Brittni Bowering at her desk, ready to conduct a remote design thinking workshop

How to Run a Remote Design Thinking Workshop

Emily Stevens

You’ve heard of the design thinking workshop—now it’s time to take it remote…

With the rise of remote work, we’ve all been presented with new challenges. How do we digitalize our everyday behaviors, from the project check-ins to the coffee machine catch-ups?

The tech tools of today, from Slack to Zoom to Jira, help us manage many aspects of our work life, but what do we do when we want to shift business strategy, to harvest the thoughts and ideas of our brightest sparks, and to start the fresh and innovative projects that’ll provide the next revenue stream? 

Just because your team is scattered all over the globe or you’ve got people working from home, it doesn’t mean you have to put those all-important business challenges on hold. Far from it, in fact. The world of work might be changing, but technology is on our side; with the right tools and a solid plan, you can bring everybody together just as you would for an onsite workshop. 

Of course, running a remote design thinking workshop is not without its challenges—but you’ll soon see that the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. We’ve teamed up with design thinking expert and workshop aficionado Brittni Bowering to bring you a foolproof step-by-step guide on how to run your own remote design thinking workshop. Brittni has facilitated workshops for the likes of Twitter, Procter & Gamble, and Lufthansa, so she certainly knows what makes for an awesome workshop—both in-person and remote. 

Whether you’re an experienced design thinking workshop facilitator looking to adapt your practice for remote life, or a manager looking to foster collaboration across dispersed teams, this guide is for you. We’ll show you:

  1. Why run a remote design thinking workshop?
  2. How to run a remote design thinking workshop: A step-by-step guide​​​​​​​
  3. How to make sure your remote design thinking workshop runs smoothly: Tips and best practices​​​​​​​
  4. Key takeaways 

Ready to go remote with design thinking? Let’s do it.

1. Why run a remote design thinking workshop?

First things first: What exactly is a design thinking workshop? If you’re familiar with the concept of design thinking, you’ll know that it’s all about solving complex problems in a highly user-centric way. The increasingly popular design thinking workshop is based on this framework, incorporating a series of creative and collaborative exercises that helps a group of people (usually from different teams across the business) to align on a certain challenge and, ultimately, to come up with testable solutions. Design thinking is unique in its focus on user-centric problem-solving: you’re not just coming up with ideas that could benefit the business, but rather, taking a rare opportunity to really step into your users’ shoes and understand them on a deeper level. 

Brittni Bowering, our design thinking expert, emphasizes that it doesn’t matter how big or small the challenge is that you’re trying to solve: the main thing is that you’re solving it fluidly, getting feedback along the way and looping back to different stages in the design thinking process as your discoveries and ideas evolve. Although it’s not strictly a linear process, the design thinking framework will take you through the following phases:

  1. Empathize: Getting to know your users and understanding their challenges
  2. Define: Setting out the key user challenge you need to address
  3. Ideate: Coming up with potential solutions
  4. Prototype: Turning your ideas into something testable, be it a digital mockup or a hand-drawn sketch 
  5. Test: Sharing your prototype with real users and gathering feedback

You can learn more about the design thinking process (and why it’s anything but linear) in this guide. For now, though, let’s consider the main benefits of a remote design thinking workshop. 

5 Benefits of running a remote design thinking workshop

Having facilitated design thinking workshops for a wide variety of companies across different industries, Brittni finds that most—if not all—teams can benefit:

“Design thinking workshops are a way for people to work together on a problem systematically. What’s great about design thinking is that you work with people from different departments, with different goals and experiences, on the same problem. You get this unique, multi-perspective problem-solving framework that casts a wider net—allowing solutions to come from often surprising places!”

Thanks to technology and some pretty handy tools (which we’ll get onto later), a remote design thinking workshop offers many of the same benefits as an in-person one. So what exactly are the benefits of a (remote) design thinking workshop?

  1. Focus: Everybody is in the same room or digital space together, focusing on a single task. There’s no context switching or distraction from other tasks.
  2. Alignment: Whether remote or on-site, design thinking workshops provide a rare scenario whereby people from different teams are aligned on the same problem.
  3. Collaboration: Design thinking is unique in that it allows everyone to work together creatively but in a structured way. Exercises are defined so that everybody stays on task, but there’s enough freedom for creative ideas to flow.
  4. Perspectives: Design thinking encourages people from all walks of life (and from all areas of the business) to put their heads together to solve a problem. This mix of perspectives works wonders for creativity and innovation!
  5. User-centricity: The heart of design thinking (and why it’s so effective) lies in its user-centered approach; a design thinking workshop presents a rare opportunity to step into the users’ shoes. 

Another notable benefit of running a remote workshop is that you can bypass some of those tricky on-site logistics, such as finding the right space for your workshop or coordinating it so that everybody’s in the same place at the same time. The joy of remote work in general is that anyone with an internet connection can get involved—there’s no such thing as geographical boundaries! 

What kinds of challenges can you address with a remote design thinking workshop?

With those key benefits in mind, you may be wondering what kinds of challenges you might solve with the help of design thinking. To quote Brittni:

“The beauty of design thinking is that it can be used to tackle challenges of all kinds, sizes, and formats—as long as the challenge involves a user who can test a potential solution.”

When it comes to design thinking and imagining how it might be used and applied, it’s important to think beyond the realms of “design” and “digital”. While design thinking can be used to come up with new product ideas and new features for existing products, it works equally well for internal processes or customer experiences away from the digital interface. To give an example, Brittni recalls working with a company who used design thinking to streamline their internal lunch ordering process. The problem? An extremely busy and chaotic staff canteen. The users? Hungry employees who didn’t have time to queue. Using design thinking, Brittni helped them come up with an array of potential solutions which they were then able to test and improve upon. 

As you can see, design thinking really can be applied to all sorts of problems and scenarios. As we’re focusing on remote design thinking, you might be wondering what kinds of problems you can realistically address through your webcams and microphones. The good news is that, for the most part, you can address the same kinds of challenges remotely as you would in an in-person workshop. However, as Brittni points out, you will need to think carefully about how you’ll gather user insights in a remote scenario. We’ll consider this in more detail when we get to the workshop agenda.

Find your digital replacement for post-its! Participants sharing more ideas

2. How to run a remote design thinking workshop: A step-by-step guide

Now it’s time for action! In this section, we’ll show you, step by step, how to deliver an awesome design thinking workshop. In the first section, we’ll show you how to plan your remote workshop. In the second section, we’ll show you how to actually deliver it—including a breakdown of what your agenda might look like.

To help bring our plan to life, let’s imagine we’re running a design thinking workshop for teachers at an elementary school. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the school has had to close—meaning the teachers now need to deliver their lessons online to kids who will be studying from home. How might we use design thinking to tackle this challenge and come up with workable solutions? Let’s take a look. 

Phase 1: Planning your remote design thinking workshop

  1. Scope out the challenge and set objectives
  2. Plan your workshop agenda (including time slots for each activity)
  3. Gather all necessary materials
  4. Invite your participants ahead of time
  5. Have an onboarding call and assign pre-work 

1. Scope out the challenge and set objectives

The main purpose of a remote design thinking workshop is to get a diverse group of people together to tackle a single problem. So, the first step in the planning process is to determine the challenge you’ll be working on. A clear workshop objective is key to ensuring that everyone knows why they’re there, and making sure that everyone is ready—and motivated—to contribute. 

If you’re running the workshop for your own company, you’ll already have a challenge in mind. If you’re an external facilitator, it’s important to discuss expectations with those who have called upon your expertise. What do they hope to get out of the workshop? What is the context surrounding the chosen challenge? 

For our elementary school example, our workshop objective would be to come up with an effective solution for delivering lessons online. At the moment, this is a rather broad challenge. However, we’ve taken the all-important step of establishing a clear purpose for the workshop; we’ll narrow the challenge down later on as part of the workshop itself. 

2. Plan your workshop agenda

When it comes to delivering a successful design thinking workshop, the devil really is in the detail. As you’re working within a limited time frame, you’ll need to keep things on track, so it’s essential that you plan your agenda to the minute. As you prepare for your workshop, come up with a detailed schedule for each exercise, and think carefully about how much time you’ll allocate to each component. 

As a word of advice, Brittni recommends planning for things to take longer than expected. Especially in the remote environment, you may come up against technological hiccups or unexpected background noise, so be sure to build in some buffer time. When it comes to sharing the workshop agenda with your participants, Brittni also recommends keeping the exact timeline to yourself:

“You will most likely run over, so it’s important to build some buffer time into your agenda. However, don’t share the exact timeline with your participants: communicate when the workshop will begin and end, how often the breaks will be, and the activities they can anticipate, but don’t make the timings known. This way, no one will know if you’re running slightly behind schedule. This is crucial for making sure you maintain the group’s faith in you as a facilitator.”

We’ll take a closer look at what to include in your workshop agenda in phase two. 

3. Gather all the necessary tools

As with any kind of workshop, it’s crucial to make sure you’ve got the right tools to hand. For a professional and effective remote design thinking workshop, we recommend the following:

  • A good video conferencing toolZoom is great as it allows you to have a “gallery view” of all your participants, making it feel like you’re all in the room together. Zoom also has the option of different breakout rooms, so you can “send” your participants to different areas throughout the workshop before reconvening as a group. However, you will need a paid account for calls with more than three users at once. Otherwise, Google Hangouts is a simple, reliable alternative.
  • A digital whiteboard, such as Mural, which comes with great templates for warm-up activities and design thinking exercises.
  • Post-its and marker pens for making notes. Both the facilitator and workshop participants should have these to hand.
  • Magic paper for the wall behind you—it’s a good idea to put the agenda up on the wall for people to refer to throughout the workshop.
  • Good lighting and a professional camera and mic set-up: As the facilitator, make sure you have a light facing you so that you’re well-lit and clearly visible, and if possible, invest in a good quality camera and a lapel microphone. These seemingly small touches will make all the difference to the professionalism of your workshop!

When conducting a remote workshop, the success of the workshop truly depends on everybody being well-connected and having access to everything they need. So, in addition to getting your own tools set up, you’ll also want to send a list of necessary materials to your participants well in advance. 

4. Invite your participants ahead of time

This step might seem obvious, but it’s not simply a case of sending a calendar invite. Your participants should know the importance of the workshop, and that they’ve been invited to take part because their input is valued. If you’re running the workshop as an external facilitator, you’ll want to coordinate this step with the project owner—the invite tends to hold more weight if it comes from a manager or team lead. 

Together with your invite and an outline of what participants can expect from the workshop, it’s a good idea to include some information about design thinking. For those who aren’t yet familiar with the concept, this will help to put them at ease and get a better idea of what the workshop will entail. For a beginner-friendly introduction, consider our complete guide to design thinking.

At this stage, you may be wondering how many participants to invite. Given that you’re holding your workshop remotely, you’ll want to stick with between six and eight participants. This should give you a good mixture of perspectives while keeping the group size manageable. 

Brittni Bowering gearing up to lead a remote workshop

5. Have an onboarding call and assign pre-work

This step is especially important when it comes to running a remote design thinking workshop. In an in-person workshop, you’d go through the “building empathy” phase together; however, for a remote workshop, you’ll need to set this as an assignment for participants to complete in advance. You’ll want to set the pre-work and get every onboarded well ahead of time, so try to have this preliminary call at least two weeks before the workshop is scheduled to take place. 

For the pre-workshop assignment, you’ll ask your participants to gather as many insights as possible about their target users. In the case of our elementary school example, the target users are the students and their parents; so, ahead of the workshop, your participants will speak to these users and find out what challenges they’re currently facing when trying to attend school online, as well as their expectations and desires when it comes to their online learning experience. At this stage, the best way to build empathy with the users is to jump on a call with them and have them walk through a particular experience—trying to submit their homework online, for example, or attending a virtual class. This way, your participants can gather feedback in real-time and experience the users’ frustrations first-hand. 

For the second part of the pre-work, ask your participants to create a simple empathy map. This is essentially a piece of paper divided into four quadrants: Says, Does, Thinks, and Feels. Your participants can put all the insights they’ve gathered about their users into the relevant quadrants, ready to present at the workshop. 

So, within the scope of your onboarding call, set aside forty-five minutes to an hour to cover the following:

  • An introduction to the workshop and what it will entail, including a brief introduction to design thinking.
  • Personal introductions: Encourage each participant to introduce themselves and briefly explain their role.
  • Setting expectations: Discuss with the project lead (if that’s not you) what their expectations are for the workshop.
  • Explaining the pre-work: Discuss the challenge you’ll address in the workshop, identify the target users, and consider how your participants might go about gathering user insights. Take some time to explain the concept of empathy maps, too. 

After your onboarding call, it’s good practice to follow up with an email summarizing what you discussed and reiterating what the assignment is. With your onboarding complete and your participants working on gathering user insights, you’re almost ready to deliver your remote design thinking workshop! Which brings us on to phase two…

Phase 2: Delivering your remote design thinking workshop

In this section, we’ll show you how to devise an effective workshop agenda. We’ve included recommended time allocations for each item, giving you a total workshop duration of four hours (including three 15 minute breaks, and some buffer time). 

  1. Introduction and briefing (15 minutes)
  2. Ice-breaker activity (20 minutes)
  3. Building empathy (sharing results of pre-work) (30 minutes)
  4. Define the problem statement (30 minutes)
  5. Ideation—generate ideas and potential solutions (1 hour)
  6. Prototyping and testing ideas (15 minutes)
  7. Debrief (20 minutes)

Let’s consider each of these items in detail now.

1. Introduction and briefing (15 minutes)

To kick off your remote workshop, you want to put everybody at ease. You’ll have covered introductions in your onboarding session, and your participants have hopefully had a chance to learn a little more about design thinking. So how can you get your workshop started on a positive note? 

Brittni’s signature tried-and-tested approach is to start with a story:

“There will be some design thinking skeptics in the room, so I like to kick off with a story. I often start by telling them that I, too, was initially a bit skeptical about design thinking and that I do get where they’re coming from. Then I like to share a success storya project I’ve been involved in that has gotten great results. If you don’t have your own success story, sharea case study from another company. If you can give examples of how design thinking has worked in the real world, this really gets everybody engaged and excited about being part of the workshop.” 

With your participants at ease, you also want to motivate them to give the workshop their all. Have the project leader reiterate their expectations and why this particular project is so important; this helps to build a sense of priority and purpose.

This is also a good time to set any workshop rules. To keep the momentum going, Brittni recommends using hand signals to communicate—for example, asking your participants to give a virtual thumbs-down if they don’t understand something, or putting their hand up if they have a question. If you do want to use a specific system, be sure to communicate that as part of your introduction. 

Finally, leave your participants with a clear idea of what they can expect from the next few hours. What will the end result be? What are they working towards? Knowing what’s coming will help your participants to embrace the process.

2. Ice-breaker activity (20 minutes)

It wouldn’t be a workshop without a warm-up, and there’s just as much fun to be had with remote ice-breakers. As the workshop facilitator, it’s entirely up to you to decide on your ice-breaker—and, if you’re using Mural, you’ll find plenty of activity templates to choose from. One of our favorites is the animal sketching game, where participants are given one minute to draw a specific animal, followed by thirty seconds to draw another animal, and finally, ten seconds to draw another. As you can imagine, the results are often hilarious—and, most importantly, a good laugh helps to break any tension and put your participants at ease. 

3. Building empathy—discussing the results of the pre-work (30 minutes)

Now you’re entering into the first “phase” of design thinking (but remember, it’s not a linear process!). In terms of building empathy, much of the work has already been done as part of the pre-workshop assignment. At this stage of the workshop itself, you’ll bring everybody’s insights together and start to identify common themes. Start this section by asking each participant to briefly present their findings and share their empathy maps. Then, using Mural (or a similar tool), you’ll create one final empathy map which incorporates the main themes and insights. By the end of this leg, you’ll collectively have a much deeper understanding of the user and where their main challenges lie. And, by this point, your participants are probably ready for a break, so consider taking fifteen minutes out before getting started on the next activity. 

4. Define the problem statement (30 minutes)

Next, you’ll move into the “define” phase. This is where your participants will narrow down the broader design challenge (improving the online learning experience for students studying from home) to a more specific focus. For this part of your remote design thinking workshop, Brittni recommends a two-pronged approach:

  1. Create a point of view (POV) statement
  2. Develop “how might we” (HMW) questions

First, you’ll synthesize all the data collected in the “empathy” phase and work together as a group to come up with a statement that clearly defines the user’s point of view. A POV statement can follow this simple formula: “User” needs a way to “do something” because of “surprising insight.” For example: Remote students need a way to get answers from their teachers quickly because when they get stuck on an assignment, they get frustrated and often give up. 

A few golden rules to bear in mind when crafting a POV statement: It should be human-centered, broad enough to leave room for creative solutions, but also narrow enough to ensure that it has a specific focus and is geared towards action. 

With a clear POV statement, you’ll move into developing HMW questions. This is an excellent technique for reframing the challenge in a way that invites action (How), focuses on possibilities and potential (might), and encourages teamwork (we). It’s all in the name!

So, for our online learning challenge, our HMW question could look like this: How might we make it easier for students to engage with their instructors?

Learn more: How to define a problem statement

The workshop continues

5. Ideation—generating ideas and potential solutions (1 hour)

The next segment of your workshop is dedicated to ideation—coming up with ideas and potential solutions to address the user problem. This is where your participants have a chance to get creative, so this is often one of the most enjoyable aspects of a design thinking workshop. 

So how can you get those creative juices flowing? Over to you, Brittni!

“I like to start with a technique called ‘challenging assumptions’. This is a short session where everyone has to present one assumption they have about the user, and then we all discuss whether or not that assumption is actually valid. I then like to move into an individual brainstorming session where everybody comes up with some ideas on their own before presenting them to the group. Finally, I suggest giving the team thirty minutes or so to sketch, on their own, an idea that they like and then upload a photo of their idea to share with the team.”

As you can see, this part of the workshop is really interactive and hands-on. The aim is to come up with a wide variety of solutions—and, with a diverse group of participants, you’ll find that everybody has a slightly different take on the challenge. That’s the key to innovation!

Learn more:What is ideation? A guide to the most important ideation techniques

6. Prototyping and testing ideas (15 minutes)

If you were conducting an in-person workshop, this is where you’d create physical or digital prototypes of your ideas, ready to be tested on real users. However, when conducting a remote design thinking workshop, you’ll need to adapt this stage slightly and set it as an independent post-workshop activity. 

So, after the workshop, you’re going to give your participants one week to prototype and test their chosen ideas. Take fifteen minutes to explain the post-workshop task and reiterate why it’s so important. The term “prototype” may conjure up images of highly technical digital interfaces or complex designs, so it’s important to reassure your participants that, in the context of design thinking, a prototype doesn’t have to be beautiful or perfect. It’s essentially anything that makes your idea tangible and allows it to be tested in some way. If we consider our remote elementary school example, you might prototype your solution by sketching out the various steps a user would go through to contact their teacher, or by drawing up a set of proposed features and contact options. To test this idea, you could show your sketches to the users and walk them through the process, gathering feedback as you go. 

In the wake of prototyping and testing, you’ll want to schedule a follow-up session to discuss the results. This is where the iterative nature of design thinking really comes into play; you may find that one solution worked really well, but you might also find that you need to go back and redefine your problem statement or spend a bit more time getting to know your users. Be prepared to loop back and challenge your initial assumptions! 

Learn more:The importance of user testing in design thinking

7. Debrief (20 minutes)

As your workshop draws to a close, you’ll round things off with a quick debrief. Here, you’ll want to recap what you’ve covered throughout the workshop and outline what the next steps will be—primarily, the post-workshop task of prototyping and testing, and a final follow-up session to discuss the results. Your participants have dedicated a lot of time to your design thinking workshop, so it’s crucial to let them know exactly how their input will be utilized.

This is also a good moment to invite your participants to reflect on the workshop and share any thoughts or questions they might have. How did they enjoy the workshop? Was there anything that surprised them? Are they clear on the next part of the process? 

Immediately after the session, Brittni recommends compiling the highlights of the workshop (complete with screenshots) and outlining the next steps in a follow-up email. If you’re an external facilitator, this is also your chance to gather anonymous feedback, so be sure to include a survey link! 

The workshop wraps up as participants share their final feedback

3. How to make sure your remote design thinking workshop runs smoothly: Tips and best practices

You’re almost ready to run your remote design thinking workshop! Before you go, there are some best practices to bear in mind—especially when it comes to facilitating remotely. Based on her own experience, Brittni highlights the following tips:

  1. Over-prepare: The success of your remote workshop relies heavily on two things: the right digital tools and a water-tight agenda. Before the workshop, run through your workshop timings and make sure you have everything set up in advance—including templates for your chosen ice-breaker and any props you might need. If you can, practice explaining each segment of the workshop to a friend or colleague; they’ll be able to tell you if anything is unclear or needs revising.
  2. Introduce your chosen tools ahead of time: You want to make sure that the workshop is spent focusing on the task at hand—not on showing people how to log in to use certain tools. Help your participants to prepare by sending a list of necessary tools and encouraging them to have a trial run before the workshop begins. You can also incorporate this into your onboarding session.
  3. Keep it short: One of the main challenges associated with running a remote workshop is maintaining the energy of the group, so it’s important to keep your remote workshop shorter than you might if you were conducting it in-person. Try not to go over four hours, and consider splitting it over two days if you need to.
  4. Create a professional environment: If you’re running a workshop from home, it’s important to maintain a certain air of professionalism. Simple things like making sure you’ve got good quality audio and camera equipment—and setting up a suitable background—will make all the difference. 
  5. Ask your participants to use a headset and to mute their mics when they’re not talking: Background noise is all part and parcel of the remote working environment, whether it’s dogs barking, kettles boiling, or babies crying. To keep noise and disruption to a minimum, ask your participants to use a headset and to mute their microphones when they’re not talking.
  6. Plan plenty of buffer time: When conducting a remote workshop, be prepared for things to generally take longer than usual. In case of technology troubles or connection issues, it’s important to build some buffer time into your agenda so that any slight delays won’t knock you off track.
  7. Make your participants feel valued: It’s much more difficult to build a connection with your participants and to keep people motivated when you’re not in the same room, so you’ll need to work extra hard to make them feel valued. Pay close attention to how people are responding, and make an effort to smile more than you normally would!
  8. Incorporate energizers: It’s not unusual for people to tune out and for energy levels to dip throughout the workshop, so you’ll need to have some good energizers up your sleeve. Try the “name a color” energizer, where you pick a color and each participant has to find something of that color in the room and hold it up to the camera. This gets people up out of their chairs and moving around for an instant energy boost. 

4. Key takeaways

So there you have it: A complete, step-by-step guide on how to run a remote design thinking workshop, packed with expert tips and tried-and-tested advice. With careful planning and a few smart tweaks, the traditional design thinking workshop can be adapted for remote delivery—ensuring collaboration and creativity no matter where you are in the world. If you’d like to learn more about design thinking or remote working, check out the following:

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Emily Stevens

Emily Stevens

Managing Editor at CareerFoundry

Originally from England, Emily moved to Berlin after studying French and German at university. She has spent the last five years working in tech startups, immersed in the world of UX and design thinking. In addition to writing for the CareerFoundry blog, Emily has been a regular contributor to several industry-leading design publications, including the InVision blog, UX Planet, and Adobe XD Ideas.