Design Thinking Workshop for HealthTech Sydney

One hundred people, six teams and two hours. In early August 2015 we ran our largest design thinking workshop ever.


Client: HealthTech Sydney

Location: National Innovation Centre, Sydney


A taste of design thinking

In June 2015, Christopher from Cognitive Ink was invited to speak about design thinking at a presentation and panel event on the impact of wearable devices in healthcare, co-hosted by hosted by HISA NSW and HealthTech Sydney.

HealthTech Sydney is a professional working group founded by Gaurav Sood, Allan Manuel, John Ng and Santhosh Thiyagarajan in 2013. Based in Sydney, it organises panel discussions, workshops and events for the Health Technology community in Sydney, to identify healthcare opportunities and drive health tech innovations into the market. Its mission is to unite medicine, biotechnology and healthcare with technology, entepreneurship and business to grow and support innovation in health.


A design thinking workshop in healthcare

As an outcome of the excitement generated from the previous event on design thinking and wearable devices, HealthTech Sydney organised a public design thinking workshop to be designed and run by Cognitive Ink. The aim was to introduce the concept of design thinking and pair it with a  collaborative and hands-on first experience.


What is design thinking?

Though pitched as an innovative and new methodology, design thinking is actually a modern revitalisation of many older ideas drawn from design methodology, ergonomics, human factors and the scientific method.

From design methodology, design thinking has drawn the concepts of divergent and convergent thinking as well as well as the importance of ideation.

From ergonomics and human factors, a sensitive appreciation and empathy for the persons strengths, weaknesses, needs and emotions as a driving force for design requirements.

Most importantly, from scientific method, design thinking draws from a type of logic known as abduction. Formalised by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, abductive reasoning is less popular then Deductive Logic (which reasons from a sequence of statements to conclusion) or Inductive Logic (which reasons from a sequence of observed examples to a general rule). However, abduction has become popular again due to its capacity to formalise the process of pattern synthesis and theory formation. At its core, abduction (abductive logic) reasons from observed patterns to a theory that explains the patterns. As noted by Peirce,

"Abduction consists in studying the facts and devising a theory to explain them” (Peirce, Vol. 5, p.145, 1931)

In this way, abduction it is the only true creative or generative style of logic.

"Abduction is the process of forming explanatory hypothesis...It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea” (Peirce, Vol. 5, p.172, 1931)... “All the ideas of science come to it by way of abduction...” (Peirce, Vol. 5, p.145, 1931).

Design thinking makes heavy use of this type of data intensive, pattern seeking synthesis. Where hundreds if not thousands of points of interest are synthesised into a theory of behaviour, not just to explain, but to serve as a launch pad for a designed solution.

Abduction has been consistently identified as the core logic of synthesis by influential thinkers like the Nobel Prize winning Herbert Simon a social scientist/economist and Jon Kolko, a well known designer and thought leader.

With these separate influences combined, design thinking by these various lenses could be considered a systematic and creative process that begins with creating an explanatory theory about a problem space and then ideating and designing solutions with empathy and engagement for those that will use or be affected by the outcomes.

When carried out effectively, design thinking has the power to transform static thinking, identify new ideas and create energy between stakeholders.



Cognitive Ink's aim was to expose the workshop participants with the most engaging design-thinking activities possible, while catering for the constraints of a small amount of time and large number of people. 

The team at Cognitive Ink brainstormed with the team at HealthTech Sydney to understand the makeup of workshop participants and the duration of the event. Given time and capacity limitations, rather then carry out a full design thinking arc, the team decided to focus on a truncated synthesis, empathy and solution ideation exercise. Essentially, the team needed to find a way to create a ‘design thinking essentials’ experience.

As the concept of design thinking would be brand new to many of the participants, it was important to ensure that they were not rushed or overloaded by activity.

To accommodate for the number of participants, we made the decision to make smaller, more manageable groups (each guided by a coach), to allow everyone to be able to collaborate and contribute.

Rather than carry out a full design thinking cycle, the team decided to create significant seed materials, including a basic persona, and a textually documented user journey. Each team would be presented with a high level view of the entire user journey and would be restricted to one aspect of the overall journey. Ideas from each team could then be presented back to the entire audience at the end of the session.


Preparation materials

To provide participants with a basis for their design thinking activities, Cognitive Ink created a basic persona, "Olivia", and a full end-to-end user journey through the Australian hospital system based on previous real-world ethnographic research and cultural probes. The journey included information about the physical spaces, contexts, service activities as well as a deep dive of Olivia's and physical and emotional states including her needs, and fears. This ensured participants considered problems and solutions beyond specific digital considerations.

Initially, we considered each team working on the entire journey. However, to make the presentations more unique, we decided to split the journey into six stages (e.g., triage, follow-up care, etc), which would be tackled by each of the six participant teams. This way, teams would get to take emotional ownership of each stage and it would also reduce the risk of teams present similar solutions to each other repetitively. 

Dedicated hand-out packs were provided to both coaches and participants, which containing the detailed persona, background and and journey information were then prepared for the participants and their coaches. Teams were also provided with pens, pencils and Post It notes for the hands-on activities.


In action: Design thinking with one hundred participants

The event was held at the Australian Technology Park National Innovation Centre in Sydney. Limited to the space of the venue, the Design Thinking Workshop was a sold-out event, with more than 100 people having purchased tickets.

One of our biggest challenges was determining how to manage the flow of materials, tasks and ideas within such a large group. Splitting the attendees into six groups still resulted in teams of up to 15 people each. 

We were lucky to receive gracious support from a UX class from General Assembly and a medical student from Sydney University to provide team-specific coaching support. They provided an invaluable link between the principal consultants from Cognitive Ink who were moving between the teams and helping the teams carry out the design thinking process. 


Our fantastic team of volunteer coaches (above): Louise Isackson, Van Nguyen, Verica Nikolic, Philip Georgiou, Kate Baker, Havish Vemuri, Sara Javan (UX students from General Assembly), Ron Lui (their tutor) and Shelley Hubley (medical student at the Uni of Sydney).


In action: Warming up with empathy

Workshop participants warmed up with an empathy building review of the Persona and User Journey.

The purpose of the empathy building review was for participants to view the journey from Olivia's perspective, to introduce the concept of considering the healthcare domain not from the perspective of technical systems or political problems, but from the emotional and physical experience of the patient (Olivia).

This initial step also provided an opportunity for participants to bond as a group and kick-start discussion about the problems at hand.


In action: "Flip It"

After understanding and empathasing with Olivia's user journey, we then asked participants to brainstorm solutions to Olivia's negative experiences. To open up the best "anything is possible" ideas, we encouraged participants to base their solutions in the context of 2025, freed from the constraints of current day.

Participants were asked to 'Flip' each negative experience into a positive and to write each of their ideas on a on Post It note before sharing with the group, to ensure that everyone's unique ideas could be heard.

Participants were also provided with additional brainstorming prompts from NESTA, the UK based innovation project.


Participants then each presented their ideas to the group and added their Post It notes to the team board, dividing the ideas out into those which could be implemented by changes to technology, process or the behaviour of healthcare professionals.


In action: Grouping and evaluating solutions

As a group, participants then evaluated the solutions to find common themes or meta-solutions. Common themes and meta solutions were evaluated for their overall benefit to Olivia's mental and physical health outcomes as a primary goal and then operational efficiency or performance gains as a secondary goal. 


In action: Creating a Cover Story

After grouping and evaluating solutions, the team choose the best solution which they prototyped via a 'Cover Story' task, where workshop participants would describe the characteristics of their solution via an imagined ‘Cover Story’ for a popular magazine, which would encourage them to highlight key imagery, value propositions, statistics and other solution detail. 


In action: Presenting back to the group

Participants from each team then presented their Cover Story posters and ideas back to the wider group.


Although there was not enough time to carry out a deep analysis on interconnecting the solutions for the homogenous end-to-end journey, several trends come to life when reviewing the solutions after the workshop. 

Most significantly, there was a heavy presence of autonomous and adaptive, non flat-screen technologies, including:

  • Robots
  • Drones (really just 'robots in the air')
  • Artificial Intelligence (or at least expert systems)
  • Embedded devices, Wearables and Internet of Things

Perhaps the "Zeitgeist" of the moment suggests a surge in interest for these technologies? Or, perhaps there is a deeper desire to explore technologies that create new interactions beyond eye-to-screen?

Healthcare is fundamentally about our state of being, whether we are well, ill or end-of-life. Eye-to-screen technologies often get 'in between' our relationship with those that care for us as well those who care about us. In effect, they can reduce the quality of our human-to-human relationships. 

Do adaptive and autonomous technologies like robots increase or reduce the quality of human to human contact? They are undoubtedly instantiated in physical space, but at the same time, in their current design, they are still very artificial. Does that mean we cannot have a human connection to a non-human device?

Perhaps we should ask the many Aibo owners who desperately seek parks and technicians to keep their artificially created pets running and experience significant emotions as their robotic friends degrade and cease to function.

Perhaps even the simulacrum of something that is warm and caring is better then nothing at all.

These questions take us beyond the mere application of cutting-edge technologies to the deeper design thinking questions about the suitability and design of better healthcare experiences. 



Ideally, it would have been good to have more time for workshop participants to carry out activities that helped them engage more deeply with the person and the problem space before ideation.

Having delivered numerous design thinking sessions before, the scale of the event still presented a unique and significant challenge. This was accentuated by the emotive and rich complexity associated with the healthcare domain.

Though we conducted extensive planning, structure, trail-runs there were still surprises that gave us great insight for future events at this scale. (Did we say how important planning and structure were?) 

We had a desire to create both an overarching theme and relationship between groups as much as within groups. How might we do things differently? Group size is a significant force on the social dynamics and practicalities of design thinking. In hindsight, we will make sure we continue to sub-divide the overall journey until each group has a segment of the journey and the group sizes sit at 6 - 8 people. 

Though we only focused on three core activities, we may continue to simplify how many activities we attempt when dealing with such large groups. Do less activities, but do them better, for longer. 

Overall though, we learned that there is a unique and special excitement associated with teaching, motivating and leading a design thinking exercise with 100+ individuals. Where, for a moment, individuals become a group, unified with a single purpose and delivering against a visionary future. 


Can we help you with design thinking or innovation workshops for your team?

Drop us a line. We'd love to hear from you!