Newsletter || 2Q 2016

Design Thinking Tools & Activities

Sara Legg

Keywords: Design Thinking, Workshops, Ideation, Collaboration

In the past 8 months Quicksand has engaged in over 10 workshops across a variety of contexts in multiple countries. It can be easy to use the word ‘workshop’ as a catch-all term for structured activities with stakeholders. But in practice each workshop is a unique instance, unlike others before or after it. This can make it challenging to choose appropriate tools and activities.

The format and tools used in our design workshops are dictated by the intended output relative to the design thinking process, as well as the unique needs and concerns of the participants. Shared here are some high-level categories of design tools and ways of using them, as well as a selection of typical challenges encountered during workshops.

Ultimately, the most helpful approach is building a working knowledge of what the types of outputs tools may elicit and feedback you or others are seeking. One should also try to remain flexible, and encourage flexibility amongst those you are working with.

Deciding on tools

How do you decide what tool to bring to an ideation or co-creation session, whether it be a workshop, lab, or field test? The first obvious consideration is the phase of the design thinking process. Workshop activities are usually strategically placed along the project plan from the beginning, but they can also happen spontaneously. For example, a visioning workshop would be appropriate towards the beginning of a project, while an impromptu internal workshop with your team to gain clarity on how to proceed could happen at any point in the process.

Next, one must consider the input needed to generate collateral and activities for the workshop, as well as the anticipated outputs. If you’re conducting an ideation workshop, the inputs might include research data such as field recordings or usability test results, as well as synthesized instances of this data (e.g., personas or design principles). The outputs of an ideation workshop might be concept scenarios, experience prototypes, or any number of potential manifestations of design solutions. You’ll also want to know who is participating in the workshop, and what they will bring to the process. These are the starting points from which to choose tools and processes for workshops.

Tool Categories

When reflecting on tools utilized in workshops, four main categories of tools and three modes of engagement cover the majority, though not all, of our interactions in workshops.

Category 1: Guidance or Orientation Tools

These design tools include design principles or specific frameworks such as journey maps or service blueprints. This category could also include precedents that might help think critically about a potential offering. The idea here is to have something with which to align your ideas, like a checklist, to be sure you are on track.

Category 2: Assemblage or Mashup Tools

The tools included in this category would be matrices in which different types of information are measured against one another to create something new. Another tool included here is SCAMPER, an acronym that represents different ways of rethinking an idea.

In the end what appears to be most helpful is possessing a working knowledge of what tools may elicit the types of outputs and feedback you or others are seeking while being extremely flexible and encouraging flexibility among those you are working with.

Category 3: Tools for Arrangement

Affinity mapping or diagrams are the example par excellence of this. However, it is important to note that not all arrangement and clustering needs to be done with regard to affinities. It is helpful to arrange ideas or concepts in terms of disparities, cause and effect, or other relational connections that help uncover insights.

Category 4: Generative and Creative Tools

These tools include prompts for creative ideation such as ”How Might We?” questions and various scenarios, including role-playing and rough prototypes. Such prompts encourage participants to use their imagination, to speculate, to reflect on their learnings, and project possibilities into the future. I personally like to let go of any constraints when using these tools and allow myself to entertain wild or impractical ideas.

Consider your outputs

Tools and activities are structured objects that move along the workshop process, a process that is planned through different modes of engagement. The three most prominent modes appear to be: presentation and sharing, in which new and novel information is delivered to the group; discussion and dialogue or feedback, which includes critical analysis and synthesis; and capturing, the documentation and representation of those things generated during the workshop. These modes of engagement are not linear and tend to overlap each other.

Above all, stay flexible

The above is a bare bones framework that gets at the general structure of most workshops, but the application of a tool or process is always dictated by the context. This process isn’t always so neat, things change on the fly, tools can be confusing, and activities may take longer than they were intended to. Drawn out activities can mean participants are much more engaged than expected, and it’s when workshops move too fast or get stuck that there is a problem. Re-molding a workshop process while it is taking place is not unusual and it should be expected that the facilitator will have to further tailor activities to the participants’ needs.

Designers’ roles may be constantly shifting throughout the workshop. This is especially the case in co-creative workshops, which characterise most if not all of the workshops Quicksand initiates and facilitates. I like to think of co-creation in workshops with regard to anthropology’s participant observation (or ethnography), where participants are both watching and doing, and in turn learning from doing. The key here, as mentioned above, is flexibility – in adapting tools at a moment’s notice, in shifting the mode of engagement between participation, observation, and documentation.

Workshops are spaces in which many different types of participants are meant to contribute their understanding of the problem and also contribute to part of the solution. We seek to not only solve problems or generate ideas around challenges, but prompt people to think of new ways of existing, new possibilities, and empower them to see those possibilities through.

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