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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Why we need design thinking

Tackle complex challenges

In 1958, 4 months after Sputnik launched and President Eisenhower created NASA, a Stanford engineering professor named John Arnold proposed that design engineering should be human-centered.

This was a strange thing for Arnold to introduce. It was an era in which engineers were largely focused on twin Cold War driven goals: the space race and the optimization of the hydrogen bomb.

Inspired by Arnold’s work, engineering professor Bob McKim, with the help of art professor Matt Kahn, created an engineering program called Product Design. Within this program, McKim and others helped create a design thinking process that became the foundation for Stanford’s, as well as the guiding framework for design-driven companies like IDEO.

Just as the space race resulted in the invention of Velcro and satellite communications, design thinking plays a large role in how we interact with computers (the mouse and notebook), how we deliver our healthcare, and how we do our banking now and in the future.

Why has design thinking been embraced not only by forward-thinking innovators like IDEO but large enterprises like IBM? For one, it brings everyone into the process, not just designers; using the design process helps companies solve wicked problems with clear eyes.

Design thinking also helps scale the design process through large organizations.  Business leaders who use the shared vocabulary and toolset of design thinking can confidently create better, human-centered user experiences and disruptive products.

Finally, design thinking helps to instill a bias towards action, balanced with a user-centered perspective that guides the team towards the right outcome.

The design thinking process is not necessarily linear, nor is there one canonical way to approach it; it is an iterative system with many variations. However, Stanford’s teaches a framework that can help jump-start the process for almost any problem:

We’ll walk you through the 5 steps of this design thinking framework, which will provide a toolkit for design challenges large and small in your organization.

The core of the design thinking approach is a focus on empathy, or using a beginner’s mindset and immersing yourself in the user’s experience to uncover deep needs and insights.

Defining the problem with a point of view (POV) is a key part of the process: who is your user (with as many specific details as possible); what is their deep, unmet need; why is this insightful (what insights did you glean from your empathetic needfinding process?). Often, reframing the problem using a unique POV will lead to more innovative solution spaces.

The design thinking process goes through a cycle of generative flaring and selective focusing. In the definition phase, we narrowed down to a specific Point of View; now, in the ideation phase, we flare out and generate as many ideas as possible.

For many designers, prototyping is where the fun begins. Sometimes the key to good empathy is sharing or co-creating a prototype with your users and getting feedback. Prototyping helps us learn, solve disagreements, and test hypotheses quickly and with minimal repercussions.

By testing our prototypes with real users and getting feedback, we can refine our POV, learn more about our users, and make the next iteration of the product that much better. As they say at Stanford’s “Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.”

These steps should be considered a way to get started with design thinking. Over time, you will adapt them to your working style and make them your own. With this flexible toolkit, you’ll be prepared to tackle any project, from a new app to—perhaps—new NASA moonshots.

With thanks to Bill Burnett, executive director of the Design Program at Stanford, for giving the lecture that inspired this introduction.



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.



Early and often

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If you’ve ever been to a spin class, you may think there isn’t much variability in the experience: a dark room, music with a beat, an instructor yelling to change the level to 8 and keep pushing. SoulCycle offers something different.

From the minute you walk in the door, SoulCycle fosters a sense of community. Heading into class, you pass by the lockers where the previous class is exiting—giving a chance for serendipitous encounters. The instructors shout inspirational quotes as you pump up a hill and hover above your saddle.

With this emphasis on the whole user experience, it’s no wonder that SoulCycle has garnered something of a cult following, even at 34 bucks a class—which sell out quickly.

“On Mondays at noon—when the upcoming week’s schedule for SoulCycle is released—if you’re not on the computer hitting the keys right then like an eBay addict on the hunt for porcelain figurines, you’re often out of luck.”

–From a Vanity Fair article on SoulCycle

Obviously, this part of the experience doesn’t seem to be in line with the brand. SoulCycle decided to create a mobile app so riders wouldn’t have to be glued to their desktops in anticipation of booking a class.

Prolific Interactive, the agency that SoulCycle hired to create the app, went through the entire design thinking process, from empathy-based user research to testing—using InVision along the way for testing prototypes and getting feedback from stakeholders.

The Prolific team worked out at SoulCycle twice a week, manned the front desk at the studio, and “interviewed the founders, staff, and frequent riders to understand the inner workings of the company.” Getting insights from these observations and interviews guided them as they began working on early solutions.

Beginner’s mind

Adopting a beginner’s mind is valuable at every step of the design process. To test early solutions and not be blinded by assumptions, the Prolific team needed to tackle their challenge with fresh eyes. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes that, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

As you Empathize, it allows you to be open to the experiences of people from different backgrounds and see things from their perspectives. When you Define, it helps you reframe your point of view to see a problem from a different angle. As you Ideate, a beginner’s mind prevents you from being judgmental about ideas that seem trivial or silly, but which may spur new approaches to a problem.

Building your Prototype, a beginner’s mindset helps remind you that the purpose of a prototype is to answer critical questions quickly—not to highlight your mastery as a designer.

And when you test your prototype, a beginner’s mindset opens you to both the many possible directions of your design and to the ways it might address real human needs. Each step along the way affords an opportunity to rethink, relearn, and reboot as needed. The design process is rarely linear.

Test early, test often

If prototyping is where the fun begins for many designers, testing is where it can get a little scary. Getting your product ideas in front of real users for feedback can be daunting. But the whole basis for prototyping early and often is intended to keep us from forming attachments to ideas that may or may not be worthwhile.

By testing our prototypes with real users in context, observing their reactions, and getting feedback, we can refine our POV, learn more about our users, and make the next iteration of the product that much better. As they say at Stanford’s, “Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.”

It’s important to test prototypes early in the design process so you can quickly correct course if your product hypotheses are incorrect. As we discussed in Fast feedback, testing these assumptions early will help you build better products faster.

Once the Prolific team started building prototypes, they tested them on site. The great thing about this situation was they didn’t have to do any user recruiting. SoulCycle welcomed the team to run prototypes by their riders as often as they liked (while being respectful of their time, of course). This also had the benefit of mirroring the context where users were booking a class.

There was already some anxiety about getting into class on time, so users were forced to go through the app test in a hurry, which quickly revealed speed bumps in the flow. The team eventually moved on to more formal user testing sessions, observing users in a conference room as they went through a few scenarios while thinking aloud.

Throughout the process, the Prolific team relied on a rapid prototyping and testing cycle and kept the SoulCycle stakeholders updated with new insights and observations, rather than “keeping the research and design process hidden behind a curtain for weeks before revealing it in a comprehensive research report that no one would end up reading.”

The app is a huge hit with riders, and it’s largely thanks to the collaborative effort between Prolific, SoulCycle, and users who helped test the prototypes.

Keeping a beginner’s mindset

The Tega is a cuddly, expressive robot that MIT researchers developed as a personalized educational assistant for young children. Designed to act as a peer in digital learning environments, Tega’s facial expression recognition allows it to mimic a child’s demeanor, which the MIT team hoped would help the robot and child bond during learning sessions.

They could have tried to test this hypothesis in the lab, but they would have had no clue whether young kids would actually find the robot charming, scary, or boring. So they brought a Tega prototype to a classroom to test in context with preschoolers.

The results were fantastic. Team member Goren Gordon said, “After a while the students started hugging it, touching it, making the expression it was making and playing independently with almost no intervention or encouragement.” And even more crucially, Tega was able to increase the children’s positive feelings toward it with its physical behaviors—leaning over like it was interested or making happy noises.

These parameters are critical. They were testing the prototype in context (at a preschool, with kids in the target demographic), and were able to observe the reactions of the users in real-time. They didn’t rely on a survey or focus group about the experience (which with children at this age wouldn’t have worked anyway). Observing these gut reactions is what makes testing with a prototype so powerful; it’s hard for people to fake enthusiasm or hide frustrations when interacting with a product, and so the signal is clear.

With these tests, the MIT team was able to determine that Tega was a promising platform for other educational contexts, such as helping students with learning disabilities. And they never would have discovered this if they hadn’t brought the prototype out into the real world, embracing the fact that they didn’t know what the results would be.

Having a beginner’s mindset and testing assumptions early in the design process will help you design better products faster. It can be just as important to carry this mindset to later tests, when a product is more developed, to answer questions about critical scenarios. This is exactly what the Google Ventures team did to help robotics company Savioke (see the interview with Daniel Burka below).

It takes a lot of effort to round up participants for in-person, one-on-one tests, but the results are compelling. Below we outline some testing techniques and suggestions for a variety of timeline and budgetary considerations.

Setting up your test

Set objectives

What specifically are you testing, and what do you want to know? This drives everything that comes next: the questions you ask, the people you recruit, and how you determine success.

Recruiting users

As we’ve seen in the examples above, running user tests in person is the ideal situation, but recruiting users to come to your office (or better yet, to visit in-situ where they will be using the product) isn’t always feasible. In the Fast feedback section of Principles of Product Design, we run through some ideas for recruiting both in-person and remote users.

Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research also has some fantastic tips for recruiting users. She highlights the importance of setting the parameters for a good research participant (e.g., “shares the concerns and goals of your target users” and “can articulate their thoughts clearly”). She also outlines how to create a screener, so you can “weed out the ax murderers and the fatally inarticulate.” And she gives some great tips on places to post a link to the screener—friends and family can be a great resource for sharing (assuming they are likely to reach your target demographic), and Craigslist (along with social media) is your friend.

If you’re constrained to remote testing, services like and UserTesting can provide you with users in fairly targeted demographics.

Testing the prototype

Once you’ve recruited your users, create an experience for them that puts the prototype into a context as close to real life use as possible, whether it’s before a workout like SoulCycle or testing in a hotel like Savioke. You want your users to react to the experience, not to an explanation of the prototype. The more real-life it feels, the more natural these reactions will be.

It’s also important to show, not tell. Once your user is set up with the experience, prototype in hand, don’t explain everything right away. Give them a chance to figure things out, and observe how they use the product. Is it intuitive, or are your users confused or frustrated? What kind of questions do they have? Look for smiles or frowns as they work with the prototype.

Finally, remember in the Ideate phase where you came up with several ideas to test? It can be helpful to bring multiple prototypes to a testing session. This will give users more fodder to react to and compare against (e.g. “the version of the SoulCycle app that introduced the trainer with a video was great, but I really just need to book my session as quickly as possible, so I’m more inclined to use the version without it because it’s faster.”)

Capturing video and audio of your users in action with the prototype will be helpful in the next step. You don’t need anything fancy—just use the equipment you have at hand (smartphones and screen recording software will work just fine). Michael Margolis at Google Ventures outlines a slightly more elaborate setup, which can be handy if you’re testing mobile prototypes.

Reviewing and synthesizing observations

After you’re done with testing sessions, it’s important to take the time to review and synthesize your findings. Again, Just Enough Research is a great resource for this. In her section on analyzing the data from user research, Erika Hall outlines how to structure the session (summarize goals, pull quotes and observations), the space and supplies you’ll need (sticky notes and sharpies!), and the types of data to look for (user goals and priorities).

Another great resource for debriefing and synthesizing is from Brendan Mulligan at Cluster. Mulligan outlines some great tips and techniques for holding a viewing party and capturing insights from your team, and identifying and bucketing patterns as a group.

Once you’ve had a chance to synthesize the data and group patterns, take a look at how they support or contradict your original POVs. This is an iterative process. Testing your prototypes should give you a chance to refine your original hypotheses and make the product that much better in the next round.

Empathy and compassion

Empathy is the heart of design, as it allows us to experience the situations our users find themselves in. Empathy lets us discover opportunities to make those experiences less frightening—like Doug Dietz did for children needing MRIs—or more delightful, like the Savioke team did with Relay.

Compassion in tandem with a beginner’s mind helps us translate empathy into action. If we instill a sense of duty toward users in our designs, we can align our products with the humans who use them—and perhaps improve their lives along the way. We can remain open to the possibility that our first ideas weren’t our best ideas, and that by taking an iterative approach and gaining insights from our users as we test prototypes, we can make better products.

As designers, we have a real impact on how our products take shape, how users experience them, and the consequences of their use. We hope that you have a chance to use these opportunities with empathy and compassion, and design products that you’re proud to bring into the world.


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