Innovating on the Lecture: How I Got a Crash Course on Design Thinking at DT:DC

Innovating on the Lecture - How I Got a Crash Course on Design Thinking at DTDC

When I moved to Washington DC, one of the few people I knew was Wendi Chiong, a good friend from Stanford who is a co-organizer of a Meetup group called Design Thinking DC (DT:DC).

DT:DC’s mission is to bring together “people from business, design, technology … for radical collaboration on methodologies, practices and experiences to facilitate and deliver innovation in the world.”

Last week I got a crash course in design thinking as a participant in their 22nd Meetup: Co-Designing New Lecture and Talk Experiences

How Can We Innovate on the Lecture?

Design Thinking DC recently surpassed 1400 members, and they’re trying to figure out ways to adapt to their growing ranks. While people tend to prefer smaller events, with so many members, hosting only small group events means most people get shut out from actually attending.

So they did the brave thing and decided to apply design thinking principles to their own problem, and engage their community in solving the problem. In essentially a two-and-a-half hour session, they lead a group of ~50 people through a design challenge focused around creating better ways to engage large groups of people with DT:DC.

Setting the Scene

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We all sat down in tables of 6-12 people with design packets that we would use to work through the exercises. The event was primarily led by Dawan Stanford, who’s the lead organizer at DT:DC. He started with an overview on the history of the group and how they started with smaller, hands-on design-oriented workshops. As the group has grown, it’s become harder to only do small group events – the meetups would fill up in hours, leaving many members high and dry.

On the other hand, they didn’t want to just revert to lecture-style events that are dry and passive. So the point of this event was to use design thinking to craft a better “Large Group Experience” (LGX).

There are a lot of definitions for Design Thinking, but I’d describe it as taking a customer facing mentality and a set of creative processes toward solving key business challenges. Wendi presented a framework developed at the Stanford which goes:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Fortunately for us, they had prepared a lot of materials and a game plan so even if we were new to design thinking, we would still be able to jump right in.

Uncovering User Needs

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Step 1 was to get in touch with user needs – we were asked to find a partner at our table and interview them. Those are my notes from my interview with David Belden, an executive coach and “professional outsider” in the DC area on why he comes to events like DT:DC, and why he goes to lecture/talk events in general.

Some of my notes on that interview include:

  • David goes to talks because of his love of technology, especially its implications for organizational and societal structure
  • He really enjoyed a recent workshop by a professional actor who talked about “you on your best day”, in part because he got some specific feedback that helped him grow
  • He’s also been on the boring side of talks, when he went to talk by the newly promoted CEO of a key company in his industry – the talk was condescending and made a lot of false assumptions about the audience

Organizing User Research2013-08-14 19.41.59 HDR2013-08-14 19.50.23

After we each took turns interviewing our partners, we were given a four-quandrant grid representing an aggregate user persona. Everyone in our six person table wrote post it notes that mapped to four questions. I’ve included some of the Post-It’s that fell in each category.

  • Why attend? Needs/desires/goals – stay abreast on industry trends, adds diversity to my current thinking, make connections, career development, open your mind
  • What’s missing? – more time, nature / better air, post-event follow up contact, something to drink, lively experience
  • What works? – getting feedback from speaker, personal design thinking experience, deep honesty + vulnerability of speaker
  • Improvements? – moving from paper to digital, air conditioning, expert should facilitate a learning experience, facilitators with a broader mindset

Sharpening User Needs & Insights

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Once we had organized the research from the entire group together, we spent some time thinking deeper about what our imaginary user needed. This page asked us to ultimately develop a specific sentence representing our understanding of what our user needed, and an insight behind that need.

As you saw from our post-it notes, there was a wide range of needs and ideas for improvements, but I chose to hone in on certain points around learning, meeting new people, discussion/interactivity and opening up one’s mind. I felt that these ideas really drove toward a single concept of being surprised. With a book, you often know what you’re going to get, but a LGX holds the potential for something really cool that you didn’t even expect.

My design challenge statement: [User] would like an LGX experience that exposes him to new ideas, stories, people, and perspectives BECAUSE he wants a sense of delight (surprise + happiness).

Note: user personas in design research are typically crafted as discreet individuals “Mary the 32 year-old mom” rather than an amalgamation of multiple interviews as was done here.

Rapid Brainstorming of Potential Solutions

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After defining that user need + insight, we were asked to do quick brainstorms of LGX’s that could fulfill those needs. I really liked how the packet gave us adjectives to guide our brainstorming. The four ideas I came up with:

  • Crazy – do an intense group activity, like spelunking, then have the talk inside a cave.
  • Fun – have the speaker talk on a particular idea for a bit, then split into pairs to reflect and discuss. New idea, new pairing, etc.
  • Strange – have four speakers going at the same time and do a forced rotation at set intervals – so you only get a portion of each talk
  • Evil-Genius – gather a group together and then randomly select a number of people from the audience to give the talk

Refine and Expand on a Single Solution

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After that quick brainstorm we got a chance to share our ideas with our partners. I personally really liked my evil genius idea and David’s concern was that you might not be able to control the quality of the experience if you’re doing a purely random selection of audience members. So here’s what I came up with:

Crowd-Sourced Talks + Panels

In my revised concept, I had the main speaker and the theme chosen by the event organized, but allowed the audience to vote on particular topics (within the theme) they wanted the speaker to cover. The speaker would be required to speak substantively on those topics as part of their talk. Afterward, audience members could volunteer to be on a panel to host additional discussion about the talk (I’m not sure exactly how the selection mechanism would work) and an organizer-selected moderator would manage that conversation.

At the very end, everyone would rate or otherwise give feedback on the speaker and the panelists, which would make its way to a public website. This would be a method for improvement AND a way to keep people accountable against using the panel as a soapbox.

Final Thoughts

After we finished that revised version of our LGX idea, it was time to wrap things up. The event was well-timed: 6:30 to 9:00pm on the dot, so people could get home. The next step in the design process would be to prototype these ideas, but that would have been a little more challenging and time-consuming.

It had been a while since I’d gone through this kind of an exercise and I really enjoyed it. One thing that’s powerful about a process like this is that it pulls out ideas and concepts that you wouldn’t have anticipated going in. Just like my design challenge statement about delight, I personally experienced some happy but unexpected outcomes: in particular this crowdsourced talk + panel idea.

The only major gripe I had is that while we had a chance to interact with some of the people in our group, it would have been nice to have more. We ultimately worked a lot on our own, which is fine except with so many smart, interesting in the room, the opportunity to engage wasn’t fully realized. I’m hoping they put their favorite ideas online somewhere so we can all see the diversity of ideas.

Have you ever participated in a design challenge like this one? What ideas do you have to offer about design thinking or crafting a better Large Group Experience?

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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  1. Hi Jason, i`m an industrial designer form venezuela, i`m looking for a course or master on Design thinking, can you give a some advice on that?

  2. I would like to find a course in WDC if its possible. Do you know some course or people that i can get in touch with that can help me find something on the design thinking area?

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