Teaching Design Thinking Virtually

Workshop design, virtual platform difficulties, and lessons learned at ScaleSD

Kendall Nakai 🌸
6 min readJun 5, 2021

Made with 🔬 by Kendall Nakai, Dr. Stephen MacNeil, and Mariam Mustafa

Virtual workshops offer the potential to teach new skills at scale, like design. Not everyone has access to design education programs, so we took this opportunity to introduce design through a workshop at ScaleSD, an innovation design challenge with an accelerator program.

By guiding participants through the design thinking process that included user research, problem framing, and ideation, we were able to deliver learning opportunities while engaging the San Diego community at large.

What you’ll learn

One might wonder, how do we teach design skills to novices? How do we facilitate design teams online with non-designers? How do we sequence design activities?

This workshop was crafted to scaffold non-designer’s experiences into solution ideation. This article will cover the workshop design and our lessons learned which will provide you with examples and solutions of what can be difficult in virtual workshops.

The workshop

Our team hosted a 1-hour design workshop to fuel participant’s ideas during a week-long design innovation sprint. Participants were split into pairs and asked to collaborate using Discord voice channels and Miro’s interactive whiteboards to mirror in-person work.

An example of a pair of participants boards

The workshop guided 10 participants through these four design activities:

1. User interviews

Pairs walked through user interviews to gain empathy from each other’s experiences. We cued each partner to reflect on their role in relation to a small business, like owner, customer, advisor, or employee. Pairs asked each other questions to gather context, from high-level challenges to low-level interactions.

2. Problem statements

Pairs then moved into problem framing to narrow on a business challenge. They selected one of their business experiences to focus on and determined business needs and insights synthesized from user interviews. This guided them to create problem statements to frame their project thinking.

3. Competitive analysis

In the next activity, pairs conducted a competitive analysis to shift thinking from problem-finding to analyzing similar businesses and how they compare. This scaffolding allowed pairs to refine the problem to parallel business challenges and warm them up for potential design inspiration.

4. Solution ideation

Finally, pairs ideated several solutions based on their problem statement together. This activity helped participants create tangible solutions based on well-formed problems to take to the innovation challenge and expand on throughout the rest of the week.

Four design activities to help build design thinking

What went well

1. Participants worked meaningfully for an hour

We hopped through the Discord channel to observe each pair and offer guidance as needed. Each pair was actively engaged in discussion or quietly filling in parts of the template with information. Activity and collaboration were always in the works. This suggests that participants maximized their use and learning outcomes of the hour.

2. Participants gained a clear understanding the design problem-solution-ideation workflow

At the end of the activity, participants had a well-formed, well-documented trail of thoughts, challenges, and potential solutions they could come back to throughout the ScaleSD innovation sprint.

Since many participants had more technical and business backgrounds, this design workflow provided scaffolding they had not previously been introduced to. We believe the workshop gave non-designers their first step into the world of design.

Participants can engage in design thinking even as non-designers

3. Participants continued to engage with the whiteboards even after the workshop ended

Participants were excited to stay 15 minutes after the workshop to ask questions about design and understanding human-centered problems. We checked the Miro board five days later and saw that pairs were still actively contributing to their sections. This appetite for design shows how a design workshop can not only teach design skills but also foster an appreciation for design.

What was challenging and potential solutions

Learning curve for two technologies added a layer of complication

There were two unfamiliar technologies introduced to participants that took several steps to understand and use each. These included (1) switching Discord channels to find a partner, (2) locating text-channels to find the Miro web-link, (3) choosing a space to work on the Miro whiteboard, and (4) discovering which buttons add sticky notes, draw arrows, and create text. A short demonstration was given for how to use Discord and Miro but we found if a pair’s first experience in Miro was bad, they took longer to engage.

Discord and Miro were two new technologies for many participants

Solution: A well-directed learned space and tutorials to understand new tools

Moving forward, there could be a presentation for participants to see live instructions as well as text-guided workspace on their Miro editor where participants can play around with new tools. We will also create and embed step-by-step videos in the board in case participants miss a direction.

Voice interactions without video didn’t feel as present

Our team typically enjoys using video-sharing to build rapport during virtual meetings. When hosting this design workshop, we observed that the community culture was not to share video. We believe that the lack of video encouraged participants to stay at surface level interactions because it might be awkward to ask potentially invasive questions about their ideas and experiences with small businesses without seeing someone’s face.

Solution: A community showcase at the end to make finished work feel more meaningful

Making time for a video-sharing round-robin showcase of final ideas would allow participants to see each other and how their processes compare. It would show their accomplishments summed to a presentation-ready showcase in the workshop time allocated.

Timing of activities was difficult without a central viewing point

People move at different speeds which requires a higher level of coordination. Since the only thing for participants to focus on was the Miro board and our team’s voice instructions, it proved difficult for participants to follow along with directions if they had to step away and missed a direction or didn’t understand.

Two groups at different points of the activity

Solution: Less screen actions to attend to

To view a shared screen on Discord, a person has to locate the icon to begin viewing the shared screen. This is just one of the many digital literacy knowledge pieces someone has to have. To simplify experiences and avoid unintentional confusion we will:

  • Replace our camera view when giving directions so participants don’t have more on-screen items to attend to
  • Lock Miro static parts of templates so people don’t move them accidentally
  • Give more guidance to through the transition process from listening to instructions to moving to the collaboration portion to being assigned to teams
  • Manually facilitate participant actions like switching channel and returning to the main one

Final words

We had a lot of fun making and hosting a design thinking workshop for ScaleSD, are looking forward to iterating and bringing another workshop to a class fo 150+ students in DSGN 100 at UC San Diego, and hope our lessons learned will inspire some of your virtual design workshops and enable better design thinking at scale.



Kendall Nakai 🌸

👩🏻‍💻 kendallnakai.com | writing the random things i would write in google docs but **aesthetic**