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Human-centered design techniques from an ideation workshop.

By Bo Peng and Aaron Wolf of Datascope Analytics


Bo Peng at a Datascope Analytics Ideation Workshop in Chicago

At Datascope Analytics, our ideation workshop combines elements from human-centered design principles to develop innovative and valuable ideas/solutions/strategies for our clients. From our workshop experience, we’ve developed a few key techniques that have enabled successful communication and collaboration. We complete certain milestones during the workshop: the departure point, the dream view, and curation with gold star voting, among others. These are just a few of the accomplishments that are achieved at various points during the workshop. In addition, we strive to support cultural goals throughout the workshop’s duration: creating an environment that spurs creativity and encourages wild ideas, and maintaining a mediator role. These techniques have thus far proven successful in providing innovative and actionable solutions for our clients.

Technique #1: The welcoming culture

Throughout the workshop, we strive to establish an inclusive, welcoming culture. Brainstorming is an exercise that relies on having high volumes of ideas, so it’s vital that everyone be comfortable presenting “wacky” ideas. To maximize participation, we lay out simple rules that help us achieve the ideal workshop environment. For example, everyone should be enthusiastic and encouraging when others express ideas. This is especially critical at the start of brainstorming, when participants are often nervous to speak up for the first time. When appropriate, validating opinions and affirming ideas make people feel welcome and therefore more likely to fully engage in the discussion.

Technique #2: The “departure point”

To ensure that every workshop attendee is on the same page, we start the ideation workshop by asking broad, open-ended questions. What are the most important problems they face as a business? What kinds of solutions would make their jobs easier or make them more productive? This spurs discussion amongst our client attendees, which we help guide to reach a consensus. We call this the “departure point” of our workshop – the point at which everyone agrees upon and understands the client’s most pressing problems and their underlying issues. We use the ideas and opinions from the departure point to guide our discussions moving forward.

Technique #3: The “dream view”

After establishing the clients’ business problems in the departure point phase, we begin to brainstorm solutions as a group. Our job is not so much to generate great ideas ourselves, rather, it is to encourage others to generate great ideas by helping them think big and by bringing a different perspective to the problem. To that end, we frame the question in order to discover the “dream view” – regarding their business, if they could have anything, what kinds of solutions would they want? In painting their dream view, we focus on what our clients need, not what our clients can achieve given resource constraints. We steer the discussion towards how these dream solutions would look and be used by our clients when solving a tangible problem or deciding new strategic direction for the business and veer away from discussing technical tools or data limitations. Only after we paint the dream view do we cull the the ideas, consider the data and available resources, and synthesize a manageable action plan. Diverge then converge.

Technique #4: Gold stars and other props

Figuring out the dream view and then culling down into viable pieces is no easy task. We are essentially applying structure to seeming chaos; the diverging and converging of so many different thoughts is very difficult. To make this process as fun and effective as possible, we resort to using props throughout the workshop:

  • One idea, one post-it: much of the workshop is designed to maximize the volume and diversity of ideas generated. We have found that post-it sticky notes written in thick permanent marker ink are quite effective. We limit one thought or idea for each post-it, and encourage visual sketches rather than verbose descriptions. Everyone notes their own ideas and posts them on a whiteboard, presenting each idea in a few seconds as they are posted. After the end of an hour-long brainstorming session, there are sometimes hundreds of post-its on several whiteboards!
  • Voting with gold stars: this is the first segment of the workshop in which we pass judgment. After we exhaust the possibilities and our idea generation rate naturally halts, we take a break from working together and reflect on the viability, tangibility, and desirability of our plethora of ideas. Each workshop participant is given a few stickers (usually three to five gold stars), walks around the room and “votes” for the ideas they wish to move forward with. At the end of this voting round, up to half a dozen popular ideas clearly emerge.
  • Drawings/wireframes: we further hone the most popular ideas by exploring possible functionality in more detail. The goal is to create a story that we can share with the rest of group through more refined drawings. If we determine that an interactive online dashboard is the best solution, we make wireframes – skeletal drawings that illustrate the framework and end-user interface. By thinking about how the client will use the tool, we bring to life the seemingly unconnected ideas. All of these drawings are done free-hand, with pencils, markers and crayons, to encourage live feedback from the clients; in our experience, people are much more willing to constructively criticize a rough sketch than a polished one.

Technique #5: On being a mediator

We also try to mediate productive, flowing conversation. Tangents naturally come up in discussions and can either contribute or take away from the productivity of the workshop. As a mediator, we must keep the ball in the court! For example, during the dream view discussions, we truncate discussions about resource limitations and direct the conversation flow back to desired, “dream” functionalities. There is a delicate balance of a mediator to encourage wild ideas that think outside of the box while maintaining the ship on the correct course. Experience is key while we have definitely found the bermuda triangle many times in the past!

We at Datascope Analytics are always learning and refining through iteration, and our Ideation workshop is no exception. Through this, we’ve come to see the value in the general direction of our workshops: of fostering a collaborative environment in which quantity is hailed over quality and in which ideas diverge, and then converging toward some ideas with voting and curation. The departure point, the dream view, and gold star methods have all worked well to achieve this direction. If you would like to learn more, or delve further into the design aspect of our work, we encourage you to attend our upcoming tutorial at Strata Santa Clara.

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