Design Thinking Teams: Fierce Five

Article by: Patti Kwong

One of my very good friends suggested I write about Design Thinking (DT) Teams this week. At first, I thought everyone knows what a team should look like. Then, I thought a little more on the topic after going back and forth with another DT colleague and my fellow management consultants. The two worlds are always at odds, even when building a team. A standard management consultant team is comprised of subject matter experts (SMEs), a program or project manager, and host of people who “support” the project from a PMO perspective. This isn’t necessarily the case for DT teams. With DT teams the more diverse the expertise and experiences in life the better. Below are some suggestions when thinking about building a Design Thinking Team (Blog to follow on personality traits that are successful for building a team):

  1. Sociologist/Anthropologist/Psychologist (Ethnographer)

During the Seek Phase, the team needs to perform multiple interviews with various individuals also known as ethnography. It’s imperative to have a team member who understands how to speak with the interviewees as well as assess body language and non-verbal ques. I’ve worked on several projects that deal with underserved populations (e.g., military sexual assault, military suicide prevention, patient engagement) that deserve special accommodations during interviews. I’ve learned that its best to refer to people who were sexually assault as “survivors” and that they don’t tell “stories”, but discuss “accounts or experience”. The number one code during interviews is due no harm, while assessing what a person’s reality is. Experiences in social sciences are an exceptional asset to design teams.

  1. Subject Matter Experts

When creating a well-rounded team, it’s important to have subject matter experts (SMEs). Subject matter experts provide background context that might not be readily accessible through Google or standard means. These experts provide the rest of the team with information and may even be a go between for the client. Since I mainly work within the government doing design thinking, I’ve worked with my fair share of people who don’t understand what design thinking is, but they want “innovation”. It’s the subject matter expert’s job to help relate the content, into something the client can digest. Subject matter experts can help translate between design teams and clients since they are familiar with the topic. They should also assist with research plans, insights, ideation, etc. It’s especially important for SMEs to come in during requirements to develop solutions. A team may believe they are embarking upon groundbreaking ideas, when in actuality another group may have beaten them to the punch. SMEs especially add value when they are familiar with the client and understand their funding or resource challenges.

  1. Visual Designers

After insights are created, I highly recommend creating a journey map during theUnderstand Phase. I personally haven’t worked on a project where a journey map wasn’t ground breaking and turned into an “ah ha moment” for the client. They not only verbally, but also more importantly, pictorially describe the plight of the end user. Most times, the client cannot understand what the end-user ‘s experience truly is until this moment. It’s beyond critical to have a team member who can translate the end user’s journey of emotions, motivations, and drivers both graphically as well as verbally. Before man could write prose they drew pictures. I am also a firm believer in providing quote throughout the journey map to illustrate a well-rounded story and give the journey map credit. The journey map, constructed by the visual designer from prompts via the team and interviewees, helps to highlights the highs and lows of the end user. Exceptional lows can be improved upon while highs can be documented and explored. Good visual artists are able to tell a story and draw the client in.

  1. Service/Product/ Industrial Designers

From my own experience working on several design thinking projects, I separate out visual designers from service/product/industrial designers. One of the first things I learned while going through my design thinking training was just because a job title says designer, doesn’t mean all designers do the same thing or are created equal. It was also impressed upon me that designers shouldn’t be given “tasks” to “make things look pretty”. Designers, all designers, should be brought in throughout the entire design thinking process, not just thrown in at the end. In this regard, it’s pertinent to have people who are experts in their respective design field come in and out of the project, but always brought along in the process. Service/product/industrial designers help the team think through what the solution entails from the people, to the infrastructure, and eventually feasibility. They create cupcake maps, blueprints, or design technical features and usability prototypes. Its best to have designers who are able to think big picture and when needed, get down into the details.

  1. Creative Director

The creative director oversees the entire project from beginning to end. Let it be known, this person does not “swoop and poop”. Their job is not to come in and shit on a project and then magically disappear into the ether. This person may not be physically be with the team the entire time, however, they are familiar with the content and goings on within the project. A creative director ensures the integrity of everything from insights to prototypes. This person can be called upon for judgment calls or to insert a little silliness when passion overflows into arguments.


I debated adding this as another “position” on the team. Putting this as a stand-alone team member but having empathy is the key ingredient to successful design thinking projects. Ultimately, I truly believe every person on the team should be an empath. Empaths are able to design better solutions for end users, and at the core of every design thinking project is empathy. Feel free to check out my other post regarding perspectives on empathy. I believe empathy is nature vs. nurture. Not everyone is born with the “empathy gene”, and while a person can work towards understanding what a person is feeling, it’s more on the sympathy spectrum. When a person can understand and truly feel what others are experiencing they can begin to build and create better solutions. One of the main problems, from where I stand, is people tend to design for themselves and NOT the end user. If the team has empathy and understanding of the end user, they will ultimately create better solutions.

Article Taken From: