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Design Thinking Goes Virtual

Anthony Butler
Partner, Customer Experience Transformation Practice, TCS
Cory Fritzsching
Engagement Manager, CX Transformation, TCS

Key insights

Design Thinking workshops – conducted remotely or in-person – are essential to defining and delivering exceptional customer experiences.

  • Remote Design Thinking workshops can perform the same activities and accomplish the same goals as traditional workshops—with some minor modifications
  • During remote Design Thinking workshops be sure to leverage the use of videoconferencing features and vendor platform design activity and exercise templates
  • When facilitating a workshop, create and maintain an agenda but stay flexible and fluid

Design Thinking – the workshop-based methodology used by design shops, consultants and thousands of companies around the globe – has traditionally been practiced in large rooms filled with facilitators, subject matter experts, business leaders and other project stakeholders. All that workshop activity came to a crashing halt in the middle of March 2020. As the workplaces and offices we visited on a daily basis shut down, so did the possibility of assembling in-person groups to perform the activities that make up a Design Thinking workshop or a Design Thinking-led project.

Design Thinking uses a combination of user interviews, persona and scenario creation, prototyping and testing that embraces failure and rapid iterations to identify and develop essential criteria for successful product and service outcomes.

Much like the digital video-conferencing platforms that have become part of our everyday lives (such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams), many online tools have stepped into the spotlight to provide the capabilities required to conduct Design Thinking workshops remotely. Some of these visual collaboration tools and platforms come highly recommended, like Miro and MURAL. One of best things about these platforms is they come with a substantial prepackaged library of Design Thinking activity and exercise templates, most of which can be customized to fit the exact requirements of your project.

In fact, many companies have had success using a variety of vendors for a specific Design Thinking phase. For example:

Design Thinking: Online and On-the-clock

Amid our enthusiasm to embrace these new tools it is easy to lose sight of the fact that remote Design Thinking workshops are – in many ways – simply another online meeting. Just as much has been written about the Zoom fatigue everyone has experienced over the last few months, Design Thinking in a remote setting has a time limit on its productivity. In the past, workshop attendees would happily contribute ideas and feedback from 8am to 6pm, as long as you kept everyone fed and scheduled enough breaks for attendees to answer urgent emails and check in with their teams. What we have found, however, is that most people simply do not have the ability to focus and be productive on a single topic for an entire day in an online setting.


Figure 1. With remote workshops, you need to limit both the amount of time and the number of participants to get the best results. Our recent experience indicates around 12 attendees for your workshop is most effective and easily manageable.

As a result, we find ourselves reducing workshop session times by up to two-thirds. Short, time-boxed sessions that structure the flow and motivate people to stay on time and on topic. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to share the workshop agenda in advance – giving participants a sneak peek into what they should expect during the session. Also, allowing people to turn off their webcams during scheduled breaks helps your participants feel they are not constantly being scrutinized. (Remember to ask everyone to turn it back on when your workshop starts up again.)

Prepare for your remote Design Thinking workshop

Since your remote sessions will be shorter, you need to preserve as much time as possible for Design Thinking exercises and playback, so it’s best to send out a pre-work packet prior to the session. Pre-work is especially beneficial for remote sessions because it allows you to jumpstart the brainstorming process with attendees. Any workshop invite should also include links to sign up in advance for any tools being used during the workshop, along with instructional videos. This will save you time in teaching the basics of tool usage during your workshop. When using a platform like MURAL, make sure to have all workshop templates and activities planned out ahead of time and provide written directions in the workspace for users to read and follow. It is also a good idea to have a second or third facilitator – depending on the number of participants – to help with on-the-fly directions, agenda changes, and any IT/connection issues. Just make sure to clearly communicate the roles of each facilitator in prior to your workshop.

Tips to facilitate Design Thinking workshops remotely

To get the most value from these workshops, a best practice that ensures success in your project (service or product design) is to make sure you use an experienced design thinking facilitator who understands your larger business strategy and goals. This person leads groups in working sessions that utilize design thinking methods, including ice breaker exercises, structured brainstorming sessions, innovation workshops, executive summits, design sprints, multi-day workshops, and long-term projects.

In a remote session, ice breaker exercises are more important than ever. With the compressed timeframe for remote workshops and new tools for participants, ice breakers serve a dual purpose: Introduction to the concepts and activities of Design Thinking plus the opportunity to learn how online tools work. (Don’t assume everyone has watched the instruction videos you sent out).

When deciding on your ice breaker exercise, consider how they provide an opportunity for participants to introduce themselves in a fun way, but also how it can inform what is expected from them during the workshop. This is a great way to save time and get people involved from the outset.

Figure 2. Remote workshop warm-up exercises include activities like “Genie in a Bottle,” where participants share three wishes with their fellow workshop attendees.

Be inclusive while brainstorming. During remote workshop session playbacks, it’s okay to ask who wrote what and have them explain their ideas. This provides facilitators the opportunity to understand the user more intimately and their priorities for within a discrete task or interaction.

While we would never recommend holding a workshop without a detailed agenda, workshop facilitators must be ready to think fast on their feet and change things on the fly. Accept that agendas and activities may not go exactly as you planned. Some exercises take longer than expected in remote workshops than in person. You need to be able to adjust the exercise or agenda in real time.  

Design Thinking workshop follow-up activities

Post workshop you’ll want to make sure to schedule a read-out meeting between your facilitators and your major client and project stakeholders. While you would typically do this for any in-person workshop, in the case of a remote workshop you have some other things to consider beyond the quality of your output.

For instance: How well did the technology perform? How well did your agenda fit the length of the workshop session? Did you have to spend more time teaching workshop tools, leaving less time to facilitate innovation? These are a just a few of the questions you’ll find yourself asking. This will be valuable information for refining your technology support and preparing for your next workshop. 

Remote Design Thinking recap: Learn by doing (virtually)

There is one way in which Remote Design Thinking is very similar to in-person workshops. To build your confidence and expertise, real-world (albeit remote) experience is your best teacher. Define a set of problems your customer needs solved, identify a couple of online tools you’re comfortable with, and gather a group of participants willing to jump in with both feet.

In this new world in which we find ourselves, people are becoming increasingly more comfortable with a virtual mindset. And, we’re even more convinced Remote Workshops will stand the test of time as a go-to solution for your CX, marketing and business challenges long after we’re all allowed to be in the same room together.  

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