Achieving Design Focus: An Approach to Design Workshops

May 3, 2010

Stakeholders with business, design, and technology viewpoints can pull products in different design directions—sometimes without knowing how the design work fits into an overall strategy. This can leave stakeholders feeling lost and unhappy.

Creating a focus around design goals and asking and answering the hard design questions as a team is an effective way of coalescing a team around one design direction. At the same time, it can create a more optimal and fun working environment.

In this article, we’ll describe a design workshop approach that can help you find that design focus, including

  • stakeholders’ preparation before the design workshop—defining goals
  • the facilitator’s role in helping to glue the team together—creating engagement, now and beyond
  • what your team needs to agree on and take away from the design workshop—your design goals and next steps

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Making First Contact

User experience is a term business leaders have been hearing more lately, and delivering better product experiences is something many business leaders now think is strategically important to their success.

Imagine a prospective client—either inside your company or outside, if you are a consultant—has called you up, because they are interested in meeting with you to talk about user experience and how to improve their products. You are preparing to meet with this prospective client in a few days, so you need to draft a UX Plan, covering the activities that will help you better understand their business, review and design for critical user journeys, and evaluate your new designs by testing with users.

Wait a Moment!

Before you go into the meeting with your UX Plan, it’s important to consider how your plan can get all of the stakeholders moving fluidly in one direction when you are

  • working on specific designs and deep into designing particular features
  • establishing an overall design framework that lets you all work effectively around common design goals

Otherwise, there is a risk that the team might make design decisions in isolation from the bigger picture—and this is where product problems can arise.

One way to get everyone on a team aligned is to run a design workshop. A design workshop sits comfortably in the middle of your UX Plan, taking into account what you’ll discover from both your users and the business as inputs to the design. During a design workshop, you can mash up design and evaluation, working with both the product team and users to achieve a better design.

Creating Design Momentum

Your first meeting with a new client is a nice opportunity to set the tone for how you want to work on the designs together and what you’ll focus on. Here are some questions that should get your conversation started:

  • What business are they in? Become intimate with their business. Get them to tell you everything you need to know.
  • Who is on the team, and what is the role of each team member? Really get to know the team.
  • Where does the team fit into the organization? Who else does the team need to work with to deliver great designs?
  • What is their understanding of user experience and design? This is your first real opportunity to get everyone on the same page.
  • What are the key user journeys you need to explore? What are the opportunities for you and the product team to be successful together?
  • What do they want you to fix? What problems is the company experiencing with their product? How could you turn these problems into design opportunities?
  • What problems are their customers or users experiencing with the product? Again, how could you turn these problems into design opportunities?

Driving Design Success

The key driver behind getting answers to these questions on first contact is your gaining the team’s trust. You want to the team to collectively stand back from the disciplines in which they’re working and the internal politics, so everyone can approach the design problem objectively.

A design workshop creates an environment in which stakeholders with different skills can work as one team to deliver a design solution that will help make their product successful. It also creates a formal context in which stakeholders must do their homework to provide the necessary inputs to the design workshop—including doing competitive analysis and collecting call-center data, product issues, and user feedback, to name a few.

Facilitating a Design Workshop

Before you start preparing to facilitate a design workshop, it’s important that you understand what it means to be a facilitator. Your role as a facilitator of this design process is to pass on your UX knowledge, empower the team to take their design forward, and help them understand how this effort fits in with a larger UX strategy. Every question you ask should either help drive conversation or move the team toward a joint understanding of the design.

As a facilitator, you do not always have to provide all of the design solutions, but at the same time, the company has hired you to give them some answers. So it’s important to know

  • when to provide expert design direction and when to allow the team to come up with solutions themselves
  • how to help the team craft a design solution that makes sense and is better than a single individual’s design solution would have been
  • how to coalesce the team’s design thinking into an overall strategy

It’s important to have some design-walkthrough questions ready to help you guide design discussions—for example:

  • What is working well?
  • What do you want users to do first?
  • What are the business goals?
  • What issues are we facing?
  • How could a design solution translate into larger design principles?

We don’t intend this to be an exhaustive list of questions, but getting such questions answered does present an opportunity to mentor a workshop group and guide them toward something better. It also reinforces that you are working on the design as a team and should not just accept the first few design ideas the team comes up with. You want the group to work toward something great. You want to get people comfortable with failing early and learning from their failures, while having fun in the process.

Preparing Well and Understanding Your Context

Before you invite people to sit in a room together and design a product, you need to prepare by doing your own homework and getting answers to some fundamental questions. You should understand the workshop’s goals, set an agenda that helps define the problem space, and determine what design solutions the team should have ready by the end of the workshop.

Meet with stakeholders and set their expectations for the workshop and what you think it will be able to achieve. Understand what each stakeholder wants to achieve and the deliverables they would like to come out of the workshop, but go in with your own design framework, too. You might not be able to fulfill everyone’s expectations. So, part of preparing is clearly about managing expectations.

Find a day of the week on which to conduct your design workshop when there is less chance of people’s getting interrupted or their not feeling relaxed. We usually organize workshops on a Thursday or Friday, because people are starting to wind down toward the weekend.

When inviting participants to a workshop, you ideally want to have a good representation of team members who can answer design or technical questions directly. At the very least, you must have direct contact with people outside the room from whom you can quickly get answers. We recommend keeping your design workshop group small, because small groups are easier to manage. Remember, as the facilitator, you are in a position to enforce the size of the workshop group, as well as its makeup.

It is your role to empower the team in the room—to give them ownership of the designs the team comes up with. You want to demonstrate a way of working that people can take from the workshop and implement on their product teams.

When preparing for your design workshop, you will also need to collect the following types of information as inputs to the design process:

  • business data—Assign responsibility for someone to present this information.
  • problem reports—Your client may have access to data from a call center or Web analytics.
  • usability evaluations—Find out what usability studies they’ve done and share that data with the team.
  • competitive analysis—It helps to understand what competitors are doing. Gather screenshots of competitors’ products that depict similar user journeys and note the positives and negatives of competitors’ designs. Remember, you can quickly turn issues with competitors’ products into design opportunities.

The space in which you hold your design workshop needs to be quiet, give people plenty of room to spread out and work on their design ideas, and have wall space to post ideas for presentation. You might want to book a room that is not in the same building where the stakeholders normally work—where it might be too easy for people to get called away to other meetings, take phone calls, or check their email, taking their focus away from the design workshop. Organizing the right design materials to work with sounds easy enough, but it’s important to have generous amounts of paper, whiteboard space, Sharpies, and Post-it notes.

Warm-up design exercises can help people get into the right mindset to start designing. Sometimes people find it hard to know where to start—or it might take people some time to forget about life outside the workshop’s walls. So it helps to have a few warm-up exercises to get people talking.

Dedicate one person on the team to documenting a common design focus for the project, including business goals, user goals, and design principles. Aggregate and continually revise all of this information, providing essential inputs to both your design framework for the workshop and the team’s overall UX strategy. The team can apply this common design focus during the design workshop, then reuse it when designing other features in the future.

Remember, the main drivers for your design workshop are to get stakeholders to own the design and to position yourself as a design enabler. You want to get stakeholders to think through what they design and understand all of the inputs that go into a design, plus the justifications behind design decisions. This helps give them a story to communicate and sell to people beyond the design workshop.

How Do You Find Your Design Focus?

The process of finding your design focus is similar to adjusting the focus on a camera until you find the right look you are after. The following questions will help you find your design focus and understand how to get to a design’s sweet spot:

  • What is the goal for the new design?
  • What do you want people to do beyond this point in the design process?
  • Is there anything distracting the team from their goal?
  • How does this new design improve on what they currently have?
  • How does this new design solve the problems that are characteristic of the current design?
  • Are there any positives we could take from the new design, adding them to the overall design principles?
  • Are there any implementation issues we need to address now?
  • What questions would we likely face from other stakeholders and have we addressed them?
  • Is there anything we could do better—positioning, language, simplification?

Revisiting these questions periodically helps you refine and sharpen your design, until you eventually either find yourselves repeating the same answers or get to a point where you are have greatly reduced the number of open issues.

Always remember to aggregate and document your business goals, user goals, and design principles.

Maintaining Your Design Focus

When everyone is working together during the workshop and stakeholders are starting to go deep into design, you should periodically stop everyone—at the right moments—bring them up for air, and refocus them on what they are designing and why. Your continually bringing the team’s design focus to mind will help the team to understand their design focus independent of the particular design they are working on during the workshop. It also helps them to prepare the design story they’ll communicate to people beyond the workshop.

This is really important, because it helps the team members talk about the preparation, design work, and effort that went into a specific design. It also helps create a compelling case for moving the design from sketches to wireframes and, finally, to implementation, while tracking the business benefits of an improved design.

A Success Story

On a recent project, we met with a product team to help them clarify the critical user journeys for their Web-site redesign effort. To help them define the project’s scope, we asked questions around

  • the impacts implementing solutions for these user journeys would have on their competitors
  • the effort the redesign would require
  • how specific user journeys would work with other user journeys we were redesigning
  • what the overall design framework should be and how it would affect their longer-term UX plan—a year or two out

We moved beyond the team’s seeing us as design consultants to their viewing us more as a part of the business team. Asking these questions helped the team not only plan for design focus, but also helped them plan against their Web strategy for the year.

Don’t be afraid to help guide your team with good questions, but be sure to craft the right questions and ask them at the right time.

Keeping the Design Voice from Going Quiet

Once the design workshop is over, it’s important to find an owner for the design process—a stakeholder who can carry the workshop’s design focus forward beyond the workshop. Someone needs to own the designs that have come out of the workshop and drive what the team must do with them to ensure their successful implementation.

Ensure that the entire team owns the design focus and sees it as a living document, so they can refer to their design focus when undertaking new design projects and expand on it, as necessary, when they run other workshops—big and small. To keep the design voice alive, the team must document the design focus well and keep this document someplace where it’s both easy to access and easy to edit.


The moment you engage with a client, whether as an internal staff member or an external consultant, you have the opportunity to work toward establishing their design focus and move into the role of design facilitator and enabler. A large part of achieving this is leading people toward a common way of working—asking them questions that move them toward the goal of succeeding together. This design workshop approach moves the design conversation away from just blobs of colors on a screen toward design focus and UX strategy.

When leading a design workshop, you must help a multidisciplinary team to see that an us-versus-them attitude is the antithesis of collaboration. The team should not have the expectation that, as design facilitator, you will have all the answers. A design workshop is about achieving joint success or, at a minimum, gaining an understanding of what it would take to get everyone to succeed as a team. 

Thanks to Steve Portigal for contributing to this article.

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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