Design Swarms: A Design Process With A Twist

On October 2016, at the Seattle Interactive Conference, the founders of Dupla Studios participated in Design Swarms: a design process with some interesting twists created and facilitated by Surya Vanka, Principal of Authentic. We spent 6 hours with groups of 7 people, most of whom had never met each other beforehand.

We felt inspired by the process and would like to share some key insights with our community of designers, technologists and innovators.


But First, Some Context:

The Problem

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.8 billion people drink from contaminated water sources, and 3.4 million die each year from water borne diseases such diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. If you stop and look at your watch for 90 seconds, it might be shocking to realize that during that time, a child died from drinking contaminated water.

The Tech

During this Design Swarms, we worked with the MSR Community Chlorine Maker, a device that allows communities in low-resource settings to take control of their own supply of drinking water by producing their own chlorine on-site. The device automatically manages the technical aspects of chlorination (such as the right proportions) so communities with no experience in chlorination can effectively treat water safely and reliably.

The Challenge

The proposed challenge for this day was to devise a disruptive approach by which the Community Chlorine Maker can become available to every low-resource community in Kenya.


The Design Swarms Process

The Design Swarms process borrows from the traditional user-centered design process as well as agile practices, but it adds some interesting twists, which we believe would be beneficial to any future design activities you might have. From a one-day intensive sprint, to one that lasts one month, to longer ones that last a few months — the process can be beneficial to your creative endeavors.

Step 1. One shared collaboration surface (Phase I: Orient)

Before joining our first Swarms, we were wondering what would we be using as a shared collaboration space. What kind of a tool could we use that would allow 7 people to contribute to a single solution?

The Design Swarms process provides an essential piece to start with: a shared collaboration surface that is not just a blank canvas. The Swarms organizers provided a map (actually 2 maps) guiding the team through the process, with some time-specific suggestions to keep us focused throughout the exercise, such as “Start with the person not the tech”. We found the maps both provocative and focusing, providing an invitation to fill-in all the blanks while keeping the group moving in a unified direction.

The Design Swarms collaboration canvases (Part 1 at the bottom and Part 2 at the top)

Step 2: Start by bonding with your team (Phase I: Orient)

A few days before the Design Swarms even started, the Swarms facilitator and leader Surya Vanka sent an e-mail to each team asking us to introduce ourselves to one another.

We followed the simple template for our introductions:

  • Who are you, what do you do, and where do you work?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What are you good at (What’s your superpower)?

Because of the intros, we already electronically knew about each other before sitting at the same table. That made the initial bonding a lot easier as we first sat down to work together.

The first activity at the Design Swarms was to post on the leftmost part of the canvas our team logo and name (which we had only a few minutes to come up with) as well as sticky notes with our individual self-assigned superpowers.

Some examples of the superpowers in one of the groups: Loving, empathy, observant, aware, conscious, creative thinking, translating insights into designs, project management, listening, adventurous.

At Dupla Studios, we believe that trust is the basis for every good team collaboration. We also believe that you will get the best out of a group by knowing and respecting each person‘s unique contribution to an effort.

Step 3. The design brief (Phase II: Frame)

After bonding with our newly-formed teams, we were given background on the problem we were about to tackle: how to reduce the number of illnesses and deaths due to the drinking of contaminated water in under-developed communities. More specifically, we were working with communities in Kenya.

The design brief had pretty much what we wrote at the start of this post: The Problem, The Tech and The Challenge.

Finally, the brief described the expectations of the outcome:

  • An evocative storyboard that brings our solution to life
  • A 15-second video tagged #designswarms
  • A 3-minute presentation

Ready? Set. Go!

Step 4. Interviews with Subject Matter Experts (Phase II: Frame)

We had to quickly understand the problem space, the technology and the culture of the place where the problem had to be solved (Kenya). We started by doing secondary research online but we also had access to a set of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

The interesting twist in this phase is this: We had 6 groups, limited time and a limited number of experts. Each group was provided a limited number of cards that we could use to trade for 10 minutes of consultation with an expert. The limited time with the experts made every question intense as we did not want to waste our time asking questions that did not move our ideas and understanding forward.

One note about the experts: Not all experts could help with every part of the Swarms. Choosing the right expert to talk to was a combination of where in the Swarms you spoke with the expert and their specific specialty. We found that their specialties weren’t clear, so we ended up talking to an engineer early in the process when most of our questions were about the people and the culture.

In retrospect, it became apparent that we needed 3 types of SMEs: Experts on the problem of distribution (operations experts), experts on the technology itself (the MSR Community Chlorine Maker) and experts on the culture of the people who will be using the solution (Kenya).

Step 5. The persona spectrum (Phase II: Frame)

It was then time to devise personas. Who will we be designing this for? We created a persona spectrum, starting from the least able persona (the one who needs it the most) to the one who needs it the least.

We asked ourselves: “Who are the people who can impact the problem?”. That helped us pick who we’d be designing for as well as scoping our solution. Naturally, these personas were based on limited secondary research and limited time with the SMEs, but they did provide a rough profile that we could use to make simple design decisions.

Step 6. Ideation and diversion (Phase III: Ideate)

Now it was time to ideate. Each team member had to come up with at least 7 ideas in a short amount of time. Having a short amount of time is crucial so you keep generating ideas without having the time to overthink any of them. This is roughly equivalent to the time in a classic design process where ideas diverge from one another.

During this phase, we were following the guidelines below:

Credits: Cindy Chang

The intriguing twist for this portion was that we not only wrote out an idea, but also added a simple illustration of the idea (as seen in “Be visual” above). This proved to be super helpful for us to be able to quickly identify an idea, group them with other affinities and see graphically those things that belonged together. It made it very fast to create affinity for ideas that may be combined together to form an even better idea.

Example of on of the team’s visual ideas.

Step 7. Steal like an artist (Phase III: Ideate)

Now that we had all those great ideas and they were easily communicated via the shared collaboration space, it was time to officially let them be stolen and also steal from others. Every group left one person on the table to explain the ideas on their home board, while the other people in the group went around stealing ideas from other teams.

There was only one rule that had to be followed: You needed to redraw the stolen idea and add it to your own board.

Step 8. Pick 5 most promising directions (Phase III: Ideate)

With the ideas on the board (stolen or not), it was time to start converging into the 5 most promising directions. Those were in written format, with specifics for each.

It followed the format:

  • What’s the main idea
  • What are some specifics about how that idea will be implemented

This is when the illustrations really paid off. It was easy to spot ideas that could be strung together or ideas that built on one another. We thought it made the convergent process much easier than the classic affinity diagramming with only text written on post-its.

Step 9. Written description of the decided direction (Phase IV: Iterate)

This is the time in the design process where we make our bet. We chose a direction that wove our best ideas into a cohesive story.

In this phase, we had a written description of the decided direction, which directly informed the final storyboard. Having a written description of all the key points in the story was essential to move from a bunch of ideas into a story line. It made the final process of storyboarding a lot faster and smoother.

Step 10. A storyboard that brings your solution to life (Phase V: Deliver)

The final delivery was a 12-frame storyboard that brought the solution to life. The storyboard had the selected persona as the main character and wove many of the previous ideas into a compelling story that we later presented in a short 3-minute presentation to a panel of judges.


It was a very interesting and fun exercise. Many of the twists were very useful even in a classic design process and we hope to leverage those in our own work. If you are interested in the outcome of past and future Swarms in the real world, you can get more information by contacting Surya Vanka on Twitter.

We thank Surya for the opportunity to have this experience and to provide us an avenue to put out some of our ideas for social change.