The Design Workshop: Bringing It All Together

August 8, 2011

In this article, we’ll outline the key elements you need to plan and facilitate a design workshop to give you a better chance of success.

One focus of user experience design is designing consistent experiences or touchpoints for customers. Beyond merely achieving consistency, an important motivation for UX designers is creating delightful and meaningful experiences or touchpoints for customers—something they will remember and tell others about in glowing terms. Making this happen is hard work, requiring not only an understanding of what people need, but having the right people to develop the organizational structures and operational realities to see its realization through.

An important component of success in designing meaningful experiences is inviting team members into environments that foster a culture of collaboration, creativity, and openness, in which it’s safe to critique, there are good energies, and team thinking helps you to move beyond your product of today toward a roadmap of possibilities.

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Part of our role as UX designers is to facilitate people’s being the best they can be as individual contributors. Taking this further, our role is to be the conductor who is able to see and nurture moments, as people look beyond their own role to see how they can add to the overall project. To break down silos! We liken this to a quartet, in which each player works from the same piece of music, knows his or her own role, and has an instrument to play, but knows when to listen to the music director.

The Scenario

You have one month in which to plan and facilitate a design workshop for people you have not met before. The workshop participants come from various parts of an organization and have different levels of understanding about both what the workshop requires and what user experience is.

The Challenges

What are some challenges you may face before people even arrive for the design workshop?

  • They are involved in lots of projects. People are busy and work on many projects. This means participants’ attention may be diverted, as they deal with timelines, email messages, and work deliverables.
  • They don’t know you. If it’s the first time you’ve run a workshop with a particular group, this is probably the case. This means you’ll have to find ways to build rapport quickly.
  • They don’t know each other. If people are coming from different parts of an organization, this is also probably true. People will be focused primarily on their own jobs and responsibilities.
  • English may not be their first language. If people are coming from various parts of the world and your first language is English, you’ll need to adjust your approach to ensure clearer communication all around.
  • There will be politics. Pre-existing, legacy political dynamics may exist that you’ll need to manage and possibly push against, in the early stages of the workshop, to focus people on your workshop goals and its deliverables. You must handle this carefully—though sometimes brutally—all at the same time.
  • The room may not be ideal. If you haven’t booked the room yourself, it might not have all of the right elements to help you and participants do your best work.

Planning: The Rehearsal

So what do you need to plan and prepare? What must you instill in yourself, the participants, and even stakeholders who cannot attend the design workshop to help you create some magic together?

  • your program—As you design your program, define not only the activities of the day, but the underlying goals you would like to achieve for each activity, including how you want people to feel. Each activity should bridge nicely to the next—not only in terms of their deliverables, but also as parts of the journey you and the workshop participants are taking together.
  • yourself —Not everyone has the energy or the skillset to both facilitate and orchestrate a design workshop experience. Before stepping into the room and meeting the participants, you must both prepare yourself and envision how you’ll perform on the day of the workshop. What type of presence do you want to convey to help your participants create the right atmosphere and enable them to do their best work together?
  • the room—You should speak to your project sponsor to understand what you’ll have available to work with. In previous workshops, we have been able to use multiple whiteboards and place flip charts around the room to help document stories, quotations, references, designs, and key moments, so by the end of the day, the available surfaces of the room were covered with people’s contributions, and they were surrounded by their collective output. This kind of setup makes it easy for one of us to take photos and capture everyone’s contributions as the design workshop progresses. And these photos form one part of our deliverable.
  • the people—You need to form a deeper understanding of who will be participating, their work experience, whether they have been exposed to UX design before, the role they play on their team, and the benefit they propose to bring to the design workshop.
  • the tempoYou need to understand what other commitments you have and how this impacts both your preparation and the facilitation you’ll need to do on the day of the workshop. Does it inspire you? Does it distract you? Are you able to open yourself to new learnings throughout the workshop, as your refine your facilitation skills?
  • your partner—It’s challenging to be the only person bringing it all together. So, ideally, you’ll have some help. A partner can provide help distributing materials, offering perspectives, keeping you on time against your planned program, roaming the room to help small breakout teams with design problems, and generally, offering support.
  • the rehearsal—If time allows, go in the day before to meet some of the people who will be attending the design workshop. Take this opportunity to share some knowledge and remove some of the mystery about who you are. Remember, people may not know what to expect, so might naturally be fearful about what you have planned. You may have only a limited amount of time to win their hearts and move them toward collectively doing great design work together.
  • the deliverable—You should have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve on the day of the workshop. The workshop’s deliverable should be a beacon toward which you can focus participants’ efforts at every point during the design workshop, ensuring you stay on the correct course.

The Design Workshop in Action

So, now, with your program in place, yourself in a good place, all of the logistics well organized, and having met some of the participants, you are ready to bring everything together, and your preparation will help you get the best out of both other people and yourself during the design workshop.

  • Start with a bang! Smile, move, laugh, engage people, and help set the tone for the time you have together. At the beginning of the workshop, it is critical that you not only present the program and its planned activities, but also help people to realize the type of environment, or culture, you’ll need to create for the workshop. It is essential to get people into a zone where they can do their best work—and, in some respects, to feel that something is different from the day-to-day work they do at their desk.
  • Get people up and moving about the space. To do great collaborative work, people need to move about during the workshop and get away from their desks. Sometimes this requires taking a break, and sometimes you just need to get people up and stretching.
  • Share the joy. There will be joyous moments when small teams are working on problems together or engaging in discussions to develop their ideas. That’s great! But you also need to aggregate everyone’s ideas, bringing them together to create a larger pool of goodness. It’s your job to share the joy and bridge it into the overall journey.
  • Play a song—or ten. It’s rare to hear music in workspaces. Music can be a nice way of creating breaks during the program—relaxing participants and relaxing yourself. Music can also set the tone for different parts of your workshop like design, storytelling, and reflection.
  • Clean up your design spaces. Desks can get messy as drinks, Post-it notes, old designs, workshop materials, phones, pens, and papers accumulate. Before you enter new stages of the workshop, ask everyone to clean things up. When people take various ideas and bridge them into new designs, it’s important that spaces be clear of clutter, so people can start afresh and focus solely on their designs.
  • Surround teams with data and insights. Each team should be actually immersed in their insights, which they’ve captured in words and sketches on whiteboards, flip charts, and Post-its, so they can refer to them as their design moves forward. You should also remind them to get up and look at their previous work and bridge it back into the final workshop deliverables. These collections of information and insights should be something other teams can use, too.
  • No technology is allowed! We often sit in front of our computers all day—and when we are not doing that, we are checking up on things on our mobile phones. A workshop is a time for people to focus, reflect, and hopefully, work toward creating something better together. Tell people to turn off all technology, put it away, and keep the tables on which they’ll create their designs together clear of distractions.
  • Use the room well. You have an entire room available for design. Use it! Move around the room, get people to move with you. Step away from your own computer and display screen. Use the wall space to pin up flip-chart paper, so you can document the story. Visualize ideas through words and diagrams—always have your markers at the ready!—both to help get people on the same page and to tell the overall story. Move people into different spaces to gather around different designs.
  • Orchestrate the day. Every moment, activity, and learning should move the group toward its final deliverable.
  • Feel the vibe. Know when it’s time to take a break; to intervene or step back and let the team discuss, argue, or ideate; to stop discussions and offer an opinion; to let the team take a break or push them harder.
  • Check on progress occasionally. Time is a constant and important factor during a design workshop. You need to check how well you are working against the overall program and whether you need to give the team more time to work on an activity or you’ve given them too much time. As appropriate, ask quietly or loudly how they are progressing.
  • Take notes. We sometimes forget key moments, so it’s important to log critical observations and insights that may be useful in documenting a design. Keep a small notebook and pen handy.
  • Create a video recording of the workshop. As people walk through their designs, it’s their moment to shine and show all the great work they have accomplished—often in a very limited amount of time together. Capturing both the story of the designs and the movement and interactions in and around the designs provides a way of sharing with the greater team—both those who are actually present and those who are not participating in the workshop. It also reduces the amount of documentation you must create after a workshop—documentation that can be open to misinterpretation.
  • Feel the buzz. As the design workshop is coming to a close, you’ll hopefully start to feel the good energies and friendships coming together. For some, this may be their first time participating in a design workshop and, if you have done your job well as a design facilitator, everyone should feel a real sense of the group achievement and hard work that is coming to an end.

Wrapping Up

As the workshop comes to a close—as you collect the goodness from around the room, in the form of designs, sketches, insights, and ideas—take a moment to thank everyone for being part of the journey with you. Acknowledge how their ownership of both the process and the deliverables they’ve created has brought them to a greater understanding and appreciation of what it takes to create delightful and meaningful user experiences for their customers.

Finally, after the workshop, share your photos with all participants to demonstrate what they accomplished and enable them to reflect on all of the great work they did together. 

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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