Building Exceptional Experiences

Experience Design Tips From The Design Gym

March 21, 2016

We first met The Design Gym in 2013 when they invited us to be their client partner for the weekend version of their Design Thinking Bootcamp. We were just starting to build our suite of free online courses for social change leaders, so it was a great opportunity to crowd source ideas. Fast-forward, and we’ve engaged them on a number of occasions—the latest being a workshop for the 2016 Acumen Global Fellows. We've learned a great deal about exceptional experience design while becoming good friends.

Like us, The Design Gym derives great joy from equipping people with tools to tackle problems in new and exciting ways. Their main tools of choice are events and workshops, which are anything but typical.

Great experience design means every aspect is meticulously crafted to not just push participants outside their comfort zones, but expand it. They’re so well designed that you can’t help but feel like a design thinking superhero when you leave. We sat down with The Design Gym to learn the five principles that guide them in engaging experience design —whether it be a board meeting, taco truck class, or nonprofit project.

 1. Learn By Doing

Let’s start with the one that feels like common sense. In the heat of the moment or the stress of the deadline it’s easier to revert back to theoretical and instructional learning. How can you bring more doing into your brainstorming meetings?

When The Design Gym partnered with—an organization ranked in FastCompany’s Top 100 Most Innovative Companies (and featured in +Acumen's Social Entrepreneurship 101 course). They had to find a way to help an organization already breaking the model in creative thinking push themselves to the next level. Standing in the front of the room teaching content all day wasn’t going to be an effective method.

Instead, The Design Gym coordinated a day-long inspiration hunt, visiting companies like TED and Union Square Hospitality (Shake Shack’s parent company), to learn how other organizations were approaching similar problems in completely different ways. The day was filled with new learning and inspiration that never would’ve been possible if they’d stayed inside the walls of the classroom.

Quick Tip: If you can’t get out of the room, consider the setup of the room instead. Get off the stage or down from the front and mix up the room for maximum interaction. Move the chairs out of the way and create ways for people to do even if it’s just handing them a pad of post-its and pen to stick ideas to a wall instead of on worksheets.

2. Cultivate a Safe Learning Environment

Stretching your comfort zone is scary. Cultivating an environment where people feel safe to throw out their craziest and most vulnerable ideas is no easy task. And saying, “This is a safe space” often just has the opposite effect.

One of the key ways to create that safe environment is by putting on your empathy hat and really understanding where your participants are coming from. Questions to ask yourself: What will get them excited? What’s the biggest priority on their mind? What are they most fearful of?

Thinking from an experience design perspective means focusing on these understandings to make sure it overtly and subliminally feels safe to your participants. It can translate into something as small as having snacks and chocolate on the tables, or as complex as kicking off the workshop with a big, delicately facilitated activity to break down insecurities and concerns amongst the team.

The Design Gyms often kicks-off their workshops asking people if they know what design thinking is. Then, they ask people to raise their hands if they think design thinking is nonsense. It’s a helpful way to know what skepticism exists in the room. More importantly, it makes people feel like they have a voice that’s being heard and respected.

The iZone is an innovation team embedded within the NYC Department of Education, and has been partnering with The Design Gym for a few years now. The two organizations collaborated on ‘Innovation Challenges’ which brought together 80-100 public school stakeholders—teachers, administrators, parent coordinators, guidance counselors, teachers, and students—to tackle a challenge together.

One of the most memorable lessons from that experience was when a participating teacher came up and expressed how much they believed in the notion of human-centered design, but with only 15 minutes of free time each day there’d be a significant challenge in using it.

It pushed The Design Gym to ask how can they adapt their content to meet teachers where they were. They came back to the next session with low-barrier methods and examples of all the tools they teach. More than just saying it was a safe learning environment, they were able to build trust through their willingness to adapt their content.

Quick Tip: As the facilitator, you set the tone. If you share fearlessly or vulnerably, you’re inviting the participants in the room to be themselves, too.

3. Tackle Real Problems in Real Time

As often as possible, The Design Gym brings in real clients or real challenges. “This makes the application tangible and the value clear," they say.

In 2013, when +Acumen courses were an idea in incubation, our team participated in one of The Design Gym's weekend bootcamps. Participants at the bootcamp were tasked with working on the +Acumen challenge of engaging everyday leaders around the world on an online learning platform.

As they learned the approach of design thinking, participants got to test their new skills on a real life challenge that we were facing in real time. This allowed the diverse group of attendees to connect this learning experience to the challenges they were facing in their own organizations or companies too. 

Quick Tip: Your employees are the best source of ‘real challenges’. Prior to a session you can ask them for their input. We promise, you won’t be disappointed.

4. Be Deliberate in Learning vs. Outcomes

“Deciding up front whether you’re prioritizing learning, outcomes, or practicing skills helps provide a north star for designing activities.” - Andy Hagerman, Co-founder of The Design Gym

Like setting the intention of a meeting, setting the intention of the session is an important calibration point that you can re-calibrate back to throughout the session. It’s also an excellent teaching point to illustrate that often when you’re creating solutions for a challenge it’s easy to get off track or follow false leads, resulting in a solution that doesn’t consider the original challenge. It’s helpful to have a north star to bring everyone back to.

When The Design Gym started out, they heard consistent feedback about their workshops - fun, packed with learning, and intense. They took it positively, knowing that they were throwing a lot at participants but that the intensity was translating into a good experience. It wasn't until they were doing a little 'customer empathy building' of their own one day that they unpacked what 'intense' meant for their students.

Over drinks one night with a number of community members, they learned that many people felt stressed throughout the workshop as they tried to balance both learning the concepts of design thinking (the ultimate goal) and solving the practice challenge to the best of their abilities. These workshops tend to attract motivated change makers, so they don't take solving a challenge lightly.

It was a big turning point, and since then The Design Gym is very deliberate about designing their workshops to prioritize either learning or solving, because you can do both at the same time, but you can't always do them to the level participants might be used to.

Quick Tip: State the intention at the beginning of the session and remind everyone of the intention as you go through the session.

5. Have an Experience Arc and Design for Fun

Take your participants on a journey. If it’s a customer, have the experience arc in mind at all times and know where they are on the arc at all times. Even when writing this blog, we drew out an arc and have been progressing along. An experience arc follows the pattern of a story arc where there is an introduction that builds to a climax and is followed by a denouement. To take this comparison into a full-on metaphor: you're the narrator guiding your protagonists through their journey.

It’s taking user experience and mapping it to an intentional progression that moves them from comfort, to slight discomfort (excitement, thrill, questioning) and back down onto a concrete action, outcome or take away. What kind of experience do you want your employees to have when they come to work each day? How do you want your customers to move through your store, or browse your product online? How do you want your colleagues to feel when they exit a meeting with you? 

Quick Tip: Arcs can all be different in shape, size and length, but following the general flow will keep you on track to provide a deliberate (and exciting) experience.

A Taco Experience

To make all of this tangible and provide you with an example, we’ve deconstructed one of The Design Gym’s events – A Pop-Up Taco Stand (and secret creativity accelerator) to match it to the 5 approaches outlined above.

1. Learn by Doing: Upon ordering tacos, participants were given the opportunity to practice visual thinking and doodled their ideas on post-it notes.

2. Safe Learning Environment: The informal space for learning provided a fun environment for everyone to try something new and be silly – and everything is more fun with a taco in your hand.

3. Real Problems in Real Time: Providing prompts to participants to get to work on ideas for projects or initiatives they have “in the back of their mind” but not on paper yet. Or, to contribute to others' ideas.

4. Learning vs. Outcomes: This was all about the hands-on learning in a fun, low-pressure environment. Oh, and great tacos.

5. Have an Arc and Design for Fun: Get Taco > Try New Things > Have Fun & Get Another Taco.

It can be that simple. Keeping these 5 things in mind can elevate the experience design and get you thinking creatively for even the simplest interactions – which can make an incredible difference. To really get a sense of the powerful impact experience design can have, The Design Gym turns to restaurateur Danny Meyer and his book Setting the Table for inspiration. Danny Meyer’s New York restaurants are known for exceptional service and an outstanding experience.

How will you apply these 5 tips to your next event?

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