two people standing in front of a paper workshop journey map

A guide to design thinking workshops

October 17, 2023

Design thinking workshops are a powerful tool for fostering a team's creativity, problem-solving, and customer-centric solutions. In this article, we will explore the essence of design thinking workshops and their role in driving innovation. We'll also provide insights on how to organize and optimize these workshops for maximum impact.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking, also called service design, is a human-centered approach to problem-solving that places empathy, experimentation, and collaboration at its core. It encourages teams to address complex challenges by considering the end-users' needs, exploring a wide range of ideas, and iterating through solutions.

Design thinking emphasizes four key stages:

  1. Research: discovery and exploration
  2. Ideation: creation and concept design
  3. Prototyping: reflection and testing
  4. Implementation: roll-out and change management

For details, check out our article about the process of service design.

Design thinking offers the benefit of fostering innovative solutions by putting the end user at the center of the design process, resulting in products and services that better meet their needs. Additionally, it promotes a collaborative and iterative approach, allowing teams to adapt and refine their ideas, ultimately saving time and resources in the long run.

Workshops play a crucial role in the design thinking process by enabling cross-functional teams to brainstorm, prototype, and test ideas together. They provide a structured environment .

The Benefits of Design Thinking Workshops

Design thinking workshops provide a structured environment for teams: idea generation, encouraging diverse perspectives, facilitating rapid idea iteration – workshop enhance the effectiveness of the design thinking approach.

Here are some key benefits of conducting design thinking workshops:

  • Enhanced Problem Solving: Design thinking encourages teams to dig deep into problems, resulting in innovative, customer-focused solutions.
  • Cross-functional Collaboration: These workshops bring together individuals from various backgrounds, fostering diverse perspectives and collective wisdom.
  • Improved Communication: Teams learn to communicate and collaborate more effectively, breaking down silos and enhancing overall teamwork.
  • Rapid Prototyping: Prototyping allows for quick testing of ideas, reducing the risk of investing in solutions that may not work.
  • Customer-Centricity: The process keeps the end-users at the forefront, ensuring that solutions address their actual needs.

What's the process of a Design Thinking Workshop?

Conducting a design thinking workshop can be a valuable way to foster innovation and solve complex problems by focusing on human-centered design.

This is what teams together with their facilitators usually do in the run of a workshop:

  1. Define the Problem: Start by identifying a specific problem or challenge that you want to address through the Design Thinking workshop. Make sure the problem is well-defined and relevant to your particip
  2. Assemble a Diverse Team: Form a diverse group of participants with various backgrounds, skills, and perspectives. This diversity can lead to more creative solutions.
  3. Set Objectives: Clearly define the objectives of the workshop, including what you aim to achieve by the end of it. This will guide your facilitation and help participants understand the goals.
  4. Choose a Facilitator: Appoint a facilitator who is experienced in Design Thinking methodology. They will guide the workshop, keep participants on track, and encourage a collaborative atmosphere.
  5. Plan the Agenda: Create a detailed agenda for the workshop, specifying activities, timeframes, and any required materials. Common activities include empathy interviews, ideation sessions, prototyping, and testing.
  6. Provide Context: Start the workshop by providing participants with context and background information related to the problem they will be addressing.
  7. Empathize: Begin with an empathy phase where participants try to understand the problem from the perspective of the end-users or stakeholders. This often involves conducting interviews or surveys.
  8. Define: Help the participants define the problem statement based on their empathy findings. Make sure the problem is clearly articulated and agreed upon by the group.
  9. Ideate: Encourage creative brainstorming and idea generation. Use techniques like brainstorming, mind mapping, or SCAMPER to explore a wide range of possible solutions.
  10. Prototype: Turn the selected ideas into physical or digital prototypes. These should be low-fidelity representations of the proposed solutions, designed to test and refine the concepts.
  11. Test: Gather feedback by testing the prototypes with potential users or stakeholders. Analyze the results and use them to iterate and improve the designs.
  12. Iterate: Repeat the ideate, prototype, and test steps as necessary. Design Thinking is an iterative process, and you may need several rounds to arrive at the best solution.
  13. Share and Present: Have participants present their final solutions to the group. This can involve storytelling, visual presentations, or interactive demonstrations.
  14. Reflect and Learn: After the workshop, conduct a reflection session to discuss what worked well and what could be improved for future Design Thinking efforts.
  15. Implement and Monitor: Once a solution is chosen, work on implementing it and monitoring its success in real-world scenarios. Continue to refine and adapt as needed.
  16. Document the Process: Keep detailed records of the workshop activities, including notes, sketches, prototypes, and feedback. This documentation can be valuable for future reference and improvement.
  17. Follow Up: Stay in touch with participants to ensure the designed solutions are effectively addressing the problem and to make adjustments as necessary.

If you need to facilitate a design thinking workshop: here's an in-depth article and presentation for workshop facilitators.

Remember that Design Thinking is a flexible and adaptable process, so feel free to tailor the workshop to your specific needs. Encourage collaboration and open communication throughout the workshop to foster a creative and user-centric approach to problem-solving.

Design Thinking Workshop Exercises

Design Thinking workshops typically involve a variety of exercises and activities to foster creativity, problem-solving, and a human-centered approach to design. These exercises help participants better understand the problem, generate innovative ideas, and prototype and test potential solutions.

Here are some common Design Thinking workshop exercises:

  • User Personas: Create user personas to develop a shared understanding of the target audience. These personas represent the characteristics and needs of potential users.
  • Journey Mapping: Chart the user's journey through a particular process or experience to identify pain points and opportunities for improvement.
  • Crazy 8s: Participants fold a piece of paper into eight sections and generate eight quick ideas or sketches in eight minutes. This exercise encourages fast and creative thinking. Sometimes teams also conduct dedicated journey mapping workshops.
  • Storyboarding: Create a visual narrative of a solution using a series of images or sketches. Storyboards help participants visualize the user experience.
  • Card Sorting: Organize and prioritize ideas or concepts by having participants sort and categorize cards with various elements related to the problem.
  • Affinity Mapping: Group related ideas or insights together using sticky notes. This exercise helps identify common themes and patterns.
  • Paper Prototyping: Create low-fidelity prototypes using paper, cardboard, and other simple materials to quickly test and iterate on ideas.
  • Role Play and Scenarios: Act out potential user scenarios to understand how users might interact with a product or service.
  • Gallery Walk: Participants move around the room, reviewing and discussing each other's work and ideas, which can lead to cross-pollination of concepts.
  • Role Reversal: Encourage participants to think from the perspective of an end-user or a stakeholder to gain a fresh perspective on the problem.
My most powerful tools are drawn from theater. It’s important to remember that most of a theater is backstage, so I mostly use techniques from the rehearsal room – and from improvisation – to research, ideate, prototype, and implement change in organizations. I also use them to empower the teams that do it.
From an interview with Adam Lawrence, service design facilitator
  • Pitch Presentation: Have participants pitch their ideas to the group as if they were seeking funding or approval. This exercise helps refine and communicate ideas effectively.
  • 3-12-3 Brainwriting: Each participant writes three ideas in three minutes, shares them with a group, and then receives feedback, leading to three more ideas in the next round.
  • Speed Dating: In a quick-paced exercise, participants rotate, sharing and discussing their ideas with different team members to gain diverse perspectives.
  • Idea Selection: Participants use a structured method, like dot voting or the 2x2 matrix, to collectively select the most promising ideas to pursue.
  • Brainstorming: Encourage free-flowing idea generation by using techniques like traditional brainstorming, brainwriting, or silent brainstorming. The goal is to generate a wide range of potential solutions.
  • Design Critiques: Encourage open and constructive critique sessions where participants provide feedback on each other's work.

These exercises should be selected and adapted based on the specific objectives and challenges of your Design Thinking workshop. The key is to maintain a dynamic and interactive atmosphere that promotes creative problem-solving and a focus on the user's needs.

For more inspiration on methods and exercises you could use in your workshop, visit the TISDD service design method library – there you get a great collection of methods, for the different workshop stages – for free.

What are the best tools for Design Thinking Workshops

There are numerous tools available to facilitate and enhance Design Thinking workshops. The best tools for your workshop may depend on your specific needs and the preferences of your team, but here are some commonly used and effective tools:

Whiteboards and Markers

Traditional whiteboards or whiteboard walls are great for sketching, mapping, and brainstorming. You can also use whiteboard markers to jot down ideas, draw diagrams, and facilitate group discussions.

Design Thinking Templates and Sticky Notes

Pre-made templates for various design thinking activities are available online and can be printed or used digitally. These templates can help structure and guide the workshop. For example, templates for user personas and journey maps can help you empathize with your customers and better understand their experience.

Select tools based on your team's familiarity and the nature of your project. Remember that the most important aspect of a Design Thinking workshop is the human-centered approach, creative problem-solving, and collaboration, so use the tools that best support these objectives.

Color-coded sticky notes are often used alongside these templates for brainstorming and organizing ideas. They can be easily moved, grouped, and reorganized, making them a valuable tool for ideation and affinity mapping.

Tools like Sharpies, colored pens, and drawing templates can help participants express ideas visually.

Design Thinking Software Platforms

Miro: A digital whiteboard platform that offers collaboration features, templates, and integration with various tools. It can also be used for activities like brainstorming and mind mapping.

Mural: Similar to Miro, MURAL provides a digital canvas for visual collaboration, design thinking, and brainstorming.

Smaply: Unlike the whiteboards Miro and Mural, Smaply is a solution that provides you with more structure and guidance. You can structure your findings and use Smaply to take them further down the innovation road, managing projects from there. As a journey mapping tool, Smaply is especially useful for customer journey mapping workshops.

Prototyping Tools

Balsamiq: A wireframing tool for creating low-fidelity prototypes.

InVision: A platform for creating interactive and high-fidelity prototypes.

Sketch: A digital design tool for creating user interfaces and prototypes.

Figma: A cloud-based design tool that allows real-time collaboration on design projects.

User Research Tools

User Interviews: A platform for conducting user interviews and collecting feedback.

SurveyMonkey: A tool for creating and distributing surveys to gather user data.

UserTesting: A platform for remote usability testing.

Collaboration and Communication Tools

Slack: For real-time communication and file sharing within the team.

Zoom or Microsoft Teams: For video conferencing and virtual collaboration.

Trello or Asana: Project management tools to keep track of tasks and project progress.

Presentation and Documentation Tools

Microsoft PowerPoint or Google Slides: For creating and delivering presentations.

Google Docs or Microsoft Word: For documenting workshop details, findings, and action items.

Physical Prototyping Materials

Depending on your project, you may need physical prototyping materials such as cardboard, clay, paper, or other craft supplies.

In a nutshell

Design thinking workshops are instrumental in fostering creativity and innovation by bringing diverse teams together to collaboratively tackle complex problems.

By creating a structured environment that promotes empathy, brainstorming, and prototyping, these workshops empower participants to understand end users' needs deeply and develop human-centric solutions.

The iterative nature of workshops allows teams to swiftly refine their ideas, driving efficiency and ensuring that the final product or service is better aligned with user expectations.

Overall, design thinking workshops serve as a vital catalyst for innovation and problem-solving in today's dynamic business landscape.

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