Design thinking tools to boost your design process

April 30, 2019
list of design thinking tools

The design thinking process can be done with post-its, but you can potentialize the results with these awesome tools!

Crafting this list represented a real challenge to us. In the end, the design thinking process is a mental framework that designers can use to keep their workflow in check. This can be done without any tools, and yet there are tools out there that would boost the performance and pace of your creative process – you’ll find those below.

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Here’s the thing about these tools: each one of them can help you move faster and have more precision in your design at every stage of the design thinking process. It is possible to create a prototype with a wall and some post-its, but that doesn’t mean you want to stick to your post-its instead of having a real prototyping tool.

That applies to the design thinking model too – you can do it solo, but having the right wireframe tool to help can make all the difference.

Stage one: Empathy tools

The first stage of the design thinking model involved gathering all the information you can on users – but just writing data down isn’t enough. For you to be able to design a real solution, you need to understand user’s motivations, likes, needs and wants.

In this section you’ll find a few ways you can access and organize information regarding your user’s lives. Remember: you’ll still need to see users face-to-face and carry out real conversations/interviews.

1. Pew Research Center: best data gathering tool

The Pew Research Center can be quite handy when it comes to gathering data on your segment of users. Just like any company carries out market research before manufacturing a product, you can (and should) look into data from the market and try to figure out a gap in which you and your design fit.

While you won’t find specific information about very specific groups, this design think tool can be helpful if you want to understand trends in the general population.

design thinking tool for empathy stage

How do people feel about the type of technology you want to offer? Why do some internet users say they are disappointed with current apps available to them? What age group is more likely to use smartphones to navigate the web at home?

Maybe the answer won’t offer a product idea on a silver platter, but it does have the power to show you which way is up. And as any drowning man (or product designer) can tell you, knowing the right direction is crucial even if you’re not clear on the final destination.

Cost: free

2. Xtensio: user persona making tool

Most UX designers will be familiar with the concept of user personas. At this point, we are all aware that creating a user persona is handy when tailoring your design to your users – but they are also handy when trying to empathize with users. After all, if you want a truly detailed user persona, you need to do your homework.

You want to build a user persona based on real data as opposed to just guessing what kind of person you’ll aim for.

design thinking tool for user personas: xtensio

Xtensio is one of those design thinking tools that can help keep information organized and in perspective. Use the knowledge you gather from observing and talking to your segment to create a useful user persona you can base yourself on.

Xtensio offers great templates with ample room for you to detail the persona’s struggles, motivations, frustrations and key personality traits. It even lets you compare two different user personas should you need to.

The free version of this design thinking tool enjoys all the features of the software, with a limit of 5 personas.

Cost: free with a paid upgrade available

3. Typeform: forms and surveys design software

No matter how you want to go about gathering data for your user research, sometimes you just need to pass a form around. It’s a basic way of gathering large amounts of data, specifically in the initial stages of your user research/empathy stage. It’s one of the classic design thinking tools you should always keep in the toolbox.

typeform as a design thinking tool for empathy

Typeform is a widely popular online survey tool which can be used for everything from customer satisfaction to political surveys. For us in the UX design industry, Typeform can come in super handy as your form can look and feel exactly how you want and reach a big margin of people.

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Typeform also has plenty of templates which you can easily adapt to reflect what you want to know from potential users – saving both time and effort. The tool offers a free basic plan in which you can gather up to 100 responses per month, with a limit of 10 questions per form.

Cost: starting at 25$/month for pro plan

4. Zoom: face-to-face design thinking tool

In a similar way to Typeform, Zoom can make a real difference in the creative process. Zoom emerges as a great design thinking tool for qualitative research on users. The initial stages of the design thinking model are all about getting close to users and understanding their pain points, their goals and their needs. Sometimes, you just have to talk to people and have an honest conversation about how their lives could be better.

zoom as a design thinking tool for empathy

Zoom has grown to be a popular tool, for all sorts of teams and people around the globe. It’s free for most cases, it’s as easy as it gets to use and makes it possible to sit down and talk to anyone in the world.

Cost: Free

Stage two: Definition tools

Defining the problem from which users suffer and your product solves can be quite tricky. Now that you are confident you understand users, it’s time to specify exactly how you plan on delivering a product of real value to them.

1. Smaply: journey mapping software

Smaply’s journey maps can represent a helpful tool in refining your definition of the problem you want to solve. By creating a map that holds all the steps users go through, it should become much easier to spot the areas where users experience problems. If you invest in creating a detailed and layered user journey map, you could validate user’s motivations, frustrations and desires you found in stage one.

When it comes to the definition stage of the design thinking process, your journey maps can be a visual way of representing the barriers and challenges users face in their lives. In a way, it puts the empathy you developed before into perspective.

user journey as design thinking tool SMAPLY

The cool thing about using Smaply as a design thinking tool is that you can include all the details you like on the journey map. The tool saves you the time needed to draw and create a map that is filled with details about the ideal user. Add a layer that represents the user’s feelings at each step, or add the data from the previous stage.

Have a report with helpful data on user’s habits? Place the report in the right spot in the journey map and have everyone on the same page. Have an interview that was particularly illuminating? Insert the file at the right step of the journey to put the user’s feelings in the spotlight.

Cost: pricing options start at $25/month

2. Miro: fishbone diagram design thinking tool

Not all design thinking tools in your toolbox need to be full of features or complex in their use. Just like sometimes you need to pass a form around, sometimes a simple diagram can paint a clear picture of the problem at hand. In the problem definition stage of the design thinking process, a cause and effect diagram can help you understand the whole enchilada along with all its ramifications.

miro diagram maker as a design thinking tool

Think of your diagram as a mental map of the problem. You’ll want to add all the factors that cause the problem along with what the effects are for users – making it much easier to understand why this is a problem, why people want it fixed and how a solution would make a real difference.

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The simple Fishbone Diagram Maker is straightforward to use, and allows several team members to work the diagram at once. The Fishbone template already comes with the main elements which you just need to edit – you can also leave notes and comments across the diagram for your team members or future you.

Cost: Free plan available. Team plan starts at $40/month for 5 team members.

3. Gliffy: diagram design tool

Gliffy is a simple and straightforward tool that can help you get all the data related to the user and the problem in one place. It’s easy and has all the basics you want from a diagram tool – and gives you ample powers to grant permission to other team members to edit, add, comment or remove elements from the charts and diagrams.

gliffy the design thinking tool

Aside from the classic features of sharing the diagram with ease, importing or exporting data from the tool and collaborating in real time, the tool comes with several interesting integrations. For us, the most interesting one is Gliffy’s integration with JIRA! Together with the hierarchy of authority, these two characteristics make this a good contender for large companies or large design teams.

Cost: Available packages start at $7.99/month with the personal plan.

4. Draw.io: easy to use diagram tool for design thinking

Draw.io stands out as a practical diagramming tool that offers an intuitive interface that users can enjoy from the start. Users praise how easy it is to use the tool, which comes with a very short learning curve.

draw.io as design thinking tool

An added bonus includes that Draw.io is integrated with all the top cloud storage platforms, making it easy to move diagrams around and share them as needed. The platform allows for diagrams and workflows to be saved directly on Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive among other options.

Cost: Completely free

Stage three: Ideation tools

This is the stage most UX designers enjoy the most. After all that homework, this is when the fun really starts. Ideally, this is when all team members can offer their ideas on a possible solution to the problem, regardless of its feasibility. Once all the ideas are down, comes the time to select the best few and pursue them further.

The tools listed here are all meant to help you and your team get those ideas down in a single place, making sure none of them are ignored, lost or overlooked.

1. Murally: mind map design thinking software

This design thinking tool is widely popular for how easy it is to use. You are basically offered a whiteboard on which you can put just about anything you like! Place text boxes, post-its and establish a connection between concepts while seeing the comments left by other team members on the ideas you’ve gathered.

murally the design thinking tool for collaboration

Murally is one of the design thinking tools that encourages you to push your creativity and allows you to focus only on creating – the organizing and presenting of information is handled without a second thought. Diagrams that categorize ideas, or a graph that shows the ideas in a scale of importance/feasibility – you just have to think it and Murally will get you there.

Cost: Starter pack available for $12/month

2. Lucidchart: intuitive diagram tool for design thinking

Lucidchart is a mind mapping tool that shares many common traits with Murally – but not all of them. While this diagramming tool also offers users a smooth and intuitive interface that will make designers feel right at home, Lucidchart has a different approach to attaching data and your other findings into the journey map.

diagram maker lucidchart tool for design thinking

Instead of inserting whole files of information, Lucidchart allows you to add the specific data that is relevant to that part of the journey map as a part of the interface. You can connect live data in order to stick to the most current data or import it to the tool directly.

Cost: Free version available. Basic plan starts at $11.95/user/month.

3. Xmind: journey mapping tool

This is one of the design thinking tools we love because of how complete it is. It checks all the right boxes with things such as being able to export your journey map to the right format, or being able to add depth and layers to your diagram as you define the issue at hand more and more over time. It also makes it easy for you to access your work from anywhere or any device.

mind mapping tool for design thinking by xmind

Like the other mind mapping tools, Xmind allows you to work effortlessly and in real time with the rest of your team. Unlike other tools, this one offers designers the possibility of combining several different types of structures to the same diagram. That means that your map can include matrix diagrams, a timeline and a Fishbone chart all in the same journey map. Pretty cool, eh?

Cost: Available options start at $4.5/month

4. SmartDraw: fully integrated diagramming software

SmartDraw is a diagramming tool that can help design teams to organize their thoughts and start defining what the solution would look like. Used by everyone from design teams to university professors, SmartDraw has made quite the name for itself. The tool is popular for its flexibility to adapt to any chart or diagramming task, including giving users the option of importing diagrams from other tools.

smartdraw as design thinking tool

One of the greatest benefits of SmartDraw is that it’s budget-friendly, with users constantly using it as a replacement for other most costly tools like Visio. Another great thing about this design thinking tool is that it comes with a wide selection of pre-made templates, making it practical and easy to use.

Cost: $9.95 per month for a single user

Stage four: Prototyping tools

What can we say about prototyping? It’s such a key part of any product development process, and that isn’t any less true within the design thinking model. Just like an image is worth a thousand words, your prototype will be worth about a million words.

This is when you turn your ideas into something tangible, something you can test and experience. Even if you create low-fidelity prototypes, it already gives you and other stakeholders a clear idea of how the product will behave. This can benefit you and your team in so many ways – from communicating to non-design peers to spotting issues with the design early on. Prototyping is a must!

These design thinking tools will help you get there faster – and better!

1. Justinmind: professional prototyping tool

Justinmind is a prototyping tool that enjoys an intuitive interface and plenty of useful features. Users will find pre-installed UI kits and widgets that will speed up the prototyping process – which is particularly helpful when creating several low-fidelity prototypes.

You can work with your team effortlessly, leaving each other notes and editing the prototypes simultaneously. Justinmind is the perfect prototyping tool to get your ideas down into several prototypes and develop on the ones that stand out. As you progress in the creative process, add more detail and interaction to the prototype – until you have a high-fidelity representation of the final design.


justinmind for prototyping in design thinking model

Justinmind also makes the developer handoff a smooth process, by giving users the option to generate the HTML code of the prototype at all times. Integrations include all your favorites tools, such as Photoshop, Sktech, JIRA or User Testing.

Cost: Free forever version/Pro version at 19$ a month.

2. Mockplus: easy wireframing tool for design thinking

Equipped with all the basics of prototyping tools, Mockplus enjoys popularity in the UX sector due to its intuitive interface – making the learning curve quite short for newbies. The tool is very well prepared to make outstanding wireframes, which fits in nicely within the design thinking model. Users are not expected to know how to code, and can import images straight from Flickr.

3. Omnigraffle: design thinking diagramming software

This tool makes the most of its simple and straightforward interface. This tool aims to keep it simple, which makes it ideal for the initial stages of the development process. Also known as an efficient diagram maker, which makes Omnigraffle  particularly useful in the initial stages of navigation design.

The tool is available for Mac and iOS systems – watch out though, as each system has its own version of the tool.

Cost (for Mac): Starts at 99.99 USD/year with the standard pack

4. Flinto: animation prototyping for design thinking

Flinto has made waves around the design sector. The tool aims to help designers everywhere create interactive prototypes, with its power to create animations shining bright. Users love how dynamic they can make screens, even if the tool still has a long way to go in improving its performance.

flinto as a prototyping tool for design thinking

Users praise the deliverables they can create with Flinto, but some point out that the design thinking tool comes with a rather steep learning curve for most. The platform, while stable, still has trouble dealing with a great number of interactions at once. Regardless of the small difficulties, users are still quick to offer a great picture of Flinto!

Cost: $99.00 for a year-long license

Stage five: Testing tools

This stage is absolutely crucial for the success of any product. As you probably know by now, we are massive believers in thorough user testing here at Justinmind. In our eyes, testing is the moment of truth, the culmination of all your work. As something so important, it’s only right you carry out your testing with a professional tool and with the right methodology.

While this post isn’t about the methodology behind sound user testing, we do have some design thinking tools that will make the testing of your prototype more accurate while also simplifying the process. You can also check out this more detailed explanation of Justinmind’s integration with user testing tools.

1. UserTesting: powerful remote testing tool

One of the most popular user testing tools out there! And it’s no wonder why. UserTesting has been around since 2008 and has grown to be a well-established reference in the sector – which makes it a highlight in this list of design thinking tools.

user testing as a design thinking tool for last stage

It allows you to specify the user tester demographic and to dictate specific areas of your product you want to look into. On top of that, you will have pre-screened and internally sourced participants while also enjoying the freedom to bring in your own users for the test. Designers will also be happy to know that testing can be done before the product is online!

Yet another plus of UserTesting is that it is fully integrated with Justinmind, which makes the whole process of prototyping a few key ideas and testing them as smooth as it gets!

Cost: price available upon request. Customized plans for teams are also available.

2. Loop11: intuitive testing software for design thinking

Loop11 is one of those design thinking tools that you can create an account in and get the ball going within minutes – the interface is so intuitive, there will be basically no learning time for you. Just specify which tasks you want to include in your test, enlist your participants and launch – from then on it’s all about watching and learning as much as you can. No code. Thank god.

An interesting upside of Loop11 is that it operates with a URL system, which makes it possible for you to test your competitor’s website or app too – where they went wrong or where they fell short is valuable knowledge you can apply to your design.

And yes… Loop11 is also fully integrated to Justinmind! You can read all about why that is wonderful here: Prototype testing with Justinmind and Loop11.

Cost: starts at $69 with the ‘Rapid Insights’ plan.

3. Crazy Egg: heat mapping tool

Crazy Egg is a heat map tool that tracks what users do in your website. By color coding the things people clicked on, you and your team will be able to see patterns in the way people use your product, and spot problematic areas that cause users to abandon the website or interrupt a task.

4. Userzoom: fast testing platform for design thinking

Userzoom is a huge name in the user testing market. The platform receives praise from users all around for its ability to hold several studies at the same time or in fast succession. Big studies also have a place here, with the platform offering around 120 million possible participants! Design teams can find the exact people they need by making use of Userzoom’s advanced search engine – making the platform one of the finest available.

userzoom as a design thinking tool for testing phase

Among the strongest features, we have the search engine, the statistics reports and the very ease of use from the first encounter. Users love that customer support is fast and helpful, as well as the design thinking tool’s integrations with the top prototyping tools out there – including Justinmind!

Cost: available upon request

The wrap up

Having the right tools at hand can improve just about anything – and this applies to the design thinking model. The model’s aim is to encourage and direct your creativity, and you can maximize that effect by using these tools – so you can focus on the creative aspect.


Rebeka Costa
In-house SEO manager, usability enthusiast and patron of all sleep-deprived designers