Six excellent Design Thinking workshops

Design Thinking is a powerful framework for innovation and collaboration. In my role as a Design Thinking facilitator, I’m asked to lead workshops to help teams in both of these areas. These are six of the most common types of workshops I lead.

  1. Innovation!
  2. Iterative improvements for existing products and services
  3. Team alignment, shared understanding, and agreement
  4. Move ideas from Concept-to-Code
  5. Answer “why does no one wants this?” and “what do they actually want?”
  6. Co-creation with users
Note on workshops: Design thinking is more than just “workshops.” In my world, workshops help bend a team’s process towards an iterative, human-centered approach. A workshop might kick off that journey and may also appear intermittently on that journey.
Workshop in action

1. Innovation!

Innovation! means brand new offerings, products, or services, or the “Blue Ocean” type of innovation. These workshops tends to be the most naturally exciting application of design thinking. Nothing gets a group of people more pumped up than a blank whiteboard just waiting for an outpouring of audacious ideas. First drafts of these ideas tend to feel very much like 30-second infomercials.

These sessions tend to start with a massive mixing of ideas. I love LUMA’s creative matrix, which crosses triggers (e.g. blockchain or mobile apps) against a variety of personas (e.g. millennials or home chefs.) This generates a whirlwind of post-it notes. Then we zoom in on a certain subset of ideas, perhaps with a importance/feasibility grid, or by dot voting, or my personal favorite, pick the idea you would personally defend. Then we flesh out these raw ideas with a concept poster or a story board. This allows a user to quickly make sense of the rough idea and give feedback. The team can then start learning by going through various levels of prototyping fidelity.

2. Iterative improvements for existing products and services

This is Innovation!’s less sexy sibling. But if innovation gets all the glory, iterative improvements is where the real action is at. An overwhelming number of innovation ideas don’t end up going anywhere, while there are many, many products and services on the market that can use some improvement. Here we tend to look at how a user experiences our product or service today and what we might do to make it better tomorrow. We are likely constrained by a variety of existing variables when thinking about how we might make changes.

For this workshop, we’ll often start by examining our user’s current experience with an as-is journey map. We highlight pain points and bright spots and brainstorm how to improve them. Then we make a second to-be journey map which shows what experience we want to create. Then, much like innovation, the team begins testing and experimenting.

3. Team alignment, agreement, and shared understanding

Design thinking is best done with cross-functional teams who can consider a problem from a wide variety of perspectives. For my product teams at IBM, we tend to have, at a minimum, a designer, software engineer, and product manager participate in the workshop. The relevant people will change depending on the needs of the workshop and the organization.

Design thinking is useful for making sure many voices are heard from within the team (not just the loudest or most-well compensated or the ones coming from people with important titles.) IBM strives for diverse and empowered teams and design thinking helps us get there. Design thinking can also help teams balance the needs between long-term transformations and short-term iterations.

4. Move ideas from Concept-to-Code

Many good ideas generated from a design thinking workshop end up never having an impact on the product or service. That’s because there wasn’t a meaningful way to discuss the nuts and bolts of what would be built. User Story Mapping connects the dots between design thinking and agile development. It works by having the team focus ever more finely on the details and outcomes of a particular workshop decision. And it isn’t all just about code — any sort of idea, process, product, or service will benefit from thinking through some of the nitty-gritty details of the implementation while the team is all together.

5. Answer “why does no one wants this?” and “what do they actually want?”

Occasionally a company will run with an idea and launch it into the market only to see the product or service flounder and fail. Usually the product team built something that functionally works, so that’s not the problem. Design thinking is in a really good position to answer this type of question because design thinking tools are specifically good at figuring out what motivates people and why.

These “no one wants this” workshops tend to look a lot like workshops from #2 — iterative improvements. We try to understand what problem the original product was trying to solve and then hopefully pivot to a problem the user is experiencing more acutely.

Related to this question is one I often hear from other designers — “how do we pitch the value of design into a large organization, like IBM, the federal government, or a large philanthropy?” I think these two questions match up really well.

What’s the value of design?” can be answered by showing how design can solve the riddle of “why don’t people want this?” And even better, design can help answer a more formidable question — “what product or experience would delight someone?”

6. Co-creation with users

Involving the end user in the creation of the product or service is the most likely way to find success for endeavors that involve humans. That’s why IBM puts sponsor users at the heart of the design thinking process. Workshops with end users tend be heavy on making and prototyping. Before the workshop the team will come up with different ideas for what to put in front of the user to solicit feedback. And while we are in the same room as the user, we can go one or two steps forward with rapid prototyping. These workshops are quite fun because you never know exactly which direction they are going to go!

Conclusion (Find a facilitator!)

All of these types of workshops are highly effective, real world value examples of design thinking in action. And all of them will work better when run by an experienced design facilitator. For more on that, see my Call for Design Thinking Facilitators.

Design thinking sometimes seems like a magic bullet that can miraculously align a team around an exciting idea and guide that team in bringing the idea to fruition. These six workshops are tools that I commonly use to bring the magic to life.