How might we use Design Thinking at The National Archives?

Diego Lago
The National Archives Digital
8 min readApr 16, 2020


A group of project team members working together

The second Medium post of a three-article series on Strategy, Design Thinking and Ideation for Project Alpha.

Why Design Thinking?

There are countless articles on Medium about Design Thinking articles. So I want to focus here on why we felt it was the right framework for collaboration between The National Archives (TNA) and Digirati and what it has helped us produce during the project’s discovery phase.

In my previous article, we described the overarching vision for TNA’s Project Alpha:

‘To reimagine what TNA might be on the web’

‘Tackling some of the issues and challenges we know we’ve got but also what we can do beyond that to test our riskier assumptions.’

John Sheridan, Digital Director, The National Archives

A vision like this requires innovation. And Design Thinking proposes itself as a skill that activates innovation. Marty Neumeier, American author and speaker who writes on the topics of brand, design, innovation, and creativity expressed it best when highlighting the difference between traditional business processes and Design Thinking: in traditional business processes, the moment an organisation identifies a problem, they immediately get busy at solving it. They ‘know’ something then they ‘do’ something about it.

The problem with traditional business processes such as this is that your strategic and execution choices could be limited to only what has been done before.

Design Thinking is different. It adds an extra step between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’: making.

The ‘making’ step is about combining reflection, imagination and prototyping to expand the range of what we know and therefore the range of what we can do. And that is key to facilitating innovation in a team.

But… what is design anyway?

In this context, we don’t mean design as decoration, beautification or styling. Borrowing from Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate and pioneer of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a designer is:

anyone who devises ways to change existing situations into preferred ones

Notice the missing words ‘artist’, ‘styling’ or ‘artefacts’. Using this definition, anyone in an organisation can be a designer.

And that is what we have been doing in Project Alpha at TNA. During the discovery and alpha phases of the project, we have worked collaboratively with subject matter experts, people from across all departments in TNA and the project team made of both TNA and Digirati’s digital experts to explore and design solutions to the main problems users encounter when interacting with TNA’s website.

The double-diamond of Design Thinking

The diagram below represents the process of exploring an issue more widely and deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking).

A diagram illustrating the phases of Design Thinking
The Design Thinking double diamond combines divergent and convergent thinking to go from business aims to unmet user needs and then to viable solutions.

The alternating stages of divergent and convergent thinking are known as:

  1. Discover ‐ the first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume, what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.
  2. Define ‐ the insight gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.
  3. Develop ‐ the second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.
  4. Deliver ‐ involves testing out different solutions at small-scale, rejecting those that will not work and improving the ones that will.

Mapping the double-diamond to the GDS Agile framework

The National Archives of the UK is a non-ministerial government department so there were many technology and digital standards from the Government Digital Service (GDS) that we were required to follow, such as utilising discovery and alpha phases to frame how we develop an understanding of user needs, and explore and test initial solutions.

And this GDS framework closely maps to sections of the Design Thinking double-diamond:

  • GDS’ discovery matches the first diamond: moving from business aims by collecting user insights and spotting opportunities to having a defined number of unmet user needs to focus on during the alpha phase.
  • GDS’ alpha is the stage for trying out different solutions to the riskiest problems we learnt about during discovery. And this is closely mapped to the first half of the second diamond.

What we did during discovery

Following the shape of the first diamond, our focus on the discovery phase was to:

  • determine the project goals
  • conduct user research
  • develop personas
  • map key user journeys
  • establish user insights
  • co-create How Might We (HMW) statements

Now I will describe the methodologies and learnings from establishing user insights and HMW statements, the final two elements from our core discovery activities.

Establishing user insights

The focus of this project was around two persona types:

  • First-time/less confident users
  • Non-users

The project team had a debrief session with the user researchers to break down the findings from the user interviews and the resulting personas documentation.

The session was essential for us — we saw the creation of user insights as a collaborative pursuit of understanding. The risk of not bringing everyone in the team to understand what users were saying and doing is that quality suffers and most of the user research effort is lost. To make a positive change, to innovate, we needed everyone formulating user insights.

So we followed a conventional format for these user insights, just three sentences to describe:

  • the current situation and the incumbent user behaviour
  • the dilemma the user has and a clear articulation of why this is a frustration in their life
  • the user’s desired end-state, their ideal situation

An example from this exercise is below:

When a first-time user encounters our digital services they don’t know what we have and what we do (the current situation).

The first-time user is confused and unsure — ‘does TNA have what I’m looking for?’ (the dilemma the user has).

The first-time user understands what TNA is, does and holds, without being overwhelmed (the ideal user’s situation).

We have uncovered fifteen user insights across the project’s two personas. Rather than listing every single one in this article, here are some of the user insight themes we established:

  • understanding TNA’s offering
  • understanding a record/expectation to see record
  • where to start the journey
  • making sense of our search results
  • how to continue the journey
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • understanding topics & themes

Co-creating How Might We (HMW) statements

So we had a number of user insights but, as insightful as these were, the format is not entirely suitable for ideation. So we took them further by creating How Might We statements. HMWs are better suited to ideation than user insights as they turn those user insights around and frame them as opportunities or alternatives.

The practice is well-known amongst strategic and design consultancy firms and it’s not that new.

The format offers a simple language tweak to unlock creativity:

  • “How” assumes that there are solutions out there
  • “Might” suggest the group can put ideas out there that may or may not work — either is ok
  • “We” suggests the group is going to do it together, building on the inputs of each other

Another advantage of the method is that a single user insight can be reframed in many different ways, enabling the team to consider more than one possibility.

Below are a few examples we came up with:

  • HMW convey key principles of how an archive works so the user can frame what they are looking at?
  • HMW make users understand that they are seeing the record description rather than the record itself?
  • HMW make users feel that uncertainty is OK at the start?
  • HMW provide unobtrusive but relevant help to assist a user to make the right choice?
  • HMW make it clear that we have what they are looking for — but we call it something else?

So we ran two workshops to look at HMWs — one for each persona and their associated user insights. The biggest challenge though was making the most of the sessions with a considerable number of participants. The last section of this article is about how we facilitated those sessions and the main co-design techniques we used.

The logistics of facilitating large teams

Working alone together

Bringing subject matter experts, people from other TNA departments and our own project team members meant that we have to deal with a considerable number of participants during the workshops. ‘How might we’ ensure everyone’s voice (and thoughts) are heard?

We introduced the team to the concept of ‘working alone together’ as described in the Design Sprint book. The idea is that you have your team sitting in the same place, but working individually in silence.

The premise is that traditional brainstorming sessions simply don’t work. During those, discussions can go on and on without achieving much. And we all know what tends to happen during these discussions: ideas get shouted out, there might be people dominating others: when they talk, everyone shuts up. You don’t achieve true collaboration that way. And forget innovation!

Working alone together allowed every team member to concentrate and think, expressing their own ideas clearly and openly.

Clustering themes

We encouraged every thought — in this case — every HMW — to be written on a single 5x3 sticky note. The output was huge. Over 600 HMW statements were created by the team over the course of two workshops.

Clearly there was going to be some overlapping of ideas. That’s why at the end of each session we clustered them into themes. But, as each original user insight had an average of 40 HMWs and time was precious, we distributed the workload: rather than having the facilitator going through each HMW, smaller groups worked in parallel clustering different sets of sticky notes. In the end, each group described to everyone else what themes they uncovered in their own set. That was also an opportunity to clarify things as a team.

Team members working in pairs and clustering how might we statements written on sticky notes
Team members grouping HMW statements into themes

Summing up

Design Thinking aligns extremely well with the way the GDS framework sets out its discovery and alpha phases and so proved an ideal fit for TNA’s Project Alpha. Design Thinking also allows for interdisciplinary teams to bring their different opinions and experiences to explore opportunities informed by business goals and user needs.

Those user needs, when reframed as HMW statements, can help to unlock innovation. In the next article of this series, I will describe the different ideation methods we used to take those HMWs and come up with solutions to start exploring and testing with users.