How to get the most out of a design workshop

Designing stuff is hard. Collaboration, though, makes it easier.

The best way to collaborate is by holding workshops with your project’s stakeholders. It’ll help you gather insights, ideas, work out priorities and let you gauge their concerns or desires. Good collaboration will significantly improve the end product or service, all while strengthening relationships with stakeholders.

That said, this stuff can be hard too. ‘Collaborators’ can be uncooperative, the workshop can be unproductive and you might find it awkward to facilitate. I’ve run my fair share of design workshops and over the years they’ve become easier to facilitate and the outcomes more useful. I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a magic formula to running something engaging, collaborative and above all, worthwhile for everyone involved.

A lot of it comes down to planning and structuring the workshop carefully.

Scene setting: creativity is collaborative

So many of your stakeholders and even the rest of your digital team will turn up and be convinced they’re “just not creative”. And feeling that way is a real blocker for thinking outside the box and getting the most out of a workshop. It creates a ‘perfection bias’ — the idea that if it’s not perfect straight away, then it’s not right at all.

Yes, as the designer in the room you’re likely to be the only one who has the technical design skills, but helping workshop attendees to get out of the mindset that creativity is exclusive to designers is really important.

(Cringe, I know but) icebreakers are a great way to engage people’s creativity. Here are two of my favourites:

Crazy eights — Give everyone five minutes to sketch eight different ways to get a golf ball inside a lemon. It’ll help people think creatively, not necessarily logically.

One-handed paper aeroplane — Ask attendees to work in teams to make a paper aeroplane using their non-dominant hand. See whose plane flies the farthest. It’ll warm them up to collaborative working.

Everyone’s here because their skills and knowledge are valued. Equally

Making sure each person outside your digital team and even outside of design, feels valued is hard. But it’s not just difficult for you. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

If you’re a stakeholder and you’ve been asked to attend a design workshop, organised by a designer, it’d be easy to feel you’re being asked to do someone else’s work. Addressing this mindset at the start of a workshop is essential. You need to give attendees confidence. In the introductions, let everybody know why each person has been invited, what skills and expertise they bring. This’ll heighten each person’s confidence in their abilities, their ideas and just as importantly: confidence in you.

Planning your workshop

Before you send those invites think carefully about what you want to achieve, how you can do that and who’s best-placed to help you.

Work backwards

Start with the kind of insight you want to get out of the session. Is it user insight? Is it a list of opportunities? Is it a collection of ideas? With that in mind, consider how you’re going to get that. It could be ‘a day in the life’, journey mapping or a sketch workshop respectively.

Invites list

In general, you should invite stakeholders, owners, subject matter experts. Remember this is as much about maintaining relationships and designing openly as it is about gathering information.

How many?

Practically, make sure you have no more than 10 people. A golden rule is to only invite the amount of people you’d be comfortable with inviting to a dinner party.

Breaks

Adequate breaks are important. I’ve been in journey mapping workshops that take all day. If that’s the case then allow people to have structured breaks.

Information for the invite

Share your plans. Let everyone know the tasks you’ll be undertaking and the outcomes you’re expecting. Be ready to answer any questions.

Prep for quiet times

Prepare ideas or do some research ahead of the day. Inevitably, there will be quiet spots in the session.

On the day of your workshop

Make sure you have all the materials you need and your room prepped. Before people arrive I like to have a slide deck set up to prompt to discussions.

Consider putting slides together for:

  • an introduction to the project
  • the goal of the session
  • prompts for discussion/sketches
  • thanks and next steps
  • who to contact

A deck is also useful for setting ground rules. Manchester design event Craft sets out a code of conduct and we (I’m co-organiser) expect all attendees to familiarise themselves with it before the event. It’s designed to help everyone feel welcome and comfortable.

During your workshop

Remember, you’re the captain

As the facilitator, people look to you as the leader of design and it’s true. You’re the one bringing people together to get a better grasp of something, that shows some excellent design chops. If you don’t know the people attending and are worried about your confidence consider your body language. Open body language conveys confidence.

(Amy Cuddy’s power pose theory is under scrutiny, but her TED talk is still super interesting)

Involve someone else

There is nothing wrong with inviting someone else to help facilitate your session.

Ask the right kind of questions

Prompt people as much as you can. Provoke thought and ideas by asking hypothetical questions, but be careful not to drive people’s ideas too much, confirmation bias is a real thing.

End the session if it’s not working out

Running a workshop can sometimes feel like you’re playing teacher — occasionally people might be uncooperative. Sometimes, you’ll find you need more time to think, or that it is too early for the workshop or even that the room is missing someone/thing important. That’s all ok. There’s no shame in admitting this — it’s better than taking up people’s time.

After the workshop

Not the end of the conversation

Great, you’ve got all the insights you wanted. Thank every person for their specific contributions — acknowledge their skills and knowledge again. Keep them updated on what the insights were and what you’re going to do with them. Leave the door open for them to contribute further and give them the option of being updated about your progress.

You might need to run the session again with another group of people. That’s fine, if time permits, it’ll only give you more insight.


This is a method I’ve found helpful but there’s no magic formula — every workshop, every set of people is different. The important thing isn’t really running a ‘perfect’ workshop, it’s about engaging attendees effectively enough to get the best insights you can.


Further reading:

Workshop ideas: