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8 Powerful Design Thinking Exercises for Your Next Workshop

By: SEI Team


In today’s hyper-competitive landscape, organizations must continually seek new ways to drive innovation and solve complex challenges. One of the most powerful tools at their disposal is design thinking — a holistic methodology that places the customer’s needs and experiences at the center of the problem-solving process. Whether you need to streamline the online ordering process for your customers or want to improve how internal teams access business-critical information, design thinking can help you take a novel approach to addressing common pain points.

In this article, we’ll explore different design thinking exercises you can integrate into your business practices and how organizations can use this approach to drive innovation, build stronger relationships with customers, and stay ahead of the curve in today’s ever-evolving marketplace.

The Challenge Facing Companies Today

Full-scale development projects often involve completing an extensive checklist to get a project across the finish line. Creating a detailed plan, establishing requirements, and refining the design and development process takes time. So when the launch date draws near, and concerns arise about whether the final product will truly meet the customer’s needs, it can understandably make stakeholders feel anxious. This is precisely where design thinking can help drive success.

The right design thinking exercises use a human-centered approach that promotes collaboration and iteration, encouraging teams to develop solutions that are more likely to succeed in the marketplace. As customer behaviors and industry standards evolve, relying solely on basic market research efforts to keep up with these shifts is no longer sufficient. Organizations need to adopt a more dynamic and comprehensive approach that allows them to anticipate these changes. 

By employing design thinking principles, businesses can directly prioritize client needs, creating a solution that not only meets the end user’s expectations, but the company’s project goals as well.

What is Design Thinking? 

Design thinking is a human-centered, iterative problem-solving approach emphasizing empathy, collaboration, and experimentation. It can be used in a wide range of industries to develop innovative solutions, products, and services by focusing on understanding the needs and desires of end users.

To get the most out of the approach, consider running a design thinking workshop. These structured brainstorming sessions bring together cross-functional teams and encourage open communication, active participation, and experimentation, leading to breakthrough insights that might not have been possible through more traditional problem-solving methods.

Run a productive workshop using these five key stages as your roadmap: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

  1. Empathize – Rethink current assumptions by digging into what drives customer behavior, concerns, and needs. Understanding where your customers fit in within the framework of a constantly changing landscape can help you anticipate their needs.
  2. Define – Outline the problem statement and identify existing insights and capabilities within the organization.
  3. Ideate – Generate compelling, inventive ideas, prioritizing them based on customer value and feasibility for implementation.
  4. Prototype – Iteration and flexibility are key. Enable your teams to visualize project needs, gather feedback, and reach a consensus on functionality before committing to expensive development.
  5. Test – Implement solutions through a sequence of trial phases, fine-tuning usability and other parameters to ensure the final product delivers an exceptional user experience.

8 Proven Design Thinking Exercises

As with any creative endeavor, the ways to approach design thinking are virtually infinite. The following design thinking workshop exercises can be used to spark innovation and provide a strong foundation for generating unique, user-centric solutions that can address nearly any challenge your business may be facing. 

1 – Empathy Mapping

Empathy mapping is a critical first step in launching most design thinking exercises. This strategy enables team members to better understand their target users’ needs, wants, and attitudes by exploring what motivates them. Here’s a brief overview of how to integrate empathy map design thinking in your workshop.

How to do it:

  • Define your target user group.
  • Create a large, visual grid with four quadrants, representing “Says,” “Thinks,” “Does,” and “Feels.”
  • Gather any available data on your target users and discuss insights with your team.
  • Fill in each quadrant with observations and data that correspond to what the user says, thinks, does, and feels.
  • Analyze the completed empathy map to uncover patterns or gaps in understanding to drive further research and ideation.

2 – Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a classic design thinking activity that promotes rapid idea generation. By creating an open environment for communication, team members can share their thoughts freely, building off each other’s ideas.

How to do it:

  • Define the challenge you want to address.
  • Set a time limit (e.g., 15-30 minutes) and encourage team members to share ideas as they come to mind.
  • Encourage participants to think freely and avoid critiquing ideas at this stage.
  • Record all ideas on a whiteboard or sticky notes, ensuring all contributions are visible.
  • Review and categorize ideas, discussing their merits and potential for further development.

3 – Rapid Prototyping

Rapid prototyping is a hands-on design thinking workshop exercise that enables teams to quickly visualize and iterate on ideas. By building low-fidelity models, teams can gain insights into user interactions and refine their designs more effectively.

How to do it:

  • Choose an idea from the brainstorming session.
  • Provide a variety of materials (e.g., paper, 3D printers) for team members to create a physical representation of an idea.
  • Encourage participants to focus on functionality and user experience rather than aesthetics.
  • Set a time limit (e.g., 30-60 minutes) to ensure rapid iteration.
  • Test and iterate on the prototype, using feedback from team members and target users to refine the design.

4 – The Five Whys

The Five Whys technique is a powerful design thinking exercise for identifying the root cause of a problem. By asking “why” multiple times, teams can go beyond the surface of an issue and uncover the true cause behind a challenge.

How to do it:

  • Clearly define the problem you want to address.
  • Ask “why” the problem exists and record the answer.
  • Continue asking “why’” four more times, using the previous response as the basis for the next question.
  • Review answers to identify patterns or common themes.
  • Use these insights to inform your ideation and solution development.


SCAMPER stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. It’s a creative problem-solving technique that encourages teams to think differently about their concepts. 

How to do it:

  • Select an idea from the brainstorming session.
  • For each of the seven SCAMPER categories, ask your team how they can apply that principle to the idea:
    • Substitute: What elements can be replaced with something else to improve the concept?
    • Combine: How can this idea be merged with another idea to create something new and more effective?
    • Adapt: What can be adjusted or modified to better address the user’s needs?
    • Modify: How can the idea be altered to enhance its effectiveness?
    • Put to another use: In what other contexts can the idea be used?
    • Eliminate: What elements of the idea can be removed or simplified to make it more efficient?
    • Reverse: How can the idea be restructured to create a new perspective or approach?
  • Discuss the team’s suggestions and evaluate how each SCAMPER category has influenced the original idea.
  • Use the refined ideas generated through the exercise as a basis for further exploration, prototyping, and testing.

6 – Journey Mapping

Journey mapping allows teams to visualize the user’s experience with a product or service, identify pain points, and discover areas for improvement.

How to do it:

  • Identify a specific user persona and the journey you want to map.
  • Break the journey down into distinct stages, listing the user’s behaviors, thoughts, and reactions at each stage.
  • Use sticky notes or a digital tool to create a visual representation of the journey.
  • Analyze the journey map, looking for barriers and opportunities for improvement. Don’t forget to highlight areas where customer satisfaction is the highest to understand what’s currently working and how to apply those ideas to overcome barriers.

7 – Roleplay

Roleplay allows team members to better understand user needs and obstacles by stepping into their shoes and acting out scenarios.

How to do it:

  • Define the problem and create a scenario that involves a user interacting with a product or service.
  • Assign roles to team members, such as the user, a customer service representative, or another relevant stakeholder.
  • Have team members act out the scenario, encouraging them to stay in character and explore different ways of handling the situation.
  • After the session, discuss what you discovered and potential solutions to address the user’s needs.

8 – Dot Voting

Dot voting is a prioritization technique used to help organizations quickly identify the most promising ideas and focus their efforts on high-impact solutions.

How to do it:

  • Display all generated ideas from the brainstorming session on a wall or board.
  • Give each team member a set number of dots (e.g., stickers or markers) to distribute among the ideas they believe are the most valuable and feasible.
  • Allow team members to vote independently, without discussing their choices.
  • Tally the votes and identify the top-ranked ideas.

Empowering Customer-Centric Innovation with SEI

If your organization is ready to embrace design thinking and unlock its full potential, SEI is here to help. Our seasoned consultants work closely with both teams and stakeholders to develop innovative solutions for the customer, by the customer. We understand that the successful rollout of a product or solution requires a more intimate understanding of the end user and that design thinking methodologies are the path toward creating custom solutions that work.

At SEI, we provide end-to-end delivery leadership and on-site support, driving the implementation of solutions that meet both customer needs and critical business goals. Our teams favor an agile, technology-agnostic approach, allowing us to help our clients create positive, valuable experiences for their customers.

Get in touch to learn more about how SEI can help your organization innovate and thrive with the design thinking methodology.