In this article, you’ll learn how to improve your design thinking skills.
You’ll become a better problem solver, a better collaborator, more creative, and most importantly, a better designer.
100 Ways to Improve Your Design Thinking Skills
Pick the tips that appeal to you the most. Decide if you want to read, practice, experiment, mentor, or be mentored. Combine several to accelerate your growth as a design thinker. And remember: experience comes from action. So start applying these tips right away.
Here are 100 ways to improve your design thinking skills:
- Study Design Thinking theory
- Learn the JTBD framework
- Participate in hackathons
- Practice interviewing people in the workplace
- Conduct more workshops
- Test your ideas as often as possible
- Improve processes in your workplace
- Play design thinking games
- Collaborate with other design thinkers
- Practice building on the ideas of others
- Keep a list of observations about human behavior
- Take a problem-solving course
- Conduct a brainstorming session
- Keep a list of the problems you encounter
- Try the D.School wallet redesign exercise
- Practice the 6 thinking hats
- Get good at planning design projects
- Identify problems with Google Analytics
- Start a design thinking wiki
- Get feedback from stakeholders
- Get feedback from customers
- Improve your storytelling
- Practice, practice, practice
- Practice affinity mapping
- Lead a problem definition workshop
- Improve your decision-making skills
- Practice writing problem statements
- Practice rapid prototyping
- Ask the 5 why questions
- Conduct a design sprint
- Conduct workshops for other teams
- Ask more questions
- Read the design thinking playbook
- Become a champion of the design thinking methodology
- Practice different techniques for generating innovative ideas
- Attend a research course
- Reflect at every opportunity
- Teach others
- Learn the HCD theory
- Read The Design of Everyday Things
- Observe other design thinkers
- Set goals and challenges
- Get the Design Thinking Toolbox
- Encourage creative thinking
- Start a side project
- Experiment with new tools and techniques
- Read HBR’s must-reads about design thinking
- Join a Slack community
- Attend UX design, product design and design thinking conferences
- Share your insights
- Practice writing insights
- Have a Creative Whack pack ready to go
- Read some design thinking case studies
- Talk to people
- Get used to ambiguity
- Design with customers
- Trust the process
- Practice identifying problems at work
- Learn to create and test hypotheses
- Improve your creative confidence
- Read The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley
- Practice using the IBM design thinking toolkit
- Attend a design thinking course
- Think of things as part of a system (systems thinking)
- Keep a journal of your findings
- Find ways to practice within your business
- Get good at measuring results
- Bookmark Ideos Design Thinking Toolkit
- Bookmark D Schools Toolkit
- Attend a facilitation course
- Observe people
- Look for patterns and themes
- Put people at the center of every decision
- Prefer action to perfection
- Get feedback from customers
- Hire a coach
- Create some storyboards
- Read Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley
- Use brainstorming prompts
- Start a design thinking workgroup
- Learn the Value Proposition Canvas
- Observe, observe, observe
- Encourage collaborative environments
- Find a mentor
- Know when not to use design thinking
- Talk to customers more often
- Get used to failing
- Improve your sketching
- Take a course in critical thinking
- Create stakeholder maps
- Conduct design challenges in your workplace
- Practice writing HMW statements
- Conduct mini-workshops within your team
- Conduct simple experiments
- Promote HCD in your workplace
- Practice journey mapping
- Update your customer personas
- Learn about your biases
- Hang the Design Thinking principles on the wall
- Practice writing user research questions
Develop Your Skills and Mindset
Design thinking is as much about mindset as it is about skills. With the right mindset, you can adapt to all kinds of scenarios and tackle new problems in unfamiliar territory.
One of the most important skills you can learn as a design thinker is how to deal with ambiguity. With this confidence, you can tackle even the most complex problems right off the bat.
When you have confidence in the process and know what questions to ask along the way, you’ll be able to unpack and solve problems you have never encountered before.
Design thinking is first and foremost a set of principles and values. As you begin to apply these to your own work, you will truly understand what it is all about and embrace the mindset of Design Thinking.
Here are 7 areas that will help you improve your Design Thinking skills and mindset:
- Ask better questions (curiosity)
Honestly, asking the right questions is a lot harder than it sounds. You can work your way through a list of standard questions and muddle through. And in the beginning, when you’re still learning, that’s probably how you’ll start. But as you gain experience, you’ll direct your curiosity to more relevant and interesting areas.
This goes hand in hand with knowing what you want to learn and where you want to go. With these two considerations as a compass, you’ll get a sense of what questions to ask at what points in the process. The best way to improve is to just get started. Make some mistakes. Go down a few wrong paths. Then reflect on what worked well and what didn’t. The beauty of the iterative design process is that you can make multiple attempts, each time expanding your knowledge base and gaining deeper insights. Throughout the design thinking process, pause and allow yourself to be curious. Ask what if, ask why, try to understand, and most importantly, experiment and follow your gut.
- Observe human behavior (Observation)
Observation is a subtle art. It’s easy to get lost in your own thoughts or to focus so much on what people are saying that you miss the nuances of their behavior. We listen to the stories people tell us and let them captivate us. We classify these stories as important because they’ve been empathetically conveyed to us. But when we focus on what we hear, we neglect what we see. And sometimes what people say and what they do are two completely different things.
In fact, trying to see the differences between what people say and what they do is an excellent way to gain important insights. When you recognize these differences, you’ll find that people’s expectations and beliefs don’t match what happens as a result of their actions. These differences are sometimes the path to understanding unmet needs and unexpected solutions. We can go beyond what people say they want and create a possible solution and user experience that they didn’t know they needed.
- Put yourself in their shoes (empathy)
Building empathy is a process that’s made up of the previous two points. By being curious and observant, you can build a picture of what the life of the person you’re designing for is like. This picture gives you context on which to base your design decisions. Along the way, if you begin to truly empathize with and care about the person you’re designing for, you’ll have found the key to true understanding. This understanding will help you set a focus, prioritize principles and needs, and advocate for the client throughout the process.
As designers, it’s often our job to share this understanding and help our team and stakeholders empathize with our audience. We do this in a variety of ways: We create documents and artifacts, and we invite people to join us on the journey. Have your team and stakeholders listen in on research sessions, get them to talk to customers, or at least provide audio and video clips of customers speaking during your design presentations. It’s a powerful motivator to have something to see and hear customers describe their needs in their own words. People process the world through the stories they hear, and when you tell customer stories, you give your stakeholders something to remember.
- Choose the right focus (definition)
Sometimes it’s obvious what to focus on, such as when a user group all expresses the same frustration. In this case, you can start by focusing on your most important customer’s biggest problem. In other cases, especially when solving complex problems or unpacking complicated systems, knowing where to start and how to prioritize can be an obstacle.
Knowing where to focus your attention is a skill that can be developed over time. However, a set of decision-making tools and design processes can make your life easier. The things we really need to define are: Who’re we designing for, what problems need to be addressed and in what order, what findings should guide us, what principles are important to enforce as the project progresses.
The answer to these questions becomes your design strategy. If you answer all of these questions and summarize them succinctly, you can disseminate them throughout your organization as a clear articulation of your strategy and the key decisions you’ve made. This will help everyone else understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what support you need and how they can help. You can document a summary of your strategy in the form of a presentation package or one-page infographic, and then link to underlying documents that go into more detail, such as user personas, customer journey maps, and storyboards.
- Free your creativity (ideation)
If you can figure out how to free your mind, you will go a long way in the innovation process. It’s actually so contrary to everything we have been taught as adults that we have to do a little work to retrain ourselves, or rather, un-train ourselves. All our lives we have been successful using critical thinking skills by criticizing, analyzing, being objective, working with facts, and looking for what’s ‘right’, so we lose our ability to be creative problem solvers.
These things are important and absolutely critical to success in the innovation process, but they will not help us generate many ideas, they will help us select and develop ideas, but not generate them. As design thinkers, we need two hats: our critical hat and our creative hat. We alternate between the two throughout the process as we evaluate > generate > > our way to an innovative solution that adds value to our clients’ lives. Practice the creative process and divergent thinking with short daily exercises and watch yourself improve over time. It is truly a gift to open your mind, suspend judgment and let your thoughts flow onto the page.
In fact, it’s essential. Practice brainstorming and collecting ideas, get used to producing bad ideas, and know that every bad idea is a step toward a good idea. Enjoy the process and do not forget to have fun along the way. Once you have developed your own creative skills, you now need to set the stage for your team to be creative with you. Start with ideation and brainstorming sessions and provide tips, tricks and suggestions to get everyone else on board.
- Develop ideas quickly and get feedback often (prototype and test)
Innovation encourages action. Inaction breeds fear and doubt. Once you have an idea, the next best thing is to solicit feedback. It’s a symbiotic relationship between designer and client. Design > Test > Design > Test.
You can not innovate in a vacuum – you need feedback from the real world. And the more feedback you get, the more you can rely on your research and intuition. Learn to prototype quickly so you can get your ideas into the hands of customers as soon as possible. Learn how to get the feedback you need from extremely lifelike prototypes. The lower the fidelity of your prototypes, the easier it is to discard them and create new ones as you gain new insights throughout the process.
Early in the process, a quick sketch of your idea may be enough to get valuable feedback. As you learn more and gain more confidence in your direction, you can flesh out your prototypes and get more accurate feedback, ranging from validation to usability testing and refinement. You can easily test a range of ideas quickly to find the best potential solution and iterate your way to the best possible customer experience.
Know Where You Are on Your Journey
Before you set out on your journey to mastery, be clear about where you are on your design thinking journey.
Think about what skills you need, and then assess what skills you have and what skills you still need to develop.
This will help you focus on the right things and complete your skills as a design thinking practitioner. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of learning, so break it down, be honest with yourself, and get to work.
One idea that can help you understand where you are on your journey is the psychological theory of the “Four Stages of Competence.”
This theory describes the psychological stages on the journey from incompetence to competence. Once you know where you are in this process for each of the key design thinking skills, you can begin to prioritize ways to optimize your approach and lead your first design thinking workshop much quicker.
The theory is that at the beginning of any learning process, we are not aware of how much we do not know yet. Once we become aware of this, we can begin to consciously build the skill.
Once we have practiced the skill, we become aware of how competent we are. Before we enter the final stage where it becomes effortless and we do not have to think about it, we are unconsciously competent. Think about the skills discussed in this post, the phases of the design thinking process, and whether you are unconsciously incompetent or unconsciously competent.
Set SMART Goals
It’s a long road to mastering design thinking, so it’s best to set SMART goals. Over time, you can make your goals more ambitious as you develop your skills.
If you’re working with a coach, mentor, or manager, it’s helpful to share these goals with them so they can support, guide, and help you find ways to achieve your goals.
It’s a general framework that I’m sure you’ve heard of, but make sure your goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. This will ensure that you achieve your goals, build your confidence, and grow efficiently as a designer. Start small and increase your goals over time.
An example of a small goal might be: completing a design challenge or brainstorming session with my design team. It could also be a little more ambitious: plan a research session to gain insights about our customers. Or you can take it even further: Lead the design thinking process from start to finish and deliver a solution.
Think about bringing others along, setting team goals, and collaborating with younger and older designers so you can all learn together and support each other.
Measure Your Progress
Seeing how far you’ve come can be the best motivation to keep going. Track your SMART goals on a Kanban board so you can see the column of completed work fill up. Keep a journal and write down what you’ve learned along the way, and review the journal every few weeks to see how far you’ve come.
Add your goals to your development plan at work and ask your supervisor to evaluate you and give you feedback. Talk to other stakeholders and ask them to do the same. This way, you’ll gain more confidence over time as you see your skills grow, and you can then set your goals more ambitiously.
You could also measure the impact of your design solutions: Are you getting good customer feedback, are you achieving your success metrics, is the business happy with the performance of your solutions? You could also measure the design thinking process itself: How many workshops did you lead, how many customers did you talk to, how many prototypes did you create? How many team members have you coached and collaborated with? These are all great ways to track your progress over time to give you a sense of accomplishment and the motivation you need to keep going.
Share Your Success
Now you’re on your way to design thinking mastery. You’re practicing your skills, developing your mindset, and seeing early results. Share your successes with your team and the entire company.
Don’t go unnoticed and make sure everyone knows how hard you’re working. There are several benefits to doing this: Sharing your successes will inspire others to improve their design thinking skills, sharing might pique the interest of others, which will alert you to more opportunities to practice your craft, and your reputation as an expert in the field will begin to solidify, which will open doors for future opportunities to practice, teach, and mentor others in design thinking.
Design Thinking is truly contagious, and when your stakeholders see some of your successes (and failures), it’ll encourage creative thinking and help create a culture of innovation.
Become a Facilitator
I’ve always said that design is leadership, and by facilitating the process, you’re literally leading a team to achieve your goals. Facilitation is such an important skill for designers and anyone practicing the human centered design process because it teaches you how to listen, observe, ask questions, plan projects, collaborate, and help other people solve problems in a group.
These are all leadership skills that can also be applied to design thinking. Facilitation can be as simple as conducting a brainstorming session or as extensive as running a series of design sprints. Getting started with facilitation is easy because if you’ve planned the session well, all you’ve to do is listen and guide participants through the activities.
As you gain experience, you can then improve your sessions and become more ambitious in your goals over time. If you don’t have experience facilitating sessions, find someone on your team who does and ask if you can co-facilitate with them or observe their process so you can see how they do it. Or take on a few small tasks and do them yourself. Lead a team meeting, a brainstorming session, a co-design session. Be creative and use your designerly ways to find small opportunities to test your skills on a variety of different design problems.
How Can Design Thinking Benefit Your Career?
Design Thinking will teach you many important skills that you can apply in all areas of life and work. You’ll become a better problem solver, a better collaborator, a more creative, and most importantly, a better designer.
You’ll be able to find an innovative or creative solution to a range of complex problems and take your design practice to a new level. And once you get the hang of it, you can become a mentor, lead the process, and become known as a design leader.
Design thinking helps you tackle new problems in unfamiliar territory.
To improve your design thinking skills, start by being curious and observant.
Empathize with the people you’re designing for, and trust the process.
Find mini opportunities to practice your skills in your own team and for others.