The step by step guide of running an ideation workshop

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One thing that we often get asked by our clients at EchoUser is to facilitate ideation workshops during projects. However, it can be really daunting for first time facilitators when it comes to planning and preparing — it was certainly how I felt. After a recent three day ideation workshop that a co-worker and I facilitated for our clients at Emerson, I thought it was a good opportunity to document our process especially for fellow designers who might find it useful as a guide to run future ideation workshops.

In the following article, I will cover general introduction to ideation workshop, how do we plan and prepare for it, personal tips on the workshop day, what we do after the workshop to provide a holistic view of running ideation workshops.

Let’s look at a few beginner questions.

What is an ideation workshop?

Why do we run ideation workshops?

  • Encourage divergent ways of thinking about solutions
  • Get inspiration and learn from each other
  • Brainstorm lots of ideas — some of the most brilliant ideas come when you fight the urge to stop on an early solution and embrace the discomfort that comes from exploring more. Ideation workshop is the perfect means to achieve this goal because we value wild ideas and innovative thinking.
  • Get everyone’s input in real time
  • Easier buy in for the actual design outcome because the whole group has participated

When should we run an ideation workshop?

  • Kicking off the design phase of a project, especially when you find yourself stuck at a few initial directions and need to push the envelope.
  • During the design phase to brainstorm around specific areas, for example — a new feature or a workflow.

Who should we include in ideation workshops?

  • Other designers, researchers, engineers, product and project managers, subject matter experts, strategists, marketing team, sales team, support, to have diverse points of view

How different is it from Google Sprints?

  • More time for sketching, less rigid way of deciding ideas ( more open when we transition into the exploring phase of design)
  • Can fit in less time ( half a day to two days)

Typical Workshop timeline

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Now let’s look at how we typically plan and prepare for a workshop.

Why are we running the workshop? Who should we invite to it? Where are we in the design process? How much time do we have for the workshop? Were there any previous workshops around this topic and what should we learn from them? Should we do the workshop in phases or in one go?

B. Prepare your agenda

Start with a rough outline of what you want to cover in bullet points and how you will achieve the workshop goals. Then brainstorm group activities around specific section of the workshop. I typically would use a spreadsheet to draft an agenda and allocate time.

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we use spreadsheet to track workshop agenda

Below I’ll attach an example of the workshop agenda we created for Emerson workshop.

C. Share and Discuss Agenda

After developing the agenda, share it with your core action team to get feedback, and assign roles among co-facilitators.

D. Practice it by yourself and with others.

Dedicate at least an afternoon to run through the agenda as if you’re facilitating the workshop.

  • At this point, your deck is pretty much done. You will focus on practicing talking about the goals of each activity and explaining those activities.
  • Ask your peers to sit in this session and give critique
  • Discuss how to split the participants into teams in case you haven’t done that during the planning phase. We suggest you to have balanced teams that consists of cross-functional members.

E. Other preparation work

Prepare for the space, office supplies, traveling logistics(if workshops happens in a different location), etc.

[Example] Our Workshop Agenda at Emerson

Set up the context

It helps align the participants on the starting point.

  • Present existing materials and make them short, relevant, updated
  • Build empathy for users using activities like persona building, empathy mapping, journey mapping, etc. When there are multiples of each, pick your focus.

Set up the guiding principles (optional)

We find that running this activity will spark creative energy and healthy discussion among participants. It helps align product experience vision.

  • Activities like finish the sentence (for example, I want the product experience to be _____ ) , words to avoid (I don’t want it to feel____) to figure out the collective definition of an ideal design. Use analogies and associations to prepare people with ideation exercise
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Outcome of a guiding principle definition session

Revisit/Create user stories/scenarios for key personas

In the Emerson workshop we had user stories written beforehand. However we found it necessary to revisit them as part of the workshop because they were not written in a way that’s effective for designers. It’s a good refresher to help the ideation going forward.

  • Prioritization of user stories (straight ranking — or “buy a feature” activity)

Have fun with Sketch Icebreakers

Let the audience step outside of their comfort zone and start doing some hands-on drawing. For example, we asked the participants to draw out their ideal day from morning to night in 4 frames and share it with the group.

Prepare ideation with Pre-ideation

Slicing the elephant and split the ideation challenge. This aims to break down a big challenge to smaller challenges and encourage people to think outside the box.

  • One of the activities that we used in our workshop with Emerson was brainstorming HMWs (How Might We) from user stories/insights. We prompted the participants to think about extreme conditions and constraints, to help them generate wild, raw ideas. The 3 prompts we used were; “How might we present info not in a list format?” (which is the obvious answer), “What does the screen look like when we have 75 products to show?”(which is the extreme) and “How might we educate the new engineers?”(which is a key value of this product)
  • Cluster and combine some pre-ideation options (can be done as a group “octopus clustering” or like in our case by the moderator)
  • Prioritize options by quick voting

Start Ideation and sketching activity

Before the ideation happens, we restate the goals, constraints and opportunity areas.

  • Dive into Crazy 8s: During Crazy 8, we still aim for quantity over quality and generate a lot of ideas. Each individual is given 1 min per idea and 8 min in total to generate 8 sketches(ideas).
  • Individually select their favorite idea and flesh it out with more detail.
  • The group takes turn to present the ideas
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Heat map voting
  • Facilitator combines ideas and the participants take their time to see all the ideas on the wall. We borrowed the Google sprint technique Heat map voting (each participant gets unlimited small dots and can vote for any specific features they like in all the solution sketches, versus voting for an entire sketch.) to help the team decide which ideas to combine and move forward with.
  • Next, everyone discusses group favorite features, facilitator clusters them into several raw ideas
  • Break everyone into groups to further refine the group favorite ideas in their own station
  • Rotate stations to work on top of other ideas
  • Each group will select one person to stay at the original station while the others rotate to a new station. That person will explain the design solution to new-comers. Repeat until most participants have a chance to work on all the ideas. (Consider this as a quick iteration process)
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Rotating stations
  • Feedback gathering (post-its)

Converge ideas & Plan for next step

  • Discuss emerging patterns in the solutions and give your own perspective
  • Allocate some time for the participants to give more inputs
  • Talk about feasibility and potentially eliminate ideas

Tips for Running the workshop

  • Have coffee breaks in between activities, they prepare people for the next activities both physically and mentally.
  • Build in time for clustering ideas specifically. For the Emerson workshop, when we’re doing the HMW pre-ideation, I am pretty much doing the moderator clustering real time right after one participant read and pass me the post-its. However, the participant doesn’t really give me any breaks between turns, and didn’t pay much attention when I was clustering the ideas. I think next time I would try to slow down individual presentation by adding time in between turns.
  • Take control of the room when discussion goes in loops. But don’t be afraid to press and ask for clarification on diverging opinions in the room.
  • It’s a perfect time to listen– and observe. Because you don’t typically work with such a large group. Who’re the loud talkers? Who are the quiet influencers? Who’re the UX advocates that can be our allies? Who’re the idealists? Who’re the pragmatists? What’s the balance between them?
  • If it’s a multiple day workshop, help refresh the memory of the participants by having a recap section starting from the second day.
  • You’ll likely need to do some work during the nights too to do some kind of synthesis to show the next day. But-usually you’re pretty fried already so spend time wisely and don’t over promise.

Document and Share the workshop

  • Digitize the workshop outputs. In the Emerson workshop, we felt the persona and journey maps, and the design principles were most important to document. But quick notes as a workshop deck with images should work when you have less time.
  • Share it and socialize it! It’s a huge pain to move on as if you did nothing–which is what our client sadly did after their previous workshops. Workshop outputs need to be a part of the whole design process. Make physical copies of these and hang them in the office, so people are constantly inspired by them.


Big thanks to my editors, Vidhi Goel, Yifei Liu and Leslie Garner Franklin.

This blog post was originally posted here in our company blog.

Written by

UX and visual designer based in Silicon Valley

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