Converting skeptical workshop participants into design evangelists

Workshop skeptics converting into design evangelicals

This may sound familiar… You have invited a group of people to participate in a design workshop and you’re receiving responses like this:

“Is this workshop really just a glorified meeting?” or
“Why are we doing this again?”

Design workshops that are structured to bring together stakeholders who, do not normally interact or otherwise collaborate, can be a great opportunity to develop innovative thinking, or they can be a huge waste of everyone’s time. This article is for user experience (UX) designers and researchers who want to lead design workshops that not only have a positive impact on a project, but also transform skeptical workshop participants into design evangelists. Beyond the specific, tangible workshop deliverables, we include goals and suggestions to energize participants about the workshop outcomes, so that workshop results resonate long after the workshop is over. This article looks at how to strategically design, run and follow through on workshop outcomes to increase participant commitment. From our experience, when participants have a positive workshop experience, they are far more likely to take the critical ownership of the workshop outcomes needed to bridge gaps between organizational silos and business units within a company.

Before the Workshop

There are several underlying factors that can either make a workshop a great success for the participants or leave them with a “What is the purpose of that?!” attitude after the workshop is over. Understanding your participants, the true nature of the culture of the company and the expectations of your key stakeholder(s) (the person/people paying for the workshop) are the keys to a designing a successful workshop.

Designing Workshops: Know the Participants

Before beginning to plan a workshop, consider the possible perspectives of the participants. Work closely with the stakeholder(s) to identify the participants and their likely disposition toward the workshop.

For some, workshops can be a great environment for collaboration, getting fresh perspectives and creating new ideas. These types of participant are your best allies. Enlist them to lead subgroups and activities. Call upon them for sparks of new thinking when energy levels drop down.

For some, the workshop may be seen simply as a reprieve from the grind of their daily tasks. While they may be willing to actively participate, they may not be motivated to work very hard. Structuring the agenda and designing the activities so that the workshop atmosphere is relaxed and fun will help to engage these participants and to draw out their creative energy.

Some participants may simply not want to contribute and may be forced to attend by their boss. Their reticence can be contagious and quickly sap energy from those around them. Shower these people with attention. Make sure they know you’re aware of them and that their input is valued and needed.

In rare (and extreme) cases, a participant may be actively interested in sabotaging the workshop. Working closely with the stakeholder(s), try to identify any potential ‘hand-grenades’ well before the workshop invitations are sent out. There are two ways to deal with this kind of participant. The first and simplest solution is to ask the stakeholder to request that these people not be invited to the workshop. The next best solution is to attempt to ensure that the ‘pin’ is not pulled. In other words, take a proactive stance by meeting with these participants before the workshop in order to address their concerns, their gripes, their political motivations, etc. This step may seem like a job better left to the Human Resources department, but is critical to either remove or defuse any potential disruptors before they have the opportunity to derail your otherwise well-planned workshop.

Understand the Organizational Structure

Larger and especially older companies are often very siloed organizations. Although the principles of siloed business units may look great on paper, this approach may not be ideal when trying to develop innovative solutions. Working closely with the primary stakeholder and their support staff is a great way to quickly gain knowledge about the ‘published’ org chart, as well as the ‘unofficial’ backchannels and ‘dotted lines’ that really define an organizational structure, and then get in contact with the participants located in the different silos that may be the really valuable contributors in the workshop.

Uncover Silo Territorial Issues and Conflicts

Before planning any workshop, it is best to try to sort out what key high-level topics create the most ambiguity or concern across the organization. The best way to uncover these topics is to briefly interview the participants (10–15 minutes each) before designing the workshop. The primary stakeholder is going to be required to help orchestrate getting you these sessions. Whatever you do, do not contact these participants without that introduction. Naturally, you may receive no reply or maybe mistaken for a strange telemarketer.

When you interview the future workshop participant over the phone, ask direct questions. “How do you define (topic here) within your organization?” As you can imagine, you’ll likely get very different answers from the participants within each silo. Once armed with the responses, you’ll quickly begin to see the disconnects that may exist between how their jobs relate or deviate from the broader objectives of the stakeholder and the workshop goals. You can also take this opportunity to pitch workshop content, tools and ideas for feedback. This action will get participants talking about you before the workshop even begins. Remember, your goal is to create a workshop where as many different internal viewpoints as possible can collaborate in designing a shared vision and solution for their customers.

Designing the Sessions and Creating the Tools

Once you have uncovered the stakeholders’ needs and participant expectations, you can begin to design the workshop sessions and build the tools needed to facilitate those sessions. At the highest level, your goal is to enable one thing: getting the participants to take ownership of the workshop outcome. Your sessions must outline the goals defined by the stakeholders and then provide spaces for the participants to respond with ideas and solutions to achieve those goals. Materials used in the sessions must be simple and clearly labeled so that participants can understand them and begin to contribute with as little repetition of the process as possible. Remember that they likely will not be fully focused during the opening session and will not have committed to memory the workshop agenda and session objectives. Ideally, at the end of the workshop, participants should feel that they have accomplished something as a group. Yes, there is a bit of a “Kumbaya” element here, however, one of the workshop objectives is for the participants to be able to say “here are OUR ideas and this is how the company will benefit from them.” If this happens, you will have internal stakeholders who will be able to ‘sell’ the workshop outcomes to other stakeholders in the company long after the workshop is over.

During the Workshop

“No plan survives contact with the enemy” ~ Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

A Workshop Playbook?

From our experiences, there is no single workshop design plan that works for every situation. A great workshop experience cannot be completely templated if it is going to meet specific stakeholder expectations. Every workshop is different. Even after all the preparation to define the goals and create the workshop materials, you should be prepared to make some last-minute changes and deviate from the plans as the situation dictates when the workshop finally begins.

Converting Workshop Skeptics into Evangelists

The first 15–30 minutes of the workshop are critical. Your primary task is to introduce yourself and outline the objectives and tasks for the workshop. However, you also have a secondary task during this opening period. As you are presenting materials and workshop topics, pay close attention to how the audience is reacting. Are they texting or otherwise disengaged from what’s happening in the room? Are they having side conversations? Pay attention to the body language. Are they sitting with their arms folded across their chest? Identify those participants who may wish to be back at their desk or doing something other than your workshop. These participants may not be saboteurs, per se, however, they can negatively impact other participants who may be otherwise be prepared to have a great workshop experience. If you are seeing consistent texting or standoffish posture, these are your skeptics. In this scenario, we have found it best to address the situation head on. Ask the skeptics direct questions when presenting workshop materials. If the workshop has breakout group sessions, be sure to make the skeptic the leader of the group. If left alone, a skeptic is not as likely to become an active participant, but if you can get them engaged in a leadership position, within a workshop group, they can really take positive ownership of the anticipated workshop outcomes.

Motivational Speaking versus Workshop Breakout Sessions

As the workshop coordinator, we strongly encourage speaking as little as possible at your workshop. Your goal is to produce results, not to be a motivational speaker. Although you need to motivate the participants, it’s more effective to organize the workshop so that the dialogue in the breakout sessions provides the motivation. At the start of the workshop, try to speak as little as possible. Cover the workshop objectives and the key tasks each participant group must take on. Address the primary objectives. Set some goals, including a stretch goal. For example, you may want to ask for 80 user stories, but in reality you are really looking for 40. Be sure to make the primary stakeholder look good. Keep it short and get the participants into design tasks as quickly as possible. Do not use the introduction as a discussion session, opening up the workshop objectives to debate. This is yet another reason why you want to weed out any stakeholders who may sabotage your workshop in advance.

Workstation Organization

It’s good to be organized with your resources. Creating the tools to conduct a workshop is one thing, making the tools work is another task in and of itself. Though you may have created great workshop tools, e.g., surveys, posters, post-it, storyboard templates, presentations, etc., if you fail to communicate or use them successfully your efforts up and until this point have been wasted. The secret to getting the most out of your tools is a strategic use of your colleagues.

Organizing your internal team is critical. A properly organized team will enable the workshop to flow as smoothly as possible. It’s best to have a colleague at each workstation. Each colleague is there to do three particular tasks: 1) be knowledgeable in the domain space; 2) help lead the workshop participants; and 3) record what the participants are doing. Number three is a critical component of the process because it has a direct impact on how well you can impress the primary stakeholder. We will revisit this benefit in the next section. In the meantime, the value of being organized before, during and after a workshop seems obvious, but how to be organized can be a bit more challenging. Be sure that someone is keeping an eye on the clock and keeping everyone on schedule.

Take Pictures!

Be sure not to intrude too much while taking photos

Visual documentation of the workshop is a great way to enhance your final deliverables and share with the participants. Remember to take photos throughout the workshop. Shoot discreetly to capture the interactions without disrupting the flow of creativity. Look for moments of inspiration, teamwork and physical action. Although some people don’t like to have their picture taken, they usually like others to see them participating in the events later on when the “kudos” are being handed out.

Beyond the specific use of the photos for the particular workshop, you may also find these photos helpful later on for future workshops, company presentations, etc. We recommend that photos are taken with a higher-end digital camera. Mobile phones are good, but they will not have the professional image quality a digital single lens reflex camera will have.

The Workstation: Keys to Collaborative Success Stories

Workstation example : this is one station out of four

There are many positive outcomes when groups collaborate in workshops. However, when groups can easily build upon other group ideas, you can have great results! For example, positive unexpected outcomes can arise when group A can build upon the ideas of group B by interpreting the ideas group A had left behind for group B to follow. Four to six groups rotating from workstation to workstation is ideal, however, too many groups could result in a hodgepodge of design outcomes. Understanding this balance really comes with your own experiences running workshops.

Regardless, physically getting participants standing and moving about the workshop gets the blood and ideas flowing. Try not to keep participants seated. We typically create distinct and separate workstations that cover particular topics. Give each group 15 to 20 minutes to make their contributions to each workstation. Short enough to drive a deadline, but just long enough enough to get things flowing.

When the time is almost up, have the groups stop what they are doing, consolidate their ideas and then move to the next workstation. This enables participants to see what their colleagues are thinking, all the while, they are editing, removing and adding their own interpretations to each workstation product. When each group has visited each workstation, the result is a product that represents everyone’s ideas. Each participant can say that they have contributed to the workshop objectives.

Workshop Activities

Here is where the rubber meets the road. At each workstation, the participating group should be actively making something. Ideally, workshop activities should be physical: drawing, writing, adding post-its, acting, etc., are all fair game. The more energy the participants are expending, the better. Keep in mind that the focus should be equally on the content coming out of the activities, as it is with the group dynamics associated with the task. During these group interactions the participants start to take ownership of their ideas.

Workshop Critique

Skeptics converting into design evangelicals

After each group has participated at each workstation, refocus the groups on critiquing their progress. Intermittent workshop critiques are a great way to take concepts a step further. Have participants share their ideas and defend their design decisions in front of their peers. The worse-case scenario is that the workshop activities are producing ideas that are really bad and the participants are taking ownership of what could be considered poor design directions. Your job is to keep the discussion focused in positive directions, making sure that the participants are having fun and feel safe in expressing themselves. In a critique, participants can work in new groupings, building on ideas and discussing what works and what doesn’t, and nurturing good ideas into great ones. This is also an important phase of the workshop because it gets participants to collectively take ownership of the work.

Critique is also a good way to see how people react to ideas coming from other departments or silos. You may have gotten feedback from the pre-workshop interview process so during the critique phase you may be able to bring some of these topics to the floor for discussion. Participants may now see that they share many of the same challenges as their colleagues in other departments or silos. Getting the participants to discuss and listen to each other is another way for the group to collectively take ownership of their ideas.

After the Workshop

Providing deliverables in real-time

Immediately Provide Workshop Outcomes

Quickly compiling and presenting a synopsis of the content generated during the workshop will provide the primary stakeholders with tangible evidence of workshop value. Delivering a physical document within an hour or two of a workshop demonstrates to the primary stakeholder that you are not only well-organized, but have the means to deliver before he/she expects it. Once the workshop is complete, have each of the notetakers organize and summarize the outcomes from each of their supervised workstations and then consolidate all the findings into a single document. In-depth analysis is not practical or required at this point, just a clear list or statement of what was accomplished, particularly in context of the objectives and goals stated at the beginning of the workshop. This documentation can be of great value for a stakeholder to show their leaders that the workshop was productive and a worthwhile endeavor.

Go Out for Dinner

This may seem to be a very simple idea, and perhaps obvious, but you are likely to get more information from the client over a plate of BBQ ribs and an ice cold beer than you would in a workshop setting. After the hard work is done, people may be more open to bigger ideas and possibilities.

“User experience design is a critical mechanism to drive a consistent customer experiences across our silos.”
~ primary stakeholder, Creative Services Director

You will have a great opportunity to get feedback on the workshop, while the day’s events are still fresh in everyone’s mind. Try not to be too aggressive, but be sure to get their insight on what parts of the workshop were effective and what was not. You may also learn a great deal more about the corporate political landscape that truly defines where the important decisions are made and how people within the organization and silos are motivated. This knowledge will help you to tailor your deliverables so that your primary stakeholder may be more successful in the long run.


Workshop Target Outcomes

By carefully managing expectations, participants and resources before, during and after workshops, you will be able to set yourself up for success, no matter what kind of final deliverable may result from the workshop. Throughout the workshop process there are short- and long-term goals, but the principal objective should always be to turn your participants, no matter what their preconceptions are, into design evangelists. You know your workshop has been successful, when:

  1. The client was able to use your final deliverables to help get his internal stakeholders on the same page for an envisioned user experience strategy.
  2. The participants in the workshop walked away with a more collective vision. This can be captured with a simple survey, feedback directly from the primary stakeholder over dinner, or unsolicited “Thank You!” emails from the participants.
  3. The workshop participants clearly take ownership of their ideas. This is evident when the once skeptical participant becomes the group’s spokesperson or evangelist during the workshop and when the workshop is complete.

After the workshop is complete, the real work begins. Having a “Kumbaya” design workshop is good for a quick morale boost, however, making the workshops meaningful and valuable long term is the real challenge.

“Thanks for all the fun, and all the learnings along the way!”
~ unsolicited participant email

How you package your workshop will clearly vary depending on the workshop objectives, while driving primary stakeholder expectations. Clearly, you will want to ensure that your final deliverables reference the workshop outcomes generated by the participants. At the end of any final deliverables, we try to have a “Credits” page that references the workshop participants along with their workshop photos. We hope that these perspectives may help you prepare, organize, execute your next design workshop.

About EffectiveUI

This article has been authored by Brian O’Keefe and Joel Rosen at EffectiveUI.

Guided by the belief that technology will only live up to its promise when it is well designed, EffectiveUI creates transformational digital products, experiences and insights for the Fortune 500 and ambitious innovators. Drawing on our deep expertise in UX and technology, we help organizations reinvent significant aspects of their business — from the experience they provide to their customers, to the tools they use to streamline operations, to the products they bring to market, to the ways their workforce stays connected. Learn more at