Design Thinking


Design Thinking is a systematic approach to creative problem solving that combines both analytical and intuitive thinking. Design thinking is not only for designers but for anyone interested in solving complex problems. The Design Thinking process consists of 5 stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. This semester (Spring 2019) in my Innovation through Design Thinking class, my team and I used design thinking principles to solve the ‘skill toolbox’ problem. Our initial problem statement was: How might we figure out what should be in our ‘toolbox’ of skills-including life skills-when soon leaving school? And how might we acquire these skills? This is a reflection on the lessons I learned while implementing design thinking to create a solution to this problem.


Empathize is the first stage of the Design Thinking process. As designers, it is paramount to empathize with the users of the product or service one is creating because it helps to set aside his or her own assumption about the problem. Because the problem of ‘the toolbox of skills’ also affects us as college students, we used empathy tools to actually learn what our users wanted instead of assuming their needs based on our experiences.

“The intrinsically human-centered nature of design thinking points to the next step: we can use our empathy and understanding of people to design experiences that create opportunities for active engagement and participation.” -Tim Brown

Empathy Tools Used: surveys, interviews, and cultural probes.

In our surveys and interviews, we talked to people ranging in ages from 20–62. We asked questions including:

  1. What skills do you feel are most important to have upon graduating from college?
  2. Do you feel these skills are acquirable prior to graduation?
  3. How do you think these skills could be acquired?

From the survey data, I was surprised to learn that there was an equal emphasis on learning ‘soft skills’ such as effective communication and home management. Prior to conducting the survey, I anticipated that respondents would focus more on tangible skills such as how to file taxes and place less emphasis on skills such as communication or building personal and professional relationships.

Our cultural probe asked interviewers to draw the first thing they thought of when the heard the word adult.

Father of 3 envisions adulting as having a stable family
Young college female envisions ‘adulting’ as living and working in New York City

From our cultural probe, we observed that older adults focused more on family roles while students emphasized the importance of work and making money. This generational difference was one that we kept in mind in our next phases.

The interviews confirmed that both hard and soft skills were of equal importance for the toolbox of skills needed by students.


In the define phase, we analyzed the data we got from the empathy phase and narrowed down on our problem statement. While in the empathy phase we used divergent thinking to gather as much information as possible, in the define phase we used convergent thinking to narrow down on our problem statement.

We collected all the data from the survey, interviews and cultural probes and mapped them onto an empathy map. The empathy map empowered us as designers to listen to what was not being said beneath the words. The empathy map enabled us to visualize what our respondents said and did, and based on these observations, we were able to infer what they thought and felt.

Empathy map capturing what interviewees said, thought, did and felt

What our interview respondents





The empathy map showed us that whatever solution we designed it would have to be relaxed and casual so as to ease the feeling of embarrassment in not knowing certain skills. Using the insights we gathered from the empathy map, we used a 6 step process to clearly define our problem statement.

6 step process of defining our problem statement

In the end, we converged on this problem statement:

How might we help college students implement and prioritize the learning of money management, soft skills, and home care prior to graduation?


After understanding our users’ needs in the empathy phase, analyzing and converging on the problem statement, we were now ready to start generating ideas on possible solutions. In this phase, we used the brainstorming technique to allow for divergent and free-thinking.

Brainstorming session

Some of our favorite ideas from the brainstorm session included:

  1. Enlisting celebrities to create how-to videos on Instagram. For example, Ellen Degeneres could post a video on how to cook an omelet.
  2. Revamping existing school curriculums to incorporate skills such as financial management and home care.

We took it a step further by facilitating a brainstorm session and a co-creation session with two sets of guests. Facilitating the brainstorming session was an enlightening experience. The brainstorming session was a bit stiff mostly because we were nervous. Occasionally we had to nudge the participants to churn out their ideas. In hindsight, I felt like we should not have rushed in our explanation of the problem statement. We also should have checked in regularly with the participants to see if they were on board with what we were doing.

Co-design session with other students

We facilitated a co-creation session with the second group. With the second group, there was more energy in both us and the participants. We slowed down our pace and took time to explain the problem statement and also gave the participants the chance to tell us whether or not they can relate to the problem statement. We presented our celebrity-endorsed Instagram videos idea and received the pros and cons of the idea. One major con that was identified through the co-creation session was the fact that having celebrity-endorsed videos may not be relatable to the students.


After the valuable insights gained from the co-creation session, we decided to keep the how-to Instagram videos but change the format. In the end, we converged on having the Instagram videos be created by club and activity leaders, and even professors in college instead of celebrities.

Adult 101

Adult 101 is an Instagram page that would partner up with colleges and provide a platform for students to share life skills with each other in a relaxed and casual environment. Imagine your finance professor posing a video on how to file taxes or the school’s lead basketball player posting a video on how to make an omelet. Now that is a video I would love to see!

By having the videos being posted by student leaders and faculty members, a relaxed and informal environment is created for learning. This casual feel to the prototype was important because of the insight we got from the empathy phase that students feel embarrassed that they don’t know how to do seemingly basic skills. Clubs and organizations would be incentivized to post these videos by giving them vouchers and funding for their activities.


This is the final stage of the design thinking model. In the phase, we would get test our prototype and from the results generated, identify what areas we can improve upon and continue prototyping and testing our solution until we arrive at a final solution.


In the end, I learned valuable skills on how to use design thinking to be a better innovator.




Software Engineer | Always Learning

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Shannon Makenna

Shannon Makenna

Software Engineer | Always Learning

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