Taking Risks, Earning Trust and Including Co-Workers: User-Centred Design at Deutsche Bahn Operations

Flavia Bleuel & Karen von Schmieden

Start with a small thing, and it will grow bigger: Andreas Bürgler, Head of Deutsche Bahn Station&Service AG (Operations), talks about introducing user-centred design methods in his department – with a 200-participant design thinking sprint and a re-designed service counter as a lighthouse project.

In 2016, Andreas Bürgler heard the term “design thinking” being tossed around left and right. “There was a lot of discussion about design thinking, everybody used it as a buzzword, and I felt that few people really knew what it actually meant. I saw some charts, but that was too little for me. I wanted to really learn it myself.” During a three-day Open Course in design thinking at the HPI Academy with Katrin Lütkemöller-Shaw, he realised that this way of user-centred working inspired his “mind and heart”: “This was my thing: to work on topics that are interesting for the users and help them. To build a prototype quickly, and to learn what fits and doesn’t fit immediately.” At the same time, interviewing real users came as an unusual experience: “Having this direct, immediate contact with the user was a challenge”, Bürgler says, and adds with a smile: “You are suddenly talking to the customer – alert!”

Some service counters did not seem very approachable.
During field research, the team realised that queues often built up at the service counters because customers asked the same simple questions again and again.
Users may also choose to look for information themselves at touchscreen counters.
Die Fallstudie der Lernreise der Deutschen Bahn Operations_HPI Academy
The new DB Information 4.0 - including large information screens and wheelchair access.

The Need to Innovate

Topics of disruptive innovation have already become central under former DB CEO Rüdiger Grube. Bürgler sees the necessity to change DB Operations: “We have to digitalise, like everyone else”, Bürgler says and continues: “We don’t work user-centred enough.” As an infrastructure provider for train stations, Deutsche Bahn has a monopoly position in Germany. This can make it difficult to underline the importance of focusing on users. “I see a lot of potential to improve – both in quality and cost efficiency.”

Humans will always play a big role in Deutsche Bahn’s travel chain, though: “We are the first smile of Deutsche Bahn. With 70 percent of tickets being bought online, the service employee at the train station is most probably the first human contact for the customer.” Here, they can make a good first impression and help customers. “That is irreplaceable.”

The Design Thinking Sprint

After his introductory course, it was a clear-cut case for Bürgler: He was buzzing about design thinking. ”The key question was: How can I manage to transfer this fire to my employees? I had to reach the hearts and minds of my staff.“ He tried to explain design thinking to colleagues, on a Saturday, in four hours, showing some charts – “and that did not work out. You’ll get an overview of the method, but you won’t ‘inhale’ it.” Nonetheless, his management was ready and open to explore new ways of working. To acquaint them with the method and the mindset, Bürgler invited the team to a two-day design thinking workshop at the HPI Academy. The next step: introducing 200 employees of DB Operations to design thinking at a general meeting. Every year, the general meeting sported a similar agenda: “The board talks – Bürgler talks – panel discussion – standard workshops”, Bürgler says jokingly. “We wanted to change that.” The motto of the sprint: “Lasst uns etwas Neues probieren – let’s try something new.” HPI Academy Project Manager Flavia Bleuel took on the mission. This meant two experiments at once, according to Bleuel. Experiment number one: “We brought 200 people into contact with design thinking – with the help of seven HPI Academy Lead Coaches and enlisted DB assistant coaches, who we trained one day before the event. Experiment number two: to dive into six different challenges with 33 teams and 30 coaches.”

To prepare the event, the project manager had to consider teams, coaches, space and challenges.


The difficult part of going through a design thinking project starts with phrasing the challenge, or problem. “We held a phone conference with the divisional directors to find the challenges which could best be addressed by design thinking. For the executives, it was interesting to figure out how to phrase these challenges in an open and un-biased way. For example: The question ‘How can we create new KPIs for the area XYZ?’ is not appropriate for a DT sprint. It limits the solution space, is not user-focused, and leaves no space for questioning whether the resulting KPI is the right solution. There is no problem in there”, Bleuel explains.

The organisers phrased six challenges in total, three of which focused on troublesome experiences of travellers. In order to show the participants that design thinking can likewise be helpful to finding solutions for their internal challenges, we also focused on ”internal users“, DB operations co-workers in all areas. All 200 participants were divided into the six topical areas in teams of five or six.


Der Tagungsort für die Deutsche Bahn_Design-Thinking mit der HPI Academy
Preparation of the venue
Briefing der Coaches_Lernreise der Deutsche Bahn_Design Thinking
Briefing of the Coaches (Photo Jörg Reckhenrich)
Lernreise der Deutsche Bahn_Design Thinking mit der HPI Academy
Timing is essential for a successful Design Thinking Sprint (Photo Jörg Reckhenrich)
Deutsche Bahn_Prototyping im Design Thinking Prozess_HPI Academy
Rapid prototyping of ideas (photo Jörg Reckhenrich)


Participants came from office locations all over Germany and didn’t necessarily know one another. Therefore, the project managers shaped teams with a few factors in mind. While paying attention to a diverse composition, they also considered how teams might be structured to work fruitfully together after the sprint. They put some “buddies” into teams – participants who knew each other, or who worked on similar topics. Thereby, they tried to ensure that team members felt comfortable in the groups and that projects could be continued after the sprint.


To equip every team with a supportive design thinking facilitator, 30 coaches were needed. Bleuel decided to bring just seven HPI Academy Coaches into the team and to appoint DB assistant coaches for the job to keep the expenses manageable. These were DB operations management employees who had already participated in a design thinking training session. To prepare them for their coaching session, the HPI Academy Coaching Team conducted a “challenge and facilitation fast forward” on the first day of the workshop. “In addition to the training, we provided them with a facilitation clipboard”, Bleuel explains. The clipboard contained facilitation notes, background information on methods, explanations for using templates and advice on visualising content on the whiteboards – a helpful guide through their first design thinking coaching experience.

Space and Material

Fixing the material and space requirements beforehand with the conference hotel raised some eyebrows and left some question marks. Bleuel did a detailed plan concerning space and material. “We loaded all the material on euro pallets and gave lists to each team! Unpacking the material seemed “a bit like Christmas” – with some bargaining included. “Do you really need so many pens? You can have the stapler if I get one of your pairs of scissors.”

The conference hotel spaces were transformed into seven flexible design thinking working spaces, with nine teams working in parallel in the largest. In the evening, one workspace had to be retransformed into a space for a gala dinner with a dancefloor: the coaching team and the hotel staff moved away the team spaces of 18 teams in the evening and reassembled them in the morning – a proper agile workspace in a traditional conference hotel. 


Timeboxing is a challenge in any workshop, but to accompany 200 participants through their projects in the set time frame poses an additional challenge. Astonishingly, the teams finished exactly on time – and in full size: “Usually, these major firm events lose a few participants during the day, who try to avoid some of the talks. But I had the feeling that we started with 200 people and ran through the finishing line with 199. The participants were disciplined, motivated and full of energy”, Bleuel says. 

Andreas Bürgler was “very proud of ourselves and the organisation team. In the beginning, some co-workers were very critical of the idea, but in the end we can say that about 80% of the participants were enthusiastic.” He was impressed by the way his employees worked in the open space of a design thinking workshop: “It is almost scary to realise how much of our employees’ energy and potential for creativity and innovation we are not using. But that’s not only the case for us, but for other corporations as well.”


DB Info 4.0.

For their prototyping phase, the team looked for a workshop studio and found an empty train station building in Wannsee.
A set designer built the advancing prototypes in cardboard.
Now, prototype #8 is an artefact in the Wannsee workshop studio and the new DB Info Point is in the rollout phase.
Deutsche Bahn_Design-Thinking mit der HPI Academy
The prototypes were tested by real employees and real users.

During the sprint, teams further developed ideas for the new DB Infopoint 4.0 in the stations.

The starting point was the planned redesign of the service counter. “We decided not to do it in the old way: we lock our architects in, they design something pretty that we like, and then customers and employers say ‘I can’t use this’”, Bürgler says. In an open innovation approach, the project team gathered the feedback of colleagues and external entrepreneurs during a session in the DB Mindbox. They made two pitches for the design and the user experience of the service counter. During field research the design team realised that many processes were analogue, forcing customers to fill in paperwork, and that queues built up because customers asked the same simple questions again and again. With some wild ideas coming back, Bürgler felt it was too early to prototype on the streets with cardboard. The team looked for a workshop studio and found an empty train station building in Wannsee, on the outskirts of Berlin. Here, they conducted workshops with different user groups to learn about their needs and continuously improve their prototypes: with train travellers, co-workers, different associations and wheelchair users. Bürgler hired a set designer from the Deutsche Oper (the German national opera) to build the advancing prototypes in cardboard for each iteration. In the end, they had eight different prototype generations – each improved with more considerations and feedback. “To me, two aspects of the final prototype are especially important”, Bürgler says. “They developed successively within the design process.”

First: on the left side, a subsidence enables service employees to talk to wheelchair users at eye level. During their journey, the design team learned about the importance of creating a space that allows communication in a normal table setting, at the same height.

Second: the service point combines a self-service area and large info displays with employee support. Customers have the choice to inform themselves or queue for employee support.

The eighth prototype was presented at the “product conference”, an annual event where Deutsche Bahn presents new product developments to the press and public. There, the team tested the service counter prototype with customers and co-workers. “I experienced something interesting here, something that I had underestimated”, Bürgler recalls. The design team did user tests and closed the counter in between testing – which resulted in negative reactions from the company, complaining about the phases of dormancy. “I realised that I forgot to take the corporation and the executive board with us on this path – to explain what it means to do prototyping, or live prototyping.” Many people were under the impression that they were looking at a finished product, which had to be accessible all the time. “This is where we learned something, and I would do it differently the next time.”

Now, prototype #8 is an artefact in the Wannsee workshop studio and the new DB Info Point is in the rollout phase. The first redesigned counter was constructed in Nürnberg. Here, the team co-created a nationwide usage concept of the Info Point: how should the initial phase look and be handled? “We didn’t just want to put a piece of furniture there and leave it like that. We wanted to put life into the piece of furniture”, Bürgler explains. Lessons will continue to be learned during the rollout in 100 train stations until 2020.

1.) WhatsApp Cleaning Service

2.) Digital Passenger Information Screens (“Dynamischer Schriftanzeiger”)

3.) Meeting Shield

4.) Workshop in Barcamp Style

Implementing Innovation Projects: The Topic of Trust

Trying to implement innovation projects can be frustrating. Excitement for creative method often stalls on the way up. To gain the freedom and support for conducting user-centred processes in a big corporation, Bürgler underlines the importance of trust from the board during the DB Info 4.0 project. How to gain, and maintain, this trust?

  1. Inclusion: “We included the board members – they saw the pitches, visited some of the workshops”, Bürgler explains. They included co-workers as well by inviting and considering different people from the department, they gained ambassadors all over the organisation. One staff member discovered a little detail that she had suggested in the pilot version of the DB Info 4.0 and was happy: “She said: ‘Hey, you actually implemented this!’ These are the kind of messages that we can advance through videos and internal communication”, Bürgler says. Usually, with such a project, you can only lose. You will always do ‘something wrong’. But for us it worked out, because we included board members and co-workers in the process. Not everyone can be 100% satisfied about the outcome, but we definitely found the best common denominator.”
  2. Regular Updates: “We gave regular updates and informed the board about our progress, sometimes ‘live’. I knew there would be some curiosity – ‘what are they doing in this workshop?’ – and I conveyed the impression that I myself have trust in the design team.” In this way, the board kept the impression that things were developing in the right direction. 
  3. Taking responsibility for risks: “At one point, we stood in front of a cardboard prototype and had to decide: do we really want to present this at a public event in autumn? To make this decision – okay, we’ll do this – has a lot to do with leadership, with taking responsibility for the possible risks of failing.”
  4. The power of the customer’s opinion: “To convince the board members, you need the sheer power of the user’s opinion, of the customer’s opinion. If you can say: ‘This product is for the users, for the co-workers and for the unions’, nobody feels like saying ‘do it differently anyway!’”.

After the Workshop: User-centred product development at DB Operations

What changed in DB Operations after the design sprint? “The post-it amount has risen massively”, Bürgler says with a smile. He has also noticed changes in the way his co-workers approach new styles of working. Several new projects have started with employees from DB Operations (see box). These teams are newly assembled with employees from all parts of Deutsche Bahn, IT experts, civil engineers and so on. “You can see that my Operations co-workers go in there with a design spirit, that they are open to new ideas.” The department is on its way to establishing a product management, but there is still a lot of work to do. “At the moment, we do it ‘from hand to mouth’ – we always have to request funds for product development. We aren’t as well positioned yet as we should be.” Luckily, Andreas Bürgler is not alone with his aspirations in Deutsche Bahn: “There is a club called ‘Querdenker/Andersmacher’ (‘think laterally/do it differently’), and the name says it all.” In this club, employees and executives from all levels who attracted attention through their projects or ideas exchange thoughts and connect. “This was good to see: Hey, you are not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you – you are on the right side!”, Bürgler says. “As an executive, you cannot simply wait for your company to start implementing such processes. You just have to start yourself. Start with a small topic, a small project, and it will grow bigger and bigger. And then you won’t be alone any more.”

You can find further Desing Thinking cases at www.thisisdesignthinking.net.