Do design thinking workshops really work?

It is less about the outcome and more about the process.

Design Thinking has been a buzzword amongst innovation teams and businesses over the past few years, and it can be easy to fall onto the bandwagon without truly understanding the core intention of the process. Tze talks about the cornerstone of the popularised process, and key points to keep in mind before and after attending a design thinking workshop.


  • “The core of design thinking… is really to find opportunity, and then after it to test.”
  • The hallmarks of design thinking are
    a) The iterative process
    b) Empathy for user
  • With “Design Thinking” being such a buzzword, it’s common to go into design thinking workshops with preconceived expectations of the outcomes that are derived, but because it is an iterative process, the time needed to get to expected outcomes differ between projects
  • “It’s not a point A to point B process. It is more like the other way around.”
  • In cases where you don’t get to a satisfactory outcome after rounds of iterations, go back to relook the opportunities that were highlighted; the baseline is to uncover insights and verify assumptions
  • “The most valuable thing to retain in the design thinking workshop is that sense of curiosity.”
  • It is natural for us to make assumptions and jump to conclusions, but having curiosity will drive you to want to find out underlying reasons or needs before jumping straight to a solution
  • Before attending a design thinking workshop, try to desensitise yourself from self-censorship and be comfortable with putting out silly ideas; that will make a big difference in your workshop experience
  • Some differences between teaching design thinking to corporate teams vs. design students include
    a) Students having less self-censorship because they know that failure is part of their learning process, and more accepted in education than in the corporate scene
    b) Generational differences in what resonates, how they share information, and how they collaborate
  • It is possible to teach and apply design thinking in parts (e.g. just getting better at ideation)

Full Transcript

The reality is, because it’s an iterative process, sometimes on some projects, you hit gold in, you know, the first early rounds of iteration. And on some projects, it takes longer. And I think that expectation is something that’s difficult to come to terms with for some organisations.

Hi Tze! So today, we have some questions on design thinking. And yeah, maybe we could start off by having you, in the most concise way possible, how would you describe the design thinking process? And yeah, what is design thinking?

In the most concise way possible?

I would say that the core of design thinking, the core activity that we do is really to find opportunity, and then after it to test. And basically that’s it.

So in a not so concise way, is there anything that you could elaborate on? What this process is, and are there any variations in how different people describe the process?

Yeah, so I think around that core of finding opportunities and testing, there’s a few things which make, I think, somewhat the hallmark of design thinking. One of it is the iterative process, that you are not just finding opportunities once, but that you’re using the iterations, the testing, to see what do users actually want? Why do they want it? What did they say about it?

Or, also really important is what didn’t they say about it? But what did we observe about it? And those insights go into the next round of opportunities. And that iterative process is one of the hallmarks of design thinking.

I think the other hallmark of design thinking is the empathy for user, and that’s around… You can call it human-centred design, you can call it empathetic design, but it’s the same, right?

That process of finding insight, or testing, really is about getting out of your own perspective into the shoes of the user to understand what do they mean when they say that? Why do they say that?

And I think those two elements are really critical parts of the process. How you do those may vary depending on the choice of topic, depending on who you’re speaking to, and also the organisation you’re working with. But pretty much those things are, I would say, the broader intents behind why we are finding opportunities and why we are testing.

So what is design thinking used best for? And do you have an example to illustrate how this process is used?

What is it used best for? Well it’s hard from our perspective, because it is such an ingrained part of our process, that even though in certain projects we aren’t able to have the full spectrum to run a full research, a full insight-gathering phase, the team will still do a leaner version of that. What’s a really quick way to identify opportunities in the absence of being able to talk to users? That might mean going to online forums; that might mean other ways of gathering information just so that you can get a handle on where to start, where to begin. And after that, that testing process is also something that, if in the event that you can’t test with users, what are the proxies that you can use to find more information? What are the adjacencies that you can infer without testing? And of course, those are not complete processes, but those are half processes which are trying to get as close as possible to the original intent.

So seeing as how design thinking is still quite a popular process/framework, and even a buzzword, even after so many years, have you seen any misconceptions that people may have of design thinking? And if so, is there one that you could share?

I think you are right you know, it’s been around in even business lexicon for so long already that I think a lot of people know about it. I would say maybe the… not so much misconception, but expectations that teams going into a design thinking workshop, or trying to implement design thinking processes, may have certain expectations for what the outcomes may be.

And the reality is, because it’s an iterative process, sometimes on some projects, you hit gold in, you know, the first early rounds of iteration. And on some projects, it takes longer. And there’re plenty of variables in between.

And I think that expectation is something that’s difficult to come to terms with for some organisations that hey, we managed to get it great in two rounds, and why is it taking so long for different projects?

So as a process, it’s not a point A to point B process. It is more like the other way around: you start with all the potential point B’s, and test all the different variants of that, so that you get to a good starting question and say, hey, this is what we really want to solve. And that streamlines the process.

And inherently that can be quite an uncomfortable process, even for designers, to be able to say, hey, we don’t know certain things and we need to test it in order to get clarity.

Has there ever been a scenario where a project was going through that iterative phase, but within perhaps that scope of that project, the team wasn’t able to reach a satisfying outcome? How was that received by both the team and the client?

I think it happens that there are times when in the course of iteration, you don’t have a satisfactory outcome. I think that’s common. What happens in those cases is we go back and see, hey, the opportunity that we highlighted, what was valuable about the opportunity?

Because in the end, we are not testing outcomes. Sometimes we are verifying assumptions.

So often, when we test an idea, it may be that the idea is not well received. And that’s fine, because sometimes the ideas are there to elicit responses. What we really want to verify is the assumptions behind, hey, we thought that users were doing this or saying this because of these reasons, they were motivated by a certain need, or a certain aspiration, or a certain value. And I think that baseline, even though your idea didn’t meet the mark, at the baseline, did we uncover information about those assumptions? Were we able to get clarity on their needs and aspirations? I think that’s the key one. And I would say that so far, even though the iterations, they’re iterations that don’t result in successful validation of ideas, that their purpose in finding out and uncovering insight, uncovering truth in some sense, that seldom fails. It just means that it may take you longer to get to an idea which addresses those needs or values, but at least you found out what are the buttons to press on.

Okay. So could you name one thing that you wish for non-designers who have attended design thinking workshops, one thing that you wish they knew, even after attending a design thinking workshop? Because you were mentioning about, you know, having that expectation to get certain outcomes after design thinking…

Just to clarify, this is things that they wish they knew before they attended a workshop?

Even after attending a workshop.

So things that they retained. Okay. I would say the most valuable thing to retain in the design thinking workshop is that sense of curiosity. In the end, all the processes are there in place because, to some extent, we tend to jump to conclusions. We tend to make assumptions about things that we see or we hear or we observe. And going through this process is really about two things, right? One is about getting perspective on the user. And in order to do that, there needs to be a certain sense of curiosity about, hey are these the reasons behind the way things are right now? Or behind why someone is doing something?

And without that curiosity, you’d want to jump to a solution and say, okay I’ve got it. So it is that curiosity, which is driving you to say, okay maybe we need to look at this a little bit more, we need to understand this a little bit better or understand that person a little bit better.

And that is, I would say that’s the most important takeaway other than learning how to do the processes, is that inherently we are kind of biased to the solutions or assumptions that we think should exist.

Yeah, I mean, so you mentioned, maybe it’s also a good question to ask, then for non-designers who are going to attend design thinking workshops, what kind of frame of mind do you think they should have as they go into such workshops?


I think the biggest challenge that we face is self-censorship. Everyone goes into a workshop with expectations that, okay we are trying to create, we are trying to be creative. But the reality is, in our work dynamics or cultural dynamics, there is a lot of inhibition.

We don’t want to say the wrong things, we don’t want to sound stupid, especially with a group of people I’m meeting or working with for the first time. So that’s always the toughest barrier to overcome, because that really is the part with which you say, okay your assumptions kick in, right: “I assume that this is a bad idea,” or “I assume that people are not going to like it,” or “It’s going to be really silly.” And that’s where you either hinder your natural curiosity or the ability to generate.

Processes aside, two things right? One is either you being so un-self-conscious that you’re willing to put yourself on the line, or that the cultural environment, or the corporate culture, or whatever that workshop culture is, makes you feel so comfortable, that, hey it’s okay, I can get away with saying silly things, ideas can be crap. And that really makes a difference. And there are a lot of people who are naturally inquisitive, or are maybe in their roles… they don’t have to be designers, it can be in other roles that already know how to switch on and off this filter. And those people tend to really enjoy these workshops. And it is usually clear, when you put them in a group setting, what that ability to not self-sensor has on the output of ideas that they put out.

So having conducted these kinds of design thinking workshops for corporate teams, as well as, your teaching role in NUS to budding student designers, is there any difference in the way that you teach this design thinking content? And is there a difference in the way that the students or the corporate teams respond to these?

Yeah, so it goes back to what we mentioned earlier, that the cultural context plays a big difference.

In an academic context, where the students know that failure is part of the process, then the ability to generate and pick up and critique is a lot quicker than in a corporate culture where you know that at the end of the day, you leave the workshop, you’re going back to your daily grind or your established hierarchy or established work processes.

And it’s not so easy to switch, which is why that kind of self-censorship kicks in again. So I think that is one difference that we see.

The other difference that we see is, which is really clear and it’s also really interesting, is a generational difference. The generation gaps are getting shorter. And we can see, you know, even from a few years, the working audience and the younger audience, what they resonate with, what their interests are, and how they react and talk about subjects are really different as well. So it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is because it’s evolving. With each new batch of students, there are slight changes. But taken as a whole, you can see that it really is quite different between the way that small generation gap processes, shares information, and also collaborates.

Is there a way to actually apply design thinking in parts? Because design thinking can be quite a long process, right? So are there, maybe just in applying certain tools in the process instead of having to go through the entire process?

I think that’s a good point and this upcoming workshop on Monday is that right? They do know they want to come up with creative outcomes, but they also know that the team has not a lot of time. So they said, “Hey can you just help us get better at ideation?” And I think maybe sometimes that may be a better way to start and say like, hey let’s just show you some tools. They’re part of the design thinking toolkit but we don’t even have to talk about design thinking.

We just say like, “No, we just help you ideate better.” And that is a lot more tangible for a team to say like, “Oh, you help me get better ideas. Okay, good.” Versus “I’m gonna teach you design thinking,” but what is design thinking gonna get me? It’s bit harder to explain.

And I think once they see value in the tools, they’ll see more value in the other parts of the process. Because when they have good ideas, you go like, “Okay so now how do I test the idea so that I can make the ideas better?” And then you can introduce the insight part, the tools for gathering insight, research tools, and so on.

I think there are ways to break it up. Why not a lot of organisations ask for it, I suppose might be because they are maybe trying to jump on the design thinking bandwagon, and that the process has been hyped up. And that, you know, if you get a memo from your director saying, “Hey guys, you guys should start implementing design thinking practices.” Your first reaction is, “Okay, let’s get the team to understand what design thinking is. And do an introductory workshop on it.” Not to say, “Let’s get them to ideate better and get them to learn some tools.” And that might be the gap.

Do you think that actually… I was just thinking about the whole self-censorship and things. Do you think it’s better to have workshops or so-called focus group sessions with participants who don’t know each other?

Actually that’s great. So we had one session, where we had the teachers with the students there, because the teachers were trying to find out about the students. And that session was really cool, because in design thinking workshops, it’s a workshop because there’s not enough time, right? And when you have the users there and you can get immediate feedback, that’s really interesting, because then you’re able to squeeze some level of insight into the session, which worked really well. But it’s really hard to arrange for that to happen as well. If you imagine an organisation and their users are consumers, and they’ve got such a large strategic audience, how do you involve them in a way that engages everybody equally, it’s not really easy.

Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong


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