Innovation Workshops: Facilitating Product Innovation

Management Matters

Managing UX teams

A column by Jim Nieters
June 22, 2009

As leaders of UX organizations, we want our teams of designers and researchers to design products that change the world—to engage in strategic design. Often, though, UX designers and researchers get stuck with incrementalism—designing minor new features for which another functional group has provided the requirements, expecting UX to design them—regardless of whether the UX team agrees with the product direction. Perhaps we find ourselves immersed in organizations or work routines that do not provide space to think differently. This column reveals some tools that can help your team to innovate.

While the business community sometimes overuses the term, innovation is the single most important factor in business. It is what makes any company different from its competitors. An innovation is a novel idea that a company delivers to market with highly profitable results. As UX professionals, if we want our efforts to be relevant to the business, we have to think about more than just insights or great designs. Ideally, our role is to find the intersection of customer delight and financial opportunity. We need to find ways of introducing great ideas that make our companies money.

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As difficult as coming up with a new idea that differentiates your product from those of your competitors can be, just coming up with the idea itself sometimes seems easy compared to the challenge of getting your organization to accept and act on it. Innovation workshops can both help you come up with great ideas and align your multidisciplinary product team around them. Innovation workshops facilitate collaboration, foster trust, and promote free expression. They provide a venue for engaging a cross-functional team in brainstorming and creative ideation, filtering a large set of ideas, collaborating on design, rapidly gathering user feedback and iterating designs, and getting the consensus you need to drive an innovative product to market.

However, innovation workshops are not a panacea. A colleague who I respect a great deal—Leo Frishberg—has pointed out that innovation workshops are only one tool in a UX professional’s toolkit. If you adopt them as part of your process, they’re just one step in a complete innovation lifecycle. He’s absolutely right. They are just one tool in a complete toolkit. Nonetheless, innovation workshops can be among the most valuable tools you have. They can help you come up with big ideas and gain the cross-functional alignment you need to deliver products to market that will differentiate your company from its competition.

Ten Principles of Innovation

Before diving into the process of conducting an innovation workshop, I want to briefly discuss ten principles for promoting innovation and some techniques for implementing them.

One thing I have discovered through my years of leading UX teams is that not everyone is an innovator. Is that bad? Far from it. As Jack Welch points out in his book Winning, it’s important to recognize who is great at innovation and who is great at operations. Some people are better at building new businesses, and others are better at sustaining and optimizing them. Therefore, one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to put your people in the right roles. Identify your innovators and give them the tools and the space they need to incubate new ideas, then execute them successfully. (So, perhaps the first principle should be to find the right people for your team.)

While none of these principles of innovation stands alone or is critical in itself, I have found through personal observation and experience and have also learned from other experts that the more of these principles that are implemented, the easier it is to innovate.

1. Create a playground culture.

A playground culture comprises three essential factors:

  1. providing an environment in which risk-taking is safe—Creating an environment where it is alright to come up with ideas that fail is more rare than most of us might think. Most design groups are wound up much too tightly to permit failure, because failure suggests the person whose idea failed doesn’t get it, so should not be given an opportunity to innovate—and perhaps fail—again. As leaders, if we want to foster innovation, we have to reward risk-taking—and even reward failure equally—to guide our teams in designing great products.
  2. assembling a dedicated team that can dive deeply into and solve a problem—An innovation team must be empowered to solve the problem without outside influence. Of course, having the right people on this team—proven innovators—is critical.
  3. creating a physical work environment that is conducive to innovation—It helps to have a physical environment that includes collaboration spaces and provides other collaboration tools for multidisciplinary teams.

2. Engage in creative ideation, or brainstorming.

You need to support your team’s learning multiple techniques that will encourage creative ideation in solving diverse problems. Innovation workshops provide one venue for brainstorming, but your team really needs to engage in creative ideation in other contexts as well. In the next installment of this column, I’ll articulate some ideation techniques you can use.

3. Create a process that supports and promotes innovation.

Within Yahoo!, we have identified several elements that promote innovation, including the following:

  • three-in-a-box decision model—Product Management, User Experience Design, and Engineering share equal voices in the decision-making process for defining feature and design requirements.
  • Yahoo! Design Labs (YoDeLs)—A Yahoo!-specific form of innovation workshop, YoDeLs are an intensive week of ideation, design, iteration, and usability testing, during which product managers, researchers, UX designers, and engineers work together to solve a focused challenge.
  • advanced exploration—Cross-functional teams work together to solve big problems. The resulting prototypes and architectural specifications represent our deliverables for the first step, Scrum 0, in our agile development process.

4. Involve real users.

Do I really need to say more about this for UX practitioners? Okay… To design a product or system that delights users, we must first understand user needs and desires in the context of use. To identify a new solution—an innovation—we have to understand user needs even more deeply—in the context of both financial and market implications.

5. Create a supportive organizational structure.

To generate new ideas and deliver innovations to market successfully and profitably, you need to work for a leader who supports—and defends—you and your User Experience and Innovation team. You need to have a key sponsor who gives User Experience an equal voice among the other voices at the leadership level in the organization. Moreover, your UX team’s organizational structure must support the business model in your company, so you can deliver the most value for your key sponsor. For example, should your UX team be centralized, client-funded, autonomous within each business unit, part of an advanced exploration team, or an internal consultancy? (To learn about these different business models, read the UXmatters article I wrote with Garett Dworman, “Comparing UXD Business Models.”) Which business model is right for your organization? The right answer is whatever helps you identify new customer solutions that delight users and grow your business.

6. Dedicate time and effort to innovation.

Only about 4% of innovations turn into real products, and real innovation requires deep insights and dedicated effort. Innovation is not easy, but it is deeply rewarding. Have you ever solved a complex problem that required hours of analysis? In the end, you might have thought, of course! But without the analysis and hours of work, the obvious answer never would have emerged. Beyond merely identifying an idea for an innovation, it’s essential that you make it real to others. At Yahoo!, we like to create visually rich, interactive prototypes—combined with solid financial models that show the value of our ideas. By making our ideas tangible, we build excitement and constructive momentum. Positive energy is difficult to ignore!

7. Redefine your business for the current competitive context.

Every company must periodically rethink and refine its value proposition and business model to help it grow—especially as its market reaches a state of maturity. Success itself can breed stagnation. Patterns become imprinted on the organizational mind as the singular “right way” of doing things. To break out of patterns that stifle creativity, UX teams can work collaboratively with creative people from Product Management, Marketing, and Engineering. Together, you can step back and define the next step in the product’s or company’s evolution based on an analysis of financial, market, and user experience factors, as well as the overall business climate. By doing so, you can envision a new set of opportunities that reinvigorate your business. It is much easier to understand and innovate the right solution when you properly characterize the problem

8. Collaborate with cross-functional teams.

You just can’t do it all on your own. Great ideas are much more likely to see the light of day when you bring all of the right minds together to solve a challenge. Every function within a company and every department in a university brings unique perspectives and talents. Including the right skill sets in research, ideation, design, financial modeling, and development ensures that you consider all critical factors in a product’s success. The biggest successes are those we share with others. Success is exciting and sustains everyone who took part in a successful endeavor, so it’s best to share success. It is important to build virtuous cycles of success that you can build on in your future endeavors.

9. Realize practical results.

Many innovation centers have risen and fallen over the past thirty years. The ones that have survived are those that delivered real products to market, resulting in tangible revenues. Whether in your garage, a corporation, or a university, delivering practical results means yours will not be the next group to be cut. At Yahoo!, we engage in what we call advanced explorations. Not all of our explorations result in new products, but enough do that Yahoo! senior vice presidents regard the Marketing Products UED team as an incubation center for new ideas and support this function.

As Dr. Gesche Joost has pointed out, Deutsche Telekom Labs also has a very effective model that combines strategic research and innovation development, transferring results directly from their research department to development projects that deliver new products and services for the company. Thus, T-Labs successfully integrates the acquisition and transfer of scientific knowledge into their roadmap process. Innovation needs a scientific basis to cope with the changing conditions of the future. T-Labs is a good example of an interdisciplinary Research & Development environment with a focus on user-centered design.

10. Engage in innovation workshops.

And, of course, we can conduct innovation workshops, as I’ll now explore in depth.

Innovation Workshops

An innovation workshop typically spans an intensive week, through which product managers, researchers, UX designers, and engineers, work together to come up with a solution for a focused challenge.

Different companies implement such workshops differently, and they refer to them by different names, but many companies have conducted them, including Yahoo!, Deutsche Telekom Labs, Cisco Systems, IDEO, Sapient Corporation, and many more.

In my experience, innovation workshops comprise six fundamental steps:

  1. Understand the current competitive context, and define the problem to solve.
  2. Engage in exercises that foster creative ideation.
  3. Filter the resulting ideas, focusing on the most valuable and relevant ideas.
  4. Design collaboratively.
  5. Rapidly obtain user feedback, and iterate your design.
  6. Reach consensus to drive an innovative product to market.

Each of these steps is critical to coming up with ideas and getting those ideas to market, so they can help differentiate your products from the competition’s.

What’s interesting is that, of these six activities, most designers I speak with think just coming up with a good idea is the most important step in great design. However, design is just one factor. The reality is that, if you don’t get agreement and consensus among other stakeholders—such as Product Management, Engineering, and Marketing—your ideas will never see the light of day. Have you ever heard the expression not invented here? If other stakeholders do not feel they’ve contributed to—or were the co-inventors of—an idea, they will often block it.

The key to innovation workshops is ensuring every member of the cross-functional team is emotionally invested in the ideas you come up with. If they’re not, you need to do whatever you can to ensure this emotional investment before proceeding. If, after an innovation workshop, stakeholders actively defend the ideas that emerged from the workshop, they have a much higher chance of being implemented.

While I’m not going to provide an instruction manual for conducting innovation workshops, I will talk about some general principles that are worth applying and describe some exercises in which your team can engage at the various stages of the process. The reality, in my experience, is that, with workshops, there is a huge difference between knowing and doing. There’s nothing like getting experience for yourself.

Now let’s dive into the six steps of innovation workshops.

Step 1: Understand the current competitive context, and define the problem to solve.

The first step in an innovation workshop is to ensure all stakeholders share all of their relevant background data and the assumptions they hold about the problem space. So, before your workshop, be sure to have participants gather any research or data that would help everyone understand the competitive market and their company’s current place in it. At the beginning of your workshop, review your research data—including user research and Web analytics—your existing products, competitive products, and market trends. This step can take from two hours to a full day. During this part of the workshop, stakeholders should articulate their assumptions about all this data. Doing this is a crucial step in coming to alignment on an ultimate solution. Of course, it is critical to let everyone express their opinions. Be careful not to shut down the dialogue. To complete this step, your team needs to agree on a problem or set of problems you want to solve.

Step 2: Engage in exercises that foster creative ideation.

During this step, your team engages in brainstorming techniques and other methods of creative ideation that enable you to collaboratively come up with many possible solutions to the problems you identified during the first step of your workshop. Such techniques often—and should—generate a large quantity of ideas. For example, during a brainstorm activity, a group of ten workshop participants might generate more than 100 ideas, covering several flip charts with possible ideas. Creative ideation can take from one hour to half a day, depending on the problem you are trying to solve.

I won’t go into detail on brainstorming techniques here, because several books have been published on this topic. However, one method I find quite valuable during the brainstorming portion of the innovation workshop is a Brand Pyramid exercise, during which a team addresses—starting from the bottom up—the following aspects of the product you intend to build:

  • product goals—answering the question What defines me?
  • tone/expression—answering the question How do I present myself?
  • personality—answering the question What—or who—am I like?
  • brand promise—answering the question What do I offer you?

Simple brainstorming is just one technique of hundreds that help you generate a lot of ideas. For more creative ideation techniques you can practice, take a look at the MAPS tool, which highlights various methods, according to the Analysis, Projection, Synthesis model.

Note—Following the Analysis, Projection, Synthesis model, you start by analyzing the existing situation, relevant knowledge, and the problem definition. Next, you project possible solutions to the problem and design alternative scenarios. Finally, you synthesize these possibilities into concrete designs that you validate. Thus, the Analysis, Projection, Synthesis model covers most of the steps of an innovation workshop.

Step 3: Filter the resulting ideas, focusing on the most valuable and relevant ideas.

During this step, your team endeavors to filter the ideas that resulted from creative ideation to collaboratively come up with the best possible solutions to the problems you identified. Filtering your ideas can take from one hour to half a day, depending on the problem you’re solving.

For some, generating ideas is easier than sifting through the large mass of possible ideas. As one colleague said, “We have no problem coming up with a ton of ideas when we brainstorm. Our challenge is choosing from among all those ideas. How do you choose?”

During innovation workshops, we engage in exercises that help us filter the mass of ideas into the most valuable and relevant ideas that best solve the problem. The team works together to funnel this large set of ideas down to those that solve real user problems in their context of work or play with products that are buildable and can make money.

One method of filtering the ideas is group voting. During group voting, each participant receives three or four Post-it® flags and places one beside each idea he or she considers most valuable. Group voting generally enlivens the team, stimulating a fun sense of competition. Once the team has voted, a few ideas tend to stand out. If necessary to narrow the ideas even further, the team can vote a second time—with each participant having just one or two votes. The key issue at this stage is that the facilitator needs to understand the goal and decide whether the team has filtered the ideas sufficiently or the list still needs further vetting.

People often question whether they can trust the results of group voting. Again, it’s important to choose the right stakeholders for an innovation workshop, and if you do, teams seem to self-normalize very well. Thus, if an idea does not make sense, they discard it. If an idea has merit, intelligent people tend to see its value.

Step 4: Design collaboratively.

During the collaborative design phase, the team takes the most promising ideas and designs solutions for them. Once everyone has agreed on the elements of the product to design, the workshop breaks into teams to build paper prototypes or physical models of the user interface they are designing. It typically takes from one to one and a half days to collaboratively design a solution that is ready for testing by users.

When dividing workshop participants into teams to design solutions, you can either create teams that

  • each focus on designing for a different persona
  • all design different versions of the same thing

In the latter case, at the end of this step, everyone votes on which design does the best job of solving the problem.

In this step, each team quickly creates low-fidelity paper prototypes or models. I am always amazed by how successfully intelligent people, working together over a period of several days, can solve a problem. The paper prototypes that result from in-depth analysis by a cross-functional team tend to nail the solution. Of course, this is not always the case, but over the years, I’ve looked back at the application design decisions my teams have made during innovation workshops, and usually, they were absolutely right on. Having done a dozen innovation workshops in the past couple of years, all but one has produced highly targeted and valuable solutions. My key point here is that you should trust the process and trust your results.

Step 5: Rapidly obtain user feedback, and iterate your design

In this step, a researcher guides users through a usability study on the paper prototypes or models the teams have created to make sure they’re on the right track.

Including user feedback during an innovation workshop is somewhat unique. As Heather Cassano and Jill Strawbridge, experts in conducting innovation workshops at Yahoo!, would point out, testing designs on real users is a key attribute that differentiates the innovation workshop process from what some companies call deep dives. In his book The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley describes IDEO’s deep dives, during which a multidisciplinary team does research, brainstorms, and designs and prototypes a product in just five days. [1] Usability testing offers several benefits. The foremost and perhaps most obvious benefit is that you get real data to help confirm the validity of your ideas or to help you evolve your ideas.

The second, but perhaps least obvious value of usability testing during an innovation workshop is that it acts as a forcing function. That is, if you are bringing users in for a usability study, you absolutely must have your best ideas ready to show them! I have found that, when teams are forced to quickly come up with real solutions for real users who are coming in to try out their prototypes, it binds them together in a highly constructive fashion that tends to drive really good answers. My teams have typically been amazed by the strong results. Try it for yourself!

Obviously, if you’re going to bring users in for a usability study, you have to reserve a space and recruit users several weeks to a month before the workshop. You don’t have to know yet what you are going to show them, but you do have to be prepared to give them honoraria, regardless of whether you have a completed idea to show them!

My experience tells me you have to be flexible in what you test during a workshop. For example, in one case, we needed to identify what users wanted on a particular content site. Thus, we created approximately 50 unique elements that might be on such a page, gave users a piece of poster pager, and asked them to include the most valuable elements on the page—or create their own elements if they didn’t find anything particularly useful to them. While it was difficult to prepare the elements at the last minute for usability testing, this exercise provided a much richer set of data than we could have gained by creating our own site and testing it. The exercise provided foundational data for our future research and decisions about what to include on the site.

Because we engage in a large number of innovation workshops, we usually have workshop kits available that permit us to rapidly create paper mockups—including paper, Post-it notes, pens, pencils, straightedges, erasers, glue sticks, and scissors. We also make sure at least one person—and preferably more—participating in every workshop has created paper prototypes before and knows the level of fidelity necessary for a usability study.

Finally, you need to iterate your prototypes based on the results of your usability testing. You complete this whole process in a few days, not weeks or months.

Step 6: Reach consensus to drive an innovative product to market.

Earlier, I mentioned that most designers think just coming up with an idea is the most important part of innovation. The reality is that you have to sell your organization on your ideas. Even if you don’t belong to an organization, you still have to sell someone—whether investors, professors, or friends—you hope to join in your vision!

One of my goals in doing innovation workshops is to have a cross-functional team of stakeholders who are emotionally attached to the ideas we come up with during our workshops. If other stakeholders are emotionally attached to the ideas, I need not always be present to help sell the ideas. People sell them on their own accord. This essential step may be the most important part of an innovation workshop.

Before people can sell an idea, they have to buy into it. Thus, I monitor the tone and contributions of people throughout the workshop. If participants never disagree and fail to engage in passionate dialogue, I prod them or engage in fun exercises to get people to express themselves. Silence is the biggest challenge in an innovation workshop, because it means stakeholders are not conveying their honest opinions. Only when we have a constructive dialogue can good ideas emerge. If stakeholders are present, but do not speak, that is much more dangerous than if they disagree. Disagreement is okay, and everyone needs to know they will not be punished for dissent. We need to understand why people believe what they do.

If everyone contributes constructively, the group will normalize on collective insights. When a workshop is going well, the team finds ways around challenges and dissenting people buy into the solutions, because everyone understands the challenges and helped solve the problems. Thus, innovation workshops are teambuilding exercises as much as they are an opportunity for finding big ideas that you can deliver to market.

So, if you can get product managers, marketers, engineers, and others to emotionally buy into a big idea, you are a lot more likely to get your idea built and introduced to the market. To me, innovation is about results. It’s not just an academic exercise or just about ideation—though these are valuable parts of the process.

A big part of selling ideas through the organization is agreeing to ongoing milestones. That is, what will you deliver one week after the innovation workshop? Two weeks? Who will do it? You should define these milestones before leaving the workshop or your progress will stall. Resist the temptation to end the workshop without a game plan. For example, in the week following one innovation workshop, we had Product Management generating a presentation articulating the value of our idea, interaction designers generating a set of high-fidelity screen images representing the product, information architects coming up with a comprehensive product taxonomy, and visual designers generating a visual design strategy based on the brand pyramid. Once your workshop is over, you need to follow through. What will it take to get the product built and released in the marketplace? Figure that out, and make sure you’ve engaged the right people in the process to help you do it!

Branding Our Innovation Workshops: Yahoo Design Labs, or YoDeLs

Another part of delivering an innovation workshop is gaining acceptance from the cross-functional teams in your organization. To achieve this, brand your innovation workshop. Within Yahoo!, Heather Cassano and Jill Strawbridge turned the idea of a generic innovation workshop into a branded experience that teams at Yahoo! are eager to engage in. At Yahoo!, the term for these collaborative design sessions is Yahoo Design Labs, or YoDeLs. Heather and Jill did a superb job of building excitement around this branded experience, including getting support from senior leaders throughout our organization for conducting such Design Labs. They even got senior leaders to give video testimonials about the value of YoDeLs. Now, members of other functional groups within Yahoo!—including Product Management and Engineering—actively request YoDeLs to solve design and innovation challenges. That’s right—they want to engage in YoDeLs and ask to participate in them! 

Note—There are a few other practical factors about conducting innovation workshops that I haven’t discussed in this column—such as the timeline leading up to a workshop and how to be a successful facilitator. If you’re interested in learning more about the practical details of conducting such workshops—or in getting some practical experience conducting a workshop—let me know, and I can put you in contact with someone who can help you educate your team, plan, and conduct a workshop.

Acknowledgement—Dr. Gesche Joost, Head of the Design Research Labs at Deutsche Telekom Laboratories and Professor at Berlin Technical University; Eric Bollman, Director of User Experience at Yahoo!; and I presented a course on leading innovation workshops at CHI2009 in Boston.


[1] Kelley, Tom, Jonathan Littman, and Tom Peters. The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm. New York: Doubleday Publishing, 2001.


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Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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