How To Run a Design Thinking Workshop

Want to know how to run a Design Thinking workshop? Follow our actionable guide for best practices, tips, and techniques, as well as easy-to-follow steps to guarantee the success of your first session.

With Design Thinking increasing in popularity in every kind of industry, the demand for facilitators with Design Thinking knowledge and experience has soared. However, if you’re new to the practice, getting to grips with everything you need to know, not to mention running your first Design Thinking workshop, can be nothing short of terrifying. 

In this article, we want to take the fear out of running Design Thinking workshops for those new to the methodology, and give you the knowledge, concrete steps, and tools you’ll need to run your first Design Thinking workshop, wowing your company or clients in the process. By the end, you’ll be equipped to guide and support any workshop team to find the innovative solutions they need to address their user and business challenges.

Are you ready to get started? Then let’s go!

The five phases of the design thinking process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.


What is a design thinking workshop? 

A Design Thinking workshop is a collaborative session that is focused on the five phases of Design Thinking. It’s a process that is designed to encourage creative problem solving and innovation from each member of the group in order to address business challenges. 

The five phases of Design Thinking are: 

  • Empathize - Understanding user problems and needs
  • Define - Articulating the challenge 
  • Ideate - Brainstorming ideas and devising solutions 
  • Prototype - Building prototypes 
  • Test - Testing on users 

By no means just for designers, a Design Thinking workshop is a methodology intended for the whole team and can be applied to numerous areas of business, from sales through to senior management. There’s also flexibility when it comes to the length and location of a Design Thinking Workshop. Depending on the size of the challenge and the goals and needs of the individuals taking part, a workshop can take place over a few hours or up to a week if needed and is adaptable to both remote and in-person work settings.

What are the goals of a Design Thinking workshop? 

Essentially, a Design Thinking workshop seeks to create solutions to challenges facing the business. However, the process is applicable to a wide range of obstacles facing individuals and teams. These challenges might be related to product development, team collaboration, recruitment or retention, reaching targets, as well as any number of issues that are preventing a company from reaching its goals.

A Design Thinking workshop seeks to overcome these challenges through a defined process that is designed to improve the problem-solving skills of the team, facilitate innovation, allocate time and space for significant collaboration between team members, build empathy, identify opportunities, define requirements, and develop ideas. It does this with a human-centric, prototype-driven approach to problem solving and innovation. 

Why should you run a Design Thinking workshop? 

There are numerous benefits to running a Design Thinking workshop. As well as finding a solution to the problem at hand, the process nurtures a working environment that values  collaboration and communication and that focuses on creating solutions that meet the customer’s needs. The Design Thinking workshop methodology also assists in fostering a culture of innovation at a company or workplace that embraces an empathetic model, and the process itself reduces risk through testing and iteration. 

What kinds of challenges can you address with a Design Thinking workshop?

As we have seen, a Design Thinking workshop can be adapted to almost any company or team challenge, irrespective of the department or even the business itself. However, Design Thinking is perhaps most commonly used when a problem cannot be solved using traditional methods, and needs to be approached from a more creative or innovative angle. Some common challenges that a Design Thinking workshop can be used to address include: 

  • Changing markets 
  • Shifting user behaviors 
  • Social changes
  • Coping with multiple systems or processes
  • Redefining business value
  • Diverse user groups
  • Changing a business model 
  • Improving communication between teams 
  • Improving cross-collaboration 
  • Adapting to new technology 
  • Creative thinking is needed
  • Multi-disciplinary teams
  • Improving the user’s experience of a brand or product 
  • Sparking growth 

Who should run a Design Thinking workshop?

A facilitator is the individual responsible for organizing and running a Design Thinking workshop. This role can be filled by an in-house facilitator or an external or freelance facilitator who seeks to guide team members towards a common objective via the Design Thinking process. 

A group of workshop participants sitting around a table and working on a design thinking challenge


There are pros and cons to both internal and external facilitation

While an internal facilitator benefits from knowledge of the product and company and has established relationships with the team, they might struggle with objectivity, find it hard to build trust with the team, and avoid asking pointed questions. 

An external facilitator, on the other hand, is likely to remain detached from internal power struggles and find it easier to remain uninfluenced by existing relationships with the team. Crucially, an external facilitator is likely to feel more free to openly question the status quo. 

Other key facilitation skills include: 

  • Organizational skills
  • Empathy and understanding 
  • Assertiveness
  • Precise and engaging communication skills 

Crucially, the facilitator should be able to clearly explain to the group the importance of following the process, provide a clear picture of what team members can expect during the workshop, and be able to outline the results the workshop will bring.  

The team for your Design Thinking workshop will depend on the size of the company, the scale of the challenge at hand, and the capacity of individual team members. It may involve employees from different departments coming together to tackle a company-wide problem or individuals from the same team focusing on a department-specific challenge. 

A workshop that promotes cross-collaboration between teams, and which contains individuals with a wide range of specializations, will bring the most innovative and effective results to a Design Thinking workshop. This is because it opens up a challenge to a more diverse range of experiences, skill sets, and knowledge bases. When a challenge is left in the hands of a singular team, creative problem solving is limited as the individuals involved are already familiar with the problem, and often due to similar backgrounds, working lives, and biases, approach the problem from the same or similar, angles. 

Key workshop roles  

While the facilitator is essentially the organizer and ‘host’ of the workshop who ensures the process is adhered to and that all members are fully engaged throughout, there are numerous other key workshop roles that ensure a smooth and effective process. 

You’ll need a decider who can champion the solution and who has a lot at stake in the challenge, a customer expert to represent the target audience, a business expert who can represent the best interests of the business, and a prototyper who can help build a prototype of the solution. Other roles on the team can include a marketing expert, a design expert, and a financial expert. 

Get an introduction to facilitation and workshops

How to run a design thinking workshop: a step-by-step guide

Now that you know exactly what a Design Thinking workshop is, let’s dive into how you run one, step by step! 

Preparing the workshop

1. Define the challenge

What’s the goal of your workshop? Is it to uncover new opportunities, solve a specific user problem, or improve a product or feature? Whatever the challenge is that you’re hoping to solve with the workshop, have it defined well in advance so that everyone is on the same page from the start. It might be helpful to write it out as a question or statement that can be easily referred back to. Eg: “How can we increase traffic to our landing pages?” 

2. Prepare the location

We’ll talk about how best to run remote workshops later in this article, but for in-person workshops, the location you choose will play a significant role in its success. To keep your attendees relaxed, comfortable, and free to be creative, keep the following checklist in mind while selecting and preparing your workshop’s location: 

  • Comfortable seating
  • Good (preferably natural) lighting
  • Space to move freely
  • Presentation and storage space 
  • Snacks and drinks are available
  • Available wall space and whiteboards 
A workshop room setup with a table, chairs, whiteboards, notepads, post-it notes and other stationary.

3. Write the workshop agenda 

The importance of writing a good workshop agenda should never be underestimated. While putting together your workshop agenda, concentrate on deliverables rather than focusing too heavily on creating a prescription for every moment of the day. Make sure to include lots of activities, be realistic with your time planning, and allow plenty of time for breaks, spontaneity, free-flowing discussion, and creativity. 

You’ll probably want to allow approximately one hour for each section of the workshop, with a generous slot dedicated to reflection and debriefing when the activities are over. 

4. Gather your tools

To ensure maximum creativity, you’ll be going back to basics for your Design Thinking workshop. You’ll want to stock up on white copy paper, colored paper, pencils, marker pens, Post-It notes of different colors, sticky tape, and whiteboards. 

The Design Thinking workshop 

1. Intros and objectives 

The introduction should consist of three main parts:

  • Who you are and what your role as a facilitator will be during the workshop  
  • To explain the objectives of the workshop 
  • An outline of the schedule of the day 

2. Ice-breaking session

Use a fun icebreaker to warm up the team and help them get to know each other a little better. Here are some suggestions:

Make sure you also get each team member to say their name and what their role will be in the workshop, too! 

3. Explain Design Thinking 

Although some of the group will be aware of Design Thinking and its principles, it’s still worth making a brief presentation on what Design Thinking is for those who are unfamiliar with the concept or are unsure of what it looks like in practice. Go over the benefits, give examples of successful workshops, and leave a few minutes at the end for any questions or clarifications needed from the group about the process. 

A facilitator explaining the design thinking process to workshop participants

4. Get to know the user

Now that the team is warmed up and all on the same page, it’s time to start thinking about the user. Using empathy maps and role-playing, encourage the group to get into the shoes of their target user. Ask the group to consider the following:

  • The user’s needs
  • The user’s wants
  • The user’s feelings
  • The user’s language 

This is also a good opportunity to assess the current user personas the team are using. How accurate are they? What data was used to inform them? Do they need updating or even overhauling altogether? 

5. Write a problem statement 

Although the general challenge has already been identified, now’s the time to get down to specifics. Having gone through the user’s challenges in the previous exercise, the group is in a better position to go into more detail with the issue itself. This is the time to ask the group to come together to write a detailed problem statement. When the statement’s been written, take a moment to have a brief reflection and discussion on what everybody has learned so far. Did everybody agree with the user’s challenge or were different needs identified? 

6. Ideation and solution session

Working with the problem the group identified in the previous step, the group spends this next phase working on ideas and possible solutions. As well as traditional brainstorming, try out some of these other idea generation techniques: 

  • Reverse brainstorming–this is where you focus on the causes of the problem rather than the solution 
  • Rapid ideation–each person writes down as many ideas as possible within a set timeframe 
  • Worst idea–ask everyone to come up with their worst idea to solve the problem. As the facilitator, you then have to ask team members to list why these ideas are so bad 

Check out our ultimate 10-minute brainstorming technique, too.  

By the end of this session, you and your team need to have settled on one solution.

7. Map out the user journey

A user journey map is a visual representation of the process that a user goes through in order to accomplish a specific goal. Now that you’ve got your solution, the team needs to map out each step the user needs to take for it to work. 

8. Build prototypes and test 

It’s time for the team to create low-fidelity prototypes! During this stage, the steps from the user journey will be used to create individual screens or interfaces, including buttons and other interaction points or functionality. It’s worth suggesting to the team to use one piece of paper to represent each screen so that mistakes can be easily rectified and the journey is easy for everyone to follow. 

9. Debrief and next steps 

Finish up your workshop with clear next steps for the team. These might include:

  • Creating detailed wireframes
  • Building high-fidelity prototypes
  • Conducting user testing with real users 

This phase can also include a brief retrospective. What did the team learn? What went well? What could have gone better? Did the team have any feedback for you as the facilitator? Make a note of these answers so that your workshops continue to improve steadily over time. 

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Design Thinking workshop best practices

Here’s a shortlist of what to keep in mind at all times while running your Design Thinking workshop! 

1. Keep the user at the center

This might seem obvious by now, but in the excitement of the workshop, it’s easy to forget who this is really for! Remind the group to keep coming back to the Empathy part of the Design Thinking process and use empathy maps and user stories as practical ways to keep the user at the center of the session.

2. Collaboration isn’t optional

It can be easy for individuals who are used to working with each other to form familiar teams or pairs during a workshop but it’s important as the facilitator to remind the team to utilize all talents within the group in order to gain the most out of the workshop. The cross-functional collaboration will consistently bring about the most innovative and bring about the most effective solution to your user’s problem. 

3. It’s as much about changing processes as getting results 

Design Thinking isn't just a one-off fix to a specific problem; it’s a culture change. A workshop is a great way to introduce Design Thinking methodology to a company, but it doesn’t end there. For the best outcomes, Design Thinking needs to be incorporated into every step of product development and problem-solving to see long-lasting effects. 

A facilitator running a remote design thinking workshop on on his laptop

Tips on running a REMOTE Design Thinking workshop 

For those of you running a remote Design Thinking workshop, you’ll have a slightly different set of challenges to those hosting the in-person variant. To give you a helping hand, we’ve put together a handy list of tools and best practices you can follow to make sure you and your workshop group are well prepared for your remote workshop session. 

Tools for remote workshop facilitation

The digital tools you employ will make all the difference to the success of your digital Design Thinking workshop. Here’s a list of some of our favorites. For the complete list of the digital tools to assist virtual facilitation and workshopping, check out our guide to digital facilitation tools for online workshops and meetings.

Online whiteboards 

  • Mural 
  • Miro
  • Figjam

Free video conferencing 

  • Zoom 
  • Whereby
  • Google Hangouts 

Note-taking apps

  • Evernote
  • OneNote
  • Notion 

Planning aids

  • SessionLab
  • Google Sheets

Facilitation assistance

  • Butter
  • Stormz
  • Axis

Remote Design Thinking workshop best practices  

To ensure your remote Design Thinking workshop runs as smoothly as possible, it’s important to keep in mind the following best practices. 

  • Be prepared: Create a solid agenda and have a practice run-through before the day of the workshop itself to check your timings are spot on. Always allow a little extra time for remote workshops, we guarantee you’ll need it! Check out our guide to creating the perfect workshop agenda
  • Get familiar with the tools: Make sure you’re comfortable with your digital facilitation tools well ahead of the workshop itself. It’s also a good idea to send around a list of the tools you’ll be using to the list of participants before the session so they can create logins (if necessary) and get used to how they work.
  • Avoid day-long workshops: While a day-long in-person workshop can be punctuated with interaction, snack breaks, and laughs, it can be much harder to keep a group’s energy levels up for a whole day if everybody is online. Instead, try to keep your digital workshop shorter than your in-person version, and consider hosting it over two days if there’s too much to cram into a few solid hours. 

Conclusion 

We hope our guide to running a Design Thinking workshop has answered all your burning questions about mastering this process and has taken the fear out of running your first one. If you only do one thing, be over-prepared! Creating a solid agenda will ensure your team stays focused on the challenge and energy levels stay high throughout the day. 

Rosie Allabarton