Design Sessions

Conducting a High-ROI 30-Minute Session

Thomas Drach
Jun 8, 2018 · 5 min read

If you’re familiar with Design Sprints or Human Centered Design, a Design Session will feel familiar. The idea is to borrow some of these concepts, but instead of designing a product and building a prototype, our goal is to gain some quality insight on a question or problem in 30 minutes. Maybe even solve the challenge represented in the prompt. Here’s how it works →


In a Design Session you will present a prompt, spend time ideating, then vote on the ideas and draw some conclusions. The Design Session happens in three phases:

  • Phase One—Prompt & Ideation
  • Phase Two—Voting
  • Phase Three—Conclusion

We’ll go into detail about each phase. But first, a little preparation.

Gather your materials

  • You’re going to need some Post-it Notes. I’d budget for ~20–30 Post-it Notes for each person, but it’s good to have plenty extra. You’ll use them another time.
  • Sticky dots. These are for the voting portion. These 3/8" — 1/4" dots of varying colors work the best.
  • A timer. A large visual timer like Timer Tab will work well.
  • A large board or display. For the question or prompt.

Create your prompt

As the ring leader, you need a prompt to work on with the team. This can be an area you’d like more insight, or it could be a known problem that you want to make progress on. It could also be as simple as: where should we go on our next team retreat?

Design Sessions are quick and valuable, so don’t worry about finding the perfect prompt. Any prompt will give you insight so long as you follow the process. Here are some examples:

Phase One—10 minutes

Display the prompt large on a wall. You want this prompt to be the focal point of the session. Setup a timer to run for 10 minutes. The environment should be focused and mostly quiet. It doesn’t need to be a library, but we want individual’s ideas without any judgement of others or group bias.

Instructions for the team: We’re going to complete a Design Session today, this happens in three phases. First, we’re going to spend 10 minutes ideating on the prompt. During this ten minutes, the goal is to write down words, and short phrases; or draw any thoughts, ideas, and potential solutions to the prompt presented. Keep it succinct and loose. Don’t worry about having fully formed thoughts, you want to be free flowing and creative.

Get as many stickies as you can. Once you’re done with yours, feel free to post them on the wall or whiteboard around the room so the rest of the team can see them. When the ten minutes are up, writing utensils down.

Pro Tip: If you’re not familiar with the Yes! AND concept, it would be worth reading on and introducing to the team to create the proper environment for this work. It’s important to communicate there are no wrong answers.

Phase Two—10 minutes

You did it! Now time for Phase Two. This phase is quiet-ish as well, we don’t want too much groupthink. Set the timer again for 10 minutes.

Instructions for the team: During this 10 minutes, we’re going to walk around the room and vote on your favorite ideas. You vote by placing a colored dot on the sticky note you favor. Here’s the key: you have a limited amount of votes (by the number of sticky dots you have), but, you can vote more than once on a single sticky. In fact, you can vote as many times as you like.

Give each team member ~1–2 dots per sticky for voting. The idea is to let the best ideas and thoughts rise to the top. Someone once asked me if the process was endangered by people voting too much on their own ideas. I haven’t seen this play out negatively. People can vote on their own ideas, but in my experience, the swell is not large enough to make a difference, by the time you get to Phase Three, it will be clear what ideas hold weight.

Phase Three—10 minutes

As the moderator, this is your time to shine. You’re going to go around the room and find the stickies with the most votes. Count the individual dots if you have to, and pick the top ~5 stickies.

Pro Tip: When I do this, I often group similar ideas together. If one person wrote “I think we should rent a bouncy castle”, and another wrote “inflatable obstacle course”, I’ll combine these ideas to focus the discussion. You can argue semantics another time.

After you group the stickies and pick out the top few, have a brief discussion with the team. Given the prompt, you now have ~5 ideas that were suggested individually, voted on, and are now being grouped and discussed, all under 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter if the ideas are 100% valid. This is also a great time—now that it’s over—to address actions and next steps.

This phase is the real meat of the whole exercise. It’s exciting to watch the ideas come together, find the patterns, and have a discussion with the team. Don’t be shy about the discussion, this is a great place to air it out.


After this process, you should walk away with one or two well-vetted ideas that answer or get closer to a solution for your prompt. It doesn’t always make sense, but a clear, actionable goal can be defined after Phase Three. You can hold someone accountable for an action after this exercise to keep the ball rolling. Conclude with high fives, and a hard earned food object.

Could this process be improved in any way? If you tried this, let me know how it went. Here’s a full list of resources:



Thomas Drach

Written by

Thinking really, really hard.

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