Rapid Design Thinking

By Christopher Bevel


While at UIC College of Dentistry, I led a working session with a group of 8 people to brainstorm solutions on how the team can improve the experience around on-boarding new customers.


The organization is an academic health center, or a “teaching hospital” where patients are seen by doctors and residents in training. As with most hospitals or doctor /dental offices, a new patient would either call or request an appointment online. Upon the first office visit, a new patient record is completed, and the clinical team begins the care plan with the patient. A care plan can last one or several visits, depending on each patient’s care needs. Later, the patient is billed, or an insurance claim is submitted for services provided.


The working session team involved staff who manage appointments, administrators who oversee the care team and billing, and the chief executive over the entire facility. Collectively, these were the people closest to the problem. They were also in positions of authority to make the right decisions to solve the problem.


The problem we needed to solve

The problems this team faced were as follows:

  • The care facility had limited space and people capacity to accept and treat new patients. And at the same time, demand was increasing, given the reputation and value of the care provided.
  • Phone requests were managed by a different team than the online requests, and their systems and workflows were not integrated. And, while this facility provides a lot of different care services, the team that managed online requests were dedicated to just one care area. This led to a lot of manual work to pass information between them. There wasn’t a smooth handoff from one team to the other, and several requests were not followed up on.
  • Given all of the above, some patients might have to wait several weeks for an appointment. Others would have trouble getting through via phone to schedule their appointments. And, there was confusion why phone requests were treated differently than online requests.


Where to start?

Everyone involved wanted to solve these problems because they are very dedicated to their job and to the customer. Motivation wasn’t the problem.


But, they didn’t really know where to start. There wasn’t a clear path to finding the right solutions. Each person involved was very aware of the problem from their own point of view, and each had a lot of their own ideas for how to fix the issues.


In the past, meetings about the issues hadn’t been productive because the teams were unable to organize all the different perspectives and agree on solutions in the span of a few short meetings. These meetings usually consisted of a lot of open discussion, but little follow-up action. The ideas, concerns, paint points, statistics, etc. were not translated and organized into problem inputs for developing and agreeing on the right solutions.


What was needed was a new approach to bring all of these perspectives together into a coherent picture of the overall problem, and harness the collective wisdom of the team to decide on the best solutions – as quickly as possible.


I decided this situation would be a great opportunity to use a technique I refer to as rapid design thinking.


How rapid design thinking works

As with all design thinking methods, the goal of this exercise is to use a creative, human-centered approach to solve a set of problems. Each step is timed to maximize productivity, and to stay focused on the problems and their best solutions. The approach applies structure to help bring out everyone’s creativity and encourages collaboration for the best outcomes. 


In rapid design thinking, the process of ideation, solution design and decision making is sped up through timed activities. The team is given specific instructions for how to express and organize their ideas individually and collectively.


This method encourages collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas because it requires team-based ideation. Rapid design thinking also allows for individual expression of ideas in certain steps. For instance, individuals ‘brainwrite’ their issues individually to ensure a holistic problem set across all perspectives. And they are asked to ‘vote’ on their preferred solutions individually.


This method is ‘rapid’ because each step in the session is strictly timed to keep the group moving quickly. Instead of spending an hour or more on brainstorming with a group, you would time this activity to only last, say 10 minutes. The facilitator keeps time and ensures everyone starts and stops on time. In addition to saving time, putting a time limit on brainstorming can help people to focus their thinking more effectively, and avoid distraction.


Rapid design process steps

Here are the steps we followed in this activity. These steps could easily be modified to other problem scenarios. The time limits can also vary. The times that follow would fit into a 90 minute session.


STEP 1: Framing the problem space

In this first step, we’re assuming that the overall problem space (or scope of the problem) is understood well enough by the team for them to begin breaking it down quickly. If this isn’t the case, you may need to spend more time in another session clearly defining the problem space. This understanding is critical to ensure everyone can move quickly through the following steps and focus their creativity on the right problems and solutions.


If more work is needed to frame up the problem space, you could start by doing more user discovery or using the ‘five whys’ to dive into root causes. IDEO’s Design Kit is a great resource to learn these methods. Or, you could apply a management consulting approach called MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive) to comprehensively structure the problem.


Define a design challenge statement

For this session, we began by presenting a ‘how might we’ design challenge statement. The ‘how might we’ format reframes the problem space into an opportunity statement that is broad enough so that the team can develop a wide range of possible solutions that still cover the main problem.


The structure of the design challenge statement is:


How might we…[action verb that represents the core action needed to accomplish the objective, such as “grow”, “reduce”, “improve”].. the.. [a concise, yet comprehensive description of the design objective].

An example “how might we” design challenge statement could look like this:

How might we better manage patient appointment requests through phone and online channels, given increased demand?



STEP 2: Problem ideation using brainwriting – 10 minutes

Using small sticky notes, have each individual write down the most pressing issues that must be solved in order to accomplish the design challenge from their point of view. It can be a problem that affects them, their team, or the customers they serve. Make sure the problems stated are specific – they should describe a problem that has a tangible effect on people.


Ask each individual to ‘quietly’ write out their issues without discussion. This is a form of brainwriting, which ensures a more productive meritocracy of ideas. This step also serves as a ‘divergent’ way of generating the maximum number of possible issues. Note – this is not the same as traditional brainstorming where you have the group yell out ideas. That would be a less productive (and perhaps less effective) approach for a rapid session.


Ensure they use a consistent ‘problem statement format’ to express each problem. This allows for easier synthesis of the problems into solutions later. A problem statement format, or point-of-view statement is a meaningful and actionable problem statement, which will allow the team to ideate in a goal-oriented manner.


Here is a sample problem statement format:


User . . . [describe the user, customer or internal]
needs to [their specific goal, or what they cannot acheive]
because [their motivation, pain point, constraint, or some other issue in the way of achieving goal]

Each of these sticky notes becomes a component of the overall problem space. Similar to how problems are structured into an issue tree in consulting, the next step will begin to structure these issues and their causal factors in a way so the team can develop solutions to address them.


STEP 3: Structure the problem components – 10 minutes

Next, the whole group will arrange the problems into clusters of related problems. Duplicate problems will be combined or discarded. This step is flexible and should match the design challenge and the team’s way of thinking about the problem. Ultimately, the goals of this step are to make it easier for the team to review and understand the whole range of issues at a glance, determine any interconnectivity between them, to filter out duplicates and to ensure all the relevant issues are covered.


This step has several benefits. First, it encourages good problem structuring, so that all the relevant factors and considerations around the problem space have been considered. If the problem is not properly structured and the factors used are incomplete, the resulting solutions could be weak. Another benefit is that it allows the team to build upon each other’s understanding of the problems – encouraging collaboration.


Structuring problem components using an affinity and fishbone diagram


We first organized the problems is using an affinity diagram. Affinity diagrams are useful when you have a lot of variation in the issues and their perspectives. Organizing by affinity, or relationship, helps the team group the issues into logical parts which simplifies understanding of all the factors. It also helps to size up the problem factors in relation to one another.


So, you would move from this, where all the problems are up on a whiteboard, in no particular order….


sticky notes ungrouped


To this… with the problems clustered into groupings of problems with similar characteristics, causes or effects.


sticky notes grouped


Another useful way of organizing the problems is a cause-and-effect, or fishbone diagram. Note: to save time here, you’ll want to provide the team with the diagram structure ready to fill in with the problems they have identified on sticky notes.


Also note, while establishing a causal relationship between the problems isn’t required for this exercise, it may help the team to better understand them for the next steps.


Facilitator notes: open discussion is okay during this step. As individuals are placing their problem notes on the board, ask questions about the problems to guide them in logically grouping them. Also, encourage the team to ask each other questions to help their co-workers arrange the issues in a way that makes sense for them. Finally, remind them that it is okay for them to move each other’s notes for best placement.


STEP 4: Rapid solution design – 15 minutes

In this step, the group would divide into small teams comprised of two or more functional areas (i.e. a finance person with a clinical person). Using large sticky notes, the small teams would visualize (draw) one or two possible approaches to solve any of the problems that have been organized.


Ensure the teams keep the ‘design challenge statement’ in mind when formulating their solutions. Also, it’s best if the solutions are broad enough to address an entire problem grouping, or more than one grouping.


Draw the solutions

This part is optional, but should be encouraged. Ask the solution teams to draw their solution as best they can using simple shapes, diagrams and figures. Visualizing / drawing the solution helps them better form and communicate their ideas to the group.


STEP 5: Solution presentation – 2 minutes each

Once the teams are finished with their solutions, each team will present their solution in 2 or 3 minutes to the entire group. The solution presentations are like a mini hypothesis test with supporting conclusions. As the group listens, they should be checking that the presenting team has developed a logical argument for their solution that connects back to the design challenge and the focus problem components. The short presentation time limit forces the team to really focus their ideas on the core problem.


Each solution presentation should cover:

  1. Which problem components(s) the solution solves.
  2. The people involved in the solution (customer types, internal employee teams, etc.)
  3. Why this is a good solution – there should be a compelling, logical connection between the problem and the solution. Also, the solution should be factual and feasible, based on what is known about it.
  4. At least one thing that must be true for this solution to be successful. This serve several purposes. One, it helps define success. Two, it helps uncover potential obstacles to implementation. Three, it can uncover possible faulty assumptions.

Facilitator note: define design principles
During the solutions presentations, the facilitator is translating aspects of the solution – including the ‘one thing that must be true for success’ – into guiding design principles that will help the team improve their solutions.


STEP 6: Solution voting – 10 minutes

Now that everyone has been given an opportunity to review all the proposed solutions, each individual will then vote on their preferred solutions by placing vote dots on solutions. Votes can be spread out however the individual wants.


Individuals should vote based on two criteria:

  1. Solution impact.
  2. Solution difficulty.


Optional step: solution plotting. Here, you would plot the solutions where the x axis is difficulty and the y axis is impact. This would help the team began to choose quick wins vs. long-term initiatives with higher difficulty.

Supplies Needed for Rapid Design Thinking

  • White board or large flipchart paper
  • Small and large sticky notes
  • Handouts for point-of-view, design challenge and problem statement format
  • Pens and markers
  • Voting dot stickers
  • Snacks, (brain food)



The Facilitator’s Job

The facilitator is usually someone with a background in design thinking. It can be a member of the team, or an outside consultant or agency.


Here are some things for the facilitator to consider to get the most out of a rapid design thinking session.


Stay focused. Throughout the exercise, the facilitator’s job is to keep everyone focused and on task. Time keeping is important.


Be helpful. The facilitator is also there to answer questions about the process and float around to ensure everyone is following the problems and solution formats given.


Maintain an open mindset. Remind the participants that their input is valued, no matter their role. They have been invited because of their closeness to the problems, and their expertise in providing the necessary insights.


State the objective. Chances are, most of your team have never participated in an exercise like this. There might some skepticism, so be clear about the objective and why you have chosen this approach for them.


Make it fun. Also, try to make it fun. This is a great opportunity for employees to express themselves creatively in ways they usually don’t get to in their day-to-day job.



The Result?

After voting, a preferred solution area clearly emerged. The team was able to quickly decide on a timeline and was motivated to move forward. With the right balance of structure and creativity, they were able to collaboratively sort through the problems, develop possible solutions and agree on the best one – all in less than two hours.


During my experience working with cross-functional teams designing new experiences, or improving existing ones, I truly believe rapid design thinking works. I have used it across more than one assignment in many kinds of organizations. The key is to balance the strict structure with free flowing creativity, and try to make the process fun if you can.


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