Design Thinking and the U Theory

Design Thinking and the U Theory

Original Post in Spanish by Juan Sobejano

When we talk about Design Thinking (DT) we usually work from an outward perspective, that is trying not to stay in the inward looking reflection of the company and seeking to empathize with the user / client / person using our products and services. However, it would not be too bad to stop before taking that step outward and reflect for a moment within the company or organization to work on how we should focus our reflection. What must our attitude be towards the various steps we have to take during our DT Project? What kind of reflections shall we strengthen and how should we mentally face each phase? Ultimately we must work our attitude towards the information we will gather and, most importantly, how we must focus this gathering of information. It is very common in many projects to focus too much on a deductive scientific approach and forget other forms of accessing that knowledge, which can be more powerful and suitable for certain phases of our project.

I sincerely believe that DT proposes and requires an enriched thought and reflection process, not focused on the mere objective information, that’s why I find the U Theory Model which Otto Scharmer proposes as a tool to work our focus and mental posture. I won’t explain here the model, but I am interested in the thought process with which Scharmer works, which divides the reflection or thought process in 7 steps.

On other occasions I’ve mentioned not to be dogmatic in the interpretation of the theories of others. I say this because I usually reinterpret what I read and study it from my own perspective, always of course hoping that I retain sufficient coherence and intellectual strength, which I can’t always achieve. In this case I interpret the 7 steps of the U Theory from my own vision, because to me they basically look like the materialization of a process of design thinking but from a personal perspective, that is, what kind of thinking should we apply to every step of the DT process?

Each of the steps mentioned merely brings us closer to the objective of realizing a new transforming thought with possibilities for change. U Theory is interesting to apply to innovation processes, because it is focused on improving the processing capabilities of the user, allowing one to develop new skills of thinking and make one step away from what already exists, the obvious things we take for granted. In this sense, its application to Design Thinking is, in my opinion, something natural since it is a model to design products and services focused on innovation and with a clear transforming objective.

Let’s see how the different steps fit into the process of Design Thinking:

downloadDownload or be aware

It supposes we are aware of what we know and the truths we have. It is a way to start a project understanding the intellectual basis from which we start but also the thoughts and prejudices adhered to our minds. Any further reflection may have a bias that prevents us from developing the project properly. The best way to fight it is being aware of its existence.

It is also important to be able to lay a good intellectual basis from which to build the project. The consciousness of “what I am” and “what I know” is fundamental to see what my limitations and my strengths are, and from there, try to solve these limitations and enhance those strengths.

Right now our only object of reflection is the self. I have to ignore the environment, since it is a time of introspection, both intellectual and emotional, as these biases I have spoken about before may have originated from a belief without scientific basis but that is part of my culture, tradition or personal taste.


Once “the self” is identified, its time to look outside. Now we do not apply feelings to our observation, but we limit ourselves to discover and analyze the “naked” facts, without interpreting or judging. It’s also time to start analyzing whether the facts we discovered contradict the knowledge or belief that we believed in during the discharge phase. It is important to keep in mind this discharge phase because it can be a brake or a boost to our project, and we have to analyze, especially in these early stages of observation and the next one of empathy, the clashes between what I believed true and what really is.

The observation involves placing the self in a context. We start walking in the project and start studying the ecosystem in which the project is developed. We work with information, looking for sources and drawing from them the facts, avoiding any interpretation.


We must continue analyzing the ecosystem, but making sense of introducing the human aspect into the equation. Any Design Thinking Project has a human-centered reflection. This is where we understand and interpret the relationships, actions, uses, models, searches and losses that human beings make in the ecosystem as a key  aspect to our project. Are we developing a project in a university? In the previous stage we saw that at a certain time the cafes are filled with a certain number of students, despite it’s time for class. Now we have to analyze empathetically – Why do they come? How do they relate? How do you feel? Why?

The “why” is the key question, while being aware of your biases and trying to give an empathetic response to what we are seeing. We are still gathering information, but this is now meaningful information, directioned, not in the direction that I choose, but in the direction we have established that the people we are analyzing and studying want it to go.


With the Transform phase we begin the period of generation, creation of innovation. So far we have begun to know each other, know the environment and know “the other”. We have followed a process of enrichment of the environment that has put us in an ecosystem in which we identify with the people for whom we are building solutions to their problems. At the end of the empathy phase and beginning of transforming phase there is a point where we are able to discover what the real problem of “the other” is.

And now we no longer think like “us:, but we have transformed into the “others”, we have been able to deepen our empathy to feel part of the ecosystem where the others and their problems exist. We are no longer solving other people’s problems, we are solving our own problems because we feel part of the group.

The transformation allows us to minimize biases and prejudices, thinking now only from the perspective of the person / user / client, with which we have already identified.


After transformation we start thinking with “intention”. We begin to reflect with an objective, we find a solution, a product or service that offers what the customer wants, what we want. It is a model of thought that is projected into the future, so it understands the instability of its ideas. Try to crystallize all that empathy into relevant solutions, while also being aware that it is a weak, and brittle crystallization. But we do not care because we understand that weakness is a strength: what we devised is not definitive, but allows us to advance knowledge into something definite.

The crystallization phase is the search for something real, generating transformation in the ecosystem. We do not start from a endogamic thought, but instead knowing that we have achieved deep empathy, therefore changing our thinking. No longer in personal things, but things for the “other,” which we have made our own and with which we identify .

Crystallizing is building, materializing that empathetic thinking and transforming it into something real, with a definite purpose and where mistakes and changes have a significant role.


Prototyping allows us to land ideas, change the focus of thought from the abstract to the tangible, but still do it from an empathetic perspective and an objective of change and transformation. The prototype makes us think like a craftsman, maintaining a direct relationship with the object (product or service) that we were able to create. It allows us to see its position in the environment, within the ecosystem where we want to influence. No longer is it enough to crystallize abstractions, they must be able to materialize and that realization is a form of filter: what is possible from what is not. Innovation must imply change. It either creates a transformation, or therefore cannot be labeled as innovation.

With the prototype we become realistic, we accept what is and what can be, not what we want it to be. But remember that our thinking is empathetic, we have gotten rid of biases and prejudices, so the prototypes are analyzed from the “other”, from the ecosystem.

to-deployTo deploy

At the end we deploy, develop our prototype so that it becomes a product / actual service, in an innovation. This phase is an integrative phase that includes all the previous thoughts and aims to give it a definitive form. Here we seek execution, working in the environment, in the ecosystem. With the prototype we analyzed the relationship of the object with the ecosystem, now we intend to deploy the object where it should be and what it should be there for.

At this stage we understand that we must always be open to improvements, that our innovation is not definitive, since the actual interaction of the object / solution with the ecosystem can create frictions that we had not even imagined in the previous phases.

We have to think in a practical manner, since we have to execute what we have thought out, and for this we must be aware of our resources and costs. But at the same time we are open to keep thoughts coming, since we do not know what obstacles we will find and when we will need to resume a previous phase to enrich the process and solution.

As seen, the U Theory helps us to redefine our thinking depending on the project phase where we are. We move from the subjective to the empathetic and from there we fusion it with the ecosystem; from the individual to the collective, forming part of the community that is seeking a solution to their problem. The different phases of a project of Design Thinking makes us walk towards the user, forgetting our prejudices and thus enabling us to improve our responsiveness to the problems of a group with an innovation approach.


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