Even though design thinking is a non-linear path, empathizing is usually the first step because it’s at the very core of what this process is all about. But what does this mean, exactly? The goal is to gain a deep understanding of the people you’re designing for, and there are a bunch of different ways to do that. Budget, time frame, and available resources can impact the number of techniques you use to achieve this goal, but two of the most common methods are user studies and user interviews. User studies can be “in the field” observational studies, like observing admins use a program, or “secondary research” usually done online. User interviews are exactly what they sound like, and can be conducted with primary stakeholders, end users, and everyone in between.
Defining the problem is usually the next stage of the design thinking process. This is an important way of guiding your decisions, and keeps you on track among a myriad of inevitable distractions. This stage builds upon the observations you collected in the empathizing stage. There are a number of exercises that are used to help define the problem. Empathy maps, for example, are fairly common and help the designer gain greater insights by trying to depict what the user says, thinks, feels, and does in a given scenario. POV (point of view) statements can also be useful, and combine user descriptions, needs, and insights into a concise, actionable statement.