July 31, 2017

An immersive exercise in design thinking

By: Jaeson Paul, Director of User Experience

At Comrade, we live for the opportunity to help our clients solve hard problems, and we love it when we’re able to teach them new ways of thinking along the way. Recently, a client wanted to bring together several teams from disparate locations to collaborate on solving a business problem. They sought to challenge their people to think differently—stepping outside of their own skin and focusing on understanding their customers in order to design the right solutions.

Over the course of four weeks, Comrade hosted 25 people from six different locations in the US and Europe at our offices in Oakland for a series of intensive workshops that helped our clients collaborate across boundaries to meet customer needs.

The Methodology

When planning a program like this, we stress the importance of having a clear set of known and proven steps that guide the process. For this exercise, Comrade used the five-step Design Thinking approach: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Validate. We started with focus groups to gather customer data, then dedicated a full-day workshop to each of the first four Design Thinking steps. (“Validate” was done through a separate testing effort.) Adhering to the Design Thinking framework and its core tenets and disciplines made it possible for us to set the pace and helped our clients know what to expect and focus on the specific objective within each phase of the project.

Workshop 1 – Empathy

Day 1 was about connecting with the customer. We started the day by reviewing the findings from the focus groups we conducted. Based on those findings, we created personas to keep ourselves customer-focused throughout the complete process, and expanded them using an Empathy Map to illustrate a full picture of the customer including what they were thinking, feeling, doing, seeing, hearing and saying. By the end of the day, we had four relatable, “three-dimensional” personas that we would come to know well over the next few weeks.

Workshop 2 – Define

The Define phase hones in on the specific problem we want to solve. We started by mapping the journey for each of our personas as they discovered and engaged with our client’s services, and finding the moments of truth where we could make things better. We wrote succinct problem statements for each of these moments, and then came together as a group to align through a voting process on which problems we would work to solve.

Workshop 3 – Ideate

With the problem statements and personas we developed, we were ready to start brainstorming. For this third step, the goal was volume—no filtering or biases allowed. We dissolved our original teams and formed new teams, encouraging them to come to the table with a fresh perspective. We also used a card game to impose different factors (think: “What if your solution had to work at the ATM?” “What if you needed to use biometrics?”) that pushed the conversation in new directions. We then used a Business Model Canvas to describe the most promising ideas in more depth, and mapped them into a framework using perceived value and expected feasibility to help the group align around a select few ideas.

Workshop 4 – Prototype

The last day was probably the most fun—and the most chaotic. The task was to take the solutions from Workshop 3 and bring them to life. Continuing to use the framework of the customer journey, participant teams simulated the customer life cycle from awareness to adoption. They made TV commercials (complete with background music and titles), sketched out business processes, drafted conversations and built paper prototypes of solutions on various devices—all through the course of one intense day in which every team member was actively engaged. After a full day of prototyping, each team presented its solutions, and the whole group was asked to “fund” each idea using a fixed imaginary budget.


The Outcome

After four energetic and demanding workshops, we were armed with a list of ranked ideas rooted in customer needs that we were ready to start prioritizing and putting into a roadmap for future development. Instead of an internal focus on features and functions, we had developed ideas that were born directly from customer empathy.

Recipe for Success

Don’t skimp on materials. We invest a lot of time preparing materials, including posters, printed cards and a bound workbook for participants to keep and use throughout. Having physical materials brings structure to the workshops, helps participants learn by doing, and increases confidence and engagement in the process.

Keep it simple. The fewer details and moving parts in the process, the better. Participants will have different levels of understanding and ability to engage in what may be new activities for the group. Having a simple, clear objective and process for each activity means that the steps won’t get in the way of the goal when things need to change, which brings us to our next point…

Be ready to pivot. No script survives contact with the audience. Even with all the preparation and rehearsal we do before our workshops, the momentum of the group will always be the strongest force in the room. We believe it’s better to go with that energy rather than force a plan that clashes with it. Improvisation is a critical skill for all of our moderators.

Plan time to refine. Each of these workshops generated a ton of great stuff—brilliant ideas, valuable insights and genuine customer connections—but they were diamonds in the rough. With the fast pace and different perspectives and comfort level of the participants, the workshop outputs are rarely able to be fed directly into the downstream process in their raw form. We comb through all of the outputs of each workshop day, and refine and focus those outputs into a better input to the next phase. This makes the process a lot more productive at each step.

Design Thinking is a “Doing” Activity

People usually understand “thinking” to be something that takes place in your head—an internal process, requiring a quiet reflective attitude and, for some, even solitude. This is where Design Thinking is really different—it takes the activity of “thinking” and brings it out into the open. This kind of thinking is done not in the head, but on the table or whiteboard. It’s not quiet and contemplative, but noisy and active—even a little chaotic. Most importantly, it takes place not inside one mind, but between multiple minds through shared experiences and perspectives. We believe it’s a great way to supercharge our client’s thinking and ideation, giving them a powerful tool to inspire and get the most out of cross-functional collaboration.