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Product and Topic Expert
Product and Topic Expert

design thinking UA.png


What is Design Thinking?

The official definition from the Interaction Design Foundation is:

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown."

The key words here are highlighted in the definition above. You can pretty much use this process for any creative or innovative project. For example, I was part of a team of SAP employees that collaborated with the Sharks Foundation in a Design Thinking workshop to come up with creative ways to help the community.

The Design Thinking approach has been around since the 1990’s. You know, when you were listening
to Vanilla Ice and sporting your parachute pants? Because of my background in psychology, I found the cognitive aspects of Design Thinking extremely fascinating. I wanted to get into the user’s head and figure out what they’re thinking… about products, trends, user assistance, and more.

Another Example of Design Thinking Process

I found this approach in other places as well. My son’s summer camps at Camp Galileo in the Bay
Area uses the Design Thinking approach. They call it the "Innovation Process for young inventors". My
son has attended these camps since he was 5 years old. He’s learned how to create an app, a
website, music, a go cart and delved into history, art, science, and more, using this process. 

Design Thinking in User Assistance

Complex products, such as business software, usually require some sort of guidance on how to use them. Design thinking offers an approach for building user assistance (UA) that readily complements the product design process. We can adapt the Design Thinking process to creating UA solutions for our users.

Design Thinking Phases

What are these phases (or stages) and how do we use them in UA? Here are the phases and some examples of how we can use them when creating UA solutions. The SAP Innovation Toolkit here has a lot of great info and Mural templates to use for the design thinking phases.




Research user needs. Interview users.



Define user needs and pain points.



Brainstorm and challenge solutions.



Create several solutions.



Test solutions. Refine. Repeat.

Let's Get Into the Details

So, how do we adapt the Design Thinking process when creating UA? Every situation is different, but these are the basic steps you can take for your UA projects. It's all about testing and having multiple iterations until you have the right solution. First, you should gather a group of people for the design thinking process with diverse roles. This way, you'll generate some unique perspectives and maybe even some unexpected results.


296416_GettyImages-1157907827_small_jpg.jpgWe need to be in our users' shoes. Feel their pain. Understand their psychological and emotional state. In a perfect world, we interview or observe users to understand their situation and their needs. We can't assume anything. We have to set aside any assumptions we have.

Unfortunately, we don't all have direct access to customers, but we must do our best to represent them. We can send surveys, make phone calls, ask colleagues, talk to SMEs, product owners, sales reps, and try to gain an understanding of our users. I also immerse myself into the product and learn how to use it. I talk to stakeholders and experts to understand who the users are, what tasks are they doing when they're using our software, when, how. If I don't actually use the software and "feel the pain", I can't empathize with users. I gather information so that I can enter the Define phase.


Sales Representatives are having a hard time learning the software so they can get to work generating sales for their company. They work in a fast-paced environment, work on commission, and their bonuses rely on sales they make. If they have trouble using the software, they can't go through the sales process.


280867_GettyImages-686730223_super_low.jpgIn this phase, we state our user needs and problems in a Problem Statement. We also define our persona. Here's an exercise to help you Create a Persona. When I was using the software and talking to experts (or talking to actual users!), what did I find out about our users? Where do they use our SAP products, what are the circumstances, how are they feeling when they are doing their tasks?  I'll take this information to write down the main problems I've collected. I come up with a problem statement, using this format: 

Problem Statement Format: (User) needs a way to (outcome) because (driver). 


Sales Representatives need an easier way to ramp up on SAP software to create a sales order  because they need to increase productivity and sales.


274977_274977_l_srgb_s_gl.jpgThis is the time to generate lots of ideas, even if they don't seem possible. It's not the time to filter your creativity. The goal is to generate ideas that help solve the problem statement. Sticky notes come in handy here or a white board. Come up with tons of ideas even if they seem unrealistic or impossible. You'll filter them down later on.

Think about how to answer "How Might We" questions. How might we help sales reps ramp up more quickly so they can create sales orders? What are some solutions you can think of? Be creative!


Generating ideas on sticky notes.









Here's where we transform our sticky note ideas from the ideate phase to some actual prototypes. Prototype comes from the Greek, "proto" meaning "first" and "typos" meaning model. These will be the first of many iterations until we come to the final solution for our customers. Bring your ideas to life in unique ways that users will understand.

This is a quick iterative phase where you can be creative, yet imperfect. You'll be testing these prototypes on actual users (or colleagues!) to get feedback. The prototypes can be on a piece of paper, in a presentation, in a mockup, demo or however you want. Air Jordan shoes weren't created with the first prototype. It took many iterations and improvements.


A simple mockup of the software and how users can quickly get started using it. You can create this in a program like Balsamiq, SAP Build, on paper with sticky notes. You can draw some screens on paper and use sticky notes to reveal "features" to the user for feedback. Use whatever method works best for you and your users.











276494_276494_l_srgb_s_gl.jpgFinally, it's time to test out your ideas on users and gather useful feedback. This time is for quick testing of your ideas to get user feedback, not for extensive usability testing. Which ideas are simply not working? Which ideas have some potential with some tweaks?

If your budget is small, you can always use your friends and colleagues to test some ideas. Ask open-ended questions, like Can this solve a problem for you? Or how can this prototype impact the way you work? 


291036_GettyImages-1281454544_low.jpgNow you can take the solution that worked best in testing, bring it to life, and implement it for users. Celebrate your achievements! You can still gather feedback and make changes to your solution.

Design Thinking is an iterative process. It's a natural process of generating solutions, testing them, and continuously improving them. It's like that sour dough bread recipe you've been perfecting during the pandemic. You researched, prototyped, taste tested, and improved with each new loaf. There's always room for continuous improvement.