How to Run a Remote Design Thinking Workshop

Find out all the tips and tricks to running high-energy virtual design thinking workshops.

Are you hoping to run a remote Design Thinking workshop, but you’re not sure where to start? In this post, we’ve put together everything you need to know from the theory behind Design Thinking, to the concrete steps, best practices, tips, and tricks you’ll need to know to ensure your session goes with a bang! 

Let’s go!

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a process or strategy for developing design concepts and solving problems that centers around the product’s user and their needs. Within a workshop context, facilitators typically focus on the five stages of Design Thinking to encourage collaboration, creative problem solving, and innovation from each member of the group. Goals for each group will vary, but some common areas in which a Design Thinking workshop can help include addressing business challenges, better meeting the user’s needs, and streamlining or improving internal work processes. 

The five phases of Design Thinking are: 

  • Empathize - Understanding user needs and challenges
  • Define - Articulating the problem-area or challenge 
  • Ideate - Coming up with ideas and solutions 
  • Prototype - Creating prototypes 
  • Test - Performing tests with relevant user groups

How you can tackle any problem with the Design Thinking framework

A Design Thinking framework can be used to address a wide range of issues as it promotes a collaborative mindset and a human-centered, yet scientific and hands-on approach to problem solving. Unlike a rigid process or set of steps, a Design Thinking framework is a way of thinking that can be applied to a variety of scenarios and challenges where innovation and solutions are needed. This approach is not exclusive to one field or set of issues; it is a flexible and fresh way of addressing needs that can be seamlessly combined with other models, strategies, or practices to bring about the specific solution for the challenge at hand.

The benefits of a remote Design Thinking workshop 

While there’s no getting away from the great buzz (and guaranteed snacks) of an in-person Design Thinking workshop, there are some surprising benefits to taking your workshop online. From increased opportunities for more focused work, to the ability to capture everything digitally, you’re likely to find that a virtual workshop brings with it a considerable list of advantages that its in-person equivalent is unable to provide.

Let’s take a look at why a remote Design Thinking workshop could give your workshops a considerable boost.

Everyone can attend 

With the current working landscape a colorful jumble of remote, in-person, and hybrid teams, getting all team members in one physical place for a Design Thinking workshop can be challenging, if not downright impossible. A remote Design Thinking workshop ensures everyone, no matter where they’re located or how they work can fully contribute. Remote workshops also offer the opportunity for individuals such as target users or subject matter experts to provide input during the specific parts of the session they’re needed for. 

A design thinking facilitator smiling and welcoming participants during a workshop

Opportunities for individual reflection and focused work

For many of us, our best work happens when we’ve had some concentrated time away from others to reflect. However, in the middle of a busy in-person workshop session, it's very easy to get distracted by what’s going on in the room, or to simply go along with the most popular ideas of the group. With a remote workshop this issue is easily addressed: the facilitator can offer the team opportunities to do focused work, allowing individuals to develop their own ideas without the influence of others which can be brought back to the group later. 

Faster feedback rounds and iteration

In-person workshops frequently suffer from delays between prototype completion and digitization. However, when everything is remote, the prototype is already digital and feedback can be requested simply through the sharing of a link. Put simply, everything is ready to go at the click of a button.

Everything is captured

Extracting and digitizing the core ideas from a workshop that are found scribbled on Post-Its and whiteboards can be a laborious process. With a remote meeting, this chore is almost completely avoided. Using the latest digital facilitation tools, you can capture and organize notes as they come up in the workshop in an ordered and coherent way. Additionally, you can record the whole workshop if you want to, meaning conversations are never lost. In fact, the whole journey of how you and your team arrived at its solution can be revisited at any future point.

Straightforward to organize

A remote Design Thinking workshop requires considerably less preparation than its in-person equivalent. You won’t need to find a space to house your team, remember to order supplies, or provide snacks or coffee, and there’ll be no cleaning up to do when everyone has gone home. We’re not saying a remote Design Thinking workshop doesn’t need any preparation (it does, and we will get to that later in this article), but it certainly takes a lot of the headache out of physically hosting a large group of people for a day. 

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What challenges can be resolved in a remote Design Thinking workshop? 

While Design Thinking can be used to tackle almost any problem you throw at it, this approach is best suited to addressing issues where different departments or areas of interest collide and collaboration is essential to success. 

Some specific areas in which Design Thinking can bring about positive resolution and solutions include:

  • Shifting markets 
  • Changing user behaviors 
  • Changes in society
  • Dealing with or adapting to multiple systems or processes
  • Finding new business values
  • Wide ranging user groups
  • Business model reinvention
  • Better cross-team communication 
  • Improving cross-collaboration 
  • Introducing new technology 
  • A creative approach is warranted
  • Multi-skilled teams
  • Enhancing the user’s experience of a company, brand, or product 
  • Inciting growth

How to prepare for a remote Design Thinking workshop

Planning your workshop will be key to its success. You may not need to book a space or hire a caterer, but you will certainly need to think long and hard about what you want to achieve, the schedule for the day, who should be part of the team, and the digital tools you’ll use to ensure a seamless and fruitful remote workshop experience. 

Here are our simple steps for planning your remote Design Thinking workshop:

Decide on your goals 

What are your objectives for this workshop? Is there a bottleneck in an internal process? A specific user need that you’re not currently meeting? A key feature of your product or service that needs refining, updating, or improving? 

Irrespective of what the issue is, it’s crucial to have it well defined in advance of your workshop, so that everyone on the team is singing from the same song sheet. A useful way to communicate your goal is to write it out like a question that everyone can refer back to throughout the session. For example: “How Might We build a larger following on Instagram?” 

Write your agenda

We’ve written in the past on the importance of a good workshop and meeting agenda, and in the context of a remote workshop its value cannot be underestimated. A framework for the session provides clarity and aligns expectations. 

When writing your agenda, try to think about deliverables rather than compiling a detailed list of every moment of the day. Be realistic about the delays in communication that can occur when a meeting is virtual, the need for screen breaks, and try to include group activities. Don’t forget to allow time for spontaneity, free-flowing discussion, debriefing, and creativity. 

A workshop participant speaking to a colleague on Zoom during a design thinking workshop

Choose your tools 

Thanks to the huge increase in virtual communication and collaboration, the technology enabling smooth remote interactions and work has advanced at pace. We’ve written a whole post about the host of amazing free and paid digital facilitation tools available that can massively help you run your online workshops, but some of our favorites include: 

  • Miro’s online whiteboard 
  • SessionLab’s planning system
  • Butter’s facilitation tools 
  • Canva’s quick and easy design tool
  • Notion for note-taking 
  • Zoom for video conferencing 

Some quick tips

  • Don’t be afraid to mix and match your tools
  • Introduce workshop participants to the tools ahead of time so they can learn how they work, create logins if necessary, and raise any issues or questions with you
  • Try not to overwhelm your participants with too many tools. Stick to the ones that are necessary for achieving the objectives of the workshop
  • Test your virtual set up by having a dry run with a friend or colleague 

To dos before the workshop 

Here’s a quick checklist of things to do before the workshop itself: 

  • Invite your participants 
  • Send around the agenda
  • Email a list of the digital tools you plan to use to participants and quickly explain how you plan to use them in the workshop
  • Assign any work that needs to be completed before the workshop
  • You may want to send over some explanatory resources on Design Thinking and its best practices
  • Consider having a brief onboarding call to align expectations, introduce team members, and discuss goals

Learn the 5 things you can do to become a top 1% facilitator

How to run and deliver a remote Design Thinking workshop

Now that your preparation for the workshop is complete, let’s take a look at how the session itself should play out: 

  1. Introductions and goals 

You’ll want to start the session by introducing yourself and what your role will be as the facilitator of the workshop. If team members don't know each other, this is the time to allow them to quickly introduce themselves. Once the intros are out of the way, you’ll want to outline the objectives of the session and provide a quick outline of the agenda. 

  1. Icebreakers 

A great way to relax the team and warm up before the hard work begins is to use a fun icebreaker. Here you’ll find some of our favorite icebreakers for remote, hybrid, and in-person workshops

If it wasn’t covered during the intro, ask each member to outline what their role will be in the workshop, too! 

  1. Explain Design Thinking 

Design Thinking is still a relatively new methodology, and although some of the group will certainly have an idea of what it’s about, it’s still worth taking the time to quickly outline the main principles as well as what it will look like in practice. Provide examples of successful workshops, the advantages of the process, and leave some time to allow the team to ask any questions. 

You can also share with the group our video explaining Design Thinking

A woman sitting on the sofa and taking notes during a remote design thinking workshop
  1. Discuss user pain points and needs 

By this point in the session the team should be relatively relaxed, energized, and aligned. This is a great moment to start thinking about the user. Go around the group and ask each team member to try to describe the target user, bearing in mind the user’s needs, wants, feelings, language, and behavior. Discuss the user personas currently in use by the company and their accuracy, what data was used to create them, and if they need refreshing in light of new company goals or products. 

  1. Create a problem statement

The goals of the workshop are already clear, however creating a problem statement is a great way to identify in more detail the user’s needs. Allow some time after the statement has been written to discuss and reflect upon it. Was everybody in agreement on what the user’s needs were? 

  1. Ideation and solution generation session

Now’s the time to start generating ideas and brainstorming solutions to the user problem identified in the previous step. 

We know that brainstorming remotely can be awkward. Check out these online facilitation tools which can make it a more seamless and natural experience, even with screens.

Stormz 

  • Brainstorming tools
  • Creative problem solving facilitation
  • Design Thinking best practices
  • Decision making tools
  • Collaborative learning opportunities 

Axis

  • Anonymous idea-sharing
  • Evaluation activities
  • Structured collaboration 

IdeaBoardz

  • A virtual board for multiple collaborators
  • Sections for different themes 
  • Users can vote on ideas they support

Coggle

  • Collaborative mind mapping tool
  • Add images, draw neural networks 
A remote workshop participant speaking and taking notes during an online meeting
  1. Create a user journey map 

Your brainstorming session should have produced an idea that the team agrees to move forward with. From here, you’ll need to create a user journey map, demonstrating the specific steps a user needs to take in order to meet their goal on the site or with a product. 

Some dedicated user journey mapping tools you might want to utilize for your remote workshop include: 

Custellence

  • Drag and drop editing
  • Customizable maps
  • Data visualization
  • A media library
  • Collaboration tools

UXPressia 

  • Easy to use interface
  • User journeys can be created at speed
  • Fully customizable 

Smaply 

  • Seamless team collaboration
  • User journey mapping templates
  • Digitize, centralize, and standardize customer experience insights

Milkymap

  • Visualize and manage the customer experience
  • Create customer journeys fast
A laptop displaying wireframes designed in Figma
  1. Build prototypes and test 

With your customer journey map in place, your team is ready to create some wireframes and prototypes. You’ll create screens or interfaces including buttons, CTAs, and any other points of user interaction or navigation. In an in-person workshop, your prototypes would typically be created using paper and pen, but in a remote session it makes sense for team members to work digitally to enable easier sharing and collaboration. Luckily, there are plenty of tools to help with this. Check out our favorites: 

Figma

  • In-browser accessibility
  • Sophisticated collaboration support
  • Real-time editing capabilities

Balsamiq

  • Easy to use
  • Prototypes can be created at speed
  • Produce digitized-paper prototypes

Framer 

  • Comprehensive onboarding
  • Smooth team collaboration
  • Deliver high-fidelity interactive prototypes
  1. Wrap up and next steps 

You did it! You’re at the end of your online Design Thinking workshop. Before you say goodbye and log off, consider conducting a brief retrospective with the team (or plan to do this in a follow up session). Discuss what went well and what could have gone better, which tools worked best in an online environment, and where time could have been saved or used better. 

Finally, put together some clear next steps for the team. 

These might include:

  • Creating high-fidelity prototypes or more detailed wireframes
  • Planning and conducting user testing with these prototypes 

Best practices for running a remote workshop 

We’ve written a whole post covering all our best practices for online meetings and workshops, but here are the headlines: 

Set some ground rules! 

Be clear about what you expect from workshop participants and everybody starts the session on the same page. Send around your list of rules for the meeting well in advance to give participants the chance to respond, suggest other rules, or clarify the rules you have put forward. 

Ask for help! 

You might be the facilitator, but that doesn’t mean you have to shoulder this workshop alone. Consider appointing a co-facilitator, and delegate tasks and responsibilities to different members of the team. It’ll increase accountability, too. 

Keep it short!

Unlike an in-person workshop that might take place over the course of a day or a few days, energy levels are typically much lower when participants are stuck behind their screens. For this reason, keep your workshop as short as possible. For everybody’s well-being, don’t forget to include regular screen breaks, and mix up the activities, too. 

Have a plan B 

Despite all the advances in digital tools and technology, there are some days when even technology fails us. For this reason, always have a plan B. Your brainstorming tool is buggy? Have a paper and pen activity to hand. Your mic and camera are failing? Have a co-host ready to jump in. 

Phew! That’s it for today’s post on running a remote Design Thinking workshop!  If you’d like more tips, tricks, and techniques for both in-person and remote facilitation, check out some of our other articles!

How to Communicate Effectively with Your Remote Team 

How To Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking: 7 Psychology-Backed Tips for Facilitators

9 Proven Strategies To Help You Manage Your Facilitation Nerves

Rosie Allabarton