The six phases of the Design Thinking process

The HPI D-School in Potsdam uses a systematic approach that consists of six phases. The Design Thinking process is non-linear and iterative. Depending on the project, the focus on specific phases and iterations can vary.


The Design Thinking process starts with the formulation of a design challenge - the so called „How-might-we-Question“. The design challenge defines the problem and the search-space for possible human-centered solutions. Multidisciplinary student teams develop innovative prototypes after running through the Design Thinking process. On their journey they are supported by experienced Design Thinking coaches and the HPI School of Design Thinking staff.



In the first phase of the Design Thinking process, the team explores the question of the so-called design challenge. It conducts research and collects relevant aspects of the project as well as general assumptions and knowledge to develop a collective perspective.




Secondary analysis of demographic data and existing projects provide them with important insights. Thorough research and consideration of recent insights from theory and practice are central at this point. It helps the team to recognize knowledge gaps and define themes for qualitative research. At the end of the first phase, the team develops a research plan to that structures their next steps working on the challenge.


In the next phase the Design Thinking team creatively adapts qualitative research methods from social research, ethnology, anthropology and other fields. It starts to understand the context and field of opportunity from the perspective of affected, relevant people. Here we conduct observations and interviews and apply immersion techniques to learn about the living environment, conceptual world, user contexts, expectations and experiences of our potential users and experts.




These methods are accompanied and completed by secondary research (e.g. demographic data from official reports, best practice examples etc.). The team learns to analyze human-centered stories and anecdotes and summarizes the results in so-called “insights”. With these insights, team members can recognize user patterns, emotions and needs that go beyond findings of quantitative research.

Define the point of view

In this phase, the Design Thinking team synthesizes the results and data of the previous research-oriented process steps. It focuses on its most promising insights from the research phase and decides in what direction and for which user group it wants to develop solutions. Based on these findings, team members define relevant social groups and fictional persons to build a so-called „Persona“ whose emotional and experienced reality is the basis of the following ideation phase.


Define point of view


The team adopts this specific and emotionally charged position that is based on the previous research findings and analysis. This allows the team to strongly identify with the most important persons affected. It not only develops empathy for the respective people but also an intrinsic motivation to achieve positive change in this context.


In the next phase of the Design Thinking process the team generates numerous ideas by applying different creative methodologies: We take up various methods from brainstorming, body storming, role play and design and combine them with each other. We put special emphasis on the balance between silent individual work and energetically challenging team work. This enables extroverted as well as introverted team members to express and visualize their ideas without prejudice.


[Translate to Englisch:] Ideen entwickeln


Based on relevant criteria and in a number of steps, we regroup and summarize a high number of ideas. Criteria include simple implementation (so-called “quick win”), radical ideas that challenge what we thought was possible (so-called “Moonshot”) or the idea that seems the most promising regarding strategy and project duration. Again and again, the project team compares all ideas with its previously defined human-centered point of view. This way, the team makes sure that every idea is traceable and relevant as well as customized for the identified needs and fields of opportunity.


This phase is all about drawing up selected ideas up to a necessary level of detail. Our team manifests these ideas in a physical form with the help of different media and materials and for a defined goal. Using quickly available and cheap as well as reused materials (such as plastics packaging, cardboard etc.), the team develops a number of prototypes. These help them to reach a common understanding of the core function of the idea. Moreover, the team develops specific media (such as video, role play, room installations, paper models, toy models etc.) that can be used by potential users.




This way, they make their innovative proposal tangible. It helps to communicate the ideas fast and understandable to third parties and gives a concrete presentation of the final result. Prototypes for ideas can include representations of new products, services, business models and new forms of interaction and knowledge transfer. Multilayered proposed solutions are illustrated with high complexity by means of various multimedia prototypes.    


Unlike traditional research and development processes, Design Thinking teams test every prototype with relevant potential users in iterative cycles and collect new feedback every time. With the physical (or digital) prototypes the team tests the core function as well as the form, dimension, technical feasibility, intuitive usability etc. by the means of a direct interaction with the current and potential users, experts and project representatives. Here, it is important to document and analyze the complete process. This way, team members can compare new findings with their previous point of view. In this phase of testing, we can identify which ideas and prototypes have the highest relevance for users and partner organizations with minimum time requirements and costs. Every testing provides the team with new insights about their users and prototype and the team decides whether it wants to go back in the Design Thinking process to improve their prototype. Every iteration makes the prototypes more realistic as they become more and more detailed and functional.