ux beginner guide design thinking methodologies

Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking Methodologies


Yes, user experience, human centered design, usability; all those things, even affordances. They just sort of entered the vocabulary and no longer have any special meaning. People use them often without having any idea why, what the word means, its origin, history, or what it’s about.

Don Norman in conversation with Peter Merholz

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Sonja is a UX researcher and designer based in Vienna, Austria. She hangs out on Medium and Pinterest. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.

I don’t have an academic background in design because I transitioned into UX from another field. While this doesn’t hinder me from doing great work, it means that I have a somewhat limited understanding of the field’s theoretical foundations and historical development. It also means that when I hear industry buzzwords — user-centered design, participatory design, human-centered design, service design, design thinking, lean methodology — I’m not entirely clear on their meaning.

If our backgrounds are similar then you might also be confused by these terms. It is easy to pretend to understand and easy to fool others when there is still confusion in the academic circles about what design is. I wrote this article to reduce the confusion surrounding the different terms, to understand what warrants attention, and to make it easier for myself to sound eloquent when I talk about design with fellow professionals and business folk.

Explore 7 different design thinking terms & approaches

ux beginner guide design thinking methodologies - design thinking

Let’s start with the obvious – design thinking as a term in itself. Although design thinking has recently gained a lot of attention, it’s actually not a new concept. In fact, design thinking originates in the 1960s. That’s when academics in the field of industrial design first started concerning themselves with describing the practice of design. “How designers think and work” was the central question. Thus, the name was born. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, academics’ attention shifted to the development and understanding of new design methodologies. In other words, for most of its history design thinking characterized the study of the design practice itself.

It’s been established that design thinking has three characteristics (Read Stefanie Di Russo’s thesis to gain a deeper understanding of design thinking or Jo Szczepanska’s historical summary). First, as a design practice it is without a doubt human-centered. It is imperative to design with all the humans in mind who will have something to do with the solution. Second, as a field of knowledge it is distinct from the arts and sciences. Third, the domain of design thinking deals with complex and ambiguous issues. Design thinking concerns itself with “wicked problems” — problems that have convoluted definitions and no known solutions.

Then, in the 1990s, the consulting firm IDEO — especially David Kelley — popularized design thinking in business circles. This helped shift the concept of design thinking from an academic term that described the process of design to a business term that prescribed how firms should design to achieve better results. Since then, the concepts has been often misunderstood or confused. This, this and this article all claim that design thinking is faulty or obsolete. However, their main claim has a rocky foundation because it seems they do not understand what design thinking is or they do not know how to make use of it appropriately. It seems they’re looking to replace the design process with the same process but a different name. As Jared Spool points out, design thinking has been around since the dawn of the contemporary design practice and there is no need to keep reinventing it.

Overall, design thinking has a rich history. It is considered a process, a set of methods, and a mindset at the same time. I encourage you to understand design thinking in depth, and to not repeat misconceptions about it.

ux beginner guide design thinking methodologies - participatory design

Cooperative design was pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s in Scandinavia in relation to urban planning. Scandinavian designers were concerned at the time about involving the community in the design process of systems and artifacts. The community participated in the process through role playing, prototyping, and user testing. When this approach spread to the US, the name changed to participatory design. The idea was to bring users into the world of designers. Recently, an empathic design or co-design approach appeared on the scene. This approach involves the community by introducing designers into the world of users through ethnographic means.

ux beginner guide design thinking methodologies - user centered design UCD

Don Norman is credited with creating the user-centered approach to design in the late 1980s. His views were popularized thanks to his book “The Design of Everyday Things” (1988) which has become a classic in the UX field. The approach is based on his background in cognitive science and industrial design. It views design solutions from the perspective of a user’s needs and interests. Norman’s point is that in order to design better solutions it is necessary to keep the user in mind throughout the process. It isn’t enough to do usability testing in order to create a superior user experience.

ux beginner guide design thinking methodologies - goal directed design

Around the same time as Don Norman was writing about his user-centered approach, Alan Cooper started thinking about his approach to design. Cooper’s background is software development. In the 1980s he realized that in order to design better software it’s necessary to design it with its users in mind. One of his contributions to the design process is the use of personas. This well-known deliverable was popularized through his book “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” (1990s). Then, at Cooper he codified a design approach he termed goal-directed design. This approach is most extensively laid out in Kim Goodwin’s book “Designing in the Digital Age.” The most striking aspect of this approach is the emphasis it places on listing the different kinds of goals that personas wish to accomplish: life goals, experience goals, and end goals. Hence, the design is directed by

Human-centered design is unique among the described approaches because it has an ISO standard attached to it. The standard was introduced in 1999. It was recently revised in 2010. The standard states, “The term human-centered design is used rather than user-centered design in order to emphasize that this part of ISO 9241 also addresses impacts on a number of stakeholders, not just those typically considered as users. However, in practice, these terms are often used synonymously.” Similarly, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative states, “User-centered design process (UCD) is also called human-centered design process.” It seems that the difference between these two processes is in their mindset. Depending on who we consider during the design process — whether it’s just the users or other stakeholders as well, e.g. customers, community, service providers — we end up using one process or the other. This represents a shift from a techno-driven mindset to a human-driven one. It places all humans at the center of the design process, no matter their role. Apart from design thinking, human-centered design is an approach most associated with IDEO, e.g. through David Kelley’s TED talk, the Design Kit toolbox, the OpenIDEO platform, and Design Kit courses.  

ux beginner guide design thinking methodologies - service design

Service design has started to flourish in recent years but it’s also not a new approach to design. The first mentions of service design appeared in the 1970s but the staple of this process — the service blueprint — was first proposed by Shostack in a 1982 paper titled “How to Design a Service” that appeared in the European Journal of Marketing (While this article is behind a paywall, Shostack’s 1984 article “Designing Services That Deliver” is available). A crucial insight of service design is that in contemporary markets there is no distinction between products and services. Thus, all stakeholders — including company staff and management — must be taken into account during the design process. Service designers create solutions for systems and relationships, not for isolated artifacts. They are concerned not just with visible and tangible, but also with the invisible and intangible aspects of a service provision.

ux beginner guide design thinking methodologies - lean methodology

The lean startup methodology belongs in this list because it borrows much more from the design discipline than many people realize. There is no doubt that lean methodology emphasizes the validation of hypotheses and rapid iteration as principal tools of startup creation. The following is a passage from Wikipedia’s entry for design thinking: “Design thinking doesn’t differ much from the scientific method, which begins by stating a hypothesis and then, via a feedback mechanism, continues iteratively to form a model or theory.” In addition, the popular Build-Measure-Learn cycle bears an uncanny resemblance to the Express-Test Cycle that was first introduced by Robert McKim in 1973.


The field of design is new but not as new as some newcomers to the field might think. There is a long history of thought-leaders who contributed to the development of methods, mindsets and principles. It is important to have at least a rough understanding of these developments. Otherwise, we might try to redesign the wheel. Especially in the case of design thinking, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what it is. Practitioners complain about this process without having invested the time and resources to apply its methods appropriately.

In addition, there appears to be a gradual shift in how the domain of design is understood. Designers have started to move from designing objects to designing services and systems. In other words, we have started to move from designing tangibles towards designing the ever more intangible aspects of our modern lives. At the end of the day, no matter what new job titles or new processes we come up with, design is design is design — each approach is a variation on the theme rather than a revolution.