Design thinking

Use of design thinking in marketing

Design thinking has grown in its popularity in areas like software development and product design. However the key tenets of design thinking - being human-centered and understanding user needs - has a vital role to play in marketing.

First, let’s take a look at how designers use design thinking. In its most in-depth form, design thinking comprises five related stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. In the Empathize phase, designers immerse themselves in the problem context, gaining insights into users’ experiences and emotions. This empathy forms the foundation for the Define phase, where insights are synthesized, and a clear, human-centered problem statement is articulated. The Ideate phase involves generating a plethora of ideas without judgment, aiming to think outside the box and explore a wide solution space. These ideas are then brought to life in the Prototype phase, where low-fidelity models are created to visualize and evaluate potential solutions. Finally, in the Test phase, prototypes are presented to users for feedback, leading to refinements and iterations, ensuring the final solution is both innovative and user-centered.

Applying design thinking to marketing

You can take this same methodology and apply it to marketing. For instance, going back to those tenets of being human-centered and understanding user needs: by incorporating these into a marketing campaign, you can stand out from your competition and relate to your target audience on a new level. Here are some of the advantages of applying design thinking to marketing:

  1. Understand customer needs: The empathize stage of design thinking helps marketers to delve deep into the customer’s mindset, desires, and pain points. This deep understanding enables the creation of marketing strategies and campaigns that resonate more effectively with the target audience.
  2. Develop innovative campaigns: By employing the ideation and prototyping stages, marketers can brainstorm and test various creative concepts and strategies, helping to develop more innovative and impactful marketing campaigns.
  3. Focus on problem-Solving: Design thinking’s problem-solving approach allows marketing teams to identify and address real challenges in the marketing strategy, leading to more effective and successful campaigns.
  4. Enhance the customer experience: Design thinking emphasizes the importance of user experience, helping marketers to craft campaigns and strategies that provide superior customer experiences.
  5. Agile Response to Feedback: The iterative nature of design thinking allows marketers to quickly adapt to feedback and make necessary adjustments to their marketing strategies, ensuring that the marketing efforts remain aligned with customer expectations and market trends.
  6. Strategic Alignment: Design thinking helps align marketing strategies with overall business goals and objectives, ensuring a cohesive and integrated approach to market positioning and customer engagement.
  7. Risk Mitigation: Through early prototyping and testing (running pilots), marketers can identify potential issues and make adjustments before a full-scale campaign launch, thereby reducing the risk of campaign failure and optimizing the return on investment.

Understanding the customer with a Needs Statement

A ‘design thinking needs statement’ is a useful device to uncover deep human truths about a customer. This can help uncover new creative territory that can differentiate you from your competitors.

A needs statement, sometimes known as a problem statement or point of view (POV) statement, is a clear, concise description of the user’s needs, the challenges they face, and the insights gathered during the Empathize phase of the design thinking process. It is used to define and articulate the problem that the design team aims to solve.

Components of a Needs Statement in design thinking

  1. User:
    • Identify and describe the user or stakeholder for whom you are solving the problem.
  2. Need:
    • Define the specific needs or goals of the user based on the observations and insights gathered.
  3. Insight:
    • Provide a clear insight into the problem based on research, interviews, and observations.

The format of a Needs Statement

A common format for a needs statement in design thinking is:

“[User] needs [need] because [insight].”


“Single parents need a more flexible work schedule because traditional 9-5 jobs do not accommodate their child care responsibilities.”

Getting to a short list of needs statements can be a key element in the Marketing Concept Brief which helps align the creative development to marketing strategy. A design thinking workshop is a great way to develop Need Statements that align across all stakeholders.

Running a design thinking workshop to better understand customers

A design thinking workshop is a form of brainstorming meeting that brings together all the stakeholders on a project to in a structured format with specific goals. It is particularly useful in the strategy phase of designing a marketing campaign when you really want to uncover a deep understanding of the customer (the Empathize phase of design thinking).

Ideally a design thinking workshop should be held in-person in a room with space for posting ideas on a whiteboard and running small group activities. It can also be run online using video conferencing and tools like Mural, that have useful templates for design thinking.

Here’s an example structure for a 1.5 hour design thinking workshop:

Workshop Agenda: Understanding the Customer

Total Time: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Preparation (Before the Workshop)

  • Send out materials explaining the objective of understanding the customer deeply.
  • Share any existing data or research about the customers.

Part 1: Introduction (10 minutes)

  • Welcome & Ice Breaker
  • Overview of workshop objective: Understanding the Customer

Part 2: Empathize (30 minutes)

  • Persona Discussion (15 mins):
    • Evaluate detailed personas based on gathered information, outlining customer needs, pain points, motivations, and goals.
  • Group Discussion (15 mins):
    • Share insights and existing knowledge about the customers.

Part 3: Define (20 minutes)

  • Needs Statement (10 mins):
    • Synthesize insights and craft a clear problem statement regarding customer needs and challenges.
  • Assumption Testing (10 mins):
    • List assumptions and plan how to test them to gain clearer insights into customer behavior and preferences.

Part 4: Customer journey mapping (15 minutes)

  • Develop a customer journey map to visualize the customer experience, identifying touchpoints, emotions, and opportunities for improvement.

Part 5: Action plan and next steps (10 minutes)

  • Discuss the insights gained and outline the next steps for further research, testing assumptions, or developing solutions based on the understanding of the customer.

Part 6: Closing (5 minutes)

  • Thank the participants.
  • Recap the insights and next steps.
  • Collect feedback on the workshop for future improvement.

It’s key to ensure that any learnings that come through the session are incorporated into the Marketing Concept Brief so that you can carry these insights into campaign testing and execution. One particular value of digital marketing is that assumptions around pain points and needs of the customer can be translated into quantifiable tests that can be ran as pilots through platforms like paid social media.

Test results are useful inputs for further design thinking workshops and documents like Needs Statements should be seen as living documents that can evolve over time, as you learn more from running your marketing campaigns, or as markets and customer behaviors change.

Design thinking and AI

The design thinking process can be enhanced with AI in varous ways thanks to its capabilities in advanced data analytics, user behavior predictions, and rapid prototyping. By analyzing vast datasets, AI can provide deeper insights into user needs and behaviors during the Empathize stage, ensuring a more accurate understanding of the end user, such as in the building of personas. In the Prototyping phase, AI can be employed to develop creative (messaging and visuals) that can be used in a pilot marketing campaign. Lastly, in the Test phase, AI can analyze real-time user feedback to identify patterns and trends, recommending refinements and ensuring a more user-centric outcome. Thus, AI acts as an invaluable tool in enhancing and refining the design thinking process, ensuring data-driven, efficient, and innovative solutions.

As a key component to marketing is engaging your customers in unique and differentiated ways that really touch on their pain points or motivators, design thinking provides a wonderful framework for achieving this.


Why design thinking works - Detailed article from HBR on the relationship between design thinking and business
Design thinking for marketing - How to think about infusing design thinking into marketing
Integrating AI into design thinking - How we can leverage AI to improve the design thinking process