Written By

Andy Van Solkema



Written By

Andy Van Solkema



Stay up-to-date with OST blog posts.

April 21, 2016

Collaborative exercises to move a company forward

A strategic designer’s toolbox contains many different ways to successfully define problems, align teams, and identify opportunities. These tools can include workshops, facilitation strategies, or human-centered or design thinking tactics. In the hands of a talented designer and an engaged audience, these tools can craft an invaluable understanding of a customer, create widespread alignment around an initiative and define an organization’s short- and long-term strategic plan—all in a creative, non-traditional meeting environment. Many of these tools make up the engine that drives Visualhero’s Strategic Design practice. Depending on the organization’s goals or project focus, we may utilize one or more of the following workshops:

Defining the customer

User Understanding Workshops

As an experience design firm, everything we do is focused on meeting the needs of the people, so naturally we often begin a project with a user understanding workshop. The two most common exercises in these workshops are personas and journey maps. Separately, they each uniquely shed light on the user’s perspective of your product, business or brand, and when viewed together, they create a full picture of who you’re designing for.

Personas – Representations of your customers

Personas have become very popular in businesses over the past few years–and for good reason. A persona prototyping workshop involves having key stakeholders from across a business gather to discuss specific customer pain points, technological sophistication, habits, trends and other characteristics relevant to the project.

Journey maps – Illustrate a customer’s experience with your brand, across all touchpoints.

Journey maps are important both for what they show, as well as what they do not show. Journey maps identify a customer’s full experience, from gaps and relationships to detailed touch points of a customer’s experience. If a journey map shows a lot of customers are behaving in a certain way, but your company is suited to support such activity, they can lead to further product development or feature enhancements. Journey map workshops, sometimes known as experience mapping or blueprinting, are used to visually depict a customer’s experience across the course of their interactions with a company. We recently ran a series of workshops with a consumer product company to understand their customer touchpoints, then to map them out visually to create internal alignment. We analyzed the current state of their customer experience, from initial research to final research and beyond. From there, we identified gaps in their current customer experience and brainstormed opportunities to fill them. Finally, we synthesized all the workshop findings and potential opportunities into a PDF deliverable.

User Research – Validate personas and journey maps with external data.

Go out and validate the boardroom assumptions you made with the personas and journey maps with real customers who match the profiles. Qualitative research methods such as customer interviews and observations will prove that you’re right, prove that you’re wrong or prove that you nailed a few things, but missed some others. Throughout the design process and beyond, continually reference these documents to ensure you’re on the right track and designing with your user’s needs in mind.

Who are you, anyway?

Brand Definition Workshop

Not only is strategic design useful in understanding who you’re designing for, but it’s also valuable in defining who you are as a brand, organization or product. For these types of challenges, brand definition workshops come in handy, and can take many forms.

Brand Attribute Exercises – An interactive discussion used to assign descriptors to an organization or product.

This exercise centers around “who is [brand, company or product]?” and “who is [brand, company or product] not?” This discussion creates a shared consensus around brand values that influence branding and logo design, written copy tone, or future product development. For example, a brand that answers “who are we?” with “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” would steer clear of cold colors, aggressive looking logos and a voice that’s sarcastic. Understanding who you are, and what makes you who you are, will allow decision making to be a much more natural process.

Brand Attribute Radar – A tool to prioritizes key brand attributes.

Using a large circular, dartboard-looking graphic, participant’s place each of the brand attributes on the radar, from the center out depending on its relevancy to the brand. Using the “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” example from above, something like “edgy” may fall very far away from the core attributes. The closer the attribute is the core, the more important it should be to the brand. If there’s disagreement, great! Let’s discuss.

Love & Breakup Letter Exercise – An opportunity to be honest with your brand.

In this exercise, participants write a letter to the brand detailing all the things it does to delight them, just as one would say to a loved one. In the second part, participants break up with the old brand, and talk about why they’re moving on. When viewed side-by-side, these letters highlight what’s working and what’s not, opening the door to a conversation about how to improve. In addition to being a fun, icebreaker-type exercise, it also gets participants to acknowledge that brands can cause true feelings, both good and bad.

Let’s get on the same page

Alignment Workshops

Imagine you’re in a kickoff meeting, but the project’s key stakeholders can’t agree on initial project objectives. Or maybe design and development are on different pages about feature priority. Or, our personal favorite, everyone in the room has a completely different definition of what success looks like for a specific initiative. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’re not alone–and the next time you encounter one of these scenarios, take a step back and consider running one of these alignment workshops or exercises.

Remember the future – get the group thinking about where they want the business to go.

Each participant is given a blank magazine cover (Tip: choose a magazine relevant to your industry) and given the following prompt: “It’s 2020 and your brand is being profiled on the cover of this magazine. Draw what has made you stand out so prominently in your industry.” Participants will answer with what they feel sets the company apart from competitors, which can be valuable insight. This type of vision casting also gives insight into the type of company these employees admire, believe in and hope to work for one day. With the list of employee-sourced aspirations, you can then work backwards and together build a roadmap towards these goals.

Stakeholder Mapping – A visual way to understand your stakeholder ecosystem.

If complete and blissful alignment just isn’t an option because of the intricacies of an organization, it’s still important to understand what key stakeholders will require from your project or product. This understanding will frame how you speak or pitch to them, and better enable you to leverage their needs to support your cause. On a whiteboard, write out all of your stakeholders in a circle, then define who interacts with whom, at what level and with what objectives. Connect similar minded stakeholders, use speech bubbles to summarize their basic positions and challenge the team to think of every possible stakeholder. That way, when you run into them in the hallway, you’ll know exactly how to speak about project X.

Continuums – On a scale of 1-5, who are we?

Using a brand attribute continuum is another easy way to gauge stakeholder sentiment around what defines the organization. Begin by placing a series of descriptive adjectives on the left side of the whiteboard or worksheet. Then, on the right side, write a series of opposite adjectives. For example, one line may have “classic” on the left and “contemporary” on the right. With a number of these written out, participants then select where their brand, company or product falls on the continuums. We have found that a one through ten scale creates too much of a granular discussion, so stick to a one through five scale. During the discussion or after the workshop, look for areas of vast disagreement between stakeholder perceptions. These are opportunities to align the group and create a shared understanding of who you are.

Miscellaneous tips & tricks

These aren’t necessarily workshops, exercises or methods, but they’re things we’ve learned along the road that help make great strategic design.

Dot voting: In typical business meetings, the loudest voice often gets the most attention, so the cause of the loudest voice often gets the most support–and that ain’t right. Dot voting brings democracy into the boardroom because no matter how loud or how quiet, you’ve only got one sticky dot to place next to your idea of choice.

Always be listening: The value of a workshop is 1/4 what makes it on the whiteboard, and 3/4 the conversation that led to the decision. Don’t be in a rush to reach consensus if there’s valuable conversation happening right in front of you. In fact, as a practice, Visualhero will bring someone along to a workshop to solely document conversation. You’ll never know what nugget of conversation will spark an insight later on–but you likely won’t remember it if it’s not written down.

Get tangible: Use visual props such as sticky notes, markers and whiteboards. Using these types of tangible tools takes personal ownership away from individuals and makes their thoughts a physical object that can be discussed without the feelings. Visuals also help people create shared understanding within the group, which supports alignment and clarity.

Additional resources: As mentioned earlier, these are just our go-to workshops and exercises. Depending on the client, the project or the budget, we may create our own workshop, dive deeply into one specific area, or employ a grab bag approach with many different exercises. There are many, many wonderful resources if you’re looking to learn more about strategic design, design thinking or human-centered design. Here are just a few:

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

Innovating For People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods by Luma Institute

Stanford’s dschool

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by

All of these!

As with all schooling, once the learning is over, now it’s time to use what you’ve learned in the real world! These methods can be used for any number of projects, but their underlying purpose is always the same: to using creative problem solving, active collaboration and that three-ish pound of rubbery mass in your noggin’ to help people solve great, big, awesome problems. And that’s the true joy, if you ask us.



Stay up-to-date with OST blog posts.

About the Author

Andy is VP of Digital Strategy and Experience at OST. He is responsible for the practice, vision and integration of design services while infusing human-centered design expertise with OST’s strong technology experience. Prior to OST, Andy founded Visualhero. In 2016 Visualhero was acquired by OST and continues as a midwestern based experience design studio. Visualhero offers a systems approach to creative problem solving by helping organizations take insights and ideas to action.