but rather a small, very finite lifeboat in an infinite universe.  This change in perspective helped charge the modern environmental movement, inspiring the creation of Earth Day in 1970.

Reframing the way that a problem is viewed can inspire a movement, as it did in this case. It can also be a powerful way to create innovative design solutions to challenging problems and even create new and disruptive business models. During the Empathize phase of the Design Thinking process, you collected stories and insights from your users. This Define phase will give you an opportunity to synthesize these findings and come up with a problem statement, called a point of view (POV), that can help you reframe the problem and open new and innovative solution spaces.

Developing a point of view (POV)

A POV is composed of 3 elements:

  • Who is your user? (Note as many specific details as possible.)
  • What is their deep, unmet need?
  • Why is this insightful? (List the insights you gleaned from your empathetic needfinding process.)

As an example, below is a POV from the founders of AwesomeBox, a gift-giving platform, used in the early days of developing their product. They were trying to design for people who have a hard time giving thoughtful gifts. They interviewed and observed hundreds of potential customers, from which they created POVs like the following.

Let’s create some hypothetical POVs using Netflix, as they’re a good example of a company that disrupted an existing business model by reframing the problem for users.

In the early days, Netflix might have framed their POV like this:

“Caroline is a 26-year-old single mom who loves sci-fi movies. She needs a way to rent DVDs that doesn’t clutter her already-busy schedule, while making her feel relaxed after a long day of work and taking care of her daughter.”

Using this point of view, Netflix certainly could have come up with a solution that only delivers DVDs by mail—but the solution space would have been constrained and they might’ve missed a larger opportunity.

Now consider how Netflix could have reframed the problem with a different POV.

Caroline is a 26-year-old single mom who loves sci-fi movies. She needs a way to access new and entertaining content in a way that allows her to consume it at her own pace, while making her feel excited about discovering new shows to share with her friends.

With the problem statement rewritten, Netflix opened up all kinds of opportunities for innovation. Let’s unpack them.

“She needs a way to access new and entertaining content … ”

This doesn’t even mention DVDs! In the early days, a mail delivery solution may have worked, but over time Netflix developed the streaming services that helped make them so popular. Also, “new and entertaining” doesn’t necessarily limit them to licensing content. Netflix could also develop and distribute their own shows.

“ … in a way that allows her to consume it at her own pace … ”

Again, mail delivery of DVDs would be a partial solution to this constraint, but with streaming as an option, there’s an even bigger opportunity. Add in original content, and now Caroline can binge-watch House of Cards while her daughter sleeps. (We never said that innovative solutions always have a positive social impact.)

“ … while making her feel excited about discovering new shows … ”

Netflix famously developed a “recommendation algorithm” that helps viewers discover new content based on the shows they already watch—and the ratings they give to each. This feature wouldn’t have necessarily stemmed from the previous POV.

“ … which she can share with her friends.”

This last insight, while minor on its surface, is a huge reason for the viral growth of Netflix—especially after the company began developing original content. Once rave reviews about shows began to surface—with the only way to access them being Netflix—the continued growth was almost assured.

Clearly, there would have been a lot of value left on the table had Netflix used the first POV to guide their designs. In addition to helping you reframe a problem, a good POV can align your team, provide a way to compare competing ideas, and help fuel brainstorms. In fact, the at Stanford came up with a great checklist of all the things that a good POV should help you accomplish:

Point of view (POV) checklist

Your POV should:

  • Provide focus and frame the problem
  • Inspire your team
  • Provide a reference for evaluating competing ideas
  • Empower team members to make decisions in response to the high level goals of the team
  • Fuel brainstorms by suggesting “how might we” statements
  • Capture the hearts and minds of people you meet
  • Save you from the impossible task of developing solution concepts that are all things to all people
  • Allow you to revisit and reformulate the POV as you learn by doing
  • Guide your innovation efforts

In the remaining sections of this chapter, we will dive into a case study where developing a POV provided inspiration for a healthcare project with a lot of impact. Then, we’ll share an exercise to help you quickly generate POVs of your own.

Case study: GE Healthcare MRI redesign

We first met Doug Dietz when doing the research for this chapter. Over the phone, Doug is a kind, affable midwesterner—the sort of guy you imagine it would be fun to go to a Milwaukee Brewers game with. But beneath his unassuming presence is a formidable design mind with over 25 years of experience at GE Healthcare. First as a principal designer and now Innovation Architect, Doug has helped develop medical equipment such as MRI and CT scanners for one of the world’s largest corporations.

In 2008, Doug ran into a problem. He was at a hospital where one of his new MRI machines had recently been installed. The machine had won a prestigious industrial design award and Doug was eager to see the machine in situ.

Before he had much of a chance to ask the technician about the machine, he was asked to step outside of the room, as a patient was scheduled to come in for an appointment. What he witnessed in the hallway changed the course of his career and helped him reframe the MRI user experience.

A young family walked in, their 7-year-old daughter obviously distressed. As the family got closer, Doug could see that she was weeping. The father leaned over and said, “Remember, we talked about this, you can be brave.”

Doug peered into the room where the young girl was about to enter the scanner. Crouching down, he had a new perspective on the room—and on the machine that he had so proudly designed. He could immediately understand why the girl was terrified: warning stickers plastered the machine and yellow and black tape marked the floor like a crash-test scene. The machine itself looked like a beige “brick with a hole in it.”

Given this new perspective, it’s no mystery why many children have to be sedated to get MRI or CT scans. Everything about the experience can be frightening, from the room and the machine to the claustrophobia and loud noises. Doug came away with a new mission: to understand how GE might redesign this experience for children so that it’s a positive experience and not something to be dreaded.

Doug’s boss recommended he attend an executive education workshop at the at Stanford to get the Design Thinking toolkit and help him solve this big, emotionally-charged problem. The workshop helped him frame the problem as a POV, in the form of a Madlib which was structured in the following way:

“We met … ”

“We were amazed to realize that … ”

“It would change the world if … ”

Using this framework, Doug and his team were able to iterate on their POV until they came up with a statement more aligned with the goal.

“We met scared families trying not to fall apart during the hospital visit.

We were amazed to realize that they have to sedate 80% of children between 3 and 8 years old, in order to have them scanned.

It would change the world if we could capitalize on the child’s amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive, memorable adventure.”

By reframing the problem using this POV, Doug and his team realized that the beginning of the user experience started at home, when the parents were trying to figure out what the procedure was like and how to explain it to their children. They were able to outline the whole user journey for the family and determine the different touchpoints that they could influence or redesign.

The team didn’t have the budget to do a full redesign of the machines, so once they had identified a few promising opportunities, they decided to implement a low-fidelity prototype. By applying decals to the exterior of the machine and the walls of the scanning room, they were able to transform the dull, monotone experience into a colorful pirate adventure, where the captain’s helm led to the inside of the “ship” (this feature had the added benefit of making the opening seem much larger and less claustrophobic). They created a script for the operator, who led the children through the pirate adventure.

The results from this redesign and from others like it were no less than amazing. Sedation rates dropped from 80% to fractions of one percent. But to Doug, the human stories behind the numbers are just as important.

While visiting the pirate-themed scanner, Doug talked to the parents of a little girl about the room’s piña colada scented aroma, something they were getting a kick out of. The little girl came up to the mom and tugged at her shirt. “Can we come back tomorrow?” she asked.

For at least one family, Doug and his team had transformed the experience from something terrifying to something to look forward to. By using their POV as a way to reframe the problem, his team was able to change the world.

The exponential power of reframing

In their wonderful 1977 film for IBM, designers Charles and Ray Eames explored how perspectives change by looking at the relative scale of objects. For example, the film zooms out from a man and woman on a picnic blanket to the grass surrounding them.

The short film Powers of Ten by designers Charles and Ray Eames

The film quickly progresses through Earth to the edge of the universe, then zooms back into the nucleus of a carbon atom. In the process, viewers get a wonderful understanding of extremes at both ends of the scale, but also of how reframing your viewpoint can create a new perspective on something familiar and ordinary.

As designers, we can leverage the power of reframing to help us innovate and solve wicked problems. We can create POVs to help guide our product design process and connect us to our users. And if we’re lucky, we might just see the world in a new light along the way.

About the Authors

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million.

He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You’ll find Aarron on Twitter and Medium sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

Design Thinking Handbook
Design Thinking Handbook

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