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Design Thinking: The Learner’s Journey

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Summary: As an individual learns design thinking, they go through 4 learning phases: newcomer, adopter, leader, and grandmaster.


Two years ago, we began a long-term research project to better understand design thinking : how practitioners incorporate it into everyday work and its effects on project outcomes.

In setting out to define a design-thinking maturity model, we realized that the maturity of the individual team members and their experience, exposure, and mastery of design thinking were essential to the overall team’s (or organization’s) ability to effectively utilize design-thinking methodologies. To better understand this relationship between individual abilities and team performance, we identified catalysts —individual practitioners whose design-thinking mastery positively influenced design-thinking practices in their teams or organizations. Based on our conversations with these catalysts about their experience (and the experience of those they teach and guide), we hypothesized that design-thinking practitioners share roughly the same learning journey, despite different backgrounds and contexts.

To clarify the stages of this learning journey, we conducted a large-scale survey involving 1067 practitioners and aimed at investigating respondents’ experience with design thinking. We classified responses into potential learning stages based on the self-reported design-thinking exposure, experience, primary activities, and biggest challenges. This process, combined with talking to hundreds of design-thinking practitioners each year at our UX Conference , helped us establish a set of unifying stages that most practitioners encounter while learning design thinking: newcomer , adopter , leader , and grandmaster .

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