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Product & Engineering

How Design Thinking Drives People-Focused Innovation at Duo: An Introduction

Part one in a three-part series on design thinking at Duo.

At Duo Security, customers love us because our zero-trust security platform is easy, effective and user-focused. While our culture of belonging helps us prioritize these values in our work, broader Cisco reaffirms and amplifies them through its design thinking program.

The Duo Blog chatted with Valeria Kanziuba, design thinking lead at Cisco Security, to learn about design thinking basics, how Cisco adapts design thinking best practices and applies them to everyday business problems, and why we offer design thinking training and resources to everyone at Cisco Security, which includes Duo.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a collection of processes, practices and mindsets for solving problems by placing people’s needs as the top priority. Rather than making assumptions about how people might engage with a product or service, design thinking draws insights from how people actually engage with them. Where traditional problem-solving follows a linear approach of identifying challenges and then brainstorming solutions, design thinking is an iterative process in which practitioners continue refining their solution to improve the user experience. It was first taught in the 1980s at Stanford University, and a decade later the design consulting firm IDEO adapted it for business purposes.

Valeria describes the building blocks of design thinking as empathy, creativity, collaboration and innovation. “These concepts might freak people out sometimes, like, ‘I’m not a creative person,’” she said. “But what I love about design thinking is that it gives such a simple, structured, pretty easy way to apply tools that help you to be innovative, creative, collaborative and empathetic.”

The five stages of design thinking

  • Empathize: Research your users’ needs

  • Define: State your users’ needs and problems

  • Ideate: Challenge assumptions and brainstorm ideas about the problem

  • Prototype: Start creating solutions

  • Test: Try out your solutions

Design thinking core principles

  • Empathy: Understand your users’ needs and motivations

  • Go wide: Explore many possibilities and approaches

  • Experimentation: Iterate and test your prototypes with real users

  • Diversity: Include various viewpoints during your exploration and experimentation

Valeria’s journey to design thinking and Cisco

Before getting into the specifics of how we do design thinking at Cisco Security, let’s take a moment to get to know Valeria. Whether you’re looking at Cisco Security as a whole, or more specifically at Duo, you’ll find team members who come from all sorts of backgrounds, including nontraditional roles outside of tech or cybersecurity. Valeria is a great example of someone without prior industry experience now thriving at Cisco Security.

“If anyone would have told me 10 years ago that I would be working at a tech company, I would’ve said, ‘Don’t talk to me anymore!’,” Valeria jokes. In fact, she studied linguistics and English language and literature in college in Ukraine. “I didn’t have a clue what design thinking was at all. I’d never worked in any formal design organization before, and I also never worked in the corporate environment. So my whole experience before was completely different.”

Before joining Cisco in 2017, Valeria and her husband ran a computer graphics and video games production company, where she focused on business administration, operations and development. She got her start at Cisco as program manager for the central design thinking program where, along with four teammates, she formalized and built the program across the whole company.

“When I joined the team, I just got super curious and really intrigued by what this methodology can do. Every time we had a workshop, one thing we constantly heard from people was, ‘That was so good! We were able to talk together and to hear each other. We had the space and the structure that allowed us to exchange so much information and do things together collaboratively.”

A year and a half later, Valeria transitioned into the role of program manager for design thinking specifically within the Design Transformation team of Cisco Security, ultimately becoming design thinking lead.

What is the Cisco design thinking framework?

Cisco’s approach to design thinking centers on three phases: Discover, define, explore. Valeria, who helped formalize and build the design thinking program across all of Cisco, has unique insight on what led to this approach: “What we saw when we were building the design thinking program is that we are very good at coming up with ideas and building solutions, but we don’t take enough time, effort and attention to properly articulate the problem that we’re solving for.”


The discover phase is about deeply understanding your users and their needs. “That’s where you figure out your business opportunity,” Valeria explains. “That’s where the empathy leads. That’s where you get into the shoes of the user and are trying to understand what the user is going through.”


The define phase is about identifying and prioritizing which of your users’ challenges you want to explore. “Once you understand where the opportunity is, now you start distilling the problems.”


The explore phase is about developing creative possibilities to address the problems to be solved “You’re exploring solutions, building prototypes, testing and all of that.”

The Cisco framework also takes two tenets of design thinking, Validate with Users and Make Things, and treats them as guardrails for the three phases. “No matter which phase you’re in, you can constantly — and you should constantly — be having that conversation with your user. And you should constantly be making something very simple that you can put in front of your users, so that you can keep in touch and you can check in if you’re on the right track.”

What kind of problems can design thinking help solve?

Design thinking originated with designers, but virtually any type of business can benefit from bringing the principles into its work. If you want to uncover users’ pain points, surface solutions for complex problems, or drive deeper innovation, design thinking helps to achieve that.

Valeria also emphasizes that design thinking isn’t limited to the business world — these principles also translate to personal life. “Start from something that’s near and dear to your heart. What’s one thing you’d want to work on to make it better?” For example, perhaps you’re planning a family gathering. “Literally break it down into a very simple problem, try to understand who the main stakeholders and users are, and apply empathy to solving that problem. Are you making a decision on your own, or are you talking to everyone who’s gonna be involved? Do they want to go out or prefer you to come to their house? You’ll see that when you start listening to other people and taking their situations and considerations into account, how much it can change.’”

How do design thinking principles uniquely benefit information security?

Valeria emphasizes the importance of understanding that we’re making products for real people experiencing real challenges. “We need to kind of shift our mind from this concept of, ‘I’m just building the product’ to the concept of, ‘I’m solving the problem for the human being.’” Design thinking helps ensure you’re solving for your users’ specific needs, not just making decisions based on personal experience or professional expertise.

We need to kind of shift our mind from this concept of, ‘I'm just building the product’ to the concept of, ‘I'm solving the problem for the human being.’

She also points out that in information security, people interact with technology and are impacted by incidents at many different levels. “It's complex, and it becomes more and more complex. Things change quickly, and there are new attacks and malicious actions appearing all the time. Like, how do you stay on top of that? You need to be a great designer to be able to figure out how we interact with all of that and take it into account. There’s no way that one person can solve for that, which is why collaboration and creativity is so important.”

Want to learn more about design thinking at Cisco?