This is a blog for all project managers and project writers who are searching for useful ideas and methods to make their work more effective and innovative. For the last couple of years, we in M-Powered Projects have been using the Design Thinking Method to help our clients identify new solutions, services, and products. We realised that this Method is also an excellent tool for project development, especially educational projects in which the human-centred approach is essential. After realising this, the project development process became easier, because it was structured and logical. In this blog, I share a step-by-step guide to using Design Thinking to improve your project quality.

Design Thinking

I will begin with quick reminder of how the Design Thinking process works. Usually you go through five steps:

  1. Empathy: Analyse the needs of your target group by creating “personas” that represent a typical member of that group. In this phase, it is crucial that you put yourself in the shoes of your target group. Try to understand their decisions and emotions, their struggles and successes.
  2. Define: Choose the need or group of needs you want to address.
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm potential solutions to your personas’ challenges.
  4. Prototype: Using simple materials, create a prototype to present to target group representatives.
  5. Test: Collect feedback from your target group representatives testing the prototype. Analyse the results, make improvements, or decide if it is necessary to go back to an earlier step in the process.
While working on new project like an Erasmus+ project, we encourage you to take the following Design Thinking steps:

Step 1. Study the programme objectives …

and decide on how your project can address them. Determine the concrete objectives you want to achieve.

Step 2. Interview your target group

This is the empathy phase in which you get to know the true needs of your target group. Aim to talk to at least four target group representatives. Try to keep a natural flow to the conversation and ask many open questions. Ask “why” often, and try to understand their motivations, challenges, and desires. Record the interviews.

Step 3. Observe your target group

If you have the opportunity, try to observe your target group in their natural surroundings, e.g. if your target group are teachers, sit in on a lesson or staff meeting. Note down any obstacles that they encounter. The value of this is that often the target group is so accustomed to their obstacles that they don’t even notice them anymore, and so won’t self report. It’s essential not to intervene and to remain inconspicuous to get an authentic insight.

Step 4. Use mind mapping

Collect all information gathered during the interviews and observations using a mind map. This is an excellent tool to group your conclusions and create a map of the needs of your target group. You probably will not be able to address all of them in your project, but it can help you understand the complexity of the challenges faced.

Step 5. Select needs to be addressed

This will be a vital decision in your project. The needs must correspond with programme objectives. However, they should also closely align with your organisation’s strategic plan and/or European Development Plan. This is important because projects that do not contribute towards your overall mission are not of value to your organisation, and evaluators want to see this value demonstrated in your application.

Step 6. Brainstorm

Organise a brainstorming session during which you will come up with as many ideas as you can for activities that could address your target group’s challenges. Of course, you do not have to include all of them in your project. But this creative session can reveal unexpected ideas and bring a fresh approach to your project. Aim for a group of 3 to 8 people for optimal brainstorming.

Step 7. Choose the activities for your project

Once you have a collection of ideas to work with, choose the ones that complement the programme objectives and your own development strategy. You may also ask your target group for their opinions. This serves as the prototype phase. Your prototype can be a poster representing your project, outlining what the participants will experience through it. Listen to and implement feedback.

By designing your project using these 7 steps, you can be sure that your plan will address the real needs of your target group, as well as the programme objectives. We also encourage you to describe in your application how you used Design Thinking to formulate your project. It demonstrates to the evaluator that you took the process seriously, actively involved your target group, and that you use innovative, creative, and professional methodologies in your work.

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