Design Sessions: A Recipe for Co-Creating Innovative Solutions

Posts, Building Your Product Career, Cross-Collaboration

By: Arianna Rehak, Chief Executive Officer at Matchbox Virtual Media

As the CEO of a product company that has built a tool for users to host meaningful and intentional virtual meetings and experiences, the very premise for launching the company is the strong belief in the power of co-creation. Suppose you can bring the right group of people together and facilitate the right conversation. In that case, the group will come to extremely robust solutions – much stronger than if any individual had to tackle the problem independently. 

With this in mind, we incubated a concept internally that we call design sessions, which is a method for collaborative ideation that is a really effective way to capture the insights of the group of people you’re bringing together (more on the story of how we invented this meeting type here!) As a remote team, design sessions were originally invented as a way to gather perspectives on company-wide challenges, and the use cases have continuously expanded.

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of design sessions and how they can help you tackle complex issues effectively. You may consider using them to workshop feature ideas, look for ways to support users in new and meaningful ways, or even explore internal policies and how you might best work together collaboratively. Really – design sessions can apply to so many different things. We’ve even taken this facilitation approach to ideate with our user group community!

If these are facilitated correctly, your team will generate a ton of valuable ideas and insight, along with the enthusiasm to drive some of these ideas forward!

Before getting started:

Start with writing a “How might we . . . ?” question that addresses the real challenge faced by your community or organization. This question serves as the foundation for the design session. Once you’ve written your challenge question, you will now want to write several sub-questions that ladder up to it (I recommend about 6-8!) 

Here’s a template we’ve made that you can feel free to use! 

Notice that for every question, there is a table where the group can rapidly ideate on answers to each individual question. There are three columns: Name (you want to know who is sharing which ideas), Idea, ‘Yes, and’. ‘Yes, and’ is often where the magic happens. This is where folks in the group build off each other’s initial ideas. This really encourages a positive approach to problem-solving rather than potentially knocking down ideas.

Pro tip: in advance, write at least one or two example answers for each question so the group has an idea of what you’re looking for. That helps to get the creative juices flowing. It also helps you gut-check if your questions are accessible to answer.

The Facilitated Meeting:

Design sessions are generally a four-part meeting, but you can adapt it to your needs. Here’s a visual of a sample design session we recently held to help you contextualize the rest of the instructions.

Part 1: Introduction and context setting

This is where you get the group thinking deeply about the problem behind your “how might we…” statement. You may consider sharing resources in advance of the meeting to level set. At the beginning of the session, I encourage you to set the context through an empathy-driven approach, such as outlining a specific scenario they are coming together to solve. You will also want to share how they should navigate through the document you have created and let them know how the rest of the meeting will be broken down.

Pro tip: depending on how familiar the group is with each other, you may consider a “check-in question” during this first intro phase to get everyone sharing at least once. It can be a question to break the ice or something to put people in the right headspace to problem solve. An example check-in question is, “How do you want your users to feel when they are using X’s new feature?”

Part 2: Collaborative ideation in the document that you have prepared in advance

This is a silent ideation period where participants add their ideas on the topic to the shared document. Encourage a ‘choose your own adventure’ approach to the doc. Some will answer the questions linearly, some will bounce around to the ones that resonate, some will hang out entirely in that ‘yes and’ column, looking to add value to ideas shared by others, and some may need the time instead to process the information as it’s coming and prefer to simply read the answers as they come in.

Pro tip: it can get a little awkward to have folks in a virtual meeting where everyone is silent in a doc. We recommend playing (instrumental) soothing music in the background that fits the vibe. We like some soft jazz.

Part 3: Break out rooms

Depending on the size of the group, this step might not make sense, but with larger groups, we find it really effective. This is where you encourage the breakout groups to go deeper into the topics they are considering. In our experience, groups of 3-4 are ideal. You can either create a mechanism for people to sign up for the rooms they want to be in or assign them. When I’m facilitating these with my team, I am very intentional with the room assignments, as I want to encourage a cross-pollination of ideas.

There are so many ways to focus your participants. Maybe ideas that emerge in Part 2 are turned into break-out room topics. Maybe you develop a case study for the group to consider. Maybe you draft up a new set of questions. There are all sorts of ways to leverage the break-out groups.

Pro tip: Build a framework for them to take notes as they work together so that you have their responses captured in the doc.

Part 4: Optional sharing back to the group

If there is time in your meeting, it can be really powerful to bring the group together at the end and have each team share what they came up with in their break-out rooms. We recommend putting a timer on each response, such as 1-2 minutes. Constraint breeds creativity!

Pro tip: in your note-taking framework that you have developed for the break-out rooms, consider adding a line where each group can determine the speaker who is going to share back to the rest of the group. That will make for a much more intentional presentation at the end if this person is keeping in mind that they are meant to share the collective thoughts at the end.

After the meeting:

This is where the rubber hits the road! First, with some touch-ups, what you’ve co-created together is essentially a takeaway document that anyone can refer back to easily. Remember, you were essentially taking notes along the way! We recommend encouraging people to refer back to this document. 

We also highly recommend that the host (or someone assigned to the task specifically) take the time to process the takeaways and determine what to do next. What was actionable out of this? What will be done differently? 

We hold these sessions on our platform, which allows us to create a purposefully designed (and branded) hub for resources, interactive tools, and the chat to be shared before, during, and after the live design session. Hosting your session somewhere people can return to access the document and resources afterward means that all this valuable information isn’t lost when the Zoom window closes!

We encourage you to follow up with the group who participated to share exactly what will happen next. This can be incredibly rewarding for the participants – recognizing that their time was well spent and they contributed to meaningful solutions that are being incorporated.

Of course – don’t feel pressure to use all ideas that emerge. That would be untenable! The point of rapid ideation is to share exactly what comes to mind but not be married to any outcome.

I am reachable through LinkedIn and always eager to say hello!


Arianna Rehak headshot

Arianna Rehak

Arianna Rehak is the Co-Founder and CEO at Matchbox Virtual Media.

The career moment she’s most proud of is running her first virtual conference ever after months and months of dreaming, building, and executing.

Fun fact: When she was three years old, she wanted to grow up to be a bumblebee.