Disclaimer: Although this is written from my perspective as a consultant, I hope my shared experiences can be helpful to anyone running a product design team.
For the past 2+ years, workshops have been an important component of how we do strategy at Undercurrent.
Typically, a few strategists will spend an intense day working side by side with a client team. The mission varies: from coming up with novel product concepts, to solving a tricky organizational design challenge, to re-designing a business model. At the end of the day we emerge with a set of ideas as well as a plan for how to begin bringing them to life immediately.
And although our workshops are always informed by thorough research into our client’s business, customers and competition, as well as a solid dose of outside inspiration and smart thinking, we don’t get to implement the resulting ideas and plans nearly as often as we’d like.
It’s hard to invest in ideas alone. The old startup adage rings true: ideas are worthless unless executed.
More importantly: big companies (most of our clients) are hesitant to invest in any new ideas unless they can size the opportunity.
Furthermore, too many of our clients used to come away from the workshop experience feeling that while we had examined and talked about many interesting things, we had made little real progress.
Evolving our workshop format
Over the past six months we’ve been experimenting with our workshop format, tweaking it to deliver something more concrete while sticking to the same client budget.
In December, we trialled our latest model: a one week long workshop, run by a small team consisting of two strategists, one subject matter expert and one designer, structured around iterative work cycles informed by real-time customer feedback.
This time, instead of delivering a idea deck, we emerged with an interactive production-ready prototype of a mobile experience, a demo video explaining it and a pitch deck justifying it. The strategy we brought forth was tangible and communicated effectively exactly what our customer would be investing in, should they chose to move forward with it. Better yet, we had early positive customer feedback.
Here’s how we did it — more on why we did it this way in the last section of this post (10 Lessons Learned).
Week 1: Plan and prepare for the workshop week.
Stakeholder interviews. In week 1, we set up conversations with the stakeholders we wanted to involve during the workshop week. These were people whose input we wanted and/or needed: important decision-makers and people who are close to the customer and end-user (and thus, close to the problems we’d be attempting to solve during workshop week). Speaking to stakeholders ahead of the workshop also enabled us to collect additional research and intel on previous innovation efforts.
Workshop design. The starting point for our agenda was a combination of the Google Ventures’ design sprint and Undercurrent’s roster of workshop exercises.
Workshop team. Our team was small and allocated full-time during workshop week. It consisted of 2 Undercurrent strategists (one lead and one support), 1 business unit expert on the client side, and 1 visual designer.
Workshop logistics. We booked an offsite location for workshop week and worked with a member of our Client Experience team to handle scheduling and transportation of materials.
Workshop materials. We designed worksheets for all of our prototyping exercises. We also prepared things like pens and markers, post-its (small and big), index cards, sticky dots for voting, notebooks and sketch books.
Documentation. We devised a high level plan for documenting our work and capturing learnings throughout the week. We brought camera phones to photograph the space and to digitize assets, binders or folders to transport assets back home, and notebooks to capture quotes and notes.
Week 2: Workshop!
Below is — at a high level — the process we designed. Our agenda was planned by the hour, including explicit exercises and instructions for running and participating in them.
Monday: Research review + customer definition. We synthesized key observations and insights from our research and put them up on the walls of our space. We identified the 3 most important customer segments to design for, based on how big their current unmet needs are and how valuable they are as customers to our client. We created a light-weight persona for each customer type and then brainstormed the unmet needs of each customer. Through voting and filtering we selected the best candidate needs to design solutions for. Lastly, we generated user stories and high-level ideas against these needs (we referred to these combinations of user stories and high-level ideas as value propositions).
Output: 10-15 value propositions.
Tuesday: Feedback round #1 + paper prototyping. We brought in stakeholders and customer proxies and pitched our value propositions to them. All qualitative feedback was captured on post-its. We asked every participant to vote for their three most favorite and their three least favorite value propositions. At the end of the day, we aggregated everyone’s votes (for your consideration: add a weight to the customers’ votes). Our last activity for the day was to paper prototype the three winning ideas.
Output: 3 paper prototyped product experiences.
Wednesday: Feedback round #2 + paper prototyping. We brought back our customers and customer proxies. We pitched our three paper prototypes to them and again captured all their qualitative feedback on post-its. We ended up combining aspects of all three paper prototypes into one idea which we would mature further on Thursday. Lastly, we paper prototyped this winning idea — it would become the blue print for the digital prototype we created next.
Output: 1 validated paper prototyped product experience.
Thursday: Digital prototyping. We spent all day working on creating a realistic clickable prototype.
Output: 1 interactive digital prototype.
Friday: Demo + pitch. We wrote and presented a pitch deck along with a demo of the prototype to our stakeholder group. We captured their feedback and captured next steps.
Output: 1 product demo + 1 pitch deck.
Week 3: Wrap-up.
Demo video. Back home, we recorded a video screen capture of us clicking through the digital prototype. We wrote and practiced a 2-minute script and narrated the video.
Pitch deck. We summarized our experience in a short internal pitch deck for our client. While the demo explained the product idea, the pitch deck explained the process that had enabled us to get there.
Conclusion: 10 lessons learned
If the above is a list of ingredients — the WHAT — of a successful workshop, the 10 take aways below are the recipe — the HOW.
1. Come prepared.
When the workshop starts, you should be focused on running the workshop and guiding your team to a successful product design and demo day. There should be no question left unanswered about logistics, process, team or anything else.
How we did it:
- We did our research. We knew our client’s business, understood their priorities and their objectives at the business level and at the individual level (hint: it’s usually about growth), and the trends/shifts shaping — even disrupting — their industry. All these things served as input for our workshop design and as input for generating and evaluating ideas. We also brought a list of competitive and inspirational digital products that we reviewed together.
- We brought the right materials. We prepared worksheets and creative assets for our prototyping exercises. We printed the value proposition templates in poster size so that we could easily pin them up on a wall during our feedback sessions (letter-sized sheets would’ve been too small for a group to efficiently review together). These worksheets saved us a serious amount of time and ensured that all of our design work was consistent, despite contributions from four individuals.
- We prepared our tools. We brought a set of trialled and tested prototyping tools: because we were designing a mobile app we relied on POP app to digitize our paper prototypes. We used Keynote and Photoshop (prepared with assets such as mobile screens, buttons and other user interface elements) to create screens for the interactive prototype, and JustInMind to make the actual final prototype.
2. Be ready to change your plan.
Being prepared goes beyond having with a great plan; as lead facilitator, you should frequently evaluate your progress and if necessary, tweak your agenda on the fly.
How we did it:
- We did a daily post-mortem. At the end of each day, the Undercurrent portion of the workshop team evaluated our progress and our client team’s happiness. Typically, we’d spend at least an hour each evening analyzing the day, detailing the next day’s agenda and discussing what roles we’d play in each section. At the beginning of the week, we also gave each other individual feedback. For instance, I’d ask for feedback on how to facilitate more effectively or how to read the room better.
- We captured notes. I used my notebook during workshopping to capture ideas and things that worked or didn’t work, as they happened. I also captured feedback from our client team and our stakeholders as I heard it, and shared it with my team in our daily post-mortem.
- We did closing feedback rounds. This is a very simple yet highly effective tactic we’ve picked up from implementing Holacracy. At the end of each day and at the end of each customer/stakeholder feedback session, we’d do a quick final feedback round with all of our participants. It goes like this: everyone is asked to share one or a few thoughts on how the day or the session went. These can be positive or negative things, or both. What’s important is that they’re honest reflections and that they’re kept succinct. I’d make sure to capture anything that either validated our process or that indicated that we’d need to change something.
3. Use a small full-time team of equal contributors.
Keeping the team small is critical for speed. Bringing the right team is critical for a successful end-of-week delivery. Allocating everyone 100% against the work, in our experience, is a guarantee that every team ember will make meaningful and substantial contributions.
Additionally, as consultants, it’s our belief that we deliver the most value in when we work side by side with our clients. In addition to delivering strategy, we deliver practical knowledge/help our clients develop new muscles and prove the value of our methods through direct exposure.
- We brought the right talent. The four people in the room encompassed the minimum set of skills necessary to produce an interactive prototype in a week. Having a designer on the team was particularly valuable as it enabled us to quickly translate ideas to design elements and interactions, and thereby gave us time to try many different ideas. We were also able to leverage previously created assets which added a level of fidelity to our designs.
- We shared the work. Everyone on the team was equally participatory, aside from the lead facilitator who was also tasked with — you guessed it — facilitating. We all drew paper prototypes, contributed constructive feedback and pitched our ideas to our stakeholders and customers.
- We got to know each other. To operate as a team, you need to be a team. To get to know each other, we ate breakfast and lunch together every day and chatted about stuff beyond the workshop. On the first day, we aired our anxieties about the week and our ambitions for the work we were to do to together. On our last day, after a successful pitch, we celebrated with drinks.
4. Don’t underestimate the value of awesome logistics.
It’s important that your environment supports your work. To stay focused and move fast, you should eliminate as many distractions and decisions as possible.
How we did it:
- We made someone responsible for logistics. We brought one team member from Undercurrent’s Client Experience team who ran point on all logistical issues (food, space, materials, parking, etc).
- We chose an offsite location. We knew from experience that it was crucial to our success that we removed our client team from their normal environment. The right mindset is an essential ingredient to this type of work session — more important than almost any other factor. We needed our participants to feel inspired, relaxed and, above all, open to new possibilities, and to challenging the status quo.
- We picked a great space. When we do offsite collaborative work with our clients, we look for the following things: A location that is easy to get to by car and public transport. A space that enables us to move around comfortably, to break up in groups, to do presentations in, to work with hundreds of post-its and index cards. A space with good acoustics, plenty of natural light, and good ventilation. A space with wi-fi and printing capabilities.
- We made eating easy. We had breakfast and snacks delivered to our space each morning with the option to change our order each day. For lunch, we had the option to go outside (our space was located in a restaurant-dense area) or to order in.
- We kept good working hours. We made sure to schedule regular breaks. A typical day would start at 8.30 am with breakfast and end at 5 pm, including lunch and breaks.
5. Make the customer present.
All of your hard work is in vain unless you do a good job of understanding and addressing your users’ needs. The most important person in the room is the person you are designing for.
How we did it:
- We involved real customers. This can’t be said enough: when you’re designing a product, the end user is your most important stakeholder. Bring them into your process. Odds are you’re not your user, and even if you are, it’s incredibly hard to remove yourself from your role as designer while working on the product. We scheduled a handful of our client’s real customers to give us feedback on Tuesday and Wednesday. After pitching them our ideas and demo:ing our early prototypes, we asked them the following questions: Would you use this product (Y/N)? and How valuable is this product to you on a scale from 1-5, where 1 is “Not at all” and 5 is “I want this yesterday!”? We also made sure to invite client stakeholders who work closely with customers, and thus are intimately familiar with customers’ needs, to give us feedback (this is a great alternative when you don’t have enough time in the prep stage to track down and schedule actual customers). We called these stakeholders our customer proxies.
- We created personas. On day 1, we made a persona for our client’s three most important customer segments. We used the following prompts to put some texture behind them: “I am a [job title] who works at a [work place]. A typical weekday involves [tasks]. I care most about the opinions of [peer / manager / expert / other: define]. This year, my big goal is to [objective].” To make our personas feel more real, we named them and drew a face for each one.
6. Aim to solve for one thing really well.
Launching with the most features might seem like a good idea, but the best products are extremely focused experiences that do one thing really well.
How we did it:
- We stayed lean. Our initial prototypes focused on a single user story. It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon, after our second round of customer and stakeholder feedback, that we combined 3 use cases into one product concept. We pushed back on anything that wasn’t an MVP feature.
A Minimum Viable Product is the smallest thing you can build that delivers customer value (and as a bonus captures some of that value back) — Ash Maurya
- We studied the competition and our favorite products. To spark better ideas, you need to understand the standard for your industry. To spart new ideas, you need lateral inspiration. We dedicated time to study both. We generated a list of competitors’ products as well as best-in-class digitala experiences. We split it up evenly amongst ourselves and spent 15 minutes trialling the products we’d been assigned. We then shared what we liked and disliked about our products, and synthesized everyones likes and dislikes onto a big poster which we put on the wall. These became our design principles for the week (“Great products look like this” and “Bad products look like this”).
- We worked with assumptions and hypotheses. The entire week was oriented around framing ideas as assumptions and hypotheses. We relied on a combination of stakeholder feedback (“Can we implement this? Are we credible doing this?”) and customer feedback (“Would they buy this? Is their need for this big and urgent?”) to decide which ideas to mature further.
7. Listen for biased feedback
You don’t want to end up barking up the wrong tree just because you were swayed by a passionate argument, someone’s seniority or overly positive feedback.
How we did it:
- We took nothing at face value. Because we gathered feedback in rounds rather than through open group discussion (see Lesson 8: Don’t Hate, Iterate), the feedback we got was equalized — no one person could dominate the conversation and the feedback was captured with no names (or titles) attached.
- We watched for patterns. Because we could collect feedback so quickly (5 minutes per idea), we could collect feedback from ~20 people. Having a large set of feedback-givers enables common themes to emerge.
- We encouraged honesty. We didn’t shy away from explicity and aggressively encouraging honest feedback. Your participants will naturally want to give you what you want — validation and encouragement. We pushed our groups to probe deeper and truly examine our ideas for what they were. Although it’s lovely to be showered in approval and validation, we knew that the true value of our feedback-givers was to help us determine which ideas to kill and how to make the remaining ideas better.
8. Don’t hate, iterate.
There’s no time to waste on negativity when you’re sprinting on design. The goal is not to deliver something perfect, but rather something that is good enough.
How we did it:
- We were explicit about the rules for sharing feedback. We set the expectation that all feedback is welcome as long as it’s constructive. This prevented the group from getting distracted and slowed down by long-winded discussions and flinging of opinions. When gathering feedback from stakeholders and customers, we utilized a Holacracy tactic of going in rounds: we did a 1-minute round of pitching (the “Proposal Round”) during which one of us explained or demo:d one of our ideas, a 1-minute round of clarifying questions from the participants, and a 3-minute round of amendments and edits from the participants. This enabled us to process each idea or prototype in 5 minutes or less. It sounds unreasonably fast, but it worked surprisingly well and proved to be an incredibly efficient way of validating ideas.
- We iterated together. We gave ourselves time limits for putting ideas on paper (for instance, 5 minutes to sketch out a user flow or 15 minutes to do a paper prototype). We then reviewed them together, giving each other feedback and voting on our favorite aspects of all the ideas on the table. We did this over and over, for each prototype.
- We started simple. Our first designs were just user stories and sketches. We added more detail as we learned what direction to take the product design in through feedback from our customers and stakeholders.
9. Facilitate effectively.
Successful workshops rely on strong facilitation chops. Keeps energy high. Important to make as much progress as you want. Establishes you as a leader without coming across as commanding.
How we did it:
- We were ‘bout it. Enthusiasm is infectious. I brought as much energy to my facilitation as I could, knowing that I was setting the mood in the room and had the opportunity to pick up our mutual energy levels when they started declining (I saw this as equally important to working through the exercises we had prepared).
- We assigned a lead facilitator. As lead facilitator, it was on me to help the team keep a good pace by guiding them right. A few tricks that helped me: I was explicit what I wanted everyone to do, e.g., “Vlad, I want you to sketch out a paper prototype for this idea.” To keep energy and speed up, I did my best to flip discussions abut risks and problems (people, especially in large organizations, are very quick to points this out about any idea) to discussions about opportunities. I also tried to change conversations about problems to discussions about solutions.
- We brought tactics for rapid decision-making. We didn’t want to lose momentum to tedious decision-making (and we had tons of decisions to make throughout the week). To move fast, we applied filters, votes and simplified Six Sigma-style decision matrices. One example: To determine what needs we wanted focus on addressing (Day 1), we applied three filters: pain of user, strength of mobile use case and our client’s legitimacy to address the need. Everyone got three sticky dots per filter which they got to place next to their chosen needs. This enabled us to narrow down ~200 needs to 15 in 15 minutes. When using decision matrixes, we gave our customers and our client lead super votes (their votes were counted twice).
- We did feedback rounds for product feedback. For each idea, we did 1 minute of pitching, 1 minute of questions from the participants, and 3 minutes of edits and amendments from the group (which were captured on post-its). Our stakeholders loved that we forced them to make decisions and that we did it so quickly.
- We did a closing round for other feedback. At the end of each feedback session and after our demo and pitch we did a quick round of reactions. It was a great way to capture anything that wasn’t directly related to our product ideas and to make everyone feel heard.
- We brought a library of exercises. When what we had planned didn’t work out, we could quickly swap it for a different exercise.
10. Don’t underestimate the power of the process
Process is often something that’s perceived to be boring and that largely happens behind the scenes — but it doesn’t have to. By revealing your process at strategically chosen moments, you can build excitement and demonstrate the value of doing things differently.
How we did it:
- We involved 20+ in our workshop. Because seeing is believing, we wanted as many people inside our client’s organization to experience the workshop first hand. We made it easy for stakeholders and customers to visit us by choosing a space in a central location with good parking options. We scheduled our feedback sessions over lunch, and we set up a conference line for folks who couldn’t attend in person (they could still participate and hear and feel the pace at which we were processing ideas and capturing feedback). This worked so well that some of our stakeholders asked to invite additional customers and peers for the later feedback sessions.
- We brought people back multiple times. This gave them at least two data points of our progress which enabled them to deduce for themselves exactly how quickly and efficiently we made progress.