Virtual Design Thinking: Can It Work?

Imagine this: You have complex business problems that need solving. Your team was scheduled to be together in a few weeks to work through and start to solve the problems. But now your travel was just suspended. And the new corporate policy set this week recommends not being in large groups of people, so even if you wanted the team together and travel wasn’t a challenge, you are strongly advised against it. While an in person meeting is no longer feasible, this doesn’t mean that business stops and you shouldn’t keep forging ahead to tackle whatever challenge you face. And your team wants to be productive. They need to be productive.

Any of this sound familiar? If so, then I have some great news for you.


You do not have to stop being productive just because you are virtual—you can still solve problems and save the day, from wherever you and your team are in the world.

Design Thinking

If you have such a problem, hopefully design thinking is one of the tools you plan to use to solve it. If you aren’t familiar with design thinking, here’s a quick introduction:

Design thinking is the creative problem-solving methodology that has brought you some of the best product designs that you probably have in your possession right now. Companies like IDEO, Apple, and Nike have brought design thinking into the spotlight over the last two decades and for a great reason: Design thinking keeps the focus on the customer.

Applying design thinking to human-centric problems helps to unlock the users’ needs and problems, even when they don’t know what the problem is or cannot articulate it correctly. Historically, design thinking has been well-known for helping to solve design problems with products. But it doesn’t just stop with product design; it’s also valuable for use with processes and services.

So now we are squared away on the methodology of design thinking, it’s time to address the bigger issue. When most people hear the term design thinking, they first associate it with Post-it Notes. If you google design thinking right now, you may see Post-it Notes photos (or just check out the image below to save yourself some time). I love using Post-it Notes during design thinking initiatives. They are mobile, fun to collect, and help add color to the room. But seeing these photos insinuates that you need to have everyone in the room together to use these colorful little tools. That would be false. Actually, many people think that design thinking in general requires everyone to be together. That, too, is false.

virtual design thinking

Design Thinking Is Great Virtual

Sure, getting the entire team together for a design thinking session is fun. It takes you away from your desk, maybe free food is involved, and it might even feel like a break from your normal flow of work. But design thinking also works in our ever-growing remote work economy. And it can work REALLY well. Sometimes, it might even work better being remote than being in person. But there is a catch—it takes a little more preparation to get everyone comfortable in the virtual environment.

It is crucial to have a facilitator or a lead who has experience managing virtual sessions. It is a different type of challenge to keep virtual participants engaged than those physically in the same room. But that’s not as a result of or limited to design thinking initiatives; that’s just the transition to learning how to work in collaborative  environments. And although many are being thrust into the remote world right now, sooner than most companies may have anticipated, we can take this opportunity to prove remote initiatives can be successful.

Five (Virtual) Phases of Design Thinking

Empathize: Understand your humans (customers, learners, employees, patients, etc.).

There are many ways to conduct empathy research without having to travel or be face to face. To be successful with empathy research, the most important factor is being able to see the individual. Leverage a collaboration tool that has a video component to ensure you can see your team members and their body language, and make the human connection. And if you are running focus groups, the same applies—just make sure everyone (and I do mean everyone) has their video turned on.

Define: Determine the problem statement.

You now have your data from the empathy research. You can perform qualitative or quantitative analysis and synthesize the data anywhere in the world. You will probably want to have help, so leverage a collaboration tool with sharing capabilities.

Ideate: Brainstorm and create solutions.

This is my favorite phase where you generate creative ideas to solve the problem. I was hesitant about a virtual brainstorming session until I led one myself last year. And I loved it. There are a number of tools that exist, but two I particularly like are Ideaflip and IdeaBoardz. These tools are like virtual Post-it Notes! You can have all the colors, sizes, breakout rooms, and more. Being virtual also makes it easier to include a greater variety of people in brainstorming sessions.

Prototype: Build quick representation of your ideas.

Collaboration platforms will help you with prototyping, too (but you probably knew I was going to say that). Once your ideas are crafted, prototypes can be created from anywhere. A prototype can be something to react to, and sometimes the sketches or storyboards from the ideation sessions can serve as a prototype.

Test: Test your prototypes with your users.

And lastly, the test phase can also be done virtually. Create the closest real-world environment for the customers to test the prototype. If it’s a product they need to hold, ship it to them and have them test it on camera. You will want to engage with them in real time.

Admittedly, we are living through turbulent times right now. But in reality, the volatility and complex environments are our new normal. Being remote does not stop us from solving problems. Design thinking is a powerful force that works behind the scenes at the world’s most successful companies. It fosters evolution, continuous improvement, and innovation. And the best part of design thinking is that you can lead initiatives from anywhere in the world.

So what’s next? Are you looking for a partner to help lead you through a virtual initiative?  GP Strategies is well positioned to help you make this transition and ensure the experience is not compromised

Here are some tools to help your remote work transformation.

Collaboration tools:

  • Zoom
  • Slack
  • Google Hangouts
  • Office 365

Brainstorming tools:

  • Scrumblr
  • Ideaflip
  • IdeaBoardz
  • Mural

If you want to learn more about design thinking, check out our site with loads of complimentary content.

Keith Keating

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sort by Category

GPS Want to Learn More Widget

Want to Learn More?

GPS Connect With Us Widget