3 Basic Design Thinking Approaches to Better Understand Your Customers

Design thinking is a problem-solving roadmap that begins with empathy and thrives on reiteration to create innovative solutions. It is a flexible process of understanding needs, ideating, prototyping, and testing. Design thinking places users at the center of the design process and pushes you to challenge your assumptions by requiring research and testing to validate them. With user needs at the center of focus, practicing design thinking allows you to get closer to your customers and meet them where they are.

Below are examples of design thinking methods to get you closer to your customer and help you align big ideas with customer needs.

Tool #1: Empathy Mapping

Empathy mapping provides a holistic view of a customer's thoughts, actions, emotions, and motivations, which is extremely helpful in the early stages of design. This allows you to identify patterns, pain points, and potential areas for improvement. To effectively use empathy mapping, define a target audience and populate a template with qualitative data and research insights. The resulting map serves as a meaningful document to reference who your customer is.



Tool #2: User Personas

User personas are research-based fictional representations of a target audience’s typical characteristics, behaviors, and preferences. Like empathy mapping, this is a designer’s tool used to conceptualize a customer in their usual environment and provides a mental model for a target audience’s priorities. Typically, a persona is presented with the following information: name, age, living situation, core needs, experience with a product, and consistent behaviors. Your business can have more than one user persona if there are clear and differentiated segments of people who would benefit from your products/services.


Tool #3: Journey Mapping

Journey maps plot the scope and experience of a customer’s journey with your product or service. It is a step-by-step timeline walking through the key touchpoints of interaction, emotions, and pain points. This tool allows you to identify the process your customer takes to accomplish a goal, and how you can make improvements to their experience based on current habits and common behaviors.


Do’s and Don’ts of Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs


  • Clearly define the target audience
  • Conduct qualitative and quantitative research 
  • Embrace failure as an opportunity for improvement
  • Maintain updated documentation of data and insights as they unfold


  • Make assumptions without validation from research
  • Overcomplicate solutions and delay testing
  • Undermine the importance of collaboration and diverse teams


Related Big Idea Blog Articles:

Customer Discovery by Kit Needham (Director of CMU's Project Olympus)

Solutions as Bridges by Phil Marzolf (former BIC Entrepreneur in Residence)

5 Important Characteristics That Your Big Idea Must Have by Joanna Sutton (BIC Entrepreneur in Residence)

The 4 Principles of Entrepreneurship by Joanna Sutton (BIC Entrepreneur in Residence)


Resources around Design Thinking

Big Idea Center's ChangeMaker Series

Pitt's Entrepreneurship Librarian

PDMA Pittsburgh



Brown, M. (2023, January 8). Personas are living documents: Design them to evolve. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/personas-are-living-documents/ 

Gibbons, S. (2016, July 31). Design Thinking 101. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-thinking/ 

Gibbons, S. (2018, December 9). Journey mapping 101. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/journey-mapping-101/ 

Gray, D. (2017, July 15). Updated Empathy Map Canvas. Medium. https://medium.com/@davegray/updated-empathy-map-canvas-46df22df3c8a

Harley, A. (2015, February 16). Personas make users memorable for product team members. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/persona/