Design thinking is a process for creative problem-solving that focuses on users. During workshops, designers utilize different creative exercises to better understand the people a product is being designed for, as well as the pain points it will solve for them. While design thinking principles and exercises can be applied across a number of different industries, they’re most often referred to in the context of digital product design—which is our focus in this article.
At Checkmate Digital, we use design thinking exercises during our workshops to help identify key user challenges—but there are so many useful exercises and ways of ferreting out this information. We reached out to industry experts to learn their favorite design thinking workshop exercises and why they find them useful, which we share below.
This is a popular design thinking exercise because it helps people look at problems from different perspectives. It allows people to tap into six different personalities, each of which are represented by a symbolic colored hat. “It’s a powerful decision-checking technique in group scenarios, as everyone explores the situation from each perspective,” shares Andrew Saley, design thinking team lead at Kromtech.
Each thinking hat prompts six different discussions, during which participants share their thoughts from that particular point of view.
Saley feels this technique prevents confrontations that may occur when people with different thinking styles discuss a problem, because each perspective is valid. And having examined their options from numerous viewpoints, decision makers have a much more detailed picture of potential outcomes and can make decisions accordingly.
This design thinking exercise asks designers to revisit their understanding of the core problem for the purpose of clarifying it. According to Shannon Lue Chee Lip, an independent consultant who uses design thinking frameworks to help social good organizations create strategic plans for success, this exercise helps ensure designers are solving the core issue rather than just treating the symptoms.
“Take for example if you were tasked with designing a new phone for the elderly. It might be tempting to jump straight into ideating features like large buttons or speech-to-text capabilities, but if we step back and decompose the problem—if we ask ourselves, what’s the purpose of a phone, anyway?—we open up a whole new world of design possibilities. Rather than designing just another accessible phone concept, we might find ourselves creating entirely new ways for older people to relay their thoughts to another person physically distant from them,” Lip explains.
This kind of decomposition challenges designers to reframe their understanding of the challenge at hand, acknowledging any biases they might bring to the design process and opening themselves up to new ideas that might never have surfaced otherwise.
Another of Lip’s favorite design thinking activities is the Five Whys. It uses recursive questioning to help designers better understand the root cause of a problem, rather than immediately attempting to address the more obvious symptoms.
Lip shares, “The process begins by identifying the most obvious problem to be addressed and gradually working backwards by repeatedly asking ‘Why?’ and empathizing with the user to trace the root cause of an issue. The beauty of this exercise lies in its simplicity, as it can very quickly lead us from a simple presenting problem like ‘There’s a puddle of water on the floor’ to reveal key insights like ‘No one can figure out the user interface of the maintenance request system, so the control valves have not been serviced in years.’ That can be invaluable in informing the design process.”
Peter Donahue, who works as a full-time freelance designer, prefers “good, old-fashioned thumbnail sketching” as a design thinking exercise. Donahue usually creates twenty or more quick, small sketches of a design to help identify and solve key visual problems. He explains, “this is my go-to ideation method. There's a lot of talk about rapid prototyping in the maker community, and I see thumbnail sketching as
the purest, most rapid form of that method.”
Quick design thinking exercises like these help designers develop a better understanding of users and the root causes of their problems—but they’re only one step in the design process. During Checkmate Digital design sprints, we hone in on a single solution to the primary problem experienced by users. Then, our design team creates an interactive prototype based on that solution, which is tested by real users to collect critical feedback.
If you have a great product idea but don’t want to waste months on user research and prototype design, our 5-day design sprint process may be the perfect next step for you. Let’s talk about what you’re working on and how we can help make that vision a reality.