Encouraging Participation and Fun During Collaborative Design Sessions

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A column by Janet M. Six
December 19, 2011

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to encourage participation during collaborative design sessions—and even make them fun.

Ask UXmatters is a monthly column, in which our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to us at: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Dana Chisnell—Principal Consultant at UsabilityWorks; Co-author of Handbook of Usability Testing
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix Inc.
  • Gerry Gaffney—Founder and Lead Consultant at Information & Design
  • Adrian Howard—Generalising Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist
  • Yury Vetrov—Head of UX at Mail.Ru

Q: What are some ways in which we can encourage participation and fun during design sessions?—from a UXmatters reader

“Many agencies don’t engage in team-based design sessions,” replies Jordan. “While they often do brainstorms on concepts, they rarely sketch out design concepts collectively. I think doing so is an effective way to elevate user experience and find synergies between strategy, UX architecture, and visual design. So to answer the question, there are three things you need for a productive and fun team design session:

  1. Time—Not just making sure the team has allocated enough time to immerse themselves in the design session, but also making sure they have at least 24-hours notice before the design session. This gives team members the opportunity to do some research and spend a night thinking about the problem—even if it’s just subconscious thought.
  2. Familiarity—It’s important that the team is familiar with the objective of the design session, and that they’re familiar with each other. If the team hasn’t worked together in the past, it’s important to do some familiarity-building exercises prior to ideation.
  3. Leadership—Focus is key to good design sessions. Having a feature list, some mood maps, or writing key specifications on a whiteboard helps keep the team on track. It’s also very important that someone leads the design session and that someone else records the design session.”

Participatory Design

“I get a sense from the question that the participants in the design sessions are not designers,” responds Leo. “Is it that the target participants are unfamiliar with design? Are you trying to do participatory design? Are you experiencing some reluctance on the part of the target audience to participate, because they don’t see the value? Or are the prospective participants actively hostile to participating?

“I’ve never held a participatory design session in which the participants didn’t have fun. By definition, design sessions are fun. I suggest your looking at Luke Hohmann’s Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play. It’s a good starting point for activities that are engaging and participatory and reveal key requirements. Try googling brainstorming and ice-breakers. You’ll find all sorts of interesting mini-activities to relax folks and put them in the proper frame of mind.”

Facilitating Design Sessions

“It’s important to establish a cooperative environment early on,” recommends Gerry. “I usually try to conduct some sort of affinity diagramming exercise within the first half-hour or so. Usually, this focuses on identifying something like issues with the current product. I ask participants to write up their own set of Post-it notes. Then, as they share their notes, placing them on a wall, and discuss them, they gradually become a group. At the end of this process, provided the facilitator has been diligent, everybody has had their voice heard, and a cooperative, open, and vocal session has gotten underway.”

“My advice is to start any workshop with a brief warm-up session,” replies Yury. “You can choose a quick task, asking all participants to solve a design problem in just 10 to 20 minutes. The result is not important here, but the process is. You need participants to make one another’s acquaintance, socialize, overcome any restraints, and get tuned in on the design session’s topic. However, it’s bad when these problems take too much time and energy from the main task. Your warm-up can also quickly showcase the working process that the team is to use during their main tasks.

“Keeping participants involved and engaged is one of the facilitator’s main tasks. A good facilitator helps people forget about time and prevents them from getting bored, encourages people to obtain new skills and experience, and fosters group discussion and decision making. How can you keep a group on track? First of all, the task should be clear and interesting. You should present it from the right viewpoint, but give people some freedom in making decisions. Second, participants need to engage in various activities to keep their drive and focus—from brainstorming to sketching to discussions to testing—back and forth. Third, the facilitator must be an active session participant and direct the task’s decision-making process, because other people will trust him or her and willingly offer their support.”

“Getting participation by all requires active facilitation by the organizers,” acknowledges Leo. “If you don’t think anyone on your team is capable of doing a good job of facilitation, try to find a facilitator—either an outside professional or someone in the larger organization who does that sort of thing.”

“But the starting point of any workshop should definitely be its plan—a high-level plan for participants and a well-defined schedule for the facilitator,” continues Yury. “You should have enough time to solve the task with the number of people who are participating. You should know what phases or steps the process will involve and how much time each one will take. If you have several groups working on the task, you should consider the time each of them will need to present and discuss their interim solutions. Moreover, the schedule should be realistic and include free-time buffers to take delays into account and avoid the plan’s getting destroyed like a house of cards. Believe me, there are not many things that are as inspiring as completing a complex task in a limited timeframe. And only a well-managed plan—or great good luck—can get you there. Of course, it can also be frustrating to have almost nothing to show just ten minutes before your presentation.

“One of the most important things is the final presentation of the workshop results. Participants have put much effort and emotion into their work and are proud of the impressions they’ve made during the workshop. They want to share their work and get feedback from their colleagues—especially from the facilitator. It’s really important to allocate enough time for this part. If you don’t leave enough time for everyone’s presentations, your workshop can end with a little let-down—despite all of the other parts of the workshop having gone well.”

Iteration During Design

“I use a design studio technique where the team does several rounds of sketching,” replies Dana. “First, participants work by themselves, as they try to solve the design problem for a certain persona. Then, they present their sketches to the group and take critique, during which the critics help to identify what about the sketches works in reaching the design goal or solving the design problem. In the next round of sketching, the team takes the things that are working from everyone’s individual sketches and combines them in one or more treatments. If you have more than six people in your group, split them into two teams for this round. Then present each team’s solution to the entire group for another round of critique. Finally, come up with one collaborative design—or, go out and run some quick-and-dirty usability tests on the designs you’ve got.”

“Another important part of a good workshop is making the right decisions about working teams,” says Yury. “Unless you’re running a brainstorm-only session, it’s better to work in teams of four to six people maximum. A team of this size enables everybody to speak, without making discussions too time consuming. All opinions get heard. You can make mutual decisions, and everyone can share roles within the team wisely. However, teams can have some challenges: There is often someone who is not a team player, who never agrees with others, or even leaves a team to make it on his or her own. Or maybe there’s no leader on a team, so it moves slowly in no particular direction. This usually happens when workshop participants don’t know each other.”

Exercises for Engaging in Design

“Actually doing something with stuff rather than just talking tends to be most effective in my experience,” says Adrian. “I’ve found that various innovation games are great fun. I’ve used Innovation Games’s Product Box game a few times with great success. From my experience of running and participating in workshops and working on different types of project teams, I’ve gathered together some interesting methods and practices for involving participants. They allow the process to be not only effective, but exciting, too.”

“Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo have an awesome book called Gamestorming that describes terrific design—and other—exercises and tricks,” recommends Dana. “You might also want to try using any of the card decks that give you different aspects of design to think about as you’re working on a design solution. One that I know of is Stephen Anderson’s, and another is from Whitney Quesenbery. Anderson’s is about designing for delight. Quesenbery’s is about storytelling.”

Whitney refers us to the recommendations she made in the edition of Ask UXmatters titled “Bridging User Research into Design.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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