Product School

Design Thinking in Product Management

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Author: Abdulhafeez Babatunde

January 9, 2023 - 5 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 5 min read

There is a gap between user wants and user needs and while it is easy to assume that the difference might not be clear, taking an empathetic approach creates a finer line between the two. Although at their core, Product Managers are problem-solvers, they achieve this by building data-based frameworks for visualizing how best to serve their target audience.

It is no longer about market data assessment and sales hands-off alone, there is a need to properly distinguish between user needs and wants while choosing how best to attend to those needs and paying just enough attention to user wants. Understanding the user metrics for the purpose of this analysis and insight might seem daunting, especially when the aim is to directly improve product experience, but taking a design-thinking approach helps to make better sense of the process.

Design thinking should be an integral part of product development and management processes. As a Product Manager, there is an increased need to carefully merge creativity, metrics, and processes to deliver the best optimal product experience.

But what exactly is Design Thinking?

Popularized by IDEO, Design Thinking is a human-centered, empathy-first approach to creativity and innovation. Its underlying principle is focusing on user needs, aspirations, wishes, concerns, and frustrations in attempting to solve their problems. Interestingly, Design Thinking focuses on the most important view from which problem-solving should be approached; the user’s. When problem-solving is approached from a user’s point of view, it allows for uncovering novel insights into the product’s user flow thereby finding the right solution to the right problem.

How is Design Thinking Applied in Product Management? The Balanced Breakthrough Model

For better-informed Product Management decisions, Design Thinking allows for empathy, research, inspiration, iteration, and reduced ambiguity. At the end of the day, design thinking makes it easier to find the perfect point of intersection between desirability, feasibility, and viability, as per the Balanced Breakthrough Model. It allows for asking the right questions that will help propel creativity.

Balanced breakthrough model

The Design Thinking process is quite similar to the Agile methodology of Product Management, as a matter of fact, Design Thinking helps to materialize the otherwise abstract concept by allowing ease of iteration and faster user-testing processes.Implementing design thinking in product management makes it easy to consider expedient user experience factors. Top on the list includes:

  1. ‘Predicting’ your users’ thoughts: Steve Krug, author of Don’t make me think, suggests fully understanding users’ needs and subsequent workflow, so much so that you are able to correctly predict their next move (no, you don’t have to be a mind reader to achieve this). This is a basic fundamental that connects directly between design thinking and product management.“We should listen to our users’ needs to the point that we know and tell them what they should be thinking.” –Steve Krug

  2. Make your users think less: Hick’s law is the 4 law of User Experience, it suggests that your design should minimize how much your users have to think when interacting with your product. “The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices.”

As a Product Manager, you have probably heard a product designer talk about Cognitive Load, well, this is what they are referring to. It basically means you don’t need to overwhelm the user with so many choices at a time.

Implementing Design Thinking in Product Management usually takes a 6-step process as highlighted below, with each step having clear underlying values.

Design thinking process in Product Management

  1. User Research is perhaps the most important step in the Design Thinking for Product Management process as it helps fully understand user views of problem points. Asking the right questions makes user research extremely valuable.

  2. Personas are carefully generated users that match user needs. They are researched-informed meaning findings from the User research process helps to build personas.

  3. Problem Points are the issues associated with the products from each point of view. It helps to identify relevant problems that users are encountering and how they attempt to solve it. Another important observation at this point is to note if users have found an alternative to solving these problems and if so, as a Product Manager, you should identify why your users use the alternative and propose something better.

  4. Prototype and Testing, these 2 steps go hand-in-hand, as it is necessary to test the solutions you come up with and see how it fairs. If it does decently well against predetermined metrics and has a better value proposition over the alternative(s), you have an excellent product! If not, it’s probably a good time to reiterate.

  5. Finally Product, this is considered the minimum SALEABLE product that you are able to hand off. It has to be saleable because it makes the most difference as far as customer and product experience is concerned. has been gaining a lot of attention recently and deservedly so. As such, it is no longer the sole responsibility of design teams, Product managers should put design (and its thinking) at the forefront of product strategy as it is a valuable spice for building excellent product experiences that users will enjoy.

Updated: January 24, 2024

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