Top 10 best practices for Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshops



In this article, The Service Design Group, the premier customer experience and service design consultancy in the US, presents its top 10 best practices and tips for successful Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshops.



...[we have] a thing or two to share on best practices and tips for successful... workshops.

The Service Design Group routinely delivers expert level, professionally facilitated Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshops.

Commercially, our best-in-class customer experience, service design and process engineering solution — Service Path — bundles impactful workshops with hands-on co-creation, coaching, planning and management to drive customer experience and service delivery transformation.

We also offer a pure training option — Service Path Enable — to build team capacity and transfer critical design thinking and service innovation skills. The workshops included in the bundles are also available a la carte.

In addition to its commercial work, The Service Design Group also does a regular series for NC State Poole College of Management MBA and Master of Innovation degrees. And, occasionally, we run sessions for some of our favorite Research Triangle Park, NC innovation groups and start ups.

All that to say, The Service Design Group believes it has a thing or two to share on best practices and tips for successful Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshops.

Here's our top 10!

#1 Start on time

Something always happens. Plan for the inevitable...

Seems obvious, but it isn't. Too many facilitators mess this one up with poor agenda planning. Each minute is packed in, leaving no room for error. A better approach is to build a buffer into every start. The buffer allows uncontrollables to occur, such as a participant needing five more minutes to finish a call, the A/V system dying or the WiFi hotspot going down. Something always happens. Plan for the inevitable, so when it does happen, you're still in control and starting "on your time."

#2 Use a relevant ice breaker

An ice breaker... is not a best practice.

We're assuming an ice breaker will be used. They're fairly "standard practice" these days. But doing an ice breaker, in and of itself, is not a best practice. Too often, ice breakers are pointless and uncomfortable. The Service Design Group always picks an ice breaker that is directly related to the workshop agenda.

For example, if we're doing a prototyping session, we know we are going to do role playing later in the day. We know from experience that asking people to role play can be a challenge. Our solution? Do a role playing ice breaker.

One of our favorites is "200 Year Old Person."

  • 1. Have the room break into pairs (groups of 2)
  • 2. One person assumes the role of a person from 200 years ago
  • 3. The other person has to describe what a computer is and how it works
  • 4. Participants switch and describe an airplane and how it works

Seems a little silly, but trust us, it serves its purpose:

  • 1. The group just did role playing without knowing it. When you get to role playing later in the day, they'll accept that they already did it and do it again.
  • 2. Without flaw, everyone describes the computer or airplane using feature, function and technical capabilities vs. identifying a user need and presenting a relevant value proposition.

In one little ice breaking event, you get to highlight the importance of building empathy, identifying pain points and creating compelling story lines and you embedded role playing without anyone realizing it. That's what The Service Design Group considers a relevant ice breaker.

#3 Don't lecture!

This is... prototyping, so less talking, more doing...

People don't come to workshops and you don't get hired to create a boring meeting or make people revisit a bad class from college. Participants want to do something and learn something. Put the traditional power points and slide decks away. If you have pages of bullet points, you're doing something wrong.

This is Design Thinking and rapid prototyping, so "less talking, more doing" applies. People must be active, engaged and producing things for the workshop to be a success. Your role is to quickly introduce concepts, provide tools and techniques, and then facilitate and coach.

#4 Use assertion evidence

Assertion evidence, compared to traditional formats, can increase information retention and recall by up to 80%.

Of course, there will inevitably be a need to do some "education" which necessitates some form of "presenting." When you do present, The Service Design Group recommends the use of "assertion evidence." Instead of the traditional text header followed by bullet points (boring!), make an assertion and support, prove or back it up with highly engaging visual evidence.

In addition to upping the visual quality of your material, there's research showing that assertion evidence, compared to traditional formats, can increase information retention and recall by up to 80%.

Fair warning on this one – it's hard! Real hard.

When The Service Design Group produces its workshop materials, we are reminded of this great quote:

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." — Mark Twain

That sums up nicely the level of effort needed to do a full assertion evidence presentation. The good news is, the time invested in doing it right is time well spent.

#5 Establish and enforce ground rules

You have to be in charge and drive participants.

Your job is to be the professional facilitator of the workshop. That means you have to be in charge and drive participants towards a desired outcome. Since we're talking about Design Thinking and rapid prototyping, there's a good chance people are going to be uncomfortble or unaccustomed to some of the things you need them to do. That's why we define "ground rules."

Simply put, ground rules are "non-negotiables" for the workshop to be a success.

For Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshops, The Service Design Group uses four ground rules:

  • 1. Just Say Yes – This ground rule explicitly recognizes that you will ask participants to do new things, and that you expect and need them to do what is asked. They need to trust you as the facilitator and "just say yes" when asked (e.g. do role playing, create an empathy map, etc.).
  • 2. The Parking Lot – This ground rule accepts the fact that the workshop is bounded by time and things will come up that would cannabalize the agenda and learning experience for the participants. The parking lot ground rule lets you move these topics to the side when they come up (and they will come up) without leaving participants feeling like you brushed them aside. We recommend creating a physical "parking lot" with a large easel pad and placing items that come up on a sticky note on the pad.
  • 3. Stick It Up – This ground rule is about active participation, and that for the workshop to be successful, everyone must contribute. Our workshops use a lot of sticky notes (sorry, trees!), so the "Stick It Up" rule is a concrete connection to the behavior you expect participants to exhibit. That is, when it's time to work on something, such as a lean process map, everyone should be grabbing pens and stickies and contributing to the map. It's not OK for one person to be the scribe while others tell them what to write.
  • 4. Constant Playbacks – Our fourth and final rule enforces the concept that for Design Thinking and rapid prototyping to be successful, there must be a continuous cycle of developing, testing and refining ideas. We call this the "Playback" – it's when each group plays back what they're working on to the rest of the room to get feedback, input, suggestions and refinement.

As a best practice related to ground rules, The Service Design Group also asks workshop participants if they have additional ground rules to add. We're hoping someone will contribute something like "this is our workshop, let's make the most of it!" Ideally, that happens, but it not, we tend to suggest it to the room for consideration.

#6 Build skills with Theory:Practice blocks

Rather than... teach the entire topic area... break [it] into tiny little bite sized chunks.

This one is easier to describe with an example. Let's assume that, like The Service Design Group does with its Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshops, you'll be doing a segment on process engineering, service blueprinting, Lean Six Sigma or Kaizen style continuous improvement.

Rather than try to introduce and teach the entire topic area in one go, we break process mapping into tiny little bite sized chunks, or building blocks. Each block pairs a theoretical concept with a practical activity. And, each block seamlessly builds to and connects with the next.

Keeping with our process engineering context, we might start by introducing "actions vs. decisions" (theory) and have participants "itemize things that happen and the decisions required in an existing business process" (practice). Next, we might tackle "clear starts and stops" (theory) and have participants detail "how, why and when an existing process starts and how many ways it can end" (practice).

The Service Design Group continues building this stream of Theory:Practice blocks until workshop participants have built the skill and capacity required to map a full-fledged business process.

We recommend breaking up and tackling each and every topic area with the Theory:Practice building block approach. It works great.

#7 ABP - Always Be Producing

See if [each agenda item has] a clear deliverable... if not, keep working.

This is a "must have" for The Service Design Group, rooted in a belief of "less talking, more doing." Since this is a top 10 list of best practices for Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshops, we believe every agenda item should be conceived of as an activity:deliverable pair.

As with the assertion evidence technique described above, creating agendas as activity:deliverable pairs takes time but makes a huge difference. To get started, take your agenda, and rephrase every segment as an action. That is, edit every item that starts with a noun so that it starts with a verb. Then, see if there is a clear deliverable (ouput) associated with the action. If there is, great. If not, keep working.

Don't stop until your agenda is 100% ABP compatible.

#8 Connect the dots

The facilitator must constantly take stock of participant activity...

The Service Design Group believes that one of the highest value services a professional facilitator must do in a best practice Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshop is to synthesize observations and provide key takeaways throughout the workshop, across topics, and in direct response to things that are happening in real time.

Said differently, the facilitator must constantly take stock of participant activity, the challenges, successes, confusion points and "ahas!" and, in the moment, connect the dots to a core principle of Design Thinking or rapid prototyping (e.g. empathizing with users or failing fast).

This is much easier said than done. It's a skill that gets built over time, through experience and practice. If you're doing a Design Thinking and rapid prototyping event, make sure that you, or whoever is facilitating, is fully equipped to connect the dots.

#9 Never leave things hanging

It's your workshop... don't... break it

Phew! Back to an easier one, or at least one that's easier to explain. It still takes practice, and careful agenda planning, to get it right.

The Service Design Group's "never leave things hanging" best practice stems from this scenario:

Imagine yourself as a participant in a workshop. The facilitator has you doing some stuff, but you have yet to see where it's going. It's lunch time. Everyone takes a break. What do you think participants will discuss over lunch? They'll likely express confusion, that they don't see the point of the exercises, and that they're just wasting time that could be spent "on their job." Rather quickly, the workshop is getting away from the facilitator...

This negative outcome can be 100% eliminated with "never leave things hanging." It's a simple concept. All you have to do is plan your agenda so that the activity:deliverabe pairs from best practice #7 resolve or complete before major break points, which typically are lunch and the end of the day (for a multi day workshop).

It's your workshop, so don't let the breaks break it!

#10 Invest in a noise making device!

... insert some character and personality into your event.

Last up, spend some money on an attention grabbing, preferably not too obnoxious, noise making device. Why? Because humans are humans, and when they get engaged in a Design Thinking and rapid prototyping workshop, you'll want something to grab their attention when you need to take control of the room, e.g., to end a prototyping session in time to do a playback and make the lunch break on time. This is also an easy way to insert some character and personality into your event. We're still looking for a perfect Design Thinking and rapid prototyping noise making device. If you have a favorite, we'd love to hear about it!

What else?

What did we miss? Do you agree with our top 10 items, or would you knock something off the list? Any examples of great ice breakers, ground rules, facilitation strategies or noise making devices you'd like to share?

A final note

If you're considering hiring a workshop vendor for Design Thinking and rapid prototyping, stop and consider what you want to achieve, what it will take to get the results you're looking for, and ask the vendor to prove to you they have done it before and can do it again. You should expect them to have data that proves their workshops are of high value and outstanding quality. Don't settle for anything less than highly experienced, professional facilitators running proven, results oriented workshops.

Read next: Models for service-based innovation

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