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Author's profile photo Heike van Geel

Spreading Design Thinking – a practice workshop

Design Thinking Approach and Values

What is happening during a sunny Saturday on the SAP Labs Palo Alto campus and its vicinities? Only a flip chart sign in the lobby building 3 that says “Design Thinking workshop go to fourth floor”, some empty pizza boxes and about 15 heads full of ideas for future playground designs are left.

What happened? Is there anything else left?

Three women were on a mission, on a mission to spread the word of Design Thinking within SAP and beyond.  Instead of waiting for any formal training or investing in books and other reading materials – they said lets “just do it”. After all, this is what “learning” Design Thinking is all about “practice, practice, practice” according to professor Terry Winograd.

  • Elena Hartlieb, a Senior Quality Specialist from Walldorf, with 10 years of SAP experience in various areas and absolutely passionate to learn about Design Thinking and during her first stay in the Silicon Valley.
  • Venu Nadella, Development Manager in SAP Sales on Demand, passionate about her non-profit cause – introducing DT concepts to under-privileged children in India through Janyaa program.
  • And myself, Heike van Geel, Service Innovation Program Manager in SAP’s Global Service Portfolio Management Group, based in Palo Alto. A hotel manager in my  pre-SAP life, now working on and around the topic of design thinking and innovation since 2005.

The three of us plus 12 committed colleagues from SAP, all from many different SAP organizations, immersed for a day into Design Thinking. 

The group consisted of many different disciplines as well as different cultural backgrounds. I had told Elena and Venu that 12 is the maximum number of participants I can handle on a Saturday as a sole facilitator for a workshop. Although, I knew I could rely on the knowledge and skills that my two accomplices would gather to participate in this one day workshop. The rule is simple;”accept ambiguity” and “work in heterogeneous teams” and exciting things will happen. I simply had to hold it together and not let the participants run off into the bunny trails of their different expertise and disciplines before giving the group a chance to cherish multidisciplinary team work and embrace on the diversity among themselves and their stakeholders.

Stakeholders? Yes, the workshop conveys Design Thinking along a hands-on exercise, a so called design challenge, a mini project for the day. The design challenge the group took on was to redesign a children’s playground experience.

 “Design Thinking is a methodology for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result.”  (source: Wikipedia)

During a quick introduction of the first Design Thinking phase of scoping the group learned about one of the most important objectives “know your stakeholders”. The largest stakeholder group for this design challenge was as a matter of fact children. Children as stakeholders, children as users – the group was up to a true challenge. And as it turned out only one participant has children himself.  What to do, if there is not even much secondary user research data available? It was time for a field trip to the Juana Briones Park close to the SAP office to seek inspiration from users.

Conducting primary research, or field research, is one is the most powerful activities during the 360 research phase

“I wish SAP would do more user research and validations, go out more” – was one of the participant feedbacks later on.

The group had divided into teams and conducted the 1.5 hr field research. While out there they worked in tag teams of two.  The preferred format, one person interacts and interviews the user while the other person takes notes and photos or sketches. Remember “a picture if worth a thousand words”, but also remember to ask for permission first before taking photos.  Actually none of the parent or kids minded us taking photos, they thought it was great that SAP is doing workshops to better understand the desirability, the goals and needs that matters to users. This is the main objective of the 360 – understanding the “as is”.


Practicing empathy means to also observe the users actions

Practicing empathy is essential when going out and interacting with stakeholders, customers and users.  So the workshop participants did. The diversity of the group became handy, while one participant is fluent in Mandarin, she was able to connect better and interview some parent in their native language. Meanwhile others did literally immerse themselves and tested the slides – who ever knew that those slides are terrible bumpy and hot?


Back to the SAP offices, teams started analyzing all the data they had collected during the field trip. Better to do it while it is fresh in the minds, soon the walls would be covered with multi color post-it notes.


Those conversations and discussions around the stories is what lets us share the data to better understand the “as is”, the goals and needs, define personas and derive insights.

 “If you are not able to define a persona and/or a scenario based on your research, that simple means you have not collected enough data” according to Cooper, design and strategy firm.


Capturing all data points is key – we don’t know yet what is important


The “little” practical things are what make a difference.  “One post-it color per user is something that I can apply directly to my daily work.“  Using multi color post-it notes helps us during the synthesis phase to differentiate between the data sources but yet lets us think integratively while getting all the data out on one wall  and immerse in it, cluster it and let it speak to us.


After the teams had created a point of view (persona + insight), determined the scenario and derived some design principles during this mere 2 hours of a synthesis simulation, it was time to get creative. Finally, time to think solution – something design thinkers hold back with till they feel they truly understand the “as is”, the goals and needs of the people. Ideation and exploring the “to be” was next.

 “Design thinking is different and therefore it feels different.  Firstly it is not only convergent. It is a series of divergent and convergent steps.”  ~Tim Brown, author of ‘Change by Design’

The switching back and forth between divergent and convergent is tough on the human brain – thanks again to all for bringing snacks and to the working coffee machine – though the group wasted no time with breaks – they moved at a high pace thru the day.

 “Design Thinking focuses on a collaborative and iterative style of work and an abductive mode of thinking.” (source: Wikipedia)

After a quick brainstorming on what to build to address the design challenge the teams moved into prototyping.

Overcome fixedness is what happens when coffee cups and bubble wrap turn into a kids climbing park.  While starting the low-fidelity prototypes the teams started to get more into the feasibility of things.  Exploring what is technically possible. Can it be build? This is important while thriving for innovative solutions.


Accepting to fail early and often is something we have to get used to (again), but better now than never. Our stakeholders that joined us around 4 PM in the afternoon were brutally honest with their feedback during the validation phase.


Early prototype validations makes Design Thinking a highly iterative approach. Keen & interested users – good sign for a desirable solution being “on-track”

The teams received and captured user feedback and iterated their prototypes before the 5:30 PM deadline hit. The final presentations were well received by our stakeholders, they were pleased to see their desires as well as concerns were taken serious.


So, what else is part of Design Thinking?  Before calling a solution an innovative solution the viability is yet to be explored.   Will this be successful in the market? Will anybody pay for it? Will it be part profitable business model?

In our case of the playground experience redesign we don’t know yet about the viability, but what we do know what to build and most importantly what delights our users and that is a pretty result after 8 hrs of work and fun. 


What people desire is an inspiration; it is a pretty good guiding star when thriving for innovation.  At the end of the day what differentiates us, are the people. The people that rate our solutions innovative by adopting and using it with delight and the people that are applying design thinking as an approach to get to build such innovative solutions.


“The Design Thinking concept caught me from the first minute! I am fascinated by the focus on the research and validation with the end user. You can always assume their needs, but you will only find out their real needs by meeting, talking and observing them in their real environment- you will then get their story. In addition, I never thought that the diversity of a team is that important, I will never forget that!” ~Elena Hartlieb

“Working with everyone on Saturday really reminded me what bright and knowledgeable people we have here at SAP! It was such a positive experience. I must say I was exhausted after I went home!”

Thanks to Gilles and Rajesh for bringing their kids to participate. They are awesome!  


 “While definitions vary, design thinking usually involves a period of field research — usually close observation of people — to generate inspiration and a better understanding of what is needed, followed by open, nonjudgmental generation of ideas. After a brief analysis, a number of the more promising ideas are combined and expanded to go into “rapid prototyping,” which can vary from a simple drawing or text description to a three-dimensional mock-up. Feedback on the prototypes helps hone the ideas so that a select few can be used.” ~Janet Rae-Dupress, The New York Times, 5 October 2008 

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      Author's profile photo Fred Verheul
      Fred Verheul
      Hi Heike,

      Thanks for this blog, which makes for a very pleasant read, with your report of the day and the various quotes alternating (not to mention the worthy cause and related photo's 😉 ).
      Besides, you certainly got me interested! Would love to participate in such an exercise.

      Cheers, Fred

      Author's profile photo Ethan Jewett
      Ethan Jewett
      Completely agree. What a great (first!!) blog 🙂


      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author
      Thanks Ethan 🙂
      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author
      Thank you Fred. It would be great if we could organize some for the SCN to cover the basic understanding of Design Thinking. The challenge is to get people in one place and a full day of attention. None of the participants during this workshop was even looking at a mobile device, needless to say not laptops or notbooks present either - that was fantastic.
      Author's profile photo Itzhak Shoshan
      Itzhak Shoshan
      Very inspiring.
      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author
      Thanks Itzik 🙂
      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      That's all I can say - practice workshop.  Looks like the entire thing to me.  And a lot more than we got to at our Techeds.  But we did some of it at Techeds.  So that was cool.

      Great job! 

      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author
      Thanks Michelle! yeah, a full day is a good amount of time for practicing the practice of DT  and have some happy kids too 😉