Using Behavioral Science to Optimize Design Thinking Workshops


August 10, 2018



I run design thinking workshops, which is a fun thing for me to say since I’m neither a formally-trained designer nor am I an outspoken extrovert. I’m a behavioral scientist. I’ve sketched out my approach to design thinking workshops with a lot of focus on the participant experience. After all, good design is about creating good relationships, and good relationships are about understanding one another.

If you’re like me, the word design makes you feel a little uneasy. This is probably because we often think of design too narrowly, such as design to make things pretty. But here’s the thing: you don’t need to be a designer to run a design thinking workshop, and you certainly don’t need to be a designer to participate.

Think of design thinking as a problem-solving strategy, because it is. It’s investigating the user, their needs, pain points, and process, and letting them lead you to better solutions. It’s using evidence over instinct, which starts to make me feel more comfortable as a scientist. In design thinking workshops, we identify user problems, hunt for solutions, generate insights, and decide on the steps to get there fast and have fun doing it (often ending with what looks like a kindergarten classroom full of colorful sticky notes and amateur sketches).

Designing and running a successful workshop can be difficult and intimidating, but you can use some common principles of human behavior and decision making to increase the odds that the participants leave feeling it was a success and a valuable use of their time.

Ready to talk about feelings? Say yes.

Peak-end Effect

One of my favorite psychological concepts for understanding how people feel about a given experience is the peak-end effect. In short, peak-end implies that we remember experiences as a function of their peak (highlight) and the way they end. When evaluating an experience, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re averaging out how good each moment was, but that’s not how our minds work.

Which would you choose? Option one is 60 seconds of pain. Option two is 60 seconds of pain followed by 30 seconds of mild discomfort.

You’d choose the shorter time (60 seconds), right?

Cool—but you’d probably enjoy the longer option more after you actually experienced it, because it ends more pleasantly. Here is where our brains typically miscalculate value. By ending the experience in less pain, researchers have shown that we prefer it over an experience that ends with relatively greater pain (while also neglecting the overall length of the experience). Moral of the story? End your workshop day (or days) of hard work with something fun—we bring snacks.

Moral of the story? End your workshop day (or days) of hard work with something fun—we bring snacks.

When it comes to peaks, I find it valuable to take a step back at the end of a session to look at what we’ve accomplished. This can be particularly impactful when you’ve mapped out something like customer journeys (especially given that participants may have never seen their product—or potential—conceptualized in this way).

If peaks and ends are priority, what should you start the day with? Consider deliverable review. It’s not loaded with fun—it’s loaded with necessity. Deliverable review is a task that provides a sense check that your team is getting all the information they need and their expectations are aligned.

For a three-day workshop, look to do this at the start of the second or third day. Typically, I would suggest not doing this review on the first day because day one sets the stage for the next few days, and there are already a lot of things to cover. The first day should also set the right tone. Doing it at the end of the day is tiring and risks ending the day with difficult (sometimes drawn-out) conversations (which we want to avoid for reasons above).

Perception of Time

Let’s keep talking about our experience oftime.

Workshops are most effective when you can spend all day in a room together and focus. Unfortunately, your participants are busy people and don’t like to be reminded of how much time they’re spending away from their other obligations.

How do you deal with this? Don’t draw attention to how long things will take — it will just focus people on time. This is the same idea as asking you not to think about a monkey riding a bicycle backwards with his hands in the air. Catch my drift?

I get it. People have timelines, meetings to step out for, and other time-sensitive responsibilities that may imply some coming and going out of the room. I know, this is frowned upon in design workshops (and meetings in general, for that matter), but it will happen anyway—especially during multi-day workshops.

Focus on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, not how long it will take.

What’s important is that at the start of each day and each activity, you focus on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, not how long it will take. It’s more than fine to review the schedule at the start of each day, but drawing attention to time too often can just make for a longer day, waiting for the next activity or break to happen (always, unequivocally, bring snacks).

Still with me? Good. You’re doing great.


People are influenced by their expectations for how events will play out. For example, we can be primed to think that a comedian is funnier than others simply by mentioning their hilarity before experiencing it firsthand.

If you’re explaining to the room what the day’s objectives are and what the exercises look like, the way you describe them will impact how those on the receiving end will feel about them.

Prime your participants for the activities they’ll be doing and that, yes, it can be silly to see grown adults in a room covered in stick figures. Prime your audience by reminding them that they are creative and you’re likely in a much better position to elicit honest, creative ideas that will benefit the overall process. How you frame what will be done each day impacts expectations, perceptions, and ultimately behavior.


Workshops work best when everyone participates, but all too often, participants are too shy or uncomfortable to jump right in. In order to coax participants out of their shells, you need to build their ego. A great way to do this is by calling on their expertise.

Like you, I feel good when someone recognizes that I’m particularly knowledgeable in a given area (especially when this is true). Make participants feel they’re adding value (they are!) by asking them about industry terms and metrics. Do your homework and ask relevant questions. For example, “I was watching a YouTube video about your supply chain logistics. Can you elaborate on how this will affect initial stages?”.

Get participants talking about topics they’re at ease with and they’re more likely to venture out of their comfort zones.

Sunflower Bias

Successful workshops elicit information from all participants. Unfortunately, something called the “sunflower bias” implies that once the sun (i.e. the most powerful person) speaks, the flower follows.

If there is someone in the room who is disproportionately “powerful” to the others (e.g. a CEO), that’s great. Having them there can facilitate eventual buy-in and also gets their perspective on the issues at hand. Make sure these individuals do not dominate the conversation, meaning that they’re not always the first to speak and that others feel intellectual safety and are not reluctant to express their opinions.

One way to get around this pitfall is to have participants spend a lot of time spent writing instead of trying to talk over one another. Instead of opening topics with a forum discussion, start by eliciting as many different opinions as possible through individual writing exercises and ideation.

That being said, this powerful person does have a valuable voice and role to play in the overall discussion. Consider giving this person a defined role of “decider” and using their authority to move the workshop forward when the group is stuck making difficult decisions.

In Short

Successful workshop experiences need to be intentionally designed. Using principles of behavioral science can make a significant difference in both the success of the workshop and how participants feel about it after it’s over.

  1. The peak-end effect: Strategically schedule less enjoyable activities in the middle of the session and more enjoyable ones at the end.
  2. Perception of time: Focus on the task, not the time. Don’t watch the clock too much— if it’s rushed, it will show, and no one wins.
  3. Priming: Prepare participants for the activities and state of mind they’ll need to be in. If you’re compelling, they will play along.
  4. Egocentricity: Make your participants feel valuable and they’ll have the confidence to share their expertise and ideas.
  5. Sunflower bias: Be mindful of power dynamics. It’s important to elicit unfiltered ideas from everyone in the room, then let lions roar.

Still here? You get a cookie. How’s that for a peak-end effect?

Authored By

Sarah Watters, Business Analysis Senior Manager

Sarah Watters

Business Analysis Senior Manager

Meet our Experts

Sarah Watters, Business Analysis Senior Manager

Sarah Watters

Business Analysis Senior Manager

Sarah is a Business Analysis Senior Manager at Levvel, where she combines her expertise in psychology, behavioral science, and economics to help clients understand their customer needs and craft product strategies. She has a PhD in behavioral science from the London School of Economics and is focused on understanding the influences underlying choices we make in our daily lives, including the products we choose and habits we live by.

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