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Design Thinking Workshops at the Collaboratory

During September and October, I and the Collaboratory Team facilitated a series of workshops to expose ourcolleagues in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) to design thinking. I wanted them to experience the process for themselves by applying it to a day-to-day challenge. I hoped that the connection to their workflow would demonstrate that design thinking can thrive in the ECA context.

When asked what design thinking is, I now say that it is a creative process for identifying and solving problems that begins with people and ends with solutions designed to fit their needs. There are multiple frameworks out there for understanding this process. The one I’ve found to be most helpful is the Human-Centered Design framework as articulated by’s HCD Toolkit. This is the resource that I leaned on while developing workbooks for ECA’s design thinking workshops.

During the workshops, I had 90 minutes to get through as much of the process as possible, to offer a sense of completion to each group of 16-20 at the end of the session. Before meeting, I asked participants to submit topics or challenges they were working on so that I could craft a design challenge that would be relevant and productive to solve.

The HCD Toolkit breaks down the process into three steps: Hear, Create, and Deliver.

During the Hear phase, a team of human-centered designers define their challenge, share existing knowledge, question their assumptions, and go into the field to conduct research with the goal of empathizing deeply with people they are designing for. In the Create phase, the design team looks for patterns and insights in their research and uses them to isolate opportunities for brainstorming and prototyping new ideas that respond to their design challenge. After refining their ideas through multiple rounds of prototyping, the designers move to the Deliver phase, where they map out their implementation strategy and timeline and plan their first mini-pilot.

Throughout all three phases, feedback is incorporated into the design team’s process, which helps them to decide whether their ideas are desirable, feasible, or viable. The best solutions at the end of the process have all three of those elements.

During our Hear phases, colleagues volunteered their knowledge about our challenge and began to empathize with their users. In the Create phases, it was fun to see federal employees drawing some of their many creative ideas on the walls and collaborating on role-playing prototypes. Each team experienced a brief, structured critique that helped them to build on their ideas with their colleagues. I was thrilled to hear that session participants were excited about learning more and continuing to explore design thinking. They reported back that they had surprised themselves with their own creativity.

One of my biggest lessons as a facilitator is that framing the experience is crucial. The design thinking process can make first-time participants uncomfortable, especially in the Department’s hierarchical government context where employees are often tasked with projects and don’t have much time to complete them. Projects that come across people’s desks can be driven by events, and employees need to be responsive and flexible. Asking them to step back and think about another way of doing work can therefore be a challenge.  And yet, I learned that session participants were interested to learn about design thinking and try it out for themselves. It was my responsibility to encourage them and to build a safe, positive environment for vulnerability and exploration. I had to structure the session in a way that walked them into the brainstorming phase through warm-up activities and explicit rules for brainstorming, courtesy of IDEO. When I read the feedback from participants, comments like “positive encouragement feels good” made me think I was on the right track.