Design Thinking + Human-Centered Design Toolkit

It’s hard to turn a corner in the world of social innovation and entrepreneurship without hearing about the design thinking process. If you’re thinking about creating a start-up, product, service, or anything really, this process can be a game-changer.

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick overview:

What is design thinking, exactly?

Design thinking is a process for innovating solutions to problems. It’s a methodology for creative action that begins with learning directly from the people you’re designing for, identifying opportunities, and prototyping possible solutions for feedback, and then bringing viable solutions to market.


Within the steps of Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test, practitioners can identify the right problems, ask appropriate questions, generate more ideas, and select the best answers. Stanford’s offers a free 90-minute virtual crash course on this methodology.

Designing for humans

In 2009, IDEO launched the Human-Centered Design Toolkit, which provides tools, methods, and guidance on the design thinking process for innovators who are designing for human beings. Which, technically, should be all innovators.

They broke the design thinking process into three phases:

  1. Inspiration Phase (empathize & define): “learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs.”
  2. Ideation Phase (ideate & prototype): “make sense of what you learned, identify opportunities for design, and prototype possible solutions.”
  3. Implementation Phase (test): “bring your solution to life, and eventually, to market.”

For each of these phases, IDEO provides a slew of tools and methods available for free on their website here:


In this post, let’s dive into the first step of the first phase:


Something I’ve noticed is that organizations and products tend to get out of whack when their creators and leaders forget who they’re designing for. Focus on profit can be a primary motive for this, but sometimes innovators are more focused on their own needs and desires than on the needs and desires of the people whom they hope to serve. And let’s be real, if you’re not serving people well, then they probably won’t want your products or services.

If you need an example of what I’m talking about, think of airlines. Which airlines are all about profit? Which airlines take care of their customers? Which has a competitive advantage?

Once you know whom you’re serving, you can typically find solutions by looking closely at their problems (in other words, pain points, or opportunities for gain).

But in order to truly understand their problems, needs, and opportunities, you need to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing.  You can do this through observation, interaction, and/or immersing yourself in their experiences.

Here are some great tools and methods for learning how to immerse yourself in the customer experience.

Some of the most powerful realizations may come from noticing a disconnect between what someone says and what they do. Others come from a work-around someone has created, which may be very surprising to you as the designer, but the person may not even think to mention it in conversation.

To help utilize what you’re hearing and seeing during these interactions, the next post will be about categorizing customer pains and gains in the Value Proposition Canvas