How to Use Design Thinking to Get Your Event Out of a Rut

By Keith Chamberlain, January 2, 2018

Discover what design thinking is and what it can do for your bottom line. Whether you’re planning an event for 100 or 3,000 attendees, the execution and details are essentially the same. It’s no surprise organizations often find themselves on the proverbial meetings hamster wheel, with planning set on autopilot to plod through a never-ending list of to-do items. To avoid so-so evaluations and declining attendance, planners should apply the design thinking process to purposefully develop and deliver new program experiences.

What is design thinking?

DT is a creative process that starts with the end in mind. It defines a desired result or future solution through the building up of ideas. The following briefly describes how one trade association applied the five steps of DT–as defined by Stanford University’s–to its creative meeting planning, as a means of improving attendee experiences, as well the conference’s bottom line.

Stage 1: Empathize

The first stage requires a deep immersion into the customers’ experience. By observing and engaging with its members in their own environments, the association’s staff began to understand the physical manifestations of actual member experiences.

Stage 2: Define

After synthesizing the empathy findings, your goal is to then develop a deep understanding of the users’ point of view—a guiding statement that frames the problem, focuses on the user and inspires the team. By repeatedly asking, “How might we do X?” during this stage, the association protected itself from crafting a solution that would be all things to all people.

Stage 3: Ideate

In this phase, the more ideas the better. Don’t limit input, including concepts that seem outlandish or unimaginable. Cross-department collaborating is essential.

Stage 4: Prototype

Prototypes—such as a role-playing activity, a wall of Post-it notes or a storyboard—move ideas from the conceptual world to the physical one. The most meaningful prototypes allow people to interact with them, lessening both ambiguity and miscommunication. This step allowed

Stage 5: Test

Learning-by-doing begins during the test phase. Pilot testing and sharing prototypes with communities informs future prototype versions and often yields unexpected insights. If you need to start all over, at least you’ve saved yourself from investing too many resources before going all in.


The member experience and satisfaction with the organization’s regional meetings improved measurably. One regional meeting, considered redundant, was eliminated. The association’s staff also gained a true understanding of the member point of view, and the new format saved countless work hours.

Keith R ChamberlainKeith Chamberlain is director of membership and experience for the Healthcare Financial Management Association. During his 20-plus years of building up high-performing marketing and business development teams at a variety of nonprofit and for-profit companies, Chamberlain has found the best successes come from aggregating teams and resources while simultaneously building collaborative relationships. Chamberlain is also president of KEROSENE Marketing, a consultancy providing strategic marketing services to organizations

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  • Great info Keith, I think the final stage “test” is most important of all of them. Because the total effectiveness depends on this stage. What do you think?

  • Thanks for the sharing my article from this past summer’s event! Update: I took a new position this past October, and am now the director of membership and experience for the Healthcare Financial Management Association. Cheers for using design thinking in all that you do for creating awesome events and experiences!

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