A 5 Step Product Design Process Suitable for All Teams (2024)

Why use a product design process?

A tried-and-tested product design process is an important framework that structures your research, design, and development priorities and steers you through the full product design lifecycle.

Following a process prevents you from skipping crucial steps in solving product problems and finding opportunities. Having a centralized process and plan helps set clear expectations for product designers and keeps different stakeholders aligned and in the loop.

Great design processes don’t stifle creativity: instead, they give you just enough structure to think outside the box and innovate without getting stuck in any particular design stage.

Why design thinking matters

Product design is not a rigid, one-size-fits-all structure: using a flexible process helps you feel confident in understanding your users, solving problems, and achieving your goals.

We recommend the design thinking process, which you can adapt to your company’s needs, jumping between steps and circling back as necessary.

Design thinking is an iterative, hands-on methodology that helps teams identify and reframe problems, then generate and test creative solutions. It is especially useful for understanding undefined, complex problems with many unknowns attached because their answers change depending on multiple contextual factors. Think of questions like:

  • How to stay competitive?

  • How to prioritize new features?

  • How to create a smooth, accessible end-to-end user experience (UX)?

Design thinking helps you break down problems into manageable stages and reframe questions around human-centered user needs.

Key benefits of design thinking are:

A 5-step design thinking process that gets results

The Stanford Hasso-Plattner Institute’s five-phase approach to design thinking has helped brands like Google, IBM, and Airbnb boost innovation—so you’re in good company!

Follow our guide to maximize results at every stage.

The five steps in design thinking are:

  1. Empathize

  2. Define

  3. Ideate

  4. Prototype

  5. Test

Remember: you don’t have to follow these stages in order. Use this guide as a starting point, then move back and forth across the steps and refine the formula to fit your current needs.

See how real companies have used design thinking to solve user issues: check out our pick of product design examples.

1. Empathize

Product design begins and ends with user needs.

Start by getting close to your user to understand who they are and what they want. Focus on the problems they need solved, using the jobs to be done (JTBD) framework to understand why customers are using your product and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s important to observe user behavior in this phase—focus groups and lab testing are useful methods.

But building real empathy with users means going beyond behavioral observations to understand what they think and feel.

Building customer empathy is best done through immersive user research that lets you live the user’s experience.

Talk to your users as much as possible. Run user interviews and use Hotjar Surveys and Feedback widgets to send out a mix of full-scale surveys and quick questions on the fly. Watch Recordings to see what your users see and identify their pain points.

A 5 Step Product Design Process Suitable for All Teams (1)

Want to see exactly how users experience your website? Use Hotjar Session Recordings to track their movements and see where they’re getting stuck.

2. Define

Once you’ve built empathy and understanding with your customers, it’s important to synthesize your insights and make them actionable.

Map out user personas, focusing on the key tasks of different user types. Visualize your users by plotting their thoughts and issues on an empathy map, where you can spot recurring patterns.

Next, use these insights to define a clear problem statement that centers on your users’ needs. Your problem statement should be targeted enough to offer clarity on the specific issue you’ve identified, but broad enough to leave space for a range of possible solutions.

For example, let’s imagine you’re a product designer for a language learning app. Maybe you’ve identified a key problem such as 'How to grow our active user rate?' Using design thinking, you would reframe your problem statement in terms of your users and their jobs to be done.

You might define a problem statement like this: ‘Our users want to engage in small chunks of language learning on the go through our mobile app, and to see the cumulative impact of their learning efforts. How can our product design better meet these needs, engage users, and keep them active?’

3. Ideate

Now that you’ve deeply understood the problem, it’s time to start generating ideas for solutions.

The key here is maintaining an open, creative mindset. At the ideation stage, you have more specific, granular problem statements to work with than in the empathy-building and user discovery phases. But you need to leave space for new ideas to successfully innovate.

Run dedicated ideation sessions and focus on creating a non-judgmental learning culture so the design team can play with ideas, have fun, and make mistakes.

Use techniques designed to get you thinking outside of the box like:

  • Brainstorming: throwing out as many ideas as possible in a group to cultivate creativity

  • 'How might we…?' statements: ask your team to collaborate in discussing ideas to accomplish specific results—for example, 'How might we get customers to feel more confident making purchasing decisions on our app?'

  • Worst Possible Idea methods: here, your team deliberately tries to find the worst possible solutions to their problem to inspire creative thinking and reverse engineer-generated solutions

At the beginning of the ideation process, you should focus on quantity over quality, giving your team the confidence to innovate and put forward ideas.

Once you have several ideas on the table, narrow down possible solutions by deciding which possibilities are viable and best meet core user needs.

5. Test

The last step in the design thinking cycle is testing your solutions with real or potential users. Experimenting before you invest in new designs or products helps you effectively deploy your resources and makes sure the final result will delight customers.

Run usability, A/B, and split testing with dedicated focus groups of target users.

Deploy different product design testing methods like user interviews, surveys, and carefully placed widgets that gather opinions on design elements and the overall product experience (PX). Ask specific, targeted survey questions, but make sure you also ask big-picture product design questions so users can express themselves fully.

Make sure you also collect voice-of-the-customer (VoC) insights to learn what users are thinking in their own words. For a full picture of the product experience, complement this qualitative data with neutral observations of user behavior. Sometimes there’s a difference between what users say and what they do, and using a varied testing toolkit will give you a clearer sense of what’s going on.

Start by using tools like Hotjar’s Heatmaps to observe users' scroll and click patterns and see which elements are going unused. Then use this information to go deeper and understand why your users are displaying these behaviors. Watch Session Recordings to follow the entire user journey across your site or product, and use Feedback tools to ask users what’s behind their decisions.

A 5 Step Product Design Process Suitable for All Teams (2024)

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