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Case study: the phases of design

The design process can feel challenging. It takes energy and resilience to find the right problem to solve, learn from things that don’t work, build on things that do, and iterate back to keep improving your ideas. But it’s incredibly rewarding and creative work.

Earlier this week, Gill Wildman introduced us to the design process. Thinking about a model of the design process helps us think about the work we need to do, and clearly convey it to people new to design. It also helps businesses understand how to introduce human-centred design into their work.

Stanford d.school’s model for Design Thinking Stanford d.school’s model for Design Thinking (Click to expand)

For this course, we’ve adopted Stanford d.school’s model for Design Thinking, which contains five phases:


The initial phase is all about investigation and inspiration: researching and developing your understanding of the problem and the people it affects.

You identify the people you’re designing for and develop empathy with them. You discover more about what their motivations, needs and feelings are, setting aside your assumptions and seeing things from their point of view.

Methods might include:

  • User research, for example interviewing people, asking questions to uncover more information
  • Diary studies, for example asking people to keep a diary of what they do each day, including pictures, to understand their behaviours
  • Surveys, researching the wider market and gathering more data with questionnaires.


When you’ve generated lots of research, it’s important to synthesise it, looking for patterns, summarising and finding ways to communicate your insights to other people. This stage helps you sort through your research and reach clarity about the real problem that you need to solve.

Outputs could include the following:

  • Experience maps summarising people’s experience and feelings over time in a diagram
  • Affinity mapping, grouping small notes from the research into useful categories or themes
  • Problem statements, where you draft a concise description of the problem you want to solve, expressed from the point of view of the person who has the problem.


How can you solve the problem you’ve discovered and defined? Ideate is another word for ‘having lots of ideas’. In this phase you are using creative thinking to generate innovative solutions and new ideas.

Techniques include:

  • Brainstorming, where you work as a group to build on each other’s ideas in a judgement free atmosphere
  • Role play, with teams acting out scenarios physically to encourage different ways of thinking about them
  • Co-design workshops with real users, to generate new and unexpected angles on the problem.


Having ideas is great, but you need to make those ideas a reality. Prototypes are quick, rough versions of the final product that help you make decisions as you make the idea tangible and allow you to think by making. As you iterate and refine the prototypes, you learn more about your solution and can settle disagreements in the team about how the solution should work.

Prototypes might include the following:

  • Models, for example simple 3d models in a low cost material to test shapes and sizes of objects
  • Wireframes or digital prototypes to test how an app might work on screen
  • Service prototypes using role-play and mock-ups to refine interactions between people and organisations.


When you have prototypes, you can put them in front of people and see how they react. Do they understand your idea? Can they work the prototype without getting stuck? Are they enthusiastic or indifferent? Testing exposes any problems in your solution and helps you see what things you should improve and change. People will give you basic feedback but you learn more by asking the right questions and observing what they do, not what they say.

Testing might involve:

  • User testing, walking people through a set of predetermined questions as they use your prototype
  • A/B testing, where users try two variants to see which one works better
  • Beta testing, for example launching an invite-only test version to a small number of real users to spot problems ‘in the wild’.

Human-centred design is not a linear process. A designer might jump between phases, repeating or running phases alongside each other. You might loop back: a discovery in testing might send you back to the research phases, or you may realise you need to come up with entirely new ideas.

It’s important to iterate and rework solutions as you discover more information during the process. Iteration particularly occurs between prototype and test. You might make and test a number of prototypes, each with slightly higher fidelity than the last. That means it has the closest resemblance to the details and functionality of the final design. The result: you end up with something close to a finished product.

Whatever path you take through the phases, staying flexible and checking in with users as often as possible is the key to creating good solutions.

Have your say:

  • Do you do any of these elements in your work already? What do you use, and how does it help you?
  • If you don’t, which elements of the process sound most helpful to you?
  • Are there times that you’ve learned from something not working, and iterated to solve a problem? Share your thoughts with others in the Comments section.

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This article is from the free online course:

Get Creative with People to Solve Problems

University of Leeds