Deploying design thinking techniques to develop solutions for any given problem

Author's name: 
Asad Baig, Media Matters for Democracy
Islamabad, Pakistan

Muavin is a concept developed by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD); a digital tool to help push back on cyberbullying, harassment and online violence, especially targeted at vulnerable groups. Currently under development in partnership with Code for Pakistan and with support from APC, Muavin would help users develop online communities which they can call upon for help, support and counter-speech; in essence, to generate a counter-narrative against hate and abuse online. Muavin seeks to empower its users to develop their own support mechanisms and aims to truly crowdsource the process of generating counter-speech.

While the idea for Muavin was conceived at a session hosted by MMfD at RightsCon 2106 (entitled “Hardly a Laughing Matter: Could Sexist Humour Amount to Dangerous Speech?”), the original design has been largely supplemented and modified in the light of design feedback collected at specialised “design thinking” workshops. The workshops hosted a diverse group of participants and facilitated them to come up with their own solutions to counter cyberbullying and online harassment. Learning from each of the individual solutions was used to further add to the design of the app.

MMfD hosted a similar workshop at the 2016 Internet Governance Forum, and since the group was much more diversified (including participants from Facebook, Global Voices and various civil society organisations), the solutions presented had a global perspective – learning from which will substantiate Muavin’s design.

The session was recorded, web-casted, and can be seen here.

A number of participants at the IGF workshop appreciated the design thinking model and expressed interest in replicating it in their own initiatives, which encouraged me to write this blog post. In it, I will discuss the various components of the design thinking process, and share a 90-minute “model” design thinking workshop to be replicated by activists and APC members in their own thematic areas.

A design thinking exercise seeks to find a solution for any presented problem and allows participants to develop their own customised solutions. A typical design thinking process comprises the following major components, each with a very specific purpose.

1. Empathise: Allow the participants (preferably from varied stakeholder groups such as lawyers/journalists, or activists/techies, etc) to empathise, understand each other’s perspectives in relation to the problem at hand and related challenges, and ideally reach common grounds in terms of a potential way forward (note here that “way forward” isn’t necessarily a “solution”, more like a mutual agreement on working towards it).

For instance, working towards a potential solution for cyberbullying and harassment, we would like people from LGBTQ communities, activists, representatives of corporations/service providers and government regulators in one group. Common ground would be acknowledging the problem and emphasis on the resolution to find a potential solution.

2. Define: This section entails stating the problem in full, ideally by experts who can talk about multiple dimensions, citing references from published research. This section is perhaps the most important one, as it sets the stage for further activities. However, the most important thing here is to deconstruct the larger problem into a set of approachable issues through the creation of a very specific problem statement.

3. Ideate: Brainstorm and draw potential solutions. The section allows participants to come up with their potential solutions to the problem stated in the second section. By the end of this section, each member of a group of participants should have a very concise action in mind (as a solution).

4. Prototype: This is where the actual development takes place. In the case of a digital solution, this would be the section where the techies of the group sit down to develop whatever was conceived (an app, a web portal, a plug-in, etc.). In the case of a non-digital solution, this is where the physical development takes place. Please bear in mind that this section only seeks to develop a prototype and not the actual product.

5. Test: This is where we test the prototype and assess impact.

As you can guess, the last two sections (prototype development and testing) usually take much longer than the others, so we tend to skip them in our 90-minute model and instead treat them as a completely different exercise.

Our model 90-minute design thinking workshop is organised as follows:

This 90-minute activity is designed specifically for events where there is limited time for workshops, often not more than 60 or 90 minutes. For this model to work, it’s absolutely necessary for a co-facilitator to keep track of the time. Ideally, a projected timer-clock works best. Stationary-wise, we only require coloured writing pads, sticky notes and markers. It’s a good idea to make a presentation for the introduction part, clearly explaining the agenda, the questions you want participants to ask each other during interviews, and most importantly, explaining, with examples, the point of view statements.

Let’s break down each of the components described above:

1. Introduction to the design thinking process (5 minutes)

The facilitator ideally starts with a presentation describing the design thinking process, the components of the activity and the agenda to set the tone. It’s important to mention here that the 90-minute workshop does not entail the development and testing of the prototype. It’s extremely important to explain the idea behind interviews and point of view statements (described in sections 5 and 6). It also helps at this point to set the ground rules and ask participants to be focused on finding a solution and work within the give time limits.

(For a sample presentation, please write to

2. Ice-breaking activities (10 minutes)

Most of the design thinking workshops are conducted with a diverse set of participants representing a varied set of stakeholders, and so most of the participants are often hesitant opening up and sharing experiences. While time is generally very limited in the 90-minute model, an ice-breaking activity is usually worth it. However, given the time constraints, it can be easily dropped without a substantial impact on the rest of the activity.

A sample ice-breaking activity: Participants are asked to draw something in relation to the problem at hand, and are asked to explain the drawing to the person sitting beside them. For instance, in a workshop to find potential solutions for “targeting of journalists”, participants could be asked to draw something that represents free media, and explain it to the person sitting beside them.

3. Breakout into groups (5 minutes)

Creating balanced groups is extremely important in a design thinking workshop. Ideally, the facilitator should identify the stakeholders present and should take this into consideration before breaking out in groups. A perfect group should have an equal representation of all stakeholder groups and shouldn’t have more than five participants.

4. Stating the problem (10 minutes)

In this segment, the facilitators simply set the tone by contextualising the issue under discussion. The best thing about the design thinking approach is that it is applicable to both large-scale and small-scale problems. For example, the problem in question can be the restrictions on dissenting political speech, or it could be an APC member’s difficulty in keeping track of all the messages coming in during online meetings.

5. Interviews (15 minutes)

This segment allows participants to interview each other individually or discuss and collectively answer the questions as a group (if the questions are pre-made by the facilitator). It is highly recommended to prepare the questions beforehand to facilitate a focused discussion. Ideally, the questions should explore the user’s perspective of the problem at hand, its impact on the user’s personal/professional life, current strategies they are employing to counter it (if any) and their idea of a solution.

Here’s a list of sample questions for “solutions for online harassment and cyberbullying”:

  • What role does the internet play in your personal or professional life?
  • What kind of abuse do you and your allies face?
  • How does hate speech and abuse affect your usage of digital spaces?
  • How do you currently respond to such speech?
  • What would make you feel safer and more empowered to use digital spaces?

For the interviews to be effective, it’s also important to ensure that different stakeholders are participating equally in the session. So, interviews between APC members and staff, or interviews between internet users and representatives of corporations and governments, can help them understand each other’s perspectives better. However, if different stakeholders are not present, one can simply hold a larger group discussion to bring out the nuances in the way the same issue is experienced and understood by different participants.

6. Point of view statements (15 mins)

Point of view (POV) statements are actionable problem statements that pinpoint the needs and challenges of a particular stakeholder group. Once successfully prepared, they can be used as a starting point towards a solution. Ideally, the facilitator should prepare a standard format beforehand to be used throughout the design thinking workshop. Here’s a sample:

To make optimal use of cyberspace and counter online abuse, _______________________ (description of user, for instance, “feminist activists” or “female journalists”) need a way to _________________________ (define user’s need, for instance, “effectively report”) importantly/surprisingly/but/because in her/his context ____________________ (add any insights, for example, “use of unstandardised language makes reporting ineffective”).

It could be potentially filled up as:

To make optimal use of cyberspace and counter online abuse, female journalists in Pakistan need a way to connect with feminist allies because in their context openly talking about feminist ideals usually leaves them open for further abuse and without public allies.

An ideal POV statement should identify the stakeholder group, their needs (in relation to the problem at hand) and the challenge. Once drafted, we can move on towards brainstorming for a solution in the group. Ideally one group should NOT have more than one POV statement. POV statements should be clearly written down on the coloured writing pads provided.

7. Brainstorming (15 minutes)

Once the POV statement is ready and the problem has been deconstructed, encourage the participants to think about possible solutions. Tell them to think out of the box, come up with both conventional and unconventional ideas, build on each other’s ideas and not worry about practicality. For the first 10 minutes, the groups should try to generate as many ideas as possible. Ring a buzzer as the last 5 minutes start and ask them to go through the original brainstorming results to group and filter them into more actionable ones.

Ideally, the group should use the coloured pads to either write down their ideas/solutions, or illustrate them as much as possible.

8. Presentations (15 minutes)

Each group presents the solution they have agreed upon. If you are making good time and there aren’t too many groups, you can give three minutes to present and two minutes for questions and answers.

This 90-minute exercise usually produces potential solutions for the problem at hand (at least one per group). It’s important to discuss each one of them during the presentations. Once documented, it’s completely up to the facilitators to take up a particular solution or do a public voting (if time allows). Documenting the ideas and potential solutions is extremely important.

Design thinking exercises can prove to be extremely useful if conducted properly. We encourage all of our colleagues and fellow APC members to try it in their own thematic areas and share their experiences.

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