How to use design thinking at home (or with a remote team)

Profile picture of Carrie Cousins




Illustrations by {name}

Design thinking is a method often used in a team environment. Can it be adapted to be done remotely, or even as a solo exercise?

7 min read

Working from home illustration by Or Yogev

Stay informed on all things design.

Thanks for submitting!

Shaping Design is created on Editor X, the advanced web design platform for professionals. Create your next project on Editor X. 

Get our latest stories delivered straight to your inbox →

Design thinking isn’t just a team sport.

There’s plenty of opportunity to incorporate design thinking into project processes, even for people who work alone at home or as part of a remote team.

You just have to take a slightly different approach.

UX designers – if they aren’t already – should be ready to work remotely. Whether it is out of necessity, such as the global Covid-19 pandemic, or choice, remote work is a growing trend in the industry.

It doesn’t have to change the processes and things you’ve learned about working with a physical team. Design thinking – while often thought of as a team activity – can be practiced at home, on video conference, and on small or remote teams.

Design thinking 101

While design thinking isn’t new, thinking about design thinking at home may be.

Design thinking is a process of non-linear thinking that facilitates creative problem solving.

The iterative process of UX design thinking is rooted in empathetic problem-solving that generates plenty of ideas for experimentation through prototyping and testing. It opens up creative channels and when practiced regularly can change the way you think about problems and solutions.

“Design thinking improves the world around us every day because of its ability to generate ground-breaking solutions in a disruptive and innovative way,” explains the Interaction Design Foundation.

IDF and others break it down into five phases: Empathize – Define – Ideate – Prototype – Test.

The design thinking process really can look like the wanderings of a lost person if you try to map it out. The only constant is that the first step is to Empathize, researching the needs of users and working toward a greater understanding of the problem you intend to solve.

  • Define is the process of stating and understanding the problems of your project and users.

  • Ideate is the most fun for many designers and design teams because you get to toss out ideas, and there are no bad ones here. This should be a safe space to think big and small. It’s ok to think about ideas that are disruptive and different.

  • Prototype stages are experimental as you work toward the best solutions. You might draw some wireframes or simple mockups to see how those solutions come together.

  • Test prototypes. Do UX experiments work as intended and actually solve the problem at hand? (It’s ok if they don’t; go back to the Ideate stage and try again.)

The benefits of design thinking are threefold:

  • It can help you uncover solutions that might not be obvious at first glance.

  • It creates an efficient way to try new ideas.

  • It helps you learn faster and creates buy-in.

Jeanne Liedtka described it like this in Harvard Business Review: “The structure of design thinking creates a natural flow from research to rollout.”

A person sketching.

The key to facilitating remote design thinking is that every member of the team needs to feel like they are providing valuable and useful input.

Design thinking guidelines for UX designers

The best design thinkers are observant.

They also spend equal amounts of time in each part of the design thinking process. You’ll spend as much time gathering information about users and conducting research as you will brainstorming and prototyping. For many UX designers, this idea can be terrifying at first. Dedicating that much time to user research is probably a new idea.

But here’s why it is important: A better understanding of users and user needs will lead to better solutions for common user experience problems.

That starts with observation:

  • What challenges does a user have when they interact with a design?

  • What conversions don’t meet goals or expectations?

  • Are there common user paths that result in abandonment?

  • Does user behavior mimic industry trends (such as percentage of mobile usage or lead generation conversions from forms)?

  • What parts of the user experience are meeting or exceeding expectations or goals?

A strong understanding of past user behavior can shape future user interactions and success.