Design Thinking vs Product Thinking, simply put

Both terms are popular, but most definitions require essays and diagrams. They shouldn’t. Here’s how I think about them.

2 min readJan 3, 2021
Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

You know you’re in trouble when it requires essays and diagrams to explain what you do. When this happens, I find it helpful to apply a constraint I call “simply put.”

What is “design thinking,” simply put?

Design thinking is an approach that starts with people (i.e. humans, as in “human-centered”), not just users, to understand how products and services fit within their everyday lives, as well as where they fall short and who’s left out. These insights, combined with ideation and iteration, help to create innovative, intuitive, and inclusive experiences.

What is “product thinking,” simply put?

Product thinking is an approach that starts with a target audience to address their problems within the frame of whole products and services, not as isolated features. It doesn’t start with solutions or metrics. When done right, we deliver value to that audience in a way that drives value to the business — that is, we ensure product/market fit.

These approaches may seem pretty complementary, and they are. Often they’re embodied by designers and product managers respectively, but not always. Sometimes they can discover blindspots in the other, such as identifying people who might be unintentionally excluded, even harmed, by the product.

If you’re looking for more, meaning essays and diagrams, try Why Product Thinking is the next big thing in UX Design (Nikkel Blaase), Product Thinking 101 (Naren Katakam), Design Thinking 101 (NN/g), and What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (Interaction Design Foundation).




A motley assortment of writings by Joanie McCollom: Head of Design at Color, feminist, emotional support companion to an elderly dog & creator of Period app