XIX.3 May + June 2012
Page: 72
Digital Citation

Rapid design labs

Jim Nieters, Amit Pande

Have you ever had a big idea that got crushed? You know, one of those inspiring ideas that could change the world? If you work in a product or design group in a corporation or design firm, you have probably experienced what happens after you share one those ideas. It is most likely followed by questions like: How will it grow the business? What is the ROI? How can we be sure it will succeed?

In the real world, coming up with a breakthrough idea or transformative design doesn’t mean it will automatically get to market. By definition, innovative ideas represent new ways of thinking. Organizations by nature seem to have anti-innovation antibodies [1] that often kill new ideas [2]—even disruptive innovations [3] that could help companies differentiate themselves from their competition. As difficult as coming up with a game-changing idea can be, getting an organization to act on the idea often seems impossible.

We believe new tools are required for this challenge—tools that empower designers and UX teams to get breakthrough ideas and designs accepted. We need tools that enable UX to act as a catalyst and systemically identify and drive game-changing ideas to market. We propose the idea of rapid design labs, a design-led, facilitative, cross-functional, iterative approach to innovation that aligns organizations and generates business value each step of the way.

UX as Facilitators and Drivers of Innovation

Prior to 1990, user experience was rooted in human factors, with a focus on the design of physical spaces (such as cockpits in airplanes). In the 1990s, the field moved toward usability of computer systems and user-centered design. By the early 2000s, we focused on the whole experience, not just individual design elements. Today we find more UX practitioners facilitating the dialogue around innovation.

Several recent articles and books highlight that entering into dialogue with our partners through workshops can solve business problems and help align teams [4,5]. In many organizations, UX practitioners are evolving from being individual artists driving disruptive innovation to facilitators catalyzing collaborative innovation.

Gone are the days of the lone design hero who comes in from D-School with guns blazing, introducing Big-D design ideas in the hope of transforming a company. Don’t get me wrong: We need to gain power and deliver exceptional design solutions to maintain it. The reality, though, is that when designers try to introduce Big-D design ideas, other stakeholders often resist. The Big-D hero says she knows her idea would transform the organization and marketplace if only stakeholders would accept her idea. She says, “They just don’t understand,” and she’s right: They probably don’t. But it’s important to realize that few lone rangers can single-handedly take an idea to market.


Design labs provide the tools you need to drive innovation broadly whether it occurs in a startup, a large organization, or a non-profit.

The Value of Rapid Design Labs

Rapid design labs are multi-day collaborative design workshops where teams work together to solve major business problems. They review challenges, leverage intensive brainstorming and structured ideation exercises, engage in exercises to converge and validate ideas, and align organizations around these ideas. In design labs, designers, engineers, product managers, and often users engage in purposeful play, collaborative design, rapid prototyping, and user testing.

We will describe how design labs can achieve such grand results, how you can get your first workshop on the books, how to successfully facilitate workshops, and how to make them part of a standard process. Let’s start with examining the benefits of design labs:

Cross-functional synthesis. Design labs solve pressing problems in a matter of days that can take many months—or even years—to solve otherwise. These workshops apply integrative thinking [6] at the organizational level. In essence, experts in different disciplines (engineering, product management, and user experience) all perceive the world differently, including opportunities and constraints. Moreover, everyone thinks their opinion is the right one. Without all key stakeholders, though, one cannot build products that are differentiated, marketable, and technically feasible. We need to leverage the best possible insights from each field [6,7], Design labs help synthesize different insights from these disciplines.

Deep, accelerated dialogue. A big obstacle to innovation is the surface-level dialogue in most organizations, fragmented across meetings, email, and PowerPoint presentations. Design labs enable deeper dialogue. They bring teams together to solve problems in a shared space, which when facilitated properly builds trust. Common goals ensure the teams must show productive output when they emerge from their multi-day event. Recognizing the need for progress, participants in design labs understand one another’s perspectives and constraints and are able to identify solutions that acknowledge these constraints.

Pivoting through lean design. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries argues that the runway for any, new product or company is how many times it can successfully pivot itself—change direction—to deliver real customer value [8]. Design labs are the perfect tool for lean design: They permit fast, cheap, objective pivots.

In her article “In Defense of Workshops,” Catherine Strotmeyer highlights several case studies in which companies such as Frito Lay, GE, Timberland, and Trustmark have leveraged design labs—innovation workshops—to drive strategic change [4]. Colleagues in other companies and design firms tell me regularly about new workshop methods to solve different problems. Several organizations—and most design firms—use design labs they have branded for themselves, including the following:

  • IDEO: Deep Dive Workshops
  • Frog: FrogThink workshop format
  • Sapient: Fusion Workshops
  • Yahoo: YoDeLs
  • Deutsche Telekom: Innovation Workshops and StreetLabs
  • Cisco: Discovery Workshops.

What Problems Can Rapid Design Labs Solve?

Many companies and design firms have leveraged innovation workshops and design labs to drive strategic change and alignment. They find that workshops significantly compress the time it takes to:

  • Envision future trends and identify solutions that will differentiate companies in three to five years;
  • Build a creativity factory where individuals are not afraid to introduce innovative ideas and instill a new culture of innovation and creative energy;
  • Foster teamwork and collaboration to help teams bond with one another, rather than compete internally;
  • Get the best contributions from each discipline as a consistent practice [6,7];
  • Refine short-term market and product directions;
  • Create mental-model shifts, either inside or outside of an organization;
  • Identify a visual design and generate mood boards to sell a direction; and
  • Define new organizational structures and business models.

We and our teams have used design labs to discover new marketable ideas (innovate), identify and align around new interaction models, and align on visual-design strategies. Outside of design, we have used them to envision future product strategies, solve significant business growth problems, and create new organizational structures. If you have a significant business problem, there is likely a workshop format that can help solve it. All workshops have the same general components, but it takes a seasoned facilitator to understand how to structure a workshop to solve the right problem—say, redesigning a product versus designing an org structure.

Design labs also deliver tangible side benefits:

  • They forge a lasting bond between teams (team building in context).
  • By including cross-functional teams, you not only bring UX to the strategy table, but you also invent a new table for strategic ideation and constructive dialogue [1].
  • Because stakeholders helped define and own the outcome, all parties defend the innovation and are more likely to sell it up their organizational chains.

Example of a Design Lab

Let’s take one example from Yahoo! In April 2009, Yahoo’s sales organization refused to use a product that the Yahoo! products organization developed for third-party companies. Yahoo!‘s CEO informed the leaders of the sales and products organizations that they needed to align around a vision that ensured the Yahoo! sales team would in fact use the product. They had a year to get it right.

Emotions ran high among constituents across organizations. Leaders and team members in these groups had not worked collaboratively before. They therefore had significantly different visions of what this new solution would be.

Having experienced the value of Yahoo! Design Labs (YoDeLs) previously, members of the products team requested that UX lead one to solve this business problem.

This one-week event solved problems that had existed between organizations for over a year. It collapsed the time required for all parties to internalize goals, constraints, and options, and develop a unified vision. After unifying overall goals, the UX team produced designs that we validated during the YoDeL. Once all stakeholders recognized the need for a new design as part of the larger set of objectives during the design lab, introducing the optimized designs was simple. We reduced decision time from months to a week. The reality, though, was that no other venue could likely have solved the problems faced by these teams. They did not have months to debate options.

Senior leaders praised the teamwork in and designs from this YoDeL, and agreed that we had built a strong foundation for moving forward together successfully. Afterward, UX, product management, and engineering convened with the senior vice presidents of stakeholder organizations to review progress. The senior VP of sales spoke glowingly: “My team is thrilled with the relationship we’ve built with your group. Coming together in the YoDeLs made my team feel heard, and resulted in an innovative product that will tell a great story at the next CEO staff [meeting].”

Not only did the UX team gain strategic relevance, but they also reinvigorated and motivated the entire cross-functional team. As Daniel Pink argues in Drive, creative motivation stems from autonomy, mastery, and purpose [9]. As knowledge professionals, we are motivated when we see our purposeful, game-changing ideas make a difference. Design labs provide UX teams the opportunity to stand in the center of the strategic decision-making process and deliver breakthrough solutions.

Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a successful design lab catalyzes a unified product roadmap like few other methods.

Your Workshop Strategy—Start with an Urgent Problem

When we talk to groups about conducting design labs, teams invariably ask how they can get their organization to agree to send employees to a several-day workshop when getting people into a one-hour meeting can be difficult. The key is this: When an urgent problem arises (and they do regularly), volunteer to solve it with a design lab. Of course, if you volunteer to solve it, you had better follow through. If you don’t, you will not get a second chance! In my experience, trying to get attention to conduct a workshop on a less-urgent topic results in a lukewarm response. Choose the right problem to solve.

Gone are the days of the lone design hero who comes in from D-School with guns blazing, introducing Big-D design ideas in the hope of transforming a company. Good facilitators recognize that cross-functional teams normalize the dialogue. For example, when an engineer defends a technology, others can express why it doesn’t solve user problems. This multi-day process enables teams to refine solutions around multiple constraints.

Be ready to jump in. When you volunteer to solve the challenge, you also need to be able to articulate to senior leadership the value, and have confidence in the process. If you don’t, others won’t. Consider making a presentation ahead of time articulating the process, goals, and expected outcomes. Build excitement and confidence, and leverage these to drive success.

Set ground rules: Go big or go home. When you have an urgent problem—and everyone agrees it is significant—it’s not hard to get the level of attention that enables you to set ground rules for success. Ground rules often include the following:

  • Set up a design lab that runs for four to five full days. It really takes this long to solve serious challenges.
  • All constituents must be on site for the entire duration and be free from distraction: No meetings, email, or other priorities that compete for attention.
  • Organizations must send their most talented people. No “B” players.
  • All constituents must come to a consensus during the workshop; they cannot hold back and then present new information or suggestions later.
  • Senior leaders or clients agree to attend several readout sessions in the evening during the week, so facilitators can convey progress and identify bottlenecks. They also enable you to surface passive-aggressive behavior from participants. Social pressure ensures that bad behavior gets checked.
  • Before the event, participants engage in several preparatory meetings.
  • After the event, participants prepare materials that drive the idea forward.
  • Limit the event to 15 participants.

Conducting Your Design Lab—Tips for Facilitation

For your first workshop, have a UX lead who is skilled in the art of facilitation. Such leaders know how to address challenges when they arise, how to think on their feet, how to address diversity, when to interrupt and when to let the group continue in a discussion, how to keep the group focused on the real issues and excited about their progress, and when to vary from the published schedule. Here are some specific tips to help you during a design lab:

  • Thank everyone for showing up and for dedicating time.
  • Ensure participants understand that success means positive results. Remind participants that this is their workshop. They are responsible for a positive result.
  • Remind participants of the ground rules listed above, and to those add: a) Respect other participants. b) Help the moderator stay focused on the agreed problems. c) Trust the process. Good facilitators at times schedule exercises that avoid direct confrontation but permit creative ideation and convergence. Afterward, participants appreciate exercises that lead to success. d) Have fun!
  • Introduce everyone to the process (ideate, filter, design, and drive to market).
  • Share a published agenda.
  • Point out that everyone owns the process and results.
  • Do memorable introductions. Get your group to open up, laugh, and engage early in the process. It is crucial in making early progress. Examples include having each person tell two truths and a lie about themselves. Have the group guess which one is the lie. Also, identify social styles, break up into subteams to discuss, and present back.

When facilitating a collaborative design workshop, remember:

  • Be flexible: First, ensure that people express opinions, concerns, and thoughts—remind people that nobody gets to filibuster—and everyone must contribute. Secondly, some exercises take more time, some less. It’s about the result, not a schedule. Some exercises may not be necessary if a team makes unexpected progress (and if they do, highlight this progress as a success!). And allow participants to suggest new exercises and processes.
  • Ensure a democratic process… and also strive for results! People need to express views, know they have been heard, and feel the ultimate solution leveraged their insights. They need to be involved emotionally to support outcomes.
  • Make sure to raise hidden assumptions so people can discuss them!
  • Push the limits on creativity and ideation. Don’t stick with the status quo.
  • Give groups flexibility in timing their exercises, so long as they work together toward a constructive goal, and they are likely to achieve success in the allotted time. Call out challenges and let the group make decisions based on these insights.
  • Craft exercises that allow the team to achieve small successes early.
  • Recognize that a workshop is not a training session or venue to show off knowledge but a place to work. A facilitator must lead by example.

Good facilitators recognize that cross-functional teams normalize the dialogue. For example, when an engineer defends a technology, others can express why it doesn’t solve user problems. This multi-day process enables teams to refine solutions around multiple constraints. As Jim Collins mentions in Good to Great, we first must face the brutal facts of current challenges before considering new directions [10].

Facilitators must also ensure that teams do not arrive at a watered-down version of the optimal idea in order to achieve some political middle ground. The goal is to identify, design, and test the best solution.

At the end of a design lab, facilitators must ensure that each participant is assigned at least one follow-up task, such as preparing an executive presentation, creating an interactive prototype, or communicating concepts to their organization. Try to get the client, the user, or the most resistant organization to present the successful idea to executives. People tend to believe the most resistant stakeholders and are very ready to support an idea when they are on board.

By facilitating design labs that include cross-functional teams, you not only bring user experience to the strategy table, but you also invent a new table at which strategic ideation and constructive dialogue take place. In design labs, you draw the best and brightest people into the room so you can collaboratively generate game-changing ideas and then get stakeholders aligned around your big idea. Once stakeholders are invested, you’re not the only person trying to drive the innovation. And guess what? You’re more likely to be successful!


1. Nieters, J. and Thompson, C. Design driven innovation. SXSW 2011, Austin, TX.

2. Christian, C.M. and Raynor, M.E. The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, Boston, 2003.

3. Moore, G. Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution. Portfolio Hardcover, New York, 2005.

4. Strotmeyer, C. In defense of workshops. Business Week (July 15, 2010); http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/jul2010/id20100712_007583.htm

5. Gray, D., Brown, S., and Macanufo, J. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. O’Reilly Press, Sebastopol, CA, 2010.

6. Martin, R. The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2007.

7. Welch, J. and Welch, S. Winning. HarperCollins, New York, 2005.

8. Ries, E. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2011.

9. Pink, D. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Penguin Group, New York, 2011.

10. Collins, J. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. HarperCollins New York, 2001.


Jim Nieters is Senior Director of User Experience and Front-end Development in HP’s Consumer Travel division, where he makes the total experience a differentiator. Before HP, Nieters was Director of UX at Yahoo! He leads design labs regularly and has been invited to teach how to innovate and to lead design labs in companies, universities, and conferences.

Amit Pande is Director of User Experience and Front-end at HP. Over the past nine years, he has held design, product, and innovation leadership roles at Yahoo!, Oracle, PeopleSoft, and various tech startups. Pande holds an M.S. from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and is @amit_pande on Twitter.

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