Design thinking explained simply

Table of contents


Design thinking explained simply: What is design thinking and how does it work?


All answers to Design Thinking

What is design thinking? How does it work?
We explain Design Thinking and answer all your questions! All.
And if there are still some left, then write to us – and we will answer them for you and add to this article.


What is design thinking? Design Thinking Definition

Design thinking is a creative innovation process in which a diverse team develops customer-centric solutions and ideas.



Design Thinking Multifunctional teams




A case for design thinking?

Tobias, 47, manages the after-sales department of a company for special machine construction, SoMaBa (name changed, of course).
He and his department are responsible for ensuring that everything runs smoothly even after the purchase and assembly of the machines that have been specially manufactured for the customer. If something goes wrong, he has the right people at the start to get the machine up and running again. But woe betide you if a part in the machine is irreparably damaged… Then the wild hunt for a suitable replacement part begins.


And it doesn’t work the way you might know it from the garage – the repairers call, order the spare part and it is delivered within hours. Ha – no way! In the case of custom-made products, it is often the case that after a few years no one knows which parts were actually installed in this particular machine by which supplier. The person responsible, Dagmar, runs from pillar to post in the company and pores over old files like a detective on a cold case. A nerve-wracking search…
Nothing is standardized:
  • Who was actually the supplier of the part – one of a few hundred components installed in the machine?
  • And what special agreements were there with this customer again?
  • How did we handle pricing for this machine back then?



Design Thinking Problem



Even if Dagmar finds out which part they bought where and when, that doesn’t mean the trouble is over: sometimes the supplier has gone bankrupt or the series is no longer manufactured at all. Getting spare parts is always a moderate disaster.
Dagmar, who actually has better things to do, can no longer do her daily work and is in Tobias’ ear every time.
Tobias has already made a few half-hearted attempts to remedy the situation, but as it is, day-to-day operations keep everyone on their toes until after work. Setting up new processes is out of the question.
When one day several customers need spare parts at the same time, all hell breaks loose. Dagmar gets into trouble, has to stall customers – and simply can’t manage to get an urgently needed spare part in time. She is at the end of her tether…



What is design thinking? – The Design Thinking brief description

Design thinking is a sequence of steps in which a group systematically solves a fundamental problem in an innovative way or creates a completely new invention. As many perspectives as possible are taken into account, especially those of the (future) users. Creative techniques and phases of analysis alternate.


The design thinking mindset

Design thinking is far more than just a guide to developing something new – design thinking is also a basic attitude. The basis: openness.
Openness towards completely new ideas, openness towards uncertainty, different people, their perspectives and openness towards experiments and the resulting “mistakes“.


This openness and constructiveness has an impact on the entire corporate culture. Companies that work with design thinking deal with the world in a much more innovative way and are much better equipped to cope with the constant change of our VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world. World.


Furthermore, user centricity, the absolute focus on users and their needs, is a central component of the design thinking mindset. This includes the willingness to approach customers at the very beginning of the process, to recognize their situation and wishes and to develop and test ideas together with the customer. This means that internal and external customers are involved much earlier in the process, not just when the product is finished.



Design Thinking Persona



What does the term Design Thinking mean?

The term Design Thinking comes from the English language. Design is to be understood here in the sense of shaping, developing, creating, inventing and not in the sense of aesthetics. Broadly speaking, design thinking can be translated as “thinking like an inventor“.


Who are the inventors of Design Thinking? How did design thinking come about?

The name Design Thinking was first mentioned at Stanford in the 1980s: Professor Rolf Faste used it to describe a method of acting creatively. Design Thinking, as it is used today, goes back to Stanford professors David Kelley, Terry Winograd and Larry Leifer, who founded the for it at Stanford in 2003.
Hasso Plattner, founder of SAP, supported the professors. In his honour, the organizations involved in design thinking, research and teaching in the field were renamed “Hasso Plattner Institutes”. In Germany, the Hasso Plattner Institute is based in Potsdam.






Developing solutions with design thinking

At SoMaBa, the waves are running high.
Tobias is in trouble! Not only is Dagmar constantly complaining, but customers also call Tobias and vent their anger verbally. There are several customers who have broken something at the same time and need help.


One of the customers, Dieter, is particularly angry: his production is at a standstill; every hour costs money. When customer Dieter, in his helplessness, finally submits a bitterly angry Google review, Tobias knows that his hour has come: The marketing department and the executive floor are giving him a hard time. Sören from Marketing turns out to be a prophet of doom and supervisor Uwe finds unflattering words. In a one-on-one conversation, he demands immediate solutions to the current fiasco – and of course that it must never happen again. He’s right. But how?
Tobias is looking for ways out of the spare parts chaos.


As he chews his ham sandwich in the staff room with his head hanging down, he meets his colleague Kerstin from Development. He describes the situation. She talks about design thinking. She had good experiences with this at her previous employer. She recommends it as a technique for finding solutions. And that’s what Tobias needs. Urgent.
Tobias finds out whether this might be suitable. Of course he has lots of questions:



Design Thinking Empathize



How is Design Thinking used? The basics

When is design thinking worthwhile?

Do you need fundamental innovations with business impact?
Is it about issues that are complex and where you haven’t even fully grasped the problem?
Is it about real progress, about earning money, creating something new, achieving more than the competition?
– Then design thinking is extremely worthwhile!
If, on the other hand, it is only about small optimizations and adjustments, adapting something that already exists or routine processes, then the design thinking mindset is also helpful, but the entire process would be more like “shooting at sparrows with cannons”.



Design Thinking Diversity



When is Design Thinking used?

Design thinking originally comes from research and development; it was used more in innovative departments. Design thinking is now used for all kinds of issues such as product development, new business areas, new development of important processes, restructuring of organizational areas, services… We have also developed a travel expenses app with our customers using design thinking.


Who can use design thinking?

Good news: anyone can work with design thinking.
Anyone who has the time and is willing to get involved in this intensive process.
However, you can’t just do this alongside your day-to-day business. Be aware that a design thinking process takes time!
Bear in mind that just reading a book on Design Thinking does not mean you can lead a Design Thinking process; that requires moderation experience and methodological knowledge.


When is Design Thinking not suitable?

Design thinking is time-consuming and this time investment must be worthwhile! If you can find solutions or adaptations without much effort, then a design thinking process is not worthwhile.



What design thinking is for



Which companies use design thinking?

At least everyone could use it. Design Thinking is not tied to a specific industry or product, and the size of a company has no influence on whether it can be used or not.
We have worked with very different companies on design thinking – large pharmaceutical companies, real estate project developers, engineering groups, car manufacturers, small, state-funded consulting companies… – As you can see, design thinking can be used by all kinds of companies and organizations.
The question should rather be:


Who can’t use design thinking?

All those who cannot or do not want to give themselves and their employees the time to do this, or who do not feel like embarking on this process.
And if an outcome is already clear, there is no open-ended process. No need for design thinking here.



What are the advantages and disadvantages of design thinking?

Advantages of Design Thinking

  • Driving real innovation forward
  • The solutions are developed very close to the internal or external customer – customer-centric
  • A compact focus on the process enables comprehensive results to be achieved quickly
  • Many perspectives are included
  • As an agile framework, design thinking fits into a world of rapid change
  • Design thinking improves corporate culture through open dialog at eye level
  • An open mindset is developed that will continue to help in the future
  • The objectively best solution wins (not: an individual pushes through his idea)
  • The jointly developed solution is accepted by everyone: broad commitment from all participants
  • And of course the solution itself – a genuinely new product / new service – that also puts money in the till 🙂

Disadvantages of Design Thinking

  • The time required seems very high at first
  • Costs may be incurred for labor, moderation and space



Design Thinking Team



Is design thinking worthwhile?

If you really want to develop something new, then design thinking definitely pays off! If you only want to improve what is already there or map existing ideas, then a simple brainstorming session is the method of choice.



Study on the benefits of design thinking

In 2015, HPI scientists Jan Schmiedgen, Holger Rhinow and Eva Köppen published the study “Parts without a whole“. Through qualitative interviews, the researchers found that the use of Design Thinking, according to
  • 48% of respondents have ensured that users are involved more frequently.
  • 69% of those surveyed have produced more efficient innovation processes.
  • 71% of respondents believe that the work culture has improved.
So – yes! Design thinking pays off.
You can find more scientific background and studies on design thinking at the end of the article.



Design Thinking Testing



Design Thinking homemade

Tobias is under pressure: he has to act immediately and bring about sustainable solutions quickly. He won’t get away with a bit of piecemeal work and cobbling together this time. After reading up on the basics of design thinking, he gets a few employees together and sets aside 3 hours a week. But it doesn’t quite work out that way:
The colleagues sit in the meeting room with tense expressions on their faces, clutching their cups of cold filter coffee.


Dagmar describes the difficulties she has in detail. Sören from the marketing department emphasizes that poor Google ratings are the first step towards insolvency.
Erik from Sales says that although he understands the problem, he doesn’t know how they would cope with even more bureaucracy.
In the meantime, Dagmar has to take care of a customer and keeps disappearing.


Ralf, the supervisor, nods without comment while a deep crease appears between his eyebrows. When the boss’s boss looks like that, nobody says anything. Except for Sören, of course.
You don’t really get any further.
After two weeks, Tobias realizes that the venture will be fruitless this way. He prefers to do it right and consults us.
First he needs a few more answers:



How long does a design thinking process take?

Well, in principle it depends on the scope of the intended project. As a guideline, a solid Design Thinking process costs each participant 7 days of working time. These can also be spread over a longer period of time.
We have just developed new working structures with a client using design thinking. In this process, the seven days were spread over three months. At the beginning there were whole days in presence and later also 3 hours via video conference.
In addition to such hybrid Design Thinking processes, there is also the option of organizing a Design Sprint Week and immersing yourself in the process over the course of the week.



Creative process



Can’t it be done faster?

“Seven days? – Come on, that’s quicker!” you might say, “There are much shorter design thinking processes. – We were recently offered something like this.”


Short formats

Yes, there are indeed short formats, but this is not Design Thinking, but merely a reference to a Design Thinking process. As I said, this takes time and cannot simply be dealt with in two or three days.

So what are these short formats all about? And: does it work?

As we will explain in more detail later, a design thinking process consists of six work steps. The sequence of these steps is sometimes also used in short formats, but the steps there are not given enough time to create something fundamentally new.
Short formats are ideal for improvements:
We have also used the design thinking steps in other ways, for example for a half-day hackathon where the company invited customers, among others, to jointly find new ways of communication between the company and customers.


Rule of thumb: the more innovative you want to be, the longer the process takes.


If you really want to invent something new, you have to delve deeper and question the status quo. If you only have one day, you can make adjustments that you already had in mind; fundamentally new things are usually not created in such a short time. Therefore expect at least 7 days, better 10.


Interative process

You may be asking yourself: why should I count on “at least” seven days? Is there more to come?
Well, you have to allow seven days for the first draft. But: Design thinking is an iterative process, i.e. one step follows the next and it is possible that the findings from one phase will change the entire question.
In these cases, you need to start again further upstream in the design thinking process.
As you can see, the length of a Design Thinking process cannot be determined 100 percent.



Design Thinking Coach Training


The first meeting

Starting signal for the Design Thinking aka Spare Parts Management project.
We sit together with Tobias in the SoMaBa meeting room.
We discuss the possible team line-up. Tobias is shocked:
“Who’s going to be on the team? – But we need our experts. They are responsible for driving innovation forward.”
In design thinking, however, it is important to set up a team that is as interdisciplinary and diverse as possible – across departments and silos.
Tobias: “But what do these departments have to do with us? – Nothing at all! I don’t know anyone there. – Besides, they don’t even know what’s going on with us.” He sees Sören in his mind’s eye: “I can really do without clever sayings.”
We first agree to ask around the company who would like to take part.



Can you do design thinking on your own?

Design Thinking Coaches

Yes and no. If “alone” means within the company, then yes, if your company employs people who are trained as Design Thinking coaches, you can of course work without external help.
For some of our clients, for example, we train employees as design thinking coaches. This not only helps if you just want to start a design thinking process, but also supports an innovative mindset in the company. Design thinking is an agile framework: If coaches ensure that every department can work with it, the entire company can continue to develop and become more agile.
If “alone” means that you want to carry out the process entirely without moderation, then we would strongly advise against it. A group can quickly lose focus. Or group dynamics dominate the process and the results are suboptimal

External design thinking moderation

If no one in your company has completed a Design Thinking training course yet, then get advice and help, especially support with moderation and methodological knowledge from outside, to ensure that the process succeeds. We are happy to support you.


You’ve probably already guessed it: design thinking is teamwork. Among other things, it is about being able to include as many perspectives as possible, as this can lead to completely new approaches to solutions. Approaches to solutions that lie outside your own waters, outside your own professional horizon and that you would never have thought of on your own.
So try to involve as many diverse people as possible in your design thinking process; people from different disciplines, with different backgrounds, who live in different situations.



Design Thinking Criticism



How big is a design thinking team?

As a rule, a Design Thinking team has 6 – 8 members plus the Design Thinking coach. You can also have two design teams “running” in parallel, which has the advantage that you can choose between two good solutions afterwards or possibly combine these two approaches to create an even better solution.


The diverse Superhero team

A number of interesting people from a wide range of departments responded to the call within the company. After our first meeting, we all leave very satisfied: we have put together a wonderful team. In addition to diversity, it was important for us to find people who wanted to work creatively together.
In addition to Tobias and Dagmar, there are also colleagues from development, customer support, service, sales, purchasing and supplier support. Sören didn’t feel like it, he thinks he’s already creative enough in marketing. Tobias breathes a sigh of relief.
Shortly afterwards, Dagmar is on the phone to a customer friend, Jessica, who happens to be talking about spare parts sales in her company. Dagmar is all ears. Jessica offers to come over for a cup of coffee soon and tell us about her experiences. We ask Dagmar to invite Jessica into our Design Thinking process. And lo and behold: Jessica is thrilled. She has often heard of design thinking and would like to try it out. to be able to participate. As a customer, she brings a particularly valuable perspective.



Design Thinking Ideate



What is new about Design Thinking compared to the previous approach?

Classic innovation process

What has happened so far…
Previously, each department had a clearly defined range of tasks and each person had their place in the company hierarchy. The innovation department was responsible for new development and innovation – who else? The rest had to work, not invent. And if someone did something different than prescribed, it was at least viewed critically, sometimes even sanctioned.
In the Research & Development department, the – mostly – gentlemen sat and thought hard. Finally, they turned their thoughts into PowerPoints. These papers were sent around the department a little, each colleague added another 30 slides – and finally the comprehensive work of art was presented to the boss. Even if he could not know all aspects, he either approved the project or not. The end of innovation.


Revolution Design Thinking

Design thinking has revolutionized the business world with its completely different approach. Existing paradigms are questioned or even eliminated:

Eye level instead of hierarchy

Hierarchies and silo thinking clearly define how far employees are allowed to think and when the boss or other departments are responsible for thinking. You don’t need such limitations in Design Thinking. It’s about thinking ahead and questioning the status quo. This happens less often in strong hierarchies: there is often resistance when someone questions something. Then the employees prefer to keep quiet because they fear trouble. This is why the design thinking process is moderated in such a way that everyone has an equal voice, regardless of their function and hierarchical level.





Diversity: multifunctional teams

Design thinking thinks outside the box. Multifunctional, diverse teams are particularly suitable for this because completely different worlds of experience can flow into them. Diverse is to be understood in all conceivable directions: Across departments and professions. Naturally also in terms of gender, age and cultural background. Many of our customers deliberately employ people from different cultural backgrounds in order to grow beyond the familiar.
Career changers are also popular because they bring with them extensive experience from other areas and are often able to transfer topics to other areas.


Customer centricity

The customer/user has a special role to play: he/she is involved right from the start or even in the entire process (in the sense of co-creation). Up to now, there were usually only considerations of what customers might want, sometimes even market research was consulted. In market research surveys, customers could tick a few things. These types of answers are easier to evaluate, but they provide answers so that you remain in your own way of thinking. Only qualitative interviews with customers, as is customary in design thinking, provide a clear view of the real world and the needs of customers and thus also of solutions that really improve things from the customer’s perspective.


Going deep – understanding

In most innovation processes, the problem is briefly outlined – and then the solution is found. This is often due to a lack of time and because it creates a feeling of efficiency rather than taking the time to really understand the problem. However, this usually only brings to light the solutions that were already in people’s minds anyway. You don’t really get anything new that way. That’s why half of the process in Design Thinking is spent on really understanding the problem in the first place, looking at it from different perspectives and only then narrowing down the actual question in concrete terms



Design Thinking Rule




Until now, customers have only seen innovations once everything has been fully thought through and implemented, all processes have been introduced, the products have been fully produced, nicely packaged and well marketed, i.e. the innovation has been perfectly rolled out. Whether the product or service was successful was then seen afterwards in the sales figures. If you were wrong in your assumptions about what customers would like to buy, then a lot of money was wasted. But you only ever knew that afterwards.
In design thinking, it is checked well in advance whether the innovation is of interest to the customer: the final phases in the design thinking process are the conception of a prototype and testing. Potential customers first try out the innovation and provide feedback before the roll-out is launched at great expense. This allows customers to assess whether the product solves their problem, whether they would buy it and what they would add or change if necessary.
If the innovation is not well received by the customer, a new approach is taken. In this way, innovations can be launched with significantly less risk and unsuitable ideas can be weeded out before they cost a lot of money.


And off we go!

Preparations are complete; the design thinking innovation process is launched. We have booked a seminar room for the Superhero Team from SoMaBa where you can work creatively. (If you are based in Berlin and the surrounding area – then we can warmly recommend the Seminaris Campus Hotel in Berlin).
When Tobias enters the room, his jaw drops: “But there are no tables here! – Where are people supposed to sit?” His gaze wanders over the colorful pieces of paper and then stops at the Lego: “Um – are you sure this is our room?”





Where and how does design thinking take place?

The classic meeting

We all know it: the classic meeting: before you meet, extensive presentations are sent around; everyone has to work through them in preparation. People meet in conference rooms that considerably dampen the mood in dreary 50 shades of gray. With a small bottle of sparkling water at the seat and the obligatory pad with a hotel pen laid across it, innovation is now to be produced. Open up! You listen to one lecture after another, slowly slump down and look forward to the lunch break at 12:30. Questions may be asked. The questions are usually rather critical. The more critically you question something, the better off you are. After all, you have to show what you’ve got.
The whole thing is highly serious and you can still laugh after work.
The whole thing is not really creative.

Colorful world of design thinking

Design Thinking stands for inspiring spaces: out with the tables, in with beanbags and balls, high tables and walls that can be covered with stickers. Drawing instead of writing, collaborating instead of competing, finding ideas while walking and moving instead of sitting at a desk in a thinking position. Laughter instead of gray-blue seriousness.
With colorful sticky notes and Lego – and lots of suitable craft materials – situations are posed, prototypes are built and videos are made.
Nothing is set in stone. The layout of the workspaces can also be changed in no time at all. This makes the process flexible.
In the working world of design thinking, we are increasingly entering inspiring offices: agile, colorful, creative. This has revolutionized the classic, boring office environments – and for many people, this is still very unfamiliar.
Why do we work like this in Design Thinking? – Because everything that is colorful, lively and emotional is at home in similar areas of the brain as creative thinking. This stimulates the synapses that we need for new, innovative solutions.



Design Thinking prototype



Can design thinking also be done online?

Yes! A definite yes. We have carried out design thinking processes in all possible ways: Live and in one go, live and spread over various workshops, hybrid with an on-site kick-off event and several virtual meetings – and also completely online.
In times of lockdown, we sent out packages containing creative materials such as sticky notes, craft materials and Legos to the participants before the start of our joint design thinking meetings. So everyone could get creative at home.

Online whiteboards

We recorded the results – for example Lego prototypes – on online whiteboards. In general, we can highly recommend digital collaboration with virtual whiteboards such as Mural, Miro or Deon. It was great fun for everyone. This type of approach is of course also suitable when employees are spread across the whole country or even the entire globe.
In our article Zoom Meeting & video conferencing: how it works, alternatives, tips, we go into all online whiteboards and also give lots of tips on how you can organize online meetings perfectly.



Care packages Virtual Disign Thinking



What is the best form for a design thinking process?

We think the hybrid version is the best. Why? – This will give you the most creative results and save you time. Being together in the same room is ideal for creative processes such as kneading and building together. For shorter meetings in between, working online is a good option, for which no routes or rooms are required. An interactive whiteboard is even better than a seminar room, especially for the “Understand phase”, when you need to have all the information together at a glance, because it can be expanded indefinitely and you have all the information on one surface.


Daring to break new ground

Tobias walks around the room. While he looks around, he plays with the Legos. Somehow he likes the fact that the design thinking session will be different from a normal meeting. There’s something exciting about that. He grins.
Besides, he’s already put a lot of work into the preparation, so he’s not going to get head shy because of a few sticky notes.
He, Dagmar and we as the moderators have put the team together over the last few weeks and then coordinated the times at which the team members can take part. We have gathered all the information we need to understand the situation properly.



How long does a design thinking process take



Design thinking explained in a nutshell: the checklist

What do you need to look out for in Design Thinking?

  • Hierarchy? No thanks. Just hinders and scares people.
  • departments? Come together: We want to hear your ideas.
  • Who should like an idea? To the customer. So we ask him.
  • Experts? Not only. We need diverse perspectives.
  • Brooding in a quiet room? No – all together.
  • Have it done quickly? Nope, let’s understand the problem more deeply.
  • Error? Ah! – interesting. What do we learn from this?
  • Results? Check with prototypes straight away.
  • Experiment a failure? Cool, I’m already looking forward to the next one.


What do you need for a design thinking process?

You need
  1. Undisturbed time in which the focus is exclusively on this process
  2. a diverse team of 6-8 people with different points of view
  3. A contact person in the team who supports you with the organization
  4. Professional moderation
  5. A space and materials that support creative work.
  6. a question in the form of a hypothesis as to what the problem is that you want to solve


What do you need to prepare for Design Thinking?

In preparation for a design thinking process, you should answer the following questions in detail:
  • Who could fit into the team and whose perspective is needed?
  • How are people invited?
  • Who can take part and when? How can the time schedule be organized to suit all participants?
  • What basic information is needed? What background information is available to depict the situation?
  • How are these presented in the workshop?
  • What needs to be researched?
  • What needs to be purchased?
  • Who already knows the details? – Bring the person into the team or organize a specialist lecture!
  • Who moderates?
  • Where does it take place?
  • How are food, drinks, accommodation, breaks etc. organized?



Criticism of design thinking



Preparations for Design Thinking

In order to be optimally prepared for the kick-off event, some research and preparations have to be done. One of these is the customer survey.
Customers are asked to report on their experiences with SoMaBa. Some customers call employees to ask if they would be available for an interview during the process.


Dagmar contacts Dieter, the disappointed customer, as his Google review has provided the impetus to address the problem in depth.
Dagmar thanks him for his feedback and informs him that SoMaBa is working on a new spare parts management system thanks to him. She asks Dieter whether he is prepared to express his expectations, needs, ideas and criticism in detail during the process. Customer Dieter is initially astonished, as he did not expect such a reaction. He is happy to be heard and it bubbles out of him. He agrees to join the first Design Thinking session via Zoom and describe the situation that has arisen for 10 minutes.
Jessica, the lady from the friendly company, prepares a short presentation to show how spare parts management is organized in her company.



Design Thinking Mindset



How does design thinking work?
The design thinking process

Design thinking is a process that consists of six phases: three phases deal with the problem in great detail and three phases tackle the solution. A diverse team first gathers as much information as possible about the problem and then gets to the heart of the matter. They then use various creative techniques to find as many different solution ideas as possible, select the best one and implement it provisionally. Users are involved throughout the entire process and later test the prototype in order to provide constant feedback.



Design thinking process



What are the phases of the design thinking process?

A design thinking process consists of six successive phases. The first three phases look at the problem and the user from all perspectives. The last three phases develop a solution and test it. Here is an overview of the Design Thinking phases:

The first area: shedding light on the problem

  • 1 Understand – What is it about? Scope, delimitation
  • 2 Empathize – Who is our “user”, what does his/her world look like and what needs does he/she have?
  • 3 Define – What exactly is the question we should address?

The second area: Finding the solution

  • 4 Ideate – Find as many ideas as possible! Find the best one(s)!
  • 5 Protype – Implement the idea provisionally!
  • 6 Test – Let potential users test the idea!



Design Thinking Company



What are the steps in Design Thinking?

Design Thinking Phase 1: Understand

In the first step, the Understand phase, you collect all the information. The aim is for the entire team to have a uniform understanding of the problem based on the information already available.
We assume that some background information has already been prepared in the preparation phase. This means that the team can initially be given basic information in the kick-off workshop.
If a lot has to be looked at, explained and shared, then the Understand phase definitely takes its time.
You should hold back on possible solutions here and in the next two steps! The first three steps are about understanding the problem through and through. The moderator ensures that ideas are only allowed to flow in from step four.

Goal of the Understand phase:

Develop a common understanding of the problem.



Design Thinking Teamwork



The Design Thinking Kick Off event

Tobias welcomes his Super Hero Team. The atmosphere is one of cheerful excitement.
There is a lot of knowledge and information to communicate:

Internal perspectives

First, Tobias draws the previous spare parts procurement process (which is not yet a process at all) on a whiteboard. Dagmar supports him and cheerfully tells a few anecdotes about adversities that have befallen her. There is laughter.
Kerstin presents the results of a customer satisfaction analysis that was conducted a few months ago. It is becoming quite clear that customers are dissatisfied with the current spare parts situation. Dagmar uses individual cases to describe what the difficulties were in each case.

External perspectives

Dieter joins in and reports on his experience. He talks about how his production came to a complete standstill and the devastating financial impact the missing spare part had on his business. At the end of the conversation, Dieter is asked what he would like. Dieter “Well, what can I say? In principle, it’s quite simple: if a machine is broken, I want the downtime to be kept to a minimum. When I order a spare part or call your repair team, I want the part to be delivered and installed quickly. Ultimately, my goal is to keep my company operational.”

Facts, figures and data

Tobias has put together a few examples of spare parts that are often needed. He has also collected what he considers to be the biggest mistakes in the process and which parts are particularly at risk. Quality control also contributes analyses.
This brings together all the information that is already available in the company.
Finally, the reason why the whole process was set up is discussed again: Customers are dissatisfied and the company incurs unnecessary costs as a result of many people scurrying around ordering spare parts without a plan.



Eye level instead of hierarchy



Design Thinking Phase 2: Empathize

In this phase, you want to determine the situation and needs of your customers. The best way to do this is to ask the customers themselves.
It is important to ask openly here. Let the customers start talking! What are their worries and problems, what is behind them? What do they need? Why do they want the solution in a certain way? What are they actually about?
Depending on the complexity of the topic, it should be 10-20 interviews to understand what the customer is concerned about.
Of course, you should also allow time for the evaluation of the interviews.
The results are put on the table or whiteboard.

Goal of the empathize phase:

Get to know the customer’s situation and needs. Understand exactly what he/she needs and why. The result should be complete understanding of the customer’s situation.

What do you do with the results of the customer survey?

The persona

The aim of the customer survey is to understand: who exactly are our customers? What do they want and need? To get to the heart of the variety of customer personalities, take a look at: What are our typical customers? Here you develop two to three personas that describe typical customers. You give the people a fictitious name, a similar biography and needs based on real customers.
In addition to the persona, there is an empathy map that shows what the customer’s world looks like and what the specific difficulties and wishes, the so-called pains and gains, are.



Empathy Map



How do you develop a persona?

We have written a detailed instructional article for you on how to create a persona and an empathy map and find out their Pains and Gains: How to create a persona in Design Thinking & Marketing


The design thinking persona

The SoMaBa Heroes determine three personas. One of them is Lisa.
Lisa is a buyer in Norbert Meyer’s medium-sized company. Meyer bought a special machine a few years ago, when Lisa was not yet with the company. Lisa works 6 hours, then looks after her child. Her knowledge of the machine is mediocre at best.
They receive a message from the production department that a machine has broken down. Her colleague Sabine, an engineer, has already had a look at it. Sabine: “Before we have repaired the machine, it is much easier and cheaper to order the broken spare part.”
The information she gives Lisa is insufficient. Lisa has to run after her and have the whole thing explained to her. Coordination with SoMaBa is also extremely laborious. A horror for Lisa.
Lisa is representative of all the purchasers±± who do not have much mechanical engineering experience, who have to manage and deal with many other things on a daily basis and for whom the procurement of spare parts is an additional burden. Their need: everything should be as simple, quick and, of course, cost-effective as possible.



Design Thinking Understand



Design Thinking Phase 3: Define

Most creative processes are similar: first you create as many possibilities as possible. You then make your selection and pick out the best ideas. The process is always the same.
This is also the case with design thinking. Regardless of whether information or ideas are collected: at some point you have to make a selection as to what is most relevant.
In the picture above, we can see that the problem space first opens wide and then closes again as a result of decisions.
For our design thinking process, this means that we have now gathered enough information; we have looked at the problem from all kinds of perspectives, conducted further research and finally looked in depth at the users. Now it’s time to choose and get to the heart of the problem, the question.
What helps is the “How might we” question: How can we …?

Aim of the Define Phase:

Pick out the most important information and define the challenge/problem. The result is a central question with sub-questions.


The Design Thinking Challenge

Various issues have arisen with the Super Heroes. Tobias writes the most important questions on the whiteboard:
  • How can the customer get the right spare part as quickly as possible?
  • How do we know which supplier delivers which part?
  • How can we earn money with spare parts?
  • How do we ensure that the customer’s machine is only down for a short time?
  • How can we ensure that spare parts are available?
Clearly, all questions are important. However, if the team wants to deal with all questions in just one process, then the process and answers become unclear and diffuse. Acute danger of becoming bogged down!
Team SoMaBa decides: Creating a system to define the right part is hard work. That has to be done – at some point. This is not a major innovation. Now the task should be: What can we produce for the customer that interests him and from which we can earn money?
The result is the precisely defined challenge:
“How can we minimize our customers’ downtimes so successfully that it is worth the customer paying extra for it?”



Design Thinking Simply Explained



Design Thinking Phase 4: Ideate

Your team has been working on the problem for a long time. Of course, some ideas have emerged in the meantime. The team members are excited as hell and can hardly wait to fire off their ideas. The design thinking coach held them back the whole time.
And even now, at the start of the ideation phase, brainstorming has not yet begun. At this point, you often recharge your batteries by taking inspiration from elsewhere. The friendly company tells us how things are going for them. Someone has compiled benchmarks from other companies. The keynote speaker will present inspiring insights. A YouTube video is shown. Or a factory tour at a partner company is on the agenda.


But then it’s open fire!
Go all out! Get your ideas out!
Grab some colorful materials, build, craft, paint, draw…! Of course you can also make a short movie. Discuss! Be creative alone or together!
Here is the colorful phase:
  • Make new!
  • Do it differently!
  • Take your time for this phase!

Goal of the Ideate Phase:

Generate as many ideas as possible!

Tool Crazy 8

Crazy 8 is a technique in which lots of ideas are sketched quickly and without much thought on a sheet of paper. The colleagues then vote on which ideas they particularly like in the form of a heat map.



Design Thinking Tool



What is the best place for creativity?

If at all possible, this phase should not take place at your usual workplace: since you want to break new ground, you should do so quite literally.
However, the pandemic has taught us that everything is possible from home. In times of lockdown, we have nevertheless successfully and enjoyably carried out design thinking processes. For the Ideate phase, we sent out craft packages to the participants. The participants reported that they had a lot of fun unpacking Lego, plasticine, pipe cleaners and colorful pens. So it also works online.

How to get into the creative flow?

Not everyone is born with creative genius. But: everyone’s creativity can be stimulated. In everyday life, our synapses are often geared towards the operational – working through things rather than generating ideas. But if you allow yourself to be inspired by images, colors, music and so on, then your creativity starts to flow and new ideas emerge; ideas that weren’t there before. It’s like an old rusty machine that starts up. And the longer it runs, the more it purrs.
Sometimes it also helps to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. How would Elon Musk have solved this issue?



Idea generator



Creative togetherness

The Super Hero team around Tobias has spent a long time working intensively on the problem of spare parts management. Everyone is already scurrying about, because the first ideas are already out there and they want to go out into the world.
But they will have to be patient. Before that, here’s a little inspiration. Jessica – the customer – explains how the spare parts management process is practiced in her company. Someone has found a video of a startup that lives after sales in a completely different way by assembling machines according to a modular principle and renting them out on a weekly basis. So the customer no longer has the stress when something is broken. Is that also something for us? How about a completely new way of thinking?


And then it starts, colorful pieces of paper with ideas are created, pictures are painted, crafted, built. The collegial approach in the first three phases of the Design Thinking process has created a good atmosphere and a fun atmosphere within the team. There is often laughter. The most important thing is that we are on an equal footing. Dagmar is amused by Tobias’ sketches. However, he doesn’t feel attacked, but laughs along. Dagmar comes up with another idea to add to the list.
Everyone is happy to work with people from other departments. So much information comes together that you would never have gotten on your own or within your own department.



Error culture



The brainstorming process

We have already mentioned it above: there are two phases in creative work – brainstorming and selection. You should be very careful not to mix the two together. One thing at a time!
Start by brainstorming: create as many ideas as you can! Everything must go! Don’t judge at this point whether an idea is great or worth implementing. No, just knock them out! If you ask yourself at this point whether your idea is really good, then you start to censor yourself and your creative process comes to a standstill. Your goal: a huge pile of ideas.

The selection process

The selection process is known in artistic circles as “kill your babies”. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? It is. Now it’s a matter of choosing and throwing away the ideas that aren’t so good. It’s not that easy; after all, they are your spirit’s children.
There is no point in filing away mediocre ideas so that you can use them later. The project continues to develop. And relatively soon, the ideas from this stage will be outdated. Therefore: get rid of it!



Effort Benefit Matrix



The impact & effort matrix can help you sort out ideas, for example.

Further development

After you have consistently sorted things out, you should focus again. Grab the most promising ideas and develop them further.


Finding the best idea

When the brainstorming process begins, the participants act very freely and innovatively. You want to make the customer an offer, fulfill their needs and provide them with added value that they may not even know about.
Everyone throws out their ideas. Erik from Sales expresses an important idea that, although not yet a fully developed idea, inspires everyone and puts them on the right track: “We should identify which spare parts are most likely to break”. “Exactly!” shouts buyer Dagmar enthusiastically. – We’ll just have them in stock!”. The idea gets rolling. Everyone contributes further details in turn – and voilá: a star is born.

The solution

In several brainstorming and selection rounds, the team finds a very well-founded, innovative solution:
The customer defines the spare parts that are critical to success. Which spare parts need to be back quickly so that the customer has as little downtime as possible and therefore no major damage? These are just a few parts.
Normally, the components of the machines are produced by manufacturers all over the world and it usually takes a long time for them to be manufactured and delivered.
For a monthly fee, the customer can virtually insure these parts. SoMaBa guarantees: these parts can be reinstalled in less than 24 hours. They achieve this by ordering these parts when the machine is built and storing them in their warehouse. The customer’s insurance more than covers the costs.
Everyone is happy with the jointly developed idea: it can earn money and solves the most important problem for the customer!
Not only that. This can all be taken into account in the development of the special machines and in the purchasing of the parts, so that less effort is required from the outset.

A lot of good ideas

In addition, some other great ideas for neighboring areas have emerged along the way that the company can use for itself.
Tobias is more than satisfied. He would never have come up with the idea on his own. And then there are the other ideas that the team came up with during the process. You will certainly be able to use them later elsewhere.



Design Thinking Prototype



Design Thinking Phase 5: Protype

A prototype is the simplest possible way to test the idea with the real user – the customer. It can be a simulation or a simple scaled-down version of a product or the introduction of the idea in a small sub-area instead of the whole.
Prototypes are there to be able to try out at low cost whether the respective idea works at all. This gives you direct feedback on your prototype from the potential customer. There is no other way to predict whether your product will be a top or a flop. It would be too costly and too risky if you were to finish developing the product and launch it on the market. This could go very wrong and would cost you your resources.
If your prototype doesn’t pass the test at this stage and doesn’t arouse the interest of potential consumers – get rid of it! And keep searching!

Goal of the prototype phase:

A prototype that is as realistic as possible and that users can try out.

Prototype versus 5-year business plans

In earlier years, a lot of risk was taken: A new product was developed in a quiet room and then launched on the market. There were five annual business plans for this. And then we took a look at how it was received. It could go as expected – or it could hit the wall in a big way. However, there were less frequent changes back then, for example due to technical innovations, so it was possible to make somewhat more accurate predictions.
Nowadays, it is not a wise approach to put all your eggs in one basket. The environment and markets are changing too quickly for reliable forecasts to be generated.






What is important for a prototype?

Your prototype should offer potential customers as realistic a scenario as possible in which they can try out the idea or product. It’s not about presenting an idea in a matter-of-fact way, but about allowing the customer to experience how the idea feels and what they can do with it.

How do you build a cost-effective prototype?

A few years ago, we, the berliner team, came up with the business idea of creating a coworking space as part of a design thinking process. We thought about how we could create a prototype for this idea. Our first idea was to rent a location for a weekend and equip it with everything we thought was important and new. You guessed it: we realized very quickly that it would be far too expensive.
Therefore: formulate a hypothesis in advance or ask the question that you want to answer using the prototype as precisely as possible.

The hypothesis

What can such a hypothesis mean?
To come back to our example with the coworking space – there were questions such as: Do we need a new coworking space? Do you need a coworking space that is set up in this way? Do you need a coworking space with these features?
You may not necessarily need an entire coworking space to cross-check whether your hypothesis is correct. Perhaps a website is enough: design it and see if there is a demand.


Questions for the prototype

The SoMaBa team has come up with a great idea. How should this idea now be tested? You are thinking about a hypothesis. The hypothesis or question they ask: is our idea so valuable to the customer that they will spend money on it? And there is also a lot to clarify internally: can we implement this with little work and cost?



Agile working



Examples of prototypes

A Polish fruit grower had an apple orchard and wanted to press juice from the apples. He wanted to sell this directly to customers in Germany via a website. To check whether there would be any interest in his fruit juice, he set up a website. Although it was well attended, hardly anyone bought from him. So before he had squeezed a single drop of apple juice, he had already scrapped the whole project. No customers, no juice. This realistic simulation has saved him a lot of costs, work and trouble.
If your project product is to be a program or an app, then you could, for example, design an interface in PowerPoint that is as realistic as possible. When someone clicks a button, the next interface opens so that users get an impression of how your program can be used.
Some manufacturers try out new packaging in parallel with the old packaging: they simply sell both. This gives manufacturers an impression of which packaging is more attractive to customers.
We once worked with our clients on a new process. Here, the prototype of the process was represented with Lego figures. – And it gave us a very good feeling of how it could work.

Start small

Your experiment may fail and your idea may not resonate with the customer. Therefore, keep the effort and costs for your prototypes low. Try it out on a small scale!


The prototype

The team chooses three customers to test whether their idea is well received by the customer, whether it has a solid basis and can be implemented. These are customers with whom a trusting relationship has developed over many years of cooperation. The idea of spare parts insurance is presented to customers. Customers will of course be informed that SoMaBa is testing a prototype and will be offered the opportunity to try this out for the new machine at a reasonable price. They are asked to pass on every thought and every statement made by their employees to SoMaBa. Of course, internal experiences in this process are also documented.
It is agreed that the idea should not yet be tried out with new customers so as not to scare them away.



Work steps in Design Thinking



Design Thinking Phase 6: Test

Now comes the big moment! The customer tests whether the solution you have devised together is suitable for their purposes.
Give the customer the prototype and let them try it out. What you shouldn’t do under any circumstances: don’t talk at your customer and don’t present your ingenious solution! Even future customers often only rely on what they can read in flyers or on a website. It is therefore important that the presentation form is as realistic as possible and that you receive uninfluenced feedback from the customer.

Feedback from the customer

On the contrary: ask the customer to try things out freely and speak every thought out loud. These could be questions such as: “Where do you press here?”, “Oh, and should I turn this over now?” Or comments such as: “That’s great!”, “This thing is in the way”.
Whatever it is that comes to the customer’s mind – it’s all valuable information for you.
Collect the feedback and also the customer’s original thoughts to bring them to the team. And learn from it!

Aim of the test phase:

Honest feedback from users


Conduct an open interview. Let the customers tell the story!
Document what you hear.






The in-house test phase

The test phase gets underway.
First of all, SoMaBa itself has to adapt to the new process. It is very exciting to see internally how the processes can be played out.
The advantage:
As people from different departments have been working together, processes are now taking place at interfaces where people did not work together before. As the prototype idea came from within the company, from employees – and not from above – there is a high level of acceptance within the company. The difficulties that a department might have with implementation were already considered during the development process and solutions were found. Everyone feels involved.
There is little resistance to this restructuring. Neither power thinking nor fear slow down the project. There is broad acceptance of the solutions. Colleagues are also happy to be asked for their assessment: Employees give feedback diligently in order to further develop the process constructively.


Flop or top

What do you do next?

The practical test is over. Several potential customers have tested your product and shared their thoughts on it. Now you have an impression of whether your product has been well received by the customer. What have you found out – and what tasks does this entail? What else is needed? What do you still need to improve? What new ideas did the customer come up with?

“Fail often and early”

– Of course, there can also be negative feedback: The prototype did not arrive. The majority of customers can’t do anything with it; they don’t want to spend money on it. Also good – then off to the garbage can with it!
And on to the next round! Evaluate the result and pool your creative powers; find new ideas!
“Fail often and early” – you learn from every failure.
The more often a prototype is tested and enters a new optimization loop, the more detailed the technical usability, handling, core functions and additional features are worked out.
At this point, you can see why we said at the beginning that design thinking processes can take longer: it usually takes a few more rounds to find the ideal solution for the customer. It cannot be assumed that the perfect solution will be launched on the first throw.






Successful design thinking result: the idea is produced

The SoMaBa test phase is running.
Feedback from the three test customers is obtained.
All in all, the response has been positive. There are some suggestions for improvement. There are valuable comments from a test customer, particularly in the sales argumentation. The feedback is incorporated and the process improved. After a few correction loops, the customers are satisfied.
SoMaBa has invested time and money in development and the tests have gone well. The result is clear: the SoMaBa management decides to launch the project on the market. – And it will be a great success!
Even Sören from the marketing department finds positive words and puts his all into marketing.
New customers are coming on board, for whom the security is an important reason to have machines produced by SoMaBa and not by the competition, where the procurement of spare parts takes much longer.

Conclusion on the design thinking process: was it worth it?

Ralf, Tobias’ line manager, invites Tobias and Dagmar to the office: “If the shit hadn’t hit the fan, I would never have approved this project. And now I’m incredibly happy that you managed it so well.” “Yes,” says Tobias, “It was a lot of work, but when you look at the solution, it was worth it.”
Ralf smiles. “Yes, the solution is good. But it’s not just that. A completely new wind has been blowing through the company since the project. Rarely has there been so much acceptance, rarely has everyone been so happy to pull together. More of this, please.”
Ralf offers Tobias, Dagmar and other interested employees the opportunity to be trained as Design Thinking facilitators. They don’t need to be told twice.
And we, the berlin team, are delighted to be able to train such motivated participants in Design Thinking.



Agile mindset



FAQs – Questions about Design Thinking

So far so good. We hope that we were able to give you an understanding of Design Thinking and answer your questions about the application, background and process of Design Thinking. So that we can really clear up any ambiguities, let us answer the questions about Design Thinking that we are regularly asked or have received from you:


What are the Design Thinking rules?

Yes, there are rules in design thinking. These are principles that make it easier for all participants and ultimately lead to the best possible results. They are basically very simple, easy to remember – and are also very useful in the rest of life:

Design thinking rule 1: It’s the masses that make the difference!

Get your ideas out! – The more the better!
Why? It is said that – pi times thumb – there is one good idea for every ten. At 100, there are already ten…

Design thinking rule 2: Be inspired!

The others have great ideas too! Therefore: let yourself be inspired by the ideas of others and build on them!

Design thinking rule 3: Stay focused!

Who doesn’t know that? You’ve just been on a great trail – and then you suddenly end up on a side track… Concentrate on your task and help each other if you get off track!

Design Thinking Rule 4: Listen!

Sure, we all have good ideas, questions or comments. But be careful! Attention quickly frays and small discussion groups form. That is not expedient! Therefore: only one person speaks at a time – and the rest listen attentively.

Design Thinking Rule 5: Hold back with criticism!

In the course of the process, it becomes clear anyway whether an idea is attractive and practicable. After all, that’s what the process is there for. Sometimes it takes a little while to understand the merits of an idea. Many of us don’t dare go out the door with our ideas if we expect to be criticized immediately. For the participants, this means that not every idea has to be evaluated immediately. Leave the idea for now. Hold back with criticism!

Design Thinking Rule 6: Work visually!

In most cases, a sketch says more than two DIN A4 pages full of explanations. Or as the saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words. Make it easy for others to understand your ideas and communicate them as visually as possible!

Design Thinking Rule 7: Be brave and help others to be brave!

If we only ever follow well-trodden paths, we will never arrive at a new place. And if we want to invent something new, then we need bold, wild ideas! Boldly break new ground! And help your colleagues!

Design Thinking Rule 8: Fail early and often!

Things rarely work right away. It just takes time for something to get really good. The sooner you fail, the sooner you have the chance to try again. And the more often you fail, the more you can look around to see what other alternatives there are. A constructive
Error culture is the be-all and end-all.



How Design Thinking works



Does it make sense to train Design Thinking moderators in the company?

Yes. That makes perfect sense! It doesn’t matter how big your company is – the mindset that comes with the design thinking approach is an advantage in almost every situation: this agile mindset allows your employees to work faster, more flexibly and closer to the customer. A major advantage in our rapidly changing VUCA world.
You can always use people who can implement this mindset. Maybe your company doesn’t need to hire someone full-time for design thinking and agility. But it’s smart if you have someone in the company who can support innovation processes with 20-30% of their working time.
Sometimes a training course in agile methods is enough.
Just ask us what would be suitable for your company. We offer digital and face-to-face training and workshops!


Do the design thinking phases have to be run through one after the other?

In principle, one phase follows the other, one step after the other. The phases build on each other. However, if you realize while going through a phase that you don’t have all the information yet or that your idea doesn’t work, then you have to go back and start at an earlier phase (i.e. iteratively). This is intentional and completely normal in design thinking. So: you can always rewind, but not fast-forward.
To illustrate this with examples:
  • You are developing a product, have reached the idea phase and realize that you have forgotten something essential in the “Understand” phase, i.e. understanding the problem or question.
  • Or: In the “Empathize” phase, i.e. when you are dealing with the targeted customer group, you realize that your target clientele has changed radically and that you need to work in a different direction.
  • Or: you have developed the prototype, it doesn’t work and you have to start all over again.



Iteration Design Thinking



What criticism is there of design thinking?

It all sounds great, but have you heard that there is also criticism of design thinking? Yes, of course there are. What is it that is being criticized?
  • Design thinking is costly: it takes time and money.
  • It is often presented as the solution to all problems, but is only suitable for new developments.
  • The term Design Thinking is often used for short two-day workshops. However, this can at most be an introduction, but not an entire process.
  • Managers often want the benefits of Design Thinking, but are not prepared to make enough time available.
  • Design thinking is often practiced in a locked room, but without potential customers it does not have the desired effect.
  • There are many half-baked, homemade design thinking attempts that do not meet professional standards.
Tim Seitz took a critical look at design thinking in his book “Design Thinking and the New Spirit of Capitalism”.


Which methods support the design thinking process?

Oh, there really are many! If we wanted to describe them all in detail here, we would have to write at least one new article. Maybe we’ll do that too. Until then, here’s a list of the design thinking tools mentioned in the article
User interviews, user personas, user stories, empathy maps, how might we questions, brainstorming, brainwriting, sketches and diagrams, Crazy 8, the heat map, the cost-benefit matrix, prototypes…
You can find more design thinking methods at



What is Design Thinking



What are the paradigms of Design Thinking?

Diverse and interdisciplinary teams

Bring in as many points of view as possible: People from different departments, from inside and outside the company, with different backgrounds in terms of gender, origin, age, professional background.

User centricity: King customer

The aim is to ensure that the end user receives a result that is as useful as possible for them. Therefore, involve users in the development process.

Brainstorming and selection

Diverging and converging work
The first step is to find as much information as possible and later as many ideas as possible! Then comes the step of choosing: only take what is really good!

Ideas that can be experienced and evaluated

Let the customer experience the idea directly through prototypes and tests and give feedback on whether the idea works for them!


Do you have any questions about Design Thinking?

Yes? – Great! Simply write in the comments – or send us an e-mail. We look forward to answering your questions!



Result Design Thinking



Further reading on the topic of Design Thinking

Want to read a bit more about design thinking and related topics such as agile transformation, agile mindset and so on? – Then we have a small, fine selection of articles and studies for you here:

Own articles

Studies on Design Thinking

Publications on Design Thinking

The authors

Oliver Grätsch
Michelle 550
Michelle Templin
Christian Grätsch
Matthias Beikert
Susanne Grätsch
Monika Bt 550x550
Monika Steininger
Kai Hübner
Philipp Andresen 500x550
Philipp Andresen
Anna Isabell Arendt
Dr. Claudia Schmidt
Inga Kühn
Kassandra Knebel
Claudia Lehmann
Komplettes Team

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