The Power of Productive Design Sessions        

Using the Strategic Design Process Effectively

August 31, 2017

By: Mike Lemon, Design Strategist, Beyond Design, Inc. 

One of the most enduring aspects of modern design is its multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving. Perhaps it is because design exists at the intersection of so many professions (art, engineering, marketing, psychology, business) that it places such an emphasis on the power of diverse perspectives. There is no point where this is more evident than at the beginning of the design process when ideas are first bubbling to the surface. This is the mouth of the funnel where possibilities seem endless and excitement is high. But if not managed carefully, this early phase can be unnerving for clients and designers alike as directions shift and evolve rapidly.

Facilitating a participatory design session is one of the most effective ways to draw on diverse perspectives while providing the structure to confidently arrive at actionable ideas. Here at Beyond, we specialize in what we call the Strategic Design Process (SDP), a format developed over the years to rapidly generate product concepts that are ready for refinement.

Creating a Successful Workshop
Speaking broadly, there are 5 criteria that need to be defined leading up to a successful workshop:


Defining purpose may sound like the most obvious first step of workshop planning but it can require time to get it right. The stated purpose of the session should be concise and actionable. Are we trying to generate completely new offerings or just revamp an existing product line? Discussing this keeps all parties on the same page and helps prevent misunderstandings down the line. Client input during this early phase creates an atmosphere of transparency and builds trust that will ensure the session starts off on the right foot.

The logistical limitations of space, time, and cost can greatly influence a session. Room size will affect the amount of display real estate, the ability to break into teams and, not to mention, the number of people who can participate in the session.

Mike conducts a session with IDSA students this past April in Hongik, South Korea.

Because of the amount of work to be done, we usually budget at least a full day for participatory design sessions. This allows enough leeway for exploring options and pursuing idea threads without fear of running out of time. However, the day should be carefully scheduled to avoid burning out participants. Keeping exercises to under an hour prevents stagnation and promotes agile thinking. While cost is a factor in all work, we have found it important to always prioritize participant comfort and fun throughout the session. A good lunch, upbeat music and plenty of snacks go a long way towards making a session a success.

When it comes to identifying participants for a participatory design session, recruit for a healthy mixture of creatives and stakeholders. If the room is full of creatives with very few stakeholders, the session may focus on a few anecdotes and miss out on the broader user experience. On the other hand, if there are not enough creatives to capture ideas, the session will suffer as well. We love having clients come to these sessions as it is a great way to share our process and give them insight into how we arrive at ideas. Having their participation also increases buy-in and helps turn them into champions for concepts when they return to their office.

Participatory design sessions are different from a regular day in the office because we push teams to think outside of the box and come at problems from a new angle. Exercises should be designed in a way that provoke new streams of thought and get participants out of their comfort zone. Co-workers who see each other every day should be split up and matched with designers they’ve never met and researchers with an intimate knowledge of the problem.

Beyond Design workers “mix and match” to get new ideas and different perspectives.

Session Prep
Before a session, I like thumbing through my copies of Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers and 101 Design Methods for exercise inspiration. Considering the participant mix helps us figure out the right pacing for the day. If most of the participants are new to design sessions, we will start with icebreakers and “homework”. Expect any group to have its naysayers, power players, and space cadets- the session should be designed to pivot these undesirable traits into forces for creativity. “Yes-and” activities can keep sessions positive, anonymous contribution can overcome power hierarchies, and tactile participation can keep easily distracted participants on task. These techniques help ensure that all voice are able to contribute to the session freely.

Finally, we always have to consider the final outcome or product that will be delivered to the client. The best, most productive session can fade into a client organization if it is not properly captured and documented. For this reason, we always spend the last part of a day mocking up concepts from the session. It’s about generating artifacts that crystallize the thought patterns that took place. These mockups, large format sketches and photographs will last long after the session is complete and can be used to create excitement within a client organization.

While some choose to not share their methods, we believe that an open line of communication during early planning phases ensures project alignment and leads to a more desirable end result. By taking the time to consider purpose, parameters, participants, provocation, and product, participatory design sessions can go off without a hitch and bring the value of a fresh perspective to all kinds of organizations.

For more information on Beyond Design please visit our About and Work pages or drop us a note at

Banner Image Source: Lime Design. 

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