Choosing gifts this festive period using a design thinking approach

Choosing gifts that hit the mark can be tricky! Here’s a guide on how to buy unforgettable presents using a design thinking approach…

Choosing gifts this festive period using a design thinking approach

Choosing gifts that hit the mark can be tricky! Here’s a guide on how to buy unforgettable presents using a design thinking approach…

Meet the author

Jamie Appleton


We are fast approaching the most wonderful, but often stressful, time of the year. The task of choosing gifts for loved ones, distant relatives, and a Secret Santa gift for a little-known colleague has “problem” written all over it. But business consultants love a dilemma and we’ve put our elf hats on to find a solution. For this festive task, we’re going to use a user-centred design process.

What is a user-centred design process?

The ‘design thinking’ approach is a framework created to help tackle what are known as ‘wicked’ problems where the answer remains undefined, complex, and ever-changing. This sums up my Christmas shopping list nicely.  

In reality, user-centred design approaches are used by entrepreneurs, businesses, and governments worldwide to design products and services that get closer to user needs and ultimately satisfy customers. 

Here, we outline a five-stage process to choosing gifts that help solve problems and hopefully delight this festive period.


Step 1 Empathise: Conduct research to gain an understanding of your user to help with choosing gifts

Empathy This is the opportunity to find out what the gift recipient (user) feels, their fears, pains, and what they love. To do this, you’ll need to conduct some user research.

Option 1 – Interview:

While you can just ask “what do you want for Christmas?” it ruins the element of surprise and overall user experience. You may have to be more discreet by striking up conversations with your recipient in an attempt to discover their unknown interests or wean out any accidental hints. Ask exploratory questions to understand their problems and motivations to help you understand their needs.

Option 2 – Direct observation:

This could be difficult if you barely know them or have fleeting interactions. If it’s a Secret Santa, following a colleague around the office and observing them while they make their morning coffee is unlikely to be a fruitful venture and might raise a few alarm bells. Instead, get in touch with one of their close colleagues to fill you in on their interests outside of work. Upon receipt of their gift, they will be left thinking “how did they know?”

Step 2 Define: Combine your research to work out where your user’s problems exist

Hopefully, your exploratory research has helped you understand more about the recipient’s problems and needs. Now it’s time to think about what we want the present to do. Is it a practical or funny gift that brings joy, does it evoke a memory, or will it solve a problem? This process should be based on an amalgamation of all the qualitative and quantitative data gathered. Here it is probably best to whittle down your findings to a particular area, for example food and drinks, a gadget, or an experience. It’s also important at this stage to think about how you will present the gift and the message you will put in the card for a more personalised, end-to-end user experience. 

Step 3 Ideate: Generate a range of crazy and creative ideas

Now it’s time to be creative and look at the market. Go shopping and search the internet to see what is out there. Compare and contrast. This will help you understand what is available and perhaps change your perceptions. However, as we know, shops don’t always have exactly what we want, so we might need to get creative and build or craft a more tailored (and eco-friendly) ideation. 

Step 4 Prototype: Rapid changing of more than one idea to improve the gift 

By now we should have a good idea of what we’re going to buy or make and perhaps we’ve already made some purchases. Run the gift by people and stew it over with some final checks. Remember the recipient’s close colleague you spoke to? It’s time for them to re-enter the frame with their final verdict. Link the gift to the emotions you targeted in the define stage.  Has it met these goals? Make sure you keep your receipts so that you can change the gift if you receive negative feedback (perhaps you’ve gone for a pair of shoes that are completely the wrong size). If you’ve gone down the homemade arts and crafts route, dig out any items that will help you add some finishing touches.

Step 5 Test: Hand over your present and get feedback on the product for improvement when choosing gifts next Christmas

Handing over your gift to the user is the moment of truth. In a traditional, cut-throat consumer market, this can be a difficult stage if the product doesn’t land well with customers. For the Christmas shopper, we’re unlikely to get a poor review, but it could be a difficult moment if:  

1- The gift completely bombs. No matter how hard you’ve tried to understand your user, you haven’t been able to find the perfect gift to meet their needs.

2- You detect a giveaway ‘look’ or forced smile that tells you you’ve probably just missed the mark this time.

If the gift hasn’t gone down well, capture as much feedback as possible. Remember the emotions, comments, and how it made them feel and take this feedback into next year’s Christmas present design process. 

By presenting Christmas shopping through a consultant’s lens, I know we have slightly undersold our festive fun side – honestly, we do know how to leave work in the office and have a good Christmas! But most of us, consultant or not, shop in this way to a greater or lesser extent, unless we’ve left everything to the last minute! We hope that by presenting you with a tick list of how to find the best presents, you can hit the shops and internet with confidence. And if your gifts don’t land well this year, the key is to learn from your mistakes so that you smash it in 2023.

Happy shopping!

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