The ultimate guide to running a design thinking workshop

Running or facilitating a design thinking workshop is an important skill in today’s UX designer’s toolkit. But how do you run a design thinking workshop? It is not as easy as it looks.

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How to run a design thinking workshop

In this article, I’m going to share how I’ve facilitated and organized many design thinking workshops throughout my UX career. We’ll discuss how to prepare for the workshop, how to conduct one, and what to expect as the next steps once you’ve completed your design thinking workshop.

I’ll also share what, in my experience, is the difference between an online design thinking workshop and an in-person design thinking workshop.

Preparing for the workshop

Preparation is key to a successful design thinking workshop. That preparation includes several subtasks that you need to complete before you start.

  • Talk to your stakeholders to discover why you’re doing a design thinking workshop.
  • Finding participants.
  • Picking the right structure for the workshop.

The order of these subtasks is important. Let’s go through each of them to help you prepare.

Discuss the workshop goal with your stakeholders

You usually don’t do a workshop just because you want to. And even though it’s a part of design thinking in general, you still have to convince your stakeholders about the value of a workshop.

During my projects, I noticed that most stakeholders want to do a long and boring meeting that doesn’t move the needle forward in any way.

Do a workshop instead of those boring meetings. It is more fun and very interactive and will likely take less time than that boring meeting your stakeholders came up with in the first place.

Discussing the goals of the workshop

So, let’s assume that you’ve convinced your stakeholders. What’s still important to know is the goal of your stakeholders.

The design thinking workshop is only one step within your project and should take you from the current step to the next.

What should that next step be? What is the desired result?

These are all very important questions you should ask your stakeholders before starting a project or, in this case, your design thinking workshop.

Some of the expected outcomes could be that the stakeholders want to learn why their current product doesn’t achieve the set business goals.

In that case, you want to facilitate a workshop with actual users to find out why that is.

This brings me to the next step in your workshop preparation: finding the right participants.

Find participants

Finding participants for your design thinking workshop can be quite a challenge.

How challenging this will be depends on your (target) user group and company policies.

Some companies don’t want you to talk to users because they think users don’t have time or because they think involving users in a workshop might scare them away.

If you have a B2C product, for example, finding participants is also very challenging. They’re hard to reach and don’t want to spend much time as a research participant.

In most cases, you have stakeholders or a product owner responsible for finding participants. All you have to do is create a profile of what you’re looking for in a participant.

For example, you are looking for participants with experience using a certain software tool, a part of your application, or a particular age group.

Make sure that you’re very specific about your requirements. Otherwise, finding suitable participants will take a long time, hurting your credibility in facilitating a design thinking workshop in the company.

Understanding the workshop structure

Solid design thinking workshops have a clear structure. It helps you guide your participants from the design challenge to a solution. Here’s a high-level overview of what a workshop structure usually looks like.

Start with formalities, like introducing yourself, sharing the workshop’s agenda, and mentioning what you expect of the participant.

Once the formalities are out of the way, you go very wide before narrowing the workshop down again. In Design Thinking, this is called diverging and converging.

You want to start generating as many high-level ideas as you can first.

Once you have a lot of high-level, low-detail ideas, you can start to bring down that number while increasing the fidelity of the different ideas that your participants create.

As a result of the workshop, you’ll usually end up with one or several ideas to take with you to your next steps after the workshop.

And finally, you have to decide the length and location of your workshop.

Usually, a workshop could take anywhere from 2 hours as a remote workshop to several days when it’s in-person.

So again, that depends on the company culture and policies. Are you an office-bound company, or do you usually work from home?

How to run a design thinking workshop

Now that we’ve discussed the workshop preparation, it is time to go through the workshop steps. For each, I’ll mention what to do as a facilitator and some examples of how to do that.

The intro

You have to get every participant on the same page first, so start with an introduction. Include the following topics.

  • Who you are.
  • The agenda of the workshop.
  • The goal of the workshop.
  • What you expect from your participants.
  • Any rules that you might have.

As for rules, I’m talking about venue policy when you’re doing an in-person workshop.

Design thinking workshop icebreakers

Most participants usually are a bit nervous at the start of a workshop. They have questions about the facilitator, the workshop, and workshop expectations.

If you start your workshop right away, participants will be less active than when you’ve done an icebreaker.

That’s why icebreakers are crucial to the success of your workshop. Here are two examples of icebreakers I like to do during my workshops.

Icebreaker example one
An example of a workshop ice breaker

My favorite one is where I have my participants figure out the order of birthdays within the group. Here’s how it works.

First, I mention the goal of the icebreaker and today’s date. Once that’s done, I ask the participants to speak up if they think their birthday is closest to the current date.

After a while, one or two participants will speak up and share their birthday. This triggers collaboration right away because the group has to figure out if this birthday is indeed the first one coming up.

Icebreaker example two
An example of a workshop ice breaker

The second icebreaker I use a lot is all about lists. Together with my workshop participants, we create a to-do list for an upcoming holiday.

Start by asking one random participant for a holiday recommendation. It could be a city to visit, a show to watch, or anything else. Once the first participant is done, ask them to pick another participant to go next.

When participants have to pick the next one to go by themselves, it greatly increases the engagement and focus of your group.

At the end of the workshop, you can share the to-do list as a parting gift. That’s always fun.

Icebreaker example three
An example of a workshop ice breaker

My final icebreak example is the drawing contest. Let one team pick a random animal and have every participant draw that animal within 30 seconds.

It will get a lot of laughs from people, which will raise their energy and make them more active for the rest of the workshop.

Understanding the design challenge

Understanding the design challenge is one of the most important steps of any workshop. This step is important for the facilitator and every participant.

There are several exercises you could use in your design thinking workshop to get an understanding of the design challenge.

When you have different user groups in your workshop, one of the exercises I like to do is to have the groups present each other’s viewpoints without preparation.

It’s often a moment of fun because the presentations usually are way off at first. Because of the laughs, it also counts as an extra icebreaker.

Then, as a second step, you divide the groups into smaller groups and have them take turns interviewing each other within the smaller group.

Make sure each small group consists of one person from each of the bigger groups.

The interviewers will get a better understanding of the other group’s needs and pain points. This is an important milestone from a UX research perspective.

As a final step of this exercise, you can let the groups present each other’s beliefs a second time and see if there’s an improvement.

Have the group do a dot-voting exercise to check if this is the case. Create a list of names and add a red and a green dot next to them. You can then let your participants vote by selecting the green (the second presentation was better) or the red dot (not an improvement).

Create a solution

Now that you know the user pain points of the group, the next step is to create a solution for those pain points.

To do this, you start big and go smaller step by step. Here’s what I mean.

‘Start big’ by creating lots of different possible solutions. These ideas are very low-fidelity at first, with little detail. The goal here isn’t to solve the problem yet. We just want to have a long list of ideas.

We’ll ‘go smaller’ by picking the best ideas from the initial list and going into more and more detail with each exercise.

Visual on how to structure design thinking workshops

Structure and exercises

Start with an individual exercise called ‘crazy eights.’ Give each participant a piece of paper and have them divide that paper into eight spaces. You can do that by folding your paper three times down the middle.

As a facilitator, you’re going to give each participant one minute for each space to come up with an idea.

These ideas can be very simple. A few words or a quick sketch is enough. Remember, we’re still in the ‘start big’ phase. It’s all about creating multiple ideas very quickly.

Let’s say you are with ten people in your workshop. If you do the ‘crazy eight’ exercise, you’ll have 80 ideas within 10 minutes. That’s a lot.

Your next step is to bring the number of ideas down while increasing the level of detail per idea.

One way of doing this is to have the participants return to their original groups, give them some time to present their ideas to each other, and decide a top 3 for each group.

If you’re with two groups, this exercise brings the number of ideas from 80 down to 6.

You can have the groups present these top 3 ideas to each other during a plenary meeting and use this moment to gather a lot of feedback.

Repeating the dot-voting exercise from earlier is possible, too, but instead of using green and red dots, give each group member three dots to divide amongst the ideas.

This list of ideas and the votes each idea received is a good workshop deliverable already.

But we want more. As a final exercise, let the groups take the feedback and use it to update their ideas. You can let them work on this for 30-60 minutes and have them create their primary solution for the design challenges from the first part of the workshop.

The steps that follow a design thinking workshop.

After your design thinking workshop, your next steps are to gather feedback and share the workshop outcome with your stakeholders.

Gather feedback about your role as a facilitator. Use it to see how the participants perceived the workshop and to discover ways to improve your next workshop.

As for the workshop outcome, you can look at the created ideas and the votes they received. Take those ideas to your stakeholders.

Your stakeholder wants to have a solution for a problem. That’s the reason you’re facilitating the workshop in the first place.

Create a presentation where you show the ideas and your suggested next steps for these ideas. Add a way to contact you at the end of the presentation, too.

One or two weeks after the workshop, host a workshop outcome presentation for your workshop participants. Share what you’ve done during the workshop, what the participants made of it, and your next steps.

You do this as a way to check the response to your ideas and to make sure you’ve understood your participants correctly. It is called ‘participant buy-in,’ and it is super important.

The difference between in-person and virtual design workshops.

The difference between in-person and virtual design workshops is how you manage the energy level of your participants. For virtual design workshops, this is much harder.

Back in the day, I only did in-person design thinking workshops. Because of remote and hybrid work, I currently do virtual workshops more often.

When you facilitate an in-person workshop, you have a lot of space to walk around; people are standing up, and you can arrange good food.

Because of this, in-person workshops usually have more energy than virtual design workshops.

For virtual workshops, I recommend creating enough breaks.

That’s because staring at a screen full of participants all day is much more exhausting than being in the room together.

One of the upsides of a virtual workshop is that you have more tools at your disposal.

That ‘crazy eight’ exercise I mentioned earlier is something you can do even quicker if you work online because of tools like Miro and FigJam. You also don’t need your participants to fold any papers.

In my experience, doing an online workshop is less exhausting for the facilitator. That’s because you have to walk around less and can use the breaks just as much as your participants do.

If you do an in-person workshop, you need to have a good ‘stage presence,’ too. Not every designer has that.

For example, I’m an introverted UX designer, and even though I really enjoy facilitating a workshop, it is something that costs me a lot of energy. Virtual workshops are easier in that regard.

Tips and tricks for design thinking workshops

We’ve gone through structure, exercises, and how to prepare for a design thinking workshop. All that’s left is some tips and tricks that I want to share based on my experience facilitating design thinking workshops.

Manage the expectations of your workshop

Manage expectations

The first tip is to be very clear about what you expect from your participants. That means starting your workshop with some ground rules.

For example, I always mention that if people want to go for a short walk, get some more coffee, or have a toilet break, they can just do that without asking for permission.

It really helps the flow of the workshop and will also put less stress on the participants.

At the same time, it’s also important to be clear about what you expect from a particular exercise. Mention how long it will take, explain why you want people to do the exercise, and how it works.

Do more than one icebreaker during your workshop

Do more than one icebreaker

Make sure that you do another icebreaker every now and then to energize your group. It’s more than just the workshop intro. For example, I do an extra energizer after the lunch break of my workshop.

As a facilitator, you have to be aware of the energy levels within your group. If you feel the energy dropping, add an extra energizer.

It’s okay if you haven’t scheduled it. Sometimes, it just needs to happen. It’ll improve the remainder of your workshop even if you fall behind on schedule because of it.

Further reading

Let’s say you have facilitated a workshop, you’re looking to prepare your first workshop, or want to learn more about UX in general, but you still have some doubts or questions.

That’s okay! Workshops are a lot of work and quite scary if you’ve never done one before. In that case, you can reach out to me, and I’m more than happy to assist you if you want.

Do you have feedback on this article? Missing something? Or just a question? Reach out to me and I’ll get back to you!

Profile picture of author Nick Groeneveld, a senior UX designer and mentor for The Designer's Toolbox

About the author

Hi! I'm , a senior designer from the Netherlands with experience in UX, visual design, and research. I'm a UX coach that supports other designers and have completed design projects in finance, tech, and the public sector.

Through The Designer's Toolbox, I'm an Educational Partner for Interaction Design Foundation.

☎️ Book a 1:1 mentor meeting with me or let's connect on LinkedIn, Twitter and Medium.