April 8, 2020

The Benefits of Virtual Design Thinking Workshops

An article by Lina Krawietz & Sebastian Hartmann

As a framework for solving complex problems, Design Thinking takes on a whole new meaning, in times of Corona, when practically everyone needs to adapt to uncertain, rapidly changing external conditions within a matter of moments. With the drastic COVID-19 pandemic countermeasures taken around the globe, businesses are faced with a series of major challenges: Production and sales facilities have been closed down. Workflows need to be managed remotely, wherever possible. Products and services that were of high value just yesterday, suddenly have to be re-designed entirely to meet the many new demands. 

The need for fast-paced human-centered innovation is greater than ever. 

As bringing people together in a physical space has so far been a main characteristic of Design Thinking, the question is now, whether it is fit to deliver its proven impact in a virtual setting as well. With face-to-face workshops having been canceled nearly everywhere, innovation experts around the world are translating their workshops, sprints and consulting offers into digitally accessible formats. And these new formats have already shown to be quite beneficial for the stakeholders involved. 

Based on our own experiences and the feedback we’ve collected from our network, we want to highlight the four benefits of virtual Design Thinking workshops that we find most impactful at this point:

#1 – COVID-19 Compatible

Many businesses are trying to “focus on the basics” as they are forced to make decisions that vastly impact their foundation on a daily basis. Virtual Design Thinking workshops and innovation might seem like the last thing there’s currently time to think about and money to invest into. In reality, however, they might be able to provide just the right answers to crisis-related business challenges.

In times where nothing is certain and challenges reach unprecedented scales, turning to Design Thinking to understand and observe your clients‘ demands, synthesizing human (= customer/client, employee and societal) needs as well as prototyping and testing ideas at a very fast pace, can be an effective way to create the knowledge basis you need to make informed decisions. Professional Services Firms are just one example of this situation: The traditional billable hour and facetime at the heart of the business models of lawyers, consultants and accountants are challenged: These experts need to deliver complex solutions (services, products) virtually now – or even completely digitally. Embarking on this accelerated digital transformation journey at scale may become vital for their survival very quickly. So, virtual design thinking workshops may not just be the only way to run a workshop these days – they also become truly „COVID-19 compatible“ by addressing the currently emerging crisis-induced needs.

Above being provided with guidance in developing innovative solutions, taking part in virtual design thinking sessions introduces participants to a digital, collaborative work mode and a variety of online tools suited for all kinds of teamwork. A playful, yet meaningful entry point to digitization as a pressing topic that nearly everyone is currently confronted with. Not to mention the encouraging and team-building effect it has on colleagues who, by taking part in a virtual Design Thinking session, share the experience of successfully tackling challenges together – despite the current situation.

In a virtual workshop setting, participants are much more open and willing to engage in unfamiliar approaches, as they have already had to say goodbye to their accustomed ways of working and their expectation that business will continue as usual. Unlike in face-to-face workshops, they can physically stay within their comfort zone, while only their mind is being challenged by a new way of thinking and working.

Yes, it does have great benefits to work together in person, especially in view of the fact that about 80% of all communication is non-verbal. Nonetheless, there’s no alternative to conducting workshops online at the moment. Working with video conferencing tools in combination with collaboration tools (e.g. Microsoft Teams or Slack) and especially virtual whiteboard tools like Microsoft Whiteboard, MURAL or Miro, which provide their own kind of benefits and features, can significantly make up for what’s lost by going digital.

#2 – Cost Saving

Although still the cheaper option compared to stagnation, driving innovation has ubiquitously turned out to be quite an expensive undertaking. Trips were made around the world, fancy innovation spaces booked, workshop material bought, and food arrangements catered. 

Virtual Design Thinking Workshops strip-down innovation processes to their core functions, making them a lot cheaper, as costs are only produced where value is created in return.

On another level, Design Thinking projects often take place not only at the expense of the departments involved but also at the expense of our environment. Bringing people together, virtually, is the most sustainable approach to innovation, as we refrain from, eg., flights or using tons of beautifully colored, but chemically treated post-its.

The biggest cost of innovation stems from failures – especially when failure happens (too) late in the process: This is exactly where design thinking comes into play by focusing on the actual client or user needs as early as possible and validating working hypotheses or testing as much as possible. Virtual workshops allow for even easier, location independent and very fast integration of target clients, users, and experts. Their involvement may even just be limited to testing certain elements and partial results along the way. They can be invited to join a virtual session for only a few minutes, which is relevant to their domain expertise or particular interests. This approach may improve the quality of the output even further and thus reduce the likelihood of failure.

#3 – Digital Outcome

Digital workshops can be fully recorded, which allows a more accurate evaluation and easy post-processing. The common virtual collaboration spaces allow you to save and send workshop results in all kinds of file formats. Providing a first digital copy of workshop results within a matter of minutes, allows everyone to further dwell on a tangible outcome and not be cut off from the momentum that was built in the session.

Having a digital copy of the workshop outcomes does not relieve Design Thinking facilitators of their task to make sense of the results – but it makes this final step a lot easier. There is no more need to collect information from the fronts and backs of a whiteboard or flipchart papers scattered all over the room or to decipher unreadable handwriting on post-its. It may be even easier to integrate digital and thus often more collaborative mock-up or prototyping tools in virtual workshops, that provide even better outputs, which can be used for immediate validations or testings.

#4 – Time Saving

Preparing a virtual Design Thinking workshop takes about the same amount of preparation time as offline. Nevertheless, a great deal of time is saved throughout the actual workshops as well as in terms of traveling. By bringing workshops online, it becomes more doable to involve the ideal group of people, no matter where they are located in the world. The difficulty of finding a date and time frame that allows everyone to invest the needed amount of hours or days to travel, be present for a series of workshops and stay overnight, is no longer an issue. This is not just saving time for participants, but also for the firm: It may significantly reduce the time to market or go-live (when dealing with services, products, solutions in these workshops).

If done right, virtual workshops can also be more productive compared to the traditional on-site event. People can be more focused and less distracted, e.g., by having side conversations. But switching off other apps or notifications on devices is clearly key here. Virtual whiteboards, such as MURAL or Miro, even enable facilitators to “summon” all participants to a specific area of the collaboration board or canvas. Participants can also work in parallel without stepping on each other’s toes (which can happen quite literally in front of a small flipchart or simply in smaller rooms in a traditional setting). Some participants may also find it easier to contribute in general, because they do not have to step up physically or stand in front of a group when they add their thoughts. The mental barrier to contributions sinks – and more output can be produced in less time.

Oh, and one of the golden rules of Design Thinking, demanding only one person to speak at a time, is enforced by technology default.

Of course, it is necessary to adapt the workshop design to the restraints that come with staring at a computer screen. When challenges, like a shorter attention span, the social distance between everyone involved and the physical challenge of sitting still all day is sufficiently taken into account, a virtual workshop can run quite smoothly and deliver the same results in less time. For professionals, it may also be helpful to know that they will not be bound in all-day workshops. Planned breaks during which lawyers or consultants can get back to their urgent business and clients’ needs with just one click (no need to walk back to their offices, right?), may ease everyone‘s mind during the time of intense workshop collaboration. The breaks can be used for post-processing, documentation and clean-up work by the facilitator – or alternating the refinement of outputs between selected sub-groups or individual participants. This reduces the time consumption for other participants even further.

So, unless costs and money are not an issue, design thinking workshops will not be physical, on-site events by default anymore.

New and mostly virtual forms of collaboration are now being considered by many – and design thinking workshops are no exception. Interestingly enough, we find that projects or design challenges that would have previously been vehemently ruled out as unfit to be managed remotely are reported to work out in virtual space without any significant loss in quality. Maybe even the opposite. 

So, Virtual Design Thinking workshops might develop into a new best practice for innovation – and one that is urgently needed these days. 

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Let us know what you think in the comments!

… and stay tuned for some practical tips for your own virtual design thinking workshops in our forthcoming article.

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