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Virtual Design Thinking: Can It Work?

Overnight your world has shifted. You have experienced an accelerated workforce transformation from in-person to virtual. Everyone is adjusting to a new way of working, in a new environment. But one thing hasn’t changed: You have complex problems that need solving, maybe even now more than ever before. Luckily for you and your customers, being virtual doesn’t need to impact your ability to be productive, to work collaboratively, or even to solve problems. You can still practice human-centric problem-solving from wherever you and your team are in the world.

Design Thinking

If you have a problem that needs solving, hopefully design thinking is one of the tools you’re thinking about using. If you aren’t familiar with design thinking, here’s a quick intro: Design thinking is the creative problem-solving methodology that has brought you some of the best product designs you probably have in your possession right now. Companies like IDEO, Apple, and Nike have brought design thinking into the spotlight over the last two decades and for a great reason: Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology that keeps the focus on the customer. Applying design thinking to human-centric problems helps unlock users’ needs and problems, even when they don’t know what the problems are or aren’t able to articulate them. Historically, design thinking has been well-known for helping solve product design problems. But it doesn’t stop with product design, it’s also valuable for use with processes and services. (If you want to learn more about Design Thinking, check out this page today).

So now that you’re squared away on the methodology being used to solve your problems, it’s time to address the bigger issue. When most people hear the phrase “design thinking,” the first association is Post-it Notes. In fact, if you google design thinking right now you, you’ll see the Post-it Notes photos (or just check out the image below to save yourself some time). I love using Post-it Notes during design thinking initiatives. They are mobile, fun to collect, and help add color to the room. But seeing these photos insinuates you need to have everyone in the room together to use these colorful little tools. That would be false. In fact, many people think design thinking requires everyone to be together. That, too, is false.

Design Thinking is Great Virtual

Sure, getting the entire team together for a design thinking session is fun. It takes you away from your desk, maybe there’s free food involved, and it might even feel like a break from your normal flow of work. But design thinking also works in our ever-growing remote work economy. And it can work REALLY well. Sometimes, it might even work better being remote than being in person. But there’s a catch: It takes a little more preparation to get everyone comfortable in the virtual environment. It’s important to have a facilitator or a lead with experience managing virtual sessions. It’s a different type of challenge to keep virtual participants engaged, but that’s not a result of or limited to design thinking initiatives, that’s just part of learning how to work in collaborative work environments. And although many are being thrust into the remote world sooner than most companies anticipated, we can take this opportunity to prove remote initiatives can be successful.

5 Phases of Virtual Design Thinking

Empathy: Understanding people (customers, learners, employees, patients, etc.)

There are a number of ways to conduct empathy research without having to travel or be face-to-face. To be successful with empathy research, the most important factor is being able to see and listen to the individual. Leverage a collaboration tool that has a video component to ensure you can see them, their body language, and make the human connection. If you are doing focus groups, the same applies—just make sure everyone (and I do mean everyone) has their video turned on. And remember: Empathy research is 90% listening and 10% asking non-leading and open questions.

Define: The problem statement

You now have data from the empathy research. You can perform qualitative or quantitative analysis and synthesize the data anywhere in the world. You’ll probably want to have help, so leverage a collaboration tool with sharing capabilities.

Ideate: Brainstorm and create solutions

This is my favorite phase where you come up with creative ideas to solve for the problem statement. I was hesitant about a virtual brainstorming session until I led one myself last year. And I loved it. There are a number of tools that exist but two I particularly like are IdeaFlip (https://ideaflip.com/) and Padlet (www.padlet.com). It’s virtual Post-it Notes! Literally you can have all the colors, sizes, breakout rooms, and more. Being virtual also makes it easier to include a greater variety of people in the brainstorm sessions. Best practice: include people who are not familiar with the problem or customer in your brainstorm sessions. Their lack of  direct involvement prior to the brainstorm session will help uncover non-biased ideas and help your team uncover a broader range of ideas.

Prototype: Build quick representations of your ideas

Collaboration platforms will help you here too. Once your ideas are crafted, prototypes can be created from anywhere. A prototype can be something to react to and sometimes the sketches or storyboards from the ideation sessions can serve as a prototype.

Test: Test your prototypes with your users

And lastly, the test phase can also be done virtually. Create the closest real-world environment for the customers to test the prototype in. If it’s a product they need to hold, ship it to them and have them test it on camera. You’ll want to be able to engage with them in real time.

Admittedly, we are living through turbulent times right now. But in reality, the volatility and complex environments we are experiencing are our new normal; change is inevitable. Physical barriers may be omnipresent, but virtual barriers are non-existent. Being remote doesn’t stop us from solving problems. Design thinking is a powerful force that works behind the scenes at the world’s most successful companies, and for great reason. Every day, design thinking fosters evolution, continuous improvement, and innovation. And the best part of design thinking is that you can lead initiatives, connect with your customers, collaborate with your team, and solve problems from anywhere in the world.

So what’s next? Maybe you’re looking for a partner to help lead you through a virtual initiative? GP Strategies is well positioned to help you make this transition and ensure the experience is not compromised. Learn more about our Design Thinking Consulting and Implementation Services.

Additionally, below are some tools to help your team collaborate and brainstorm remotely.

Collaboration Tools:

  • Zoom
  • Slack
  • Google Hangouts
  • Office365
  • Axis-workshops.com
  • Stormz.me/en

Brainstorm Tools:

  •  Padlet.com
  • Scrumblr.com
  • IdeaFlip.com
  • IdeaBoardz.com
  • Mural.com
  • Miro.com
  • Xmind.net


About the Authors

Keith Keating
With a career spanning over 20 years in learning & development, Keith Keating holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership and has experience in a myriad of areas ranging from Instructional Design, Leadership Coaching, Operations Management, and Process Transformation. More recently Keith has been leading clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied Design Thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found Design Thinking was a perfect tool to add to his problem solving "toolkit". Since then, Keith has been utilizing Design Thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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