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How to Run a Design Thinking Workshop

Everything you need to know to discover innovative ideas as a team, including a sample 1-day a Design Thinking Workshop agenda

About This Guide

Don’t worry, you’ve got this

Whether it’s your first workshop or your fiftieth, this guide will help you and your team overcome ambiguity and create user-centered solutions.

It follows three simple steps (Prepare, Facilitate, and Document) and includes all the tools, templates and checklists you need to apply Design Thinking in today’s business environment.

Ready to run a great workshop? Let’s get started.

Getting Started

What is a Design Thinking workshop?

A Design Thinking workshop is facilitated meeting where multi-disciplinary teams plan and prototype user-centered designs. Unlike lectures or presentations, Design Thinking workshops are used when teams want to arrive at a user-centered solution while working together.

Related Guide
The 7 Design Thinking Steps
Go to Guide

Depending on where the project stands within the Design Thinking process, workshops can be used to output anything from early strategic requirements to fully-functional prototypes. They are always participatory, and employ a range of activities designed to generate ideas (divergence) and make decisions (convergence).

Most workshops last 1-2 days. During this time, teams work through various activities that help model their users, define requirements and develop experiences. Common design thinking activities include user stories, user journey maps, sketching, storyboards and paper prototypes.

Design Thinking workshop roles

As the facilitator of a Design Thinking workshop, you are responsible for helping teams challenge assumptions, discover actionable insights, and arrive at innovative outcomes.

As a participant in a Design Thinking workshop, you are responsible for arriving in the right design thinking mindset. That means having a beginner’s mind and the confidence to share.

ParticipantsFacilitators
Adopt the Design Thinking mindsetsChampion the Design Thinking mindsets
Bring undivided attention – laptops downPrepare everything the team needs to succeed
Participate in all discussions and activitiesCoordinate tasks and keep creative energy high
Provide context on area of expertiseAvoid unnecessary technical tangents
Share ideas and inspirations openlyAssign homework and encourage sharing
Note any interesting insightsDocument all major milestones
Expectations of each role during the design thinking workshop

Design Thinking workshop objectives

Running a successful Design Thinking workshop starts with knowing what you want. Before you prepare the agenda, consider the high-level objectives. Does your team need to discover new opportunities? Or connect closer with users? Do they need to brainstorm new ideas? Or align on specific requirements? Workshops can deliver on one or more of these objectives, depending on how long they run (and how well you prepare).

Common Design Thinking workshop objectives include:

Discover opportunities

Build empathy

Define requirements

Develop ideas

Note: Expect to devote 1/2 day for each additional workshop objective. Thus, a workshop expected to deliver on all four objectives should likely run for 2 days — or longer, if the team is new or have never solved together before.

Related Guide
The Design Thinking process
See Guide

With your objectives in mind, you can begin the planning process. While there are many ways to describe the process, we’ve broken it down into three steps: Prepare, Facilitate and Document.

Together, these steps capture the breadth of content and considerations involved in running an effective workshop.

Step 1Prepare a Design Thinking Workshop

Running a successful Design Thinking workshop means ensuring the team has everything they need to make informed decisions in real-time. Given the complexity of opportunities, this step can be a significant challenge that requires anywhere 2 to 6 weeks — or longer, if any critical elements are missing or outdated (ex. user personas).

Consider the following workshop preparation checklist as a guide:

Workshop Preparation Checklist

  • Select the team, time, and location
  • Compile the current landscape
  • Create the workshop agenda
  • Build the workshop facilitation deck
  • Send the pre-workshop email

Select the team, time and location

Team: Having the right skill sets in the room is key to generating innovative ideas with practical applications. That means all decision makers, technical leads, and even users (or their personas) must be represented.

  • Business Strategy
  • Sales + Marketing
  • Technology
  • Creative + Design
  • Customer Engagement
  • Project Management
  • Users / Personas

Time: Complex problem solving takes time. Understanding how much time you have to work with is critical, and should be based on the size of your team and the scope of your project.

  • 1 full day: Small teams, specific projects
  • 2-3 full days: Large teams, broad opportunities

Location: A good environment supports great conversation. Whether your workshop will be in-person, online, or a mix of both, here’s what to consider when choosing your workshop location:

  • Large room with space to walk
  • U-shaped or boardroom-style layout preferred
  • Ample wall space, whiteboards / easels
  • Markers, pens and post-it notes
  • Clear projector or other large display(s)
  • Water, coffee and catering
  • Natural light is a plus
  • Off-site is a plus

While in-person is always best, powerful digital tools like Miro and Mural can help remote teams workshop together when apart.

Compile the Current Landscape

The current landscape is living research document that helps teams understand the feasibility and viability of their ideas by answering three critical questions:

Who are we designing for?

What do we have to work with?

How will we measure success?

The information required to address these questions must be identified and collected prior to the workshop, as it will be discussed early in the day and referenced repeatedly throughout. Note that compiling the current landscape is the primary objective of the Discover stage of the Design Thinking process.

Who are we designing for? Rich user personas are the hallmark of Design Thinking, and an excellent way to articulate detailed behavioral information about whom you’re designing for.

If you do not have recent or robust user personas, consider drafting a set in advance — it is much faster to challenge and change user personas during the workshop than build them from scratch. Without user personas, it’s very difficult to align on a shared perspective of the people who will experience the solution.

What are we working with? The most productive Design Thinking workshops reduce the need for follow-ups by having all the right data on hand for decisions. While these sources of insight are highly project specific, consider the following four areas as a starting point.

Solution Usage

  • User testing / surveys
  • Web / app analytics
  • Heuristic analysis
  • Search / help data

Current Systems

  • Data capture
  • Content management
  • Marketing analytics
  • Sales and fulfillment

Supporting Processes

  • Team workflows
  • Project approvals
  • Licensing agreements
  • Legal requirements

Industry Perspectives

  • Competitive analysis
  • Published literature
  • Market research
  • Recent innovations

Given the cross-functional nature of workshops, it’s often best to bring both executive summaries and raw data to workshops. Summaries can be shared early in the session to quickly level-set, while raw data can be referenced during activities or decision making.

How will we measure success? While you can expect a lot of discussion here, preparing an initial list of key performance indicators is a helpful starting point.

KPIs to consider

  • The User (ex. signups, completions, reviews)
  • The Brand (ex. equity, awareness, engagements)
  • The Business (ex. sales, savings, market share)
  • The Public (ex. accessibility, quality of life)
  • The Planet (ex. sustainability, carbon footprint)

Create a Design Thinking workshop agenda

Design thinking is a highly iterative process, where insights from one activity often reframe the original opportunity. As such, the workshop agenda is more playbook than prescription — the most important thing is knowing what type of deliverables you want to generate (ex. user stories, concept sketches or working prototypes) and work back from there.

Create a Design Thinking workshop agenda

  1. Open a new workshop calendar (ex. 1 day, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM)
  2. Add time for introductions, lunch and breaks (15 to 60 min)
  3. Identify Design Thinking steps for each block (ex. Define, Ideate)
  4. Select 1-2 activities to support each step (15 min – 3 hr)
  5. End with a recap and next steps (30 min)

Selecting the right design thinking steps and activities gets easier with experience. In general, workshops open with divergent thinking activities (brainstorming) before switching to convergent ones (prioritizations). For details about the different steps and activities involved, see the Design Thinking process guide.

Related Guide
Design Thinking Tools + Activities
Go to Guide

Example Design Thinking Workshop Agenda

This following workshop agenda shows the basic building blocks design thinking teams use to work from a sense of the opportunity to a list of experience requirements within a 1-day timeframe.

TimeWorkshop ActivityDuration
8:30 amCoffee + Introductions30 minutes
9:00 amCurrent Landscape30 minutes
9:30 amWarmup10 minutes
9:40 amStatement of Opportunity45 minutes
10:25 amUser Personas90 minutes
11:55 amLunch60 minutes
1:00 pmUser Journey Mapping90 minutes
2:30 pmUser Stories I60 minutes
3:30 pmBreak15 minutes
3:45 pmUser Stories II (Ranking)45 minutes
4:30 pmMVP30 minutes
5:00 pmNext Steps15 minutes

Build the workshop slides

Unlike a traditional presentation, the slides of a facilitation deck are designed to guide collaboration and generate discussion. Your slides should directly reflect your workshop agenda. When preparing your slides, plan to include four basic types:

Structural

  • Workshop Agenda
  • Titles and spacers
  • Timekeeping (breaks, lunch)

Informational

  • Introduction slides
  • Current landscape insights
  • Recaps and roadmaps

Instructional

  • Activity descriptions
  • Activity prompts
  • Discussion points

Supplemental

  • Extra activity slides
  • Detailed analytics
  • Ethnographic research

Send the pre-workshop email

While a save-the-date should follow shortly after you’ve identified your team, the pre-workshop email is typically sent a few days before the workshop. It includes detailed logistics and clearly outline the intentions of the workshop and its desired outcomes. This email is also your opportunity to assign any relevant pre-work, such as an ask to bring specific design inspirations.

What to include

  • Place, time, parking and other logistics
  • High-level summary including objective and outcomes
  • Complete workshop agenda (pdf)
  • Pre-workshop assignment (ex. design inspiration)

Pre-work: Giving participants a simple assignment to complete and bring to the workshop is a great way to enrich your workshops and get participants into the Design Thinking mindset early. This is also a great opportunity to understand “what good looks like” to the different members on your team by requesting they bring inspiring solutions.

Types of inspiration

  • Website links
  • Short videos
  • Personal stories
  • User stories
  • Books/bookmarks
  • Biographies

Note the inspiration doesn’t have to be apples to apples with your current project. Sometimes the best sources of inspiration connect seemingly unrelated industries. What you want are thought starters, not solutions.

Step 2Facilitate the Design Thinking Workshop

With preparations ready and the agenda set, you can now facilitate a productive workshop. The following walkthrough outlines the major milestones you could expect in a 1-day workshop intended to align on the strategic requirements for a user-centered experience.

1-Day Workshop Walkthrough

  • 9:00 AM
    Introductions

    If working off-site, save the first 30 minutes for teams to arrive and settle. Coffee is always appreciated, and quick icebreakers or intros may be needed if teams seldom meet.

  • 9:30 AM
    Design Thinking warm-up

    Everyone has the ability to think creatively — especially after a good warmup. For design thinking, the best warmup activities are those that get participants drawing, folding and working together.

    Warmup Activity
    30 Circles

    Prompt: Draw as many objects as you can using a sheet of paper with 30 blank circles printed on it. After 5 minutes, share results among the group.

  • 9:45 AM
    Draft Statement of Opportunity

    The Statement of Opportunity expresses the topline project opportunity from the team’s perspective. As the North star of the design, it’s best to align on the statement as early as possible. Plan to facilitate several short rounds of brainstorming and open discussion before a unifying statement can be arrived at. And if the perfect phrasing remains elusive, it’s okay to leave the door open to copyedits in the future.

    The statement of opportunity is a critical alignment tool completed during design thinking workshops
    The statement of opportunity, also called a problem statement, is a simple tool for aligning teams.
  • 10:30 AM
    Coffee break
  • 10:45 AM
    Review current landscape
    Related Guide
    Quantitative UX Research Methods
    Go to Guide

    Help participants unpack technical problems and appreciate the current user exprience, constraints and supporting systems. Discuss the results of preparatory UX research, technical audits, and other data gathered in preparation. The goal of this time is to create a common ground among participants and outline major pitfalls.

    Landscape discussion tips
    • Focus on findings
    • Invite expert opinions
    • Avoid technical tangents

    Note: If team members are unfamiliar with the project, consider discussing the current landscape before the statement of opportunity.

  • 11:30 AM
    Validate User Personas

    After sharing the design context, invite participants to challenge and discuss the existing user personas. Are they realistic? Where did the insights come from? What goals are we missing? Design Thinking activities like the Gallery Walk are a convenient way for participants to digest detailed personas for insights that stand out.

    This example User Persona template outlines the basic sections and data to include. User Persona templates can be customized to suit specific project needs.
  • 12:30 AM
    Lunch
  • 1:00 PM
    Share design inspiration

    Sharing relevant inspiration is an effective way to build a collaborative atmosphere while bringing fresh perspectives into workshops.

    “Share one example of a product or service that left a positive impression on you.”

    Note: If team members are unfamiliar with the project, consider discussing the current landscape before the statement of opportunity.

  • 1:30 PM
    Generate User Stories
    related guide
    User Story Mapping
    Go to Guide

    User stories are a helpful way to articulate the specific goals of a user persona. They have a simple, one-sentence format that can be quickly created and compared. The goal of this time is to generate dozens of relevant user stories for each persona. If working with several personas, consider breaking out into smaller groups focused on one persona. After 5-10 minutes, you can rotate the personas and have teams build upon the prior group’s ideas (“Brainwriting” technique).

    User Stories are often written on sticky notes and outline three important pieces of information: Who the user is, What they want, and Why they want it.
    User stories help teams align on high-priority opportunities to improve the user experience. They are formatted as a single sentence that answers 3 W-H questions: WHO is the user, WHAT do they want, and WHY.
  • 2:45 PM
    Prioritize experience goals

    Card sorting and mapping activities help teams prioritize the large quantities of competing goals common for human centered design. Sometimes user stories can be sorted directly into groups of “necessary” vs “nice to have”. Other times they must first be mapped across dimensions like desirability, impact or risk before those decisions can be made. Regardless of the activities chosen, the goal here is to create a prioritized list of stories spanning the entire experience.

  • 3:30 AM
    Break
  • 3:45 PM
    Define Minimum Viable Solution

    With clarity about the goals and priorities of the team, the final step of the workshop is to put the minimum experience requirements into writing. This means aligning on what is feasible by when, and drawing a line in the sand.

  • 4:30 PM
    Recap with next steps

    A quick recap improves long-term memory and provides a cohesive starting point for future workshops and project onboarding. After reviewing decisions, end with a project roadmap to place the workshop in context.

    • Statement of opportunity
    • Validated user personas
    • Sorted user stories
    • Inspirational ideas
    • Ranked requirements

Step 3Document Design Thinking Outcomes

The goal of the Document step is to ensure all the insights and alignments generated during the workshop can be easily referenced and implemented by others. It serves as a rudder for cross functional teams working on complex projects, and takes 3 – 5 days to complete.

The level of detail you decide to document your workshop with should be based on the scale of your project — short Design Thinking sessions with a core team don’t require the same level of scrutiny as larger projects with extended teams who meet infrequently.

Three sources of workshop documentation

What was discussed?

  • Compile notes you/your co-facilitators took during the session
  • Collect additional notes from participants on critical topics
  • Identify any areas of interest or information gaps that arose

What was produced?

  • Take photos of shared outputs (whiteboards, easels)
  • Make scans of individual outputs (worksheets, drawings)
  • List any inspirations or examples participants shared

What was decided?

  • Describe all alignments, rankings and requirements in detail
  • Outline all next steps, roles and responsibilities

Once you’ve gathered all the information, compile it into a single document and share it with the extended team. Consider the following list of sections as inspiration for what to include in your post-workshop documentation:

  • Workshop Details (date, agenda, attendees)
  • Executive Summary
  • Decisions
  • Discussions
  • Inspirations
  • Archive (photos, scans)
  • Reference Data

Design Thinking Workshop
Best Practices

Visualize often

When it comes to communicating complex ideas quickly, having a library of visualization techniques on hand is critical. Common approaches in Design Thinking include empathy maps, storyboards, activity networks and cluster matrices. These visualizations not only help teams describe ideas, but also interpret data and make informed decisions.

Three types of data visualization techniques common to design thinking workshops are shown: Cluster matrix, radar plot and Russian doll (aka stakeholder map)

Use whiteboards

Whiteboards help teams work through complex problems quickly. While physical whiteboards are the most engaging, excellent digital solutions are now available. Each tools has it’s own strengths (flexibility, integrations) and weaknesses (learning curve, limitations), but all provide a shared canvas and simplify data collection.

  • Jamboard
  • Mural
  • Balsamiq
  • Whimsical
  • Miro
  • Figma

Stay user centered

Technical tangents and These are the people your solutions must serve, and they are a constant source of inspiration. Design Thinking activities, such as empathy maps and user stories are a convenient way for organizing detailed user research.