How Design Thinking Impacts User Engagement

By Maya King, Senior Producer

In today’s flooded markets for products and services, it’s increasingly difficult to stand out in the sea of noise and stay competitive. Consumers have ever higher standards and expectations – as they should – and are quick to abandon any product or service that is confusing, slow, or doesn’t meet their needs. Stickiness, or an active user base, is difficult to achieve; industry benchmarks show that the median for most industries is less than three days of activity per month per user, and retention rates of most products drop significantly after just one week.

Among the millions of apps available for download in Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, nearly 85% of all smartphone usage is allocated to 5 apps or fewer, and almost 4 out 5 users never use an app again three days after they install it. How often have you downloaded an app, only to forget about it until your phone runs out of storage?


How can organizations create something that people will actually use?

Design thinking is a solutions-based process that uses creativity to solve complex or poorly-defined problems, validated by real-world learning.

Adding “thinking” to the word “design” reframes the design process from simply making something look pretty to empowering creatives to think more deeply about problems to solve. It also allows non-designers a way to approach design and collaboratively solve big problems.

While aesthetics are important, they are not the only factor in great design. People won’t use a product every day because it looks nice – they’ll use it because it solves a need or problem they have, and fits nicely into their lives.

Design thinking keeps the focus on the user experience with an emphasis on understanding actual users, studying their behaviors and problems, generating new ideas to solve those problems, building quick-and-dirty prototypes, and iterating based on feedback.

At each step of the design thinking process, there is an opportunity to craft solutions that will make customers more satisfied – which in turn can drive greater outcomes for the business.

Let’s take a deeper look at each stage of the design thinking process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test – to better understand how it influences and impacts user engagement.



You can’t solve for what you don’t know. Therefore, the first stage of the design thinking process is to gain deep empathy of the people you are trying to solve problems for with your product or service. This often includes ethnographic user research, such as interviews and observation, to understand the behaviors and mindset of these intended users, as well as the real world context and environmental factors that impact them.

By getting out of the building and talking to real people, product teams can stop making assumptions based on their personal taste or experience. Insights into what people are actually thinking, feeling, and doing when using or considering a product leads to customer-centric design solutions that are better able to influence habits and behaviors.



Before rushing to design a solution, the next step is to analyze and synthesize the information gathered from user research and observation. The continued focus on the needs and behaviors of real users helps define human-centered problem statements and develop hypotheses about how you might solve them.

Identifying problem patterns (problems that are shared across a large percentage of your market or user base) can help find gaps in the current product or market that you can fill with new features that people will value and be more likely to engage with.

Aligning teams around a shared understanding of your users also helps establish a framework for making decisions, and provides objectivity to help with prioritization so you can avoid bad ideas and make better decisions faster.



Armed with insights about your users and problems you want to solve for them, the next step is to brainstorm as many ideas as possible. A shared foundation of empathy for your users helps shift the focus of new ideas away from assumptions and personal preferences, and towards actual needs, behaviors, and problems.

Design thinking promotes collaboration with team members from different disciplines during ideation to unlock creative and innovative solutions to problems. As Steve Jobs is often quoted saying, “creativity is just connecting things.” Great ideas are usually the result of many smaller ideas and experiences, connected in new ways.

Input from the knowledge of experts in design, technology, and business can help discover connections to an insight uncovered during research, which increases the likelihood of finding a unique combination to spark new ideas for a more engaging product.



Building prototypes helps visualize ideas and validate hypotheses about potential design solutions. At various stages of fidelity, they can help align teams and stakeholders and ensure everyone has a clear picture of the intended interactions.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings”

— saying at IDEO

With a hypothesis about how people will use a product, prototypes provide a way to validate an idea or assumption while the product is still in design and development. Prototypes are essential to exposing any usability flaws before needing to write any code, saving both development time and preventing teams from shipping a poor user experience.



Testing with prototypes helps to validate design solutions, and gives teams an opportunity to iterate based on feedback before going to market.

By observing how people interact with a prototype, you can gather evidence to support design choices, and see if people use it the way that you expect. With this proof of what works and what doesn’t, teams can experiment with new solutions and re-evaluate their hypotheses to ensure they are solving for the right problem.

Iteratively testing new designs and prototypes informs future decisions or hypotheses to test, and ultimately helps ensures a greater likelihood of success by designing solutions that are validated by real-world learning.


To build better products, know your user

Better products make companies more money by making their customers more satisfied. – Laura Klein

Design thinking is being adopted by organizations, large and small, across a wide range of industries for its proven results designing end-to-end solutions that increase genuine user engagement.

Thinking like a designer often really means thinking like your end user. It’s easy to create a product or service based on your own needs, but if you want to create something that meets the needs of your market and forms a habit of usage, it’s crucial to listen to your users and validate potential solutions.

By understanding the entire user journey, and the needs and behaviors that people have along the way, you can design to optimize engagement at each step. A relentless focus on user empathy and testing new ideas before shipping is key to staying competitive and unlocking greater engagement with any product or service.

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