3 Tips for Co-Designing Solutions For Complex Problems (Virtually)

By Salesforce.org | May 28, 2020 | | Impact Labs, Nonprofit, Pro Bono

Impact Labs Pro Bono Fellows share learnings from virtual collaboration with organizations in the affordable housing and homelessness sector.

By: Alexandra Hanken, Ayesha McAdams-Mahmoud, and Madison Zeller

It was going to be great. Two full days of creative thinking at the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco with 19 Community Fellows, unpacking and co-designing technology solutions that address issues in affordable housing and homelessness. Our role as Pro Bono Fellows was to help facilitate, conduct discovery research, and ideate alongside the Community Fellows. A week before the workshop, we got news that all in-person meetings were cancelled for the foreseeable future. Like you, we found ourselves scrambling to adjust because we still had important work to do together.

A typical in-person co-designing session.

In many ways, this unforeseen pivot tested the very muscles Impact Labs is intended to strengthen — the ability to adapt and incorporate real-world challenges. So, in less than a week, we remade our in-person workshops into virtual experiences. It wasn’t perfect, but we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of ingenuity and creative thinking we squeezed out of shorter virtual co-design sessions. We’re now poised to launch a new solution built on Salesforce thanks to the unwavering dedication of our Community Fellows.

It wasn’t easy to adapt, but we learned a lot along the way. We are excited to share 3 tips for co-designing solutions for big problems facing your sector, and doing it virtually.


Tip 1: Apply Design Thinking Principles

The root causes of entrenched social issues like homelessness intersect many different systems and stakeholders. At Impact Labs, we used design thinking principles to engage multiple stakeholders in co-designing a digital tool to support challenges in the affordable housing and homelessness sector. This approach empowered us to focus on people first, not product. The creativity then came from figuring out how technology could address these problems.

These same principles can help solve challenges facing your organization right now. Here are a few you can put into practice immediately whether in person or virtual:

  • Challenge the status quo: With COVID-19, our world has turned upside down. Seize the opportunity to question the way things are currently done as you adapt your operations to new virtual norms and practices.
  • Walk in their shoes (virtually). Observe how your staff and constituents are responding to the crisis. Look for workarounds they’re using to make their work more productive and lives easier. A lot can be learned by seeing how people solve their own problems. Engaging constituents in the design process not only gives you precious insights but also builds buy-in for the solution you eventually roll out.
  • Prototype and iterate solutions: As you explore alternative ways of delivering your mission, don’t be afraid to try out different approaches. Test to see what works, quickly incorporate lessons learned into the next iteration, and test it again until you get a viable solution. We created paper prototypes virtually using a tool called Miro – the idea here is to get tangible and learn by making.

Miro - Impact Labs

Tip 2: Foster Inclusion to Leverage Cross-Sector Expertise

Challenges in the social sector are complicated “onions” with many, many layers. Partnering with organizations that address problems from different angles (e.g. technology, policy, research) and leaning on each other’s strengths can help you create a more robust solution.

For example, we relied heavily on the wisdom of community leaders and people with lived experiences to shape solution design because they’re the experts on the issues. Too often, tech companies only work with others who’ve had enough privilege to earn a seat at the table. But at Impact Labs, from the open call for challenges to the design sprint, the table has been open to many necessary, diverse voices.

In order to make sure all voices are heard, we’d usually rely on in-person convenings to facilitate spontaneous conversation and spirited debate. Because we moved our workshop online, we developed a few guidelines to foster the kind of interaction and inclusion normally experienced during in-person meetings:

We created these shared values as a group.

  • Create a safe space: Using principles from a restorative justice framework, we asked each participant to share one thing that made them feel heard and how we might replicate it virtually.
  • Acknowledge each other: Many of us look for head nods and body language to affirm what’s said, which isn’t always possible on a video call. Moving virtually, we asked everyone to type “+1” in the chat window anytime they agreed with someone.
  • Encourage discussion: Provide just enough structure to get conversation going. For example, we had facilitators lead small group discussions by setting up virtual breakout sessions each with a unique Google Meet link. It’s a bit of a hack, but it works! We also used Miro to simulate whiteboarding and capture ideas during the breakouts.

Virtual sticky notes.

Tip 3: Embrace the Differences of Virtual Collaboration

Can you imagine actively participating in a video call for 8 hours? Neither can we! That’s why we shortened our kick off workshop from 16 hours of in-person meetings to 4 hours of virtual sessions, and adapted the agenda and content to accommodate the shorter format. We also gave homework in between sessions to maintain creative momentum between the first and second day.

Here we are giving homework to the Community Fellows!

We wholeheartedly embraced the things you can do virtually that you can’t do in-person. Recording video calls and saving group chats are great ways to capture ideas without having to transcribe handwritten sticky notes or whiteboard scribbles. Another perk of virtual meetings is unexpected guests like that little boy who can’t find his dinosaurs anywhere!

Additional Resources

We know firsthand how challenging and costly innovation can be, especially for nonprofits and educational institutions struggling to make ends meet in this crisis. Here are a few no cost resources to support innovation at your organization and beyond!

Interested in participating in a future Impact Lab? Submit a social issue you think we should collaborate on together.


About the Authors

Alex Hanken

Alex Hanken spends her day job in Salesforce’s Office of Innovation partnering with strategic customers on digital transformation engagements. With a background in nonprofit fundraising and impact consulting, Alex joined the Impact Labs team as a project manager, which meant she was lucky enough to sit in on the entirety of the innovation process and get to see the magic unfold!

Ayesha McAdams-Mahmoud

Ayesha McAdams-Mahmoud is a Lead User Researcher at Salesforce. She has a background in journalism, community-based participatory research, and a doctorate in behavioral science. She is passionate about the health impacts of community stories and the social determinants of health and equity.

Madison Zeller

Madison Zeller is a designer within Salesforce’s Office of Innovation, a customer-facing team that leverages human-centered design to help C-Suite executives envision the future of their industry and strategically transform their business. As an analytical, left-brained thinker, she embraces the complex constraints of the social sector as a catalyst for creativity and meaningful change.