Design Thinking Workshop

design thinking facilitation for public policy graduate students

I regularly run design thinking workshops with non-design stakeholders to foster a design thinking mindset and greater cross-collaboration across business units. When I was approached to lead a design thinking workshop outside of my work context for a group of graduate level public policy students, I lept at the opportunity and enlisted a co-worker of mine to help facilitate.

The workshop was an excellent opportunity to combine my undergraduate degree and interest in social justice with my passion for design. As a group, we dove into a meaty topic area from both perspectives: "How do social movements and politics impact the workplace and how might we prepare for them?"

After introducing design thinking and providing some case studies, I used an exercise called "Agree/Disagree" to warm the room up to the subject. I taped "Agree" and "Disagree" signs at opposite ends of the wall, and asked students to line up along the spectrum in response to a provactive statement. Once lined up, I led a brief discussion asking students to explain why they chose to stand where they are. I encouraged students to move during the discussion if they were compelled by a colleague's argument. The excerise provoked passionate points of view that got the whole room ready and excited for the rest of the day.

Sample statements I used to lead the "aggree/disagree" activity.

The first part of the design thinking process we went through was what we called "learn from people." We asked each student to pair up with someone, interview each other, and take notes about what the other was thinking, feeling, seeing, saying, doing, and hearing. Students transferred these notes onto flip charts and worked as a group to put common themes on an empathy map.

One group's empathy map.

To build upon common themes, we led an exercise in which groups worked together to come up with "how might we" statements. Each student worked individually to come up with as many ideas as possible for each opportunity statement. This balance of both group and individual work helped to align each group in terms of their vision, while also ensuring everyone had an opportunity to contribute. After presenting ideas, everyone voted for which ideas they thought would have the most impact in terms of addressing the opportunity statement.

One group's array of concept cards.

Each group moved into prototyping the winning idea. Using a storyboard template, each group worked together to tell the story of how their concept would work. Each group presented to the room and received feedback.

One group's storyboard of their concept.

Based on feedback received, each group iterated upon their idea and prototyped the experience in higher fidelity through a physical space or model, skit, or any other creative means of expressing how their concept would play out in real life. Each group presented their concept to the room.

One group's prototyping process.

As a wrap up, we solicited feedback from each group on how the workshop went. In addition, we sent out a survey to help us better understand what went well and how we could improve. A few insights stood out as being particularly valuable:

  • The intro to design thinking and case studies could have been more concise.
  • The interviews and empathy maps were a mixed bag. We could have skipped the empathy map and just gone straight from interviews to affinity mapping.
  • The ideation cards, storyboarding, and prototyping seemed to get the most positive responses. We could have spent more time on those activities.

As someone who is always trying to assess and improve my skills, I carry these learnings with me as I approach other workshops and general design thinking education activities. I realized that it's difficult to balance the role of both educator and facilitator. Now when I'm asked to do both, I know that focusing more on my role as facilitator helps to foster a "learning by doing" mentality that accomplishes both the goal of teaching others about design thinking while maintaining a focus on the participants and their own ideas.