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Humans First! How To Spark Empathy in a Design Thinking Workshop

Design strategists often lead design-thinking workshops for clients using the research they’ve gathered in the field as jumping-off points for innovation.

But hearing secondhand about stakeholders’ hopes, dreams, and frustrations is a much different experience than being the person who interviews them. How do you communicate their stories and “pass along” the empathy in a way that’s sufficiently compelling to prompt great, human-centered solutions from workshop attendees?

In other words, how do you move them?

That’s what I found myself doing earlier this month in Atlanta, Georgia, onstage at Coca-Cola headquarters where I was leading three breakout sessions in front of 175 SVPs of Innovation, CFOs, and other Fortune 1000 executives at the annual Conference Board Innovation Master Class conference.

Our goal was to help the YWCA of Greater Atlanta with their Teen Girls in Technology (TGI Tech) Mentor program, which pairs professional women working in STEM with middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds. The program had hit a speed bump—it found itself with plenty of students, but mentors were scarce.

Our Challenge: How might we create a system that can bridge the gap between women working in STEM fields and students who are interested in exploring, understanding, and pursuing STEM?

How To Move Them… Quickly

Design-thinking for social innovation creates value for society as opposed to profit. It deals with systemic challenges such as hunger or lack of services rather than products. Likewise, it requires systemic solutions that require an understanding of complex cultural and societal factors as well as different networks’ supply systems and resources. The best solutions bubble up from the community and rely on local expertise rather than being prescribed top-down.

I was excited to show the attendees at the Innovation Master Class what design-thinking is as well as techniques that we could layer on top of social innovation. First, I had to help the workshop attendees understand the people and the problem. Here’s how I did it:

Spend time getting to know the humans.

During the weeks before the conference, I conducted in-depth interviews with representatives from each stakeholder group—a TGI Tech mentor, an alumna of the program, a TGI Tech facilitator, and a woman working in a STEM career in the Greater Atlanta area. I got my interviews transcribed so I didn’t have to worry about taking notes. This helped me be totally in the moment and wholly focused on listening.

design thinking workshop

TGI Tech students visiting NASA.

I did these interviews over the phone because of time and scheduling constraints—typically I prefer in-person or video-conferencing so I can see the interviewees’ reactions. Still, I really got to know the four women I interviewed, and they touched my heart. One told me about one of her students becoming homeless and how she gave her support and helped her maneuver through that tough situation. Another told me what her mentor meant to her when she was in college and didn’t think she was going to graduate.

As the women were telling me their stories, they would start crying—and, of course, I would start crying, too! How do you bring these stories and emotions to the rest of the team?

Use creative visual storytelling (hint: anything but PowerPoint!).

Anyone who knows me knows I’m allergic to PowerPoint. There are better methods for visual storytelling. In this case, I designed and printed “ethno cards”—visually appealing cards with bullet points, quotations, and pictures—for participants to read and hold in their hands.

design thinking workshop

This “deck” of cards (pictured, above) included one for each user type—Kristi (the TGI Tech graduate), Brittany (the TGI Tech Mentor), Senetha (the TGI Tech School Facilitator), and Kee (the STEM professional). I also made a card for the challenge statement and one summarizing the TGI Tech program.

I’ve been known to bring artifacts into design strategy workshops for people to hold in their hands. They act as probes to get people thinking about and verbalizing their thoughts in a different way. There’s something about the intimacy of holding an object or information in your hand as opposed to seeing it on a big screen and having it dictated to you by an “expert.”

The information I extracted from the interview transcripts for the cards is personal—all of it is tied to who the users are and how they relate to the subject at hand. It reflects their personal views on how the world turns. For this workshop, I divided the information on each card into “Painpoints” and “Tidbits.”

design thinking workshop

Before I left for Atlanta, we packaged 175 sets of ethno cards along with Bresslergroup notebooks and pens (pictured, above) for the workshop attendees to store their observations and notes. And we put it all in clear zip cases from Muji, of course. (My favorite.)

Ethno cards are just one idea—there are many creative ways to bring users’ voices into a workshop. In a recent ideation session we ran for a client, our team pulled users’ quotes from field research and blew them up into large, colorful speech bubbles to hang on the walls around the room, just to make sure the users were always front and center and that their voices were being heard.

Let attendees do the interviewing.

Each person at a table got a different ethno card and had five minutes to absorb the information and get to know that stakeholder. Then the table had ten minutes to go around and interview each other about the people on the cards. After the interviews, the group talked about and synthesized each user’s point-of-view to encourage a common understanding around the table.

design thinking workshop

After fifteen minutes, everyone at the team was up to speed on every point of view and could begin to refine the challenge based on the emerging themes they were discovering and what were the biggest barriers for each. (Time constraints encourage people to think and react quickly and to write down every idea that pops up.)

They learned that some of the problems facing TGI Tech included push back from employers who didn’t recognize the value of participating in a mentorship program. Another obstacle was the YWCA’s limited resources in terms of mentors, grants, and donations. Being spread so thin meant facilitators couldn’t devote enough time or energy to finding mentors and encouraging communication between mentors and mentees.

Frame the challenge as an equation that puts users first.

I gave the workshop attendees the following equation: User x Issue = Concept. It’s a nice way of helping people see the issue from each user’s POV.

If you explore the problem of how to attract more mentors from the perspective of each user—the mentor, the alumna, the TGI Tech admin, and the STEM professional—you’ll come up with more concepts. Quantity over quality is the goal in an ideation workshop. Conceptualizing from each perspective also lays bare which concepts work for all perspectives.

design thinking workshop

The Innovation Master Class attendees jumped in and really attacked the problem. They ideated during the first session, and spent the second session prototyping, testing, and refining concepts.

The Solutions

At the final session, everyone voted for their favorite prototypes and the winning teams presented their proposals to representatives from the YWCA.

Two of the three top proposals were digital platforms to connect mentors and mentees. The winner, a “Match Me” app, leverages a geo map to connect mentees with mentors who are nearby. In the next few months, we hope to refine and figure out how to implement this solution.

Next time you’re tasked with running a design thinking and innovation workshop, try some of these techniques to help keep the humans you’re innovating for front and center. Great concepts can be developed quickly as long as people are given the tools to empathize and engage!

design thinking workshop