Editorial || June 2016

Quicksand’s Workshops & Ideation Sessions

Kevin Shane

Keywords: Workshops, Human-Centered Design, Ideation, Collaboration

During the course of any Quicksand engagement, workshops and ideation sessions play a critical role. This is particularly true in client-facing projects, but also manifest themselves in our incubated projects, in planning for UnBox-related activities and events, during the course of our annual off-site team regroups, and even in our long-term planning.

A perfect example of the latter of these took place last year around Quicksand’s 10-year anniversary as we discussed the vision for the next decade of our practice. The activity started with a brainstorming session to identify the most critical areas of our operations (i.e., business development, communications, knowledge management, learning & development, finance, project delivery), as well as an honest evaluation of each to identify opportunity areas for improvement and augmentation. This was followed by a hackathon in which each pillar was detailed out by individuals before presenting them back to the larger group for feedback and further refinement. This process provided a rapid, iterative, and participatory framework for tackling a strategic need of the company in developing a long-term roadmap for its growth.

Design thinking is not new, though its value and influence has grown and expanded into more and diverse contexts over the past few years. It’s predicated on empathising and engaging with end-users or beneficiaries of a product, service, or system, and is often viewed through the lens of 5 distinct phases:

Empathize: Immersion in an issue or challenge to experience it from an end-user’s perspective

Define: Building off the empathic insights, structure both the problem and a solution

Ideate: Take the problem statement and proposed solution and craft a viable intervention

Prototype: Create a tangible or even physical manifestation of the arrived at intervention

Validate: Re-engage with end-users to evaluate the intervention’s effectiveness

While activities vary depending upon the challenge being addressed, it is often the ideation phase that is looked at as the ripest for workshop-style engagements. Whilst this is certainly a salient phase to do so, it would be a huge loss to any engagement to think of this as the only phase where these activities are valuable. In fact, having some level of interaction in a “workshop” type setting in each phase is likely the best strategy when designing a solution to a challenge, particularly if one is doing so with an eye for immediate or short-term impact or adoptability. This is perhaps where the catch-all term “workshop” creates problems, as there can be a preconceived notion of what that entails and this notion is likely colored by an individual’s past experiences with such activities. We are at times guilty of misusing the term, so we felt it important to call out the different manifests of “workshops” that add value to our practice.

Having some level of interaction in a “workshop” type setting in each phase is likely the best strategy when designing a solution to a challenge.


These sessions are useful when an individual or group has a sense of what they want to accomplish. Perhaps a product or service has already been designed, but there is a lack of clarity in how best to launch it, or there is some snag along the value chain that needs to be tweaked to get this product or service over the proverbial hump. Getting people together to identify challenges and opportunities, then work on tangible approaches to overcoming or capitalising on such is where the value of this type of engagement shines through.

A recent example from our work that typifies this is our engagement with an education NGO in India. They had a program with a clear focus of improving attendance and engagement in schools, but needed to develop a roadmap for how they could disengage and allow for the schools and local administration to take the program forward. Through a series of sessions we were able to help them develop a plan to do just that by looking at their organisational constraints, the needs of the beneficiaries, and the agency of the local municipal administration, and crafting a clear plan accordingly.


There are times in which people have a sense of what they want to accomplish, but really don’t have clear idea as to how that can materialise; they need a helping hand moving from the abstract to the concrete, or at least to the greatest degree possible.

Our work in the banking sector last year is a prime example of this. A consumer bank knew that there was an opportunity in taking a more human-centred approach in the products and services it offers, but needed help defining how that could manifest. We worked with them to create user personas of their ideal customer base, then engaged with representatives of each to understand their wants and needs. This allowed the bank to create a new portfolio of products seeking to meet the same.

Co-creation & Co-design

This style of engagement is great for detailing out specific features of an intervention, or to create a tangible product or service to address a challenge or need. It involves identifying end-users or beneficiaries and then working with them to design interventions that are effective and valuable.

During our sanitation initiative Project Sammaan, we wanted to ensure that the toilet and bathing stalls featured amenities that met the needs of the communities where the facilities were to be built. To accomplish this, we built physical prototypes of stalls that were the same dimensions of what would be featured in the facilities and had users interact with them. The user set included children and adults, men and women, and differently abled individuals so that we could ensure that the features included incorporated the wishes of as robust a sample of communities as possible.

Getting people together to identify challenges and opportunities, then work on tangible approaches to overcoming or capitalizing on such is where the value of this type of engagement shines through.

Training & Feedback

These sessions are useful to test out and refine products or services we are designing or prototyping. It allows one to get out of the office and involve new sets of eyes in reviewing and evaluating what you’ve designed. This is especially valuable when done with the target audience you’re working for, or at least as representative a group of individuals as possible.

Our recent work in Africa is indicative of the value inherent in this process. The artefacts we designed were first vetted in proxy settings in India, refined based on the feedback we received, and then taken to the areas they’d be deployed for training and evaluation by the community members who would ideally use them moving forward. This allowed for quick iterations and re-testing to ensure that we addressed as many challenges and concerns as possible while in context.

Blue Sky

The classic Donald Rumsfeld head scratcher of, “There are things we don’t know we don’t know” typifies this style of engagement. This is where you start with a topic, theme, or challenge and just run with it to see what unfolds.

Our ever-evolving UnBox platform serves as a prime example of this. Last year we unveiled the first-ever UnBox Labs at NID Ahmedabad, and spent two weeks there with a group of engaged and engaging people thinking about Future Cities. That was really the only prompt; what can the cities of the future look like, and what can we design to add value to them or address challenges we anticipate them facing? An incredibly diverse number of interventions emerged from this, with a few emerging as salient enough to gain funding for further exploration.

These are but a few of the different manifestations of user and client engagements that we utilize in designing solutions. By no means an exhaustive list, it provides a window into the diverse manners in which the human-centered design process can be deployed, and the incredible value that each can bring in addressing the needs of those we’re working for and with.

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