Designing Design Workshops: Beyond Dot-Voting

Dan Brown
7 min readJul 14, 2022


You’ve heard of dot-voting. That’s the thing where everyone in a workshop gets a bunch of dots and they — stay with me here — vote on different ideas, concepts, contributions. You can use this technique in lots of ways — it’s like a template. You can vote on user needs or features or content or category names or whatever.

Put your dot on the face that best describes your feeling about dot-voting.

Everyone understands it and it’s so straightforward: “Write on post-its, vote on post-its.” But, let’s be honest, it’s a bit over done.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t always have to vote on stickies! It’s not the only recipe in your creative workshop cookbook!

Workshops are just lots of these little templates put together. But when you only know two templates (write on post-its and dot-vote) workshops can become a little stale or — worse — disconnected from the desired outcomes. You’re making the objectives conform to the activities, not the other way around.

So, let’s expand the palette. Three other techniques I use to create workshop activities are:

  • Vote on a scale: participants answer a prompt indicating where they fall on a range
  • Pick from a list: participants assemble ideas from an array of options
  • Use narrow or leading prompts: participants brainstorm ideas within a very confined scope

Vote on a scale

I mean, you already brought the dots. You might as well have your folks use them for something. In this activity participants respond to a prompt you provide on a scale of responses. You can just put two extreme responses at either end of a line and they affix their dot along the line. In this example, I used emojis in a warm-up activity to get participants ready to think about web site navigation.

A prompt and a simple scale for breaking the ice at a workshop about navigation.

Alternatively, you can include a series of responses, like I did here:

I added the blue box after the voting was done so we could talk about where most people ended up.

It’s a great way to surface everyone’s preconceptions about the product’s requirements. It’s also a great way to tease out some nuance in otherwise banal statements like, “The navigation should support both browsing and locating.”

While we’re talking about preconceptions, I’ve also used this approach to ask people about their assumptions about the product’s users:

I do not expect to get an accurate read of user behaviors when asking stakeholders about them, but I do get a sense of their assumptions and preconceptions. Even strongly entrenched mythologies within an organization have wildly different interpretations by each person.

The intent here isn’t to get an accurate count of users, but instead identify the differing assumptions held by the product team itself.

Preparation tips: The prompts should be pretty narrow and you should have at about 5 options on the scale.

Use when: You want to tease out assumptions or preconceptions; The team has requirements that need clarification; The team sees a choice as a binary, and there’s an opportunity to reveal nuance.

Pick from a list

Another way to throw out the stickies is to frame activities as multiple choice questions: After giving them a prompt, offer participants a range of predefined answers. Rather than asking them to spend effort scraping the bottom of their creative barrel, we’re offering a buffet of interesting possibilities and mixed metaphors.

Since the default approach for so many workshops is “give prompt, await responses” this is actually more radical than it seems. Because people carry preconceptions with them, showing a broad list of options can help them expand their thinking.

Recently, I asked folks to brainstorm new main navigation categories for their marketing web site. Instead of simply writing their own, I gave them 24 different possible top-level categories. The options included a few synonyms, so the participants could see different ways of framing the navigation. The options included terms that were outside the industry standard, but were still reasonable, to encourage them to see the design problem in a new way.

In this workshop, five teams (of 4-5 people each) came up with dramatically different approaches to navigation, even given the same set of terms to start.

This approach also demands shifting how you frame the prompts. Instead of focusing on what makes a good navigation label, the prompt asks them to pick the concepts that work best.

I’ve also used “Pick from a list” in an activity to quickly create mad-lib-style personas, too. Instead of filling in the blanks from scratch, participants choose from a menu of needs and challenges. As with brainstorming navigation, the value here is showing people a wide range. There’s the added benefit of showing how combining different needs with different challenges produces a wide range of unique but not unrealistic situations.

Preparation tips: Narrow prompts work well here. Create multiple copies of the list so people can grab their options without impinging on others. The number of options depends on the exercise, but keep in mind you need to allow time for participants to review the available options.

Use when: Showing broad range of options will encourage thinking about the problem differently

Use narrow or leading prompts

As design researchers, we’re trained to ask open-ended questions. So much so that even I feel a tinge of shame when I ask anyone a yes-no question. We’re also taught not to lead the conversation. I understand the intent of supposedly “neutral” questions, but I’ve come to learn that such questions then put an enormous burden on the respondent. Without more context, without more direction, without more priming, it can be hard for the human brain to reach a meaningful response. This is especially true when we’re asking folks to brainstorm new ideas, rather than recall their own experiences.

Both previous recipes — Pick from a list and Vote on a scale — clearly lead the conversation. We’re asking participants to select from canned responses. My aspiration in a workshop setting is for participants to think beyond these canned responses, but I understand that people often need to see something to disagree with it, or take it in a different direction.

By the same token, a prompt can be very narrow and still yield valuable information. When asking participants to brainstorm possible topics for a web site, I don’t ask, “What is the most important content?” Instead, I ask 3–5 narrower questions, and we take a few minutes to brainstorm answers to each.

  • What three pieces of existing content are the most useful to your users?
  • What three pieces of existing content are most important to your company’s business objectives?
  • What one piece of content is difficult to find but shouldn’t be?
  • What one piece of existing content represents your company’s best storytelling?
  • What one piece of content would you add to help underserved customers?
  • If you could add just one piece of content to the site to help new users what would it be?

Breaking down a broad question — in this case about content — into narrower questions, we end up with a broader range of responses.

Preparation tips: Start with the large open-ended question and then break it down into smaller requests

Use when: Asking people to brainstorm within a large domain

Putting Activity Templates to Use

An activity template is a recipe for engaging participants with the content of your workshop. None of these templates presume a particular topic: Like dot-voting they’re meant to be used in a wide range of contexts.

As you look for ways to expand your workshop activities, keep these in mind:

  1. These are templates, to be applied in whatever way makes sense to achieve the objectives of the workshop.
  2. Every activity is an excuse to have a conversation. It is a small shared experience that creates space for everyone to have a voice. As facilitators, our role is to ensure every participant gets the space they need to express themselves, regardless of how they complete the activity.

Ultimately, though, the workshop must serve to move the project forward. Therefore, the most important thing is to keep in mind the objectives for the workshop — its purpose and role in your project. However you choose to make use of these or any other activity templates, start with — and go back to — the workshop’s objectives.

👓 Dan Brown has been practicing user experience design for over 25 years. He co-founded EightShapes, a Washington, DC-based user experience design firm. Dan wrote three books on user experience design, most recently Practical Design Discovery. He produces tools and games for design teams, including Information Architecture Lenses.

Need to run a workshop? Looking for some help with your product’s user experience, user research, or information architecture? Just want to chat? Let’s set up a time to talk! 🗓



Dan Brown

Designer • Co-founder of @eightshapes • Author of 3 books on UX • • Board gamer • Family cook

Recommended from Medium


See more recommendations