Design Thinking for Early Stage Idea Development


Rostislav Roznoshchik
May 2020

First understand the problem

A Problem Framing video with no words. Other than some music and putting together different clips, this video is entirely possible to create in very little time using freely available tools on the Apple iPhone.

Although nothing is being said in this video, the viewer can easily understand the problem that is being described.

Using a video like this before a joint team brainstorming session is especially powerful as it primes the teams mind to have a very clear view of the problem and allows for easier communication and more powerful ideas.

Imagine a solution

Visualizing Futures

In this video illustration, The Connected Places Catapult uses video to explore the question of – What if our cities had entirely different and augmented cycling experiences?

What’s interesting about this video is that it presents a future augmented with technology that would be very expensive to create. And yet, with some video work they are able to visualize this future and start exploring these possibilities with cities, startups, and citizens.

What is Design thinking?

Design thinking
Human Centered Design
Systems Thinking
Lean Startup
Customer Development

Just methodologies

A methodology is a set of tools, approaches and mindsets used for particular types of challenges.

These methodologies above differ from one another mostly in the specific kinds of challenges that they are meant to address.

The vocabulary is not important. What’s important is the understanding of the challenge you are trying to solve and adopting the right tools and methods to begin to work towards a solution.

From that perspective. Design Thinking or Human Centered Design is possibly the broadest methodology of those listed because of they wide array of problems they can tackle.

With all of that said …

What makes design thinking different?
Why is it effective?
Why do countless organizations turn to it to tackle some of the most wicked problems and challenges?

It’s no accident that Design Thinking has the word ‘design’ in it. It comes from design, which was historically rooted in the design of physical objects, spaces, and environments. Just as design is highly about ‘making,’ so too is design thinking rooted in making.

This history gives design thinking a focus on a few particular things:

1. The physical form and function of objects and spaces.

2. A focus on systems and environments.

Additionally, design is inextricably linked to people. Objects and spaces made for human use take human needs into account.

This hyper focus on the people at the heart of any challenge – give designers two more important tools.

1. A focus on empathy – to deeply understand the emotions and needs of the humans we are designing for. 

2. An ability to move people – deep insights into humans gives designers an understanding of their behaviors and mental models.

Some principles for design emerge.

1. Who are you designing for?
2. What do they need to do?
3. Why do they need to do it?
4. How are they doing it now?
5. Where are they?
6. What’s getting in their way?

But we need to unpack design first as well.

Herbert A. Simon, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics, the A.M. Turing Award and the National Medal of Science and many other awards for his work in cognitive psychology and computer science.

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

In simpler terms – that just means designing is the act of going from point a to point b.

Point A  and Point B can be anything you want.

A situation you are unhappy about becoming a situation you are happy about.

Something undesirable becoming something desirable.

Something bad becoming something good.

This could be about the design of objects. In this case we have the OXO Peeler. OXO commissioned the design consultancy Smart Design to help them design a peeler that could be used by individuals with arthritis.

Through a deep understanding of the emotional and physical challenges of these individuals, the design ultimately served to create a product loved by all consumers, not just those with arthritis.

This could be the creation of services and new forms of ownership and economy. In this case moving away from individual ownership of vehicles to shared consumption and membership in a service.

This could be about new forms of government and civic engagement. On one side we have the voting process in the United States, rife with complications and fraud,  and on the other side we have new models of interaction such as those possible in Latvia and Estonia – more accessible, democratic, and backed by the latest and securest technologies.

Or this could be about human behaviors and habits. On one side there is me as a smoker, and on the other side there is me as a non smoker. Design can be used to help nudge and guide people towards new behaviors or lifestyles. 

Design Thinking is not a silver bullet.

Design thinking is a powerful methodology. However, it by no means guarantees results. Learning design thinking won’t magically make you a superstar. You won’t immediately have the best products, or the best ideas.

In that sense, no methodology can deliver results. Even with the lean startup – countless businesses fail everyday. Even with systems thinking, we still have complicated societal problems that we don’t know how to make headway in.

What you will have however, is a way of reducing risk.

By practicing design thinking, you will have a better process. One that delivers better results more often over time.

So what does the process actually look like?

It’s a loop focused on learning.

1. Ask a question
2. Prototype
3. Learn something
4. Prototype again
4. Learn some more
5. Find you asked the wrong question.
6. Ask a better question.
7. Repeat.

Depending on where you look in the internet, you’ll see different visualizations of the design process. In some places it’s a 3 step process, in other places it’s a 5 step process, and elsewhere it might be a 12 step process. The language used will also be different.  Even though they are all different, they’re all correct. Whichever model you choose doesn’t matter, because in their essence they are all the same.



On asking the wrong question …

1. Youtube – started as a video-based dating service and became a host of online videos.
2. Slack – started as an online game focused on socialization and became a chat app for team collaboration.
3. Shopify – Started as a custom designed online snowboarding shop, became a service for creating online shops.

Case studies & examples

Who are you designing for?

One principle of design thinking is that there are many ways to address a problem.

What determines one solution over the other is the person at the center of it.

Is it a tourist? Do they want to look around and see the sites?

Is it an elderly individual who absolutely needs a seat, or wheelchair access?

Each might need a different path.

Understanding Emotions

Even when a solution seems to tick all the boxes – there’s still friction. A deep understanding of humans you are designing for can help uncover the hidden and invisible barriers that keep people from making decisions.

This can be seen in  the story of how a dining room table clued the designers in to what was really holding people back from downsizing and moving.

Read more about it here.



Design for micro-moments

Often when people think about design, they think about big massive changes. But sometimes it’s the smallest things that can have the biggest impact.

By deeply understanding parents and the emotional and physical needs around childcare, Continuum Innovation was able to make Pampers into the No.1 diaper brand in the US.

Read more about it here.

Curiosity leads to insight

Being curious can often lead you to powerful discoveries that lead to long lasting benefits and changes.

By being curious and asking if managers really mattered and following a deep research backed process exploring their own teams and managers, Google was able to uncover fundamental truths that led to new principles for making happier and more effective teams.

Read more about it here.



Design for onboarding

Design thinking isn’t always consumer facing. It’s applicable to a wide array of challenges.

In this video you see the outcome of a service design process at Coca-Cola that was aimed at creating a more human centered approach to HR.

Read more about it here.



A tool that came from the movie and comics industry. A storyboard can have words or it can be purely visual, but the main idea is to tell a story using key frames.

Used to illustrate the current experience, the storyboard can highlight current struggles that people experience in a problem space.

Used to illustrate an alternative future, the storyboard can be used to gather feedback from customers on the viability of a design intervention or it can be used to align internal stakeholders on a shared vision of what the team is building and designing.

User Journey Map

Highly related to and often used interchangeably with a service blueprint, the user journey map focuses on describing the full end-to-end customer experience. Less emphasis is placed on understanding the backstage interactions that allow a service to be delivered. 

This journey map is describing the experience of Sofia, a 6 year old girl who needs to get an MRI done. Doug Dietz from GE healthcare during a visit to the hospital came across Sofia and realized how painful the experience was for young children. Mapping the customer journey, they were able to identify multiple points in the process where they could deliver a better experience.

From Map to Reality

By mapping out the child’s journey during the hospital experience and emphasizing on what the child was thinking and feeling, they were able to identify the main need of feeling safe. They introduced different fun activities and games to the process and completely redesigned the room and MRI machine exterior to allow kids to come into the experience with joy and a sense of safety and adventure.

Not only did this create better and safer experiences for children, but it also reduced hospital costs associated with sedating kids to be still during scans, and ultimately allowed the hospital to see more kids in a single day leading to more efficient, less costly, and better health care.

Read more here.

Wizard of OZ Scenarios

Sometimes you’ll want to test out a business idea with a scenario that requires the illusion of full reality.

What if this really existed – would people actually pay for it?

One tool that is commonly used is the Wizard of OZ MVP. In this tool, you simulate a fully working business or service that happens automatically, but in reality, you have people doing everything behind the scenes. Customers believe things are happening automatically and thus act as they would in real life.

The classic example is the online shoe retailer Zappos. When it was first started, they had no inventory and walked around photographing shoes from local stores. When they received orders, they would run and buy the shoes and ship everything. Once they reached $2000 worth of orders a week, they realized that their idea was validated and they proceeded to actually develop the business.

Story Telling

One thing that is at the heart of all of many mapping methods is story telling. Much of a design teams work is telling stories. Whether these are stories to describe the current situation or whether these are stories that are describing new and alternative futures, they are still stories.

From that perspective, it’s not important what map you choose to make or even if you make a map at all. Sometimes all you need to do is tell the story really well. You can do this through words, through videos, through storyboards and imagery, or even through role playing exercises.

These videos are from the Global GovJam 2014 in Fukuoka, Japan. The videos don’t have any words and are made with a simple camera and minimal tools. But the story that is being told is an evocative one and we viewers immediately begin to fill in the blanks with our own past experiences. 

Videos like this are especially useful as an exploratory research method because they can be used as prompts to start conversations and uncover people’s mental models and beliefs.


Paper Prototyping

Sometimes you’ll want to prototype app or service ideas. At some stage of the process you’ll definitely want to have high fidelity prototypes and actually have things committed to code or even designed digitally. But at the very early stages, you are just exploring a story.

What if this kind of app existed?

For that kind of storytelling and exploration, paper, pen, and voice are usually enough to start a conversation and begin to uncover needs and opportunities within the problem space.

People are very good at imagining and we are naturally gifted at filling in the blanks and telling stories. When shown something rough like this prototype, people will talk to you about the idea, the problem, the vision. When shown something that looks finished and real, people will often tell you they don’t think those colors are good and that maybe your font size is too large.

At every stage, you need to think what questions you want answers to and pick the appropriate tool.

Source: Global Govjam

Rapid Prototyping in Practice.

Important Questions

1. Who are you designing for?
2. What do they need to do?
3. Why do they need to do it?
4. How are they doing it now?
5. Where are they?
6. What’s getting in their way?

The earliest and first prototype you have is your pitch.
It is the foundation of your website, your value proposition, your stakeholder buy-in, your customer conversations, and your fundraising.

How well you understand the story and how well you can tell it are critical to all other prototypes.

What’s the story?

You can start with a simple list.

To begin to tell your story, it’s often important to run an exercise with your team where you just do a massive brain dump.

Starting with your potential customers – list out everything you know about them. Their characteristics, their problem, what they do, why they have the problem, what they want, need, hope for, etc.

Do the same with the problem. What is the problem, why is it a problem, who’s involved, etc etc.

Value Proposition

Once you have spent a little bit of time thinking about the people who will use your product or service, the challenges that they face, and the overall problem landscape, you’re ready to start thinking of how to communicate that powerfully.

There’s no single right answer for what makes a good pitch, but there is universal consensus that you need a good pitch.

If you have any hopes of people using your product or service, or hopes of getting people to support your business, you’ll first need to capture their attention and quickly sell them on the idea.

Practical Steps

1. Use this template to start brainstorming different ways you can communicate your idea most effectively.

2. Then test out your pitch with relevant audiences.

3. Remember, you might need different pitches to different audiences.

Source: Strategyzer

Source: Strategyzer

Map Assumptions

There’s no guarantee that your business will succeed. Which is why it’s important to practice risk management. You need to lay out all of your teams assumptions.

Assumptions are things you believe about your customers or the problem space.

Not all assumptions are equal. You need to ask yourself, which of our assumptions if wrong would mean that our idea can’t work.

Those are the assumptions you should test and prototype first.

Practical Steps

1. Gather your team and record all of your teams assumptions.

2. Plot your assumptions on this matrix.

3. Assumptions that are important and unproven (top right) are the critical things to prove before working on anything else.


If you want to convince people to use your product or service, you need to be able to explain it in ways they will understand.

One of the most effective tools for learning how to talk about your product or service comes from SEO and Keyword Research.

Doing basic seo research will not only help you learn about the pains and needs of your customers or users, but it will also show you how they talk about it in their own words.

Once you can speak in the same language, there is a much higher probability that someone will be receptive to your offer.

Practical Steps

1. Go to Google and imagine you are someone looking for either a solution to the problem you’re solving, or learning about the problem.

2. Write down the different ways people ask those questions. Use googles ‘auto suggest’, ‘people also ask’, and ‘searches related to’ sections to expand your list.

3. Do similar searches in local search engines or forums related to your product, service, or problem space.

4. Intelligently use those keywords in your interviews, pitches, conversations, and presentations.


Writing good copy is hard. In fact, writing is generally hard.

And although there aren’t many tools that can instantly make you a great copywriter, there are some tools that can at least keep you from being grammatically incorrect, or confusing.

Hemingway app is a brilliant tool that judges the complexity of your text and helps you simplify it. This helps to ensure that at the very least, people will understand what you are writing.

Grammarly is another tool that helps you write better but this one focuses on common grammar, logic, and punctuation issues.

Practical Steps

1. Write any messages, pitches, product descriptions, emails, etc, in a word document.

2. Copy your text into Hemingway and edit. It’s important to keep writing and editing as separate activities.

3. Once you have simplified your text in Hemingway, copy it into Grammarly and correct any mistakes you notice.

4. Rinse and Repeat.

The first story is a story that illustrates the problem you are trying to solve and why it is painful.

The second story is the story of a future in which your solution exists and how customers accomplish their goals.

The third story is a story of a customer using your app.

Explaining how to use your product or service step by step in words will help to actually build it properly and uncover many UX issues.

Prototype with stories

These are the foundation

Regardless of what you are prototyping with your service afterwards, these stories and customer insights will serve as the foundation.

Tools and Resources

Miro – Overall Collaboration

Miro is a distributed team’s best friend.
It’s a digital whiteboard and collaboration platform.

The free plan comes with 3 boards, unlimited viewers, and 3 users per board.

Use it for:

1. Brainstorming
2. Create mockups
3. Collect inspiration and references.
4. Kanban Planning
5. Any Team activities.

1. A video walkthrough of the tool.

2. The actual tool.


Video Tools

1. Loom
A tool that records from your webcam and your screen.

The recording is privately uploaded to Looms servers where you can then share it easily with just a link.

Use it for team communication, explainer videos, or for prototyping your product. Many times it’s better than a google hangouts call.

Free to use and tool for creating videos. Intuitive controls, add text, subtitles, music, etc.

Use it for prototypes, marketing vids, problem framing vids, etc.

3. Instagram Stories
Instagram’s story mode lets you record just snippets of video and pieces it together for you. You can then save that to your phone and you have a ready made video.

Useful for narrating a story with changing scenery.

Illustrations and Images

Rapid prototyping is about being fast. Which often means using content and resources that are created by others that can save you time.

The following are all places to get different images, photos, icons, or presentation templates that can help you quickly iterate and make your products and services look beautiful.

Customizeable people illustrations.

A free to use library of people illustrations by Pablo Stanley – he’s amazing. These are all available in vector and can be edited for your needs.


Landing page illustrations

Icons for everything

Stock photos


Digital mockups and assets

UI kits – UI kits are used to create prototypes and visualize how things should look and feel without needing to code them from scratch. Very helpful for quickly bringing an idea to life.

Hatchful – Hatchful uses AI to quickly generate logos and brand imagery. Helpful to quickly mockup a professional looking image without spending any time. – presentations are a big part of pitching and selling ideas. Canva is a free to use program that offers a ton of brilliantly designed templates for you to use. – an easy and free tool to use for creating quick clickable prototypes that you can then share with people to get some quick testing in.

And that’s design thinking in a nutshell.

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or want to connect for other reasons.

Additional Design Thinking Resources

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Herbert Simon