JournalMar 2015

Team retreat: design thinking in Buenos Aires

Our team spends most of its time navigating trough choppy waters. But last February, the Hanno ship docked in Buenos Aires for a week. Here’s how we spent our time onshore and what great things we learnt from our team retreat.

Twice a year, the Hanno crew goes on a team retreat. This was the the third trip of its kind where all of us got together in one place, and the first time for me to join this bi-annual adventure.

This year, we decided to go to South America. The first week we did an internal workshop, and the weekends were dedicated to traveling and leisure activities in Buenos Aires and Iguazu.

Workshop learnings

To bring the most value to this week-long workshop, we invited our collaborator Hiong from Kuala Lumpur to the trip. He is very experienced at conducting Design Thinking workshops and has coached many other teams and companies in the past.

To those not familiar with the topic, Design Thinking is a set of tools and methodologies for solving tough challenges with the power of design. It helps your team gather early insights and valuable feedback from users while developing new product ideas.

At Hanno, we’re building and designing products all the time. So taking our process to the next level was a no-brainer and we were all very eager to do this workshop and become better Design Thinkers.

Day 1: Getting up to speed

Since each person in our team of eight haven’t all had the chance to work with every other shipmate on a real project, this was the perfect opportunity to mix up the team and get to know each other a bit better.

Ninja warm-up exercise on our rooftop terrace

After a few warm-up ninja games, we explored our team communication with the help of Lego bricks. In this challenge, you have a president, a vice-president and a minion. The president who is outside of the room gets a Lego model that has to be replicated 1 by 1. The problem is that he cannot directly talk to the person in charge of building it: the minion. The vice-president serves as the mediator between the two, and he may not give any instructions either, only answer to questions of the Minion with a yes or a no. Here’s what our two groups ended up with:

These two models are supposed to look the same, but apparently, one group screwed it up

The Lego challenge revealed how quickly miscommunication can lead to disaster, and that this often goes unnoticed until the very end, the big reveal. But it also exemplified how precisely a chief’s instructions can be put into practice when communication is accurate and consistent. The two very different results led to an interesting discussion about the importance of communication among the team.

Another important aspect of Design Thinking, beside communication, is to work on problems that are worth solving. After all, innovation only happens when we have a real problem in front of us, so we wanted to avoid inventing the next banana cutter or noodle cooler.

Problems that are not worth solving: A noodle cooler and a banana cutter

In our case, the problem we were going to work on was how we could guide a blind person through our apartment and help them find a particular item (a kettle), and the challenge was to improve this experience so that the person would feel safer and more comfortable.

However, before we got into the nitty-gritty, we had to understand what the problem was.

The Design thinking process

The first stage of the Design Thinking process is understanding the problem we need to solve. For those of you not familiar with the process at all, here are all of the six stages:

The six steps of the Design Thinking process

Our goal was to cover the first three stages on day one, and the remaining ones on day two. After that, we would apply what we’d learned to an actual problem that is part of our daily lives as remote workers.

Understanding the problem and defining an opportunity statement So we went ahead and used a few different methodologies in order to understand the problem we had to deal with.

One of those methodologies is the “5 Whys”, where you write down as many possible answers as you can think of, for a specific question. Then, you pick one of these answers and ask yourself “why?” to this answer too, carrying on until you’ve asked yourself “why?” five times. This method helped us dig deeper and understand the motivations behind our challenge and, as a result, figure out why the navigational issues for blind users were problems worth solving.

We used post-it notes to visualise the 5 whys on a wall

A second tool to understands the problem at hand better, is experiencing it yourself through immersion. In our case, each of us took turns to wear a blindfold and tried to experience the whole journey through the apartment, from opening the apartment door downstairs to finding the kettle in the kitchen on the 3rd floor and making a cup of tea. Most of us found this activity to be a very insightful one, especially when we compared with the set of actions we had outlined already in a journey map. The practical experience of taking the journey (immersion) helped us become aware of a whole new set of details and challenges that we wouldn’t have been conscious of, otherwise.

At the end of this process, each team came up with an opportunity statement. This message describes the challenge we wanted to solve in one conclusive phrase:

Needs to make people feel watched over
because it makes them feel safe
without hiring someone, voice recognition guidance, reducing dignity, removing doors, costing more than £50 (for the user)

Here are the three components that each opportunity statement should contain:

  • a need (action based on an insight)
  • because (why it’s important)
  • without (limitation)

Based on this message, we planned to start ideating and testing ideas on day 2.

Day 2: Putting things into practice

Now that the challenge and opportunity statement had been defined, it was time to come up with some potential ideas and solutions.

Again, we familiarized ourselves with a variety of tools and methodologies to create, organize and evaluate our ideas. What I like a lot about Design Thinking is that each stage consists of a diversion phase, where you have zero limits and come up with crazy ideas, and a conversion phase where you get rational and pick the best ones to carry on with.

How to come up with great ideas

During the ideation phase we used silent brainstorming to simply jot down what came to our mind; an exercise called body storming that employs physical activity to enhance idea generation (our group ended up doing push-ups); and the nature tool, where you take a random thing from nature (the more random, the better) and use its attributes to expand your thinking.

Body storming means move your butt and your mind will follow

In one case we used a giraffe to come up with ideas related to its characteristics such as camouflaged, gets a clear view or slow and careful and started jotting down how these attributes might relate to our product idea. A really great way to unblock your brain and come up with fresh ideas that are off the beaten path.

Making them tangible

What followed was the really fun part: prototyping our ideas and testing them with our teammates. And it was amazing to see how the research that we had done previously and the application of the Design Thinking principles led to very solid, tangible ideas.

Our team decided that we wanted to create a headband, that would tell the user where to go by using “vibration” as an orientation indicator. We prototyped this approach in less than an hour, evolving the idea to become a waistband, which we created in a low-fidelity form by using a belt wrapped around our test subject, with one teammate walking next to the subject, tugging the belt in the right direction to simulate vibrations.

The other group created a wristband which would provide room information based on the location of the user inside of the house. Whenever you enter a new position in the house, it would tell you some details about it via audio.

We found the prototyping process very helpful to gather quick feedback on our ideas. In the end, it took us less than an hour to look for the right materials and create a quickly improvised mockup of our idea. No matter how cheap or low-fidelity they were: the minimal effort that’ we had to put into them was massively amplified: the value of the insights we were able to gather was huge. We’d consider this form of testing to be an indispensable part of the product development process in the future: it will definitely help to save time and money.

Matt is trying to find his way through the apartment with blindfolds on


Personally, I have learned an incredible amount of things about Design Thinking, a topic that I had only heard of before and that (my bad) I thought wasn’t one of my top priorities as a developer. However, I learned that especially if you are an engineer in a team, you should try to be very familiar with these concepts, as it opens up a whole new set of tools to unleash your creative power.

More prototypes during our workshop, although the challenge here is not entirely clear

As a team, we’ve benefitted a lot from the teachings of this workshop, and are already starting to apply the concepts to our projects. Of course, there’s a lot to learn and repeat in order to see some positive long-lasting results. But simply introducing some new methodologies already feels refreshing. I’m pretty sure that not only my teammates, but also our clients are going to notice the positive changes in our new design approach, and that in the future it will make a real difference in the results we’re able to deliver and the way we make work more enjoyable and efficient for all of us.

Also check out the blog post of our shipmate Laïla where she goes into much more about the Design Thinking principles.

Team photo by Emanuel Gómez Miranda

Posted by
Marcel Kalveram

With Hanno since 2014, Marcel is an experienced engineer and a React Native expert.