Nikki Anderson
Jan 28 · 7 min read

A workshop to turn user research insights into solutions

DILBERT © 1994 Scott Adams

I once used an insight as a solution. Straight from the user’s mouths: “we want to be able to buy clothing in the certain way.” I loved it and thought it was a great idea. There was one small problem: creating that feature would pretty much mean creating a new product for the company, which would require a lot of time and work. However, it was an insight from my research. We made it. No one used it. Flip flop, the product was dead. Not only did this cost the company money, it drained my team of time/resources and made it that much harder to re-convince people that user research is a worthwhile process. To say I was mortified would be an understatement.

Why am I telling that short (and tragic) story? It is to relay the fact:

User research gives you insights, not solutions.

It is really cool when people are excited about and using your research insights in order to inform designs. The only problem is, more often than not, you can’t just take the user’s solution verbatim and create a product/feature. I will never say never, sometimes it works, particularly in very obvious cases, such as redesigning small parts of an interface or including a feature everyone has been begging you for. However, the majority of the time, using customer’s solutions directly will not get you to the best solution.

Just because user research isn’t giving you the direct solution to a problem or question, it is giving you information in order for you to make an informed decision. Informed decisions are better than making decisions either 1. based off of nothing or 2. based off of your gut/intuition. User research will give you a window into how users are thinking about things, but that doesn’t mean they know how to properly design the experience of said feature they “need to have right now.”

What is a design studio?

Instead of taking these insights and turning them directly into solutions, products or features, there are better ways to use user research to get to unbelievable ideas and UX. One of those ways is by running a design studio based on user research insights. A design studio is a meeting that brings together stakeholders from different teams to create ideas from user research insights through sketching, discussion and iteration. Overall, design studios help you explore problems, create many designs and unify teams.

There are a few reasons why design studios can be beneficial:

  1. External stakeholders are able to get excited about research and flex the creative side of their brain, which many product managers and developers don’t often have the opportunity to do
  2. Allows stakeholders (and yourself) to turn user research insights into actual ideas (otherwise known as solutions, I just hate the word solution)
  3. Enables the team to come up with many different ideas as opposed to the one that your user mentioned. User research insights should almost always be translated into multiple ideas, unless it is a very simple change
  4. Everyone gets a chance to contribute — I invite developers, product managers, sales, marketing, solutions architects and basically anyone I can get to contribute. With this many different people and perspectives in the room, I can get a lot of unique approaches to the same problem
  5. Similar to above, but running design studios lead, oftentimes, to innovation. Not only may you find a very creative answer to the problem in front of you, but you might also gain insight into other ideas or research projects you could be running

How to run a design studio

There are a few ways to go about doing this, as there are with most things in life, but I have a process I generally follow that has yielded great results in the past. Generally I only run design studios for larger problems or areas of exploration. Very rarely will I schedule people’s time for a more simple bug fix or smaller, iterative change. I will break up my process into several different areas.

Part 1: Prep

Before you run a design studio, you definitely need to prepare yourself, especially if this is your first. Here are the different steps I use to prep:

  1. Assign a moderator. This is typically me. The moderator is the one that will lead the entire design studio, keep an eye on time, keep participants on track, bring energy and enthusiasm and will not participate in the actual activities
  2. Set an agenda*. My agenda is fairly detailed; it includes objectives, any homework* and potential outcomes. If I’m inviting participants who have never experienced a design studio, or I am new to a company, I will include a short informational powerpoint on why design studios are important and effective
  3. Create a short presentation. I always have a powerpoint ready as it makes it easier to get everyone’s attention when starting the design studio and ensures we are all on the same page. My presentation includes: what a design studio is, what we will be doing and the problem we are trying to generate ideas for. I also include sample sketches from previous design studios: this helps people visualize what we are trying to achieve and also eases people’s minds if they don’t feel comfortable drawing
  4. Decide on participants. As I mentioned, I will invite as many departments as possible. I usually cap my design studios anywhere from 10–12 people, so that might mean running two separate groups.
  5. Invite people. I will generally check people’s calendars to choose a few days that are best. I give 2–3 options depending on how many sessions I will be running, and let people choose which is best. Each session is about 75 minutes long (although I always wish I had 90, it is often tough to schedule that long). I also make sure to include a clear agenda with objectives and any homework* the participants need to do
  6. Print out design studio templates, which make it easier for people to sequence their sketches, and bring them to the meeting with many pens and pencils
  7. Arrange for food, whether this be lunch or snacks and drinks. I always bring food, such as cookies, chocolates, pizza, etc. I once held a design studio at the end of the day on a Thursday. No one was particularly thrilled until they walked into the meeting room and were greeted with beer and cake

*I have outlined a sample agenda at the bottom of this article

*Homework generally includes participants reviewing the relevant research by rereading research summaries, rewatching research sessions or looking back at research notes. I like to ensure stakeholders remember the relevant insights before we start trying to solve for them

Part 2: Beginning the design studio

These are the steps I take while running the design studio. I have included approximate times for each step, based on a typical 75 minute studio.

  1. 5 minutes: Have everyone introduce themselves and the team they are on/department they are in. Sometimes all your stakeholders will be teammates, but I have run many design studios where people in different departments have never met!
  2. 3 minutes: Run through what a design studio is, as well as the agenda. I always tell participants I will be timeboxing the meeting, which means I will be very aware of time, and people might have to stop working mid-sketch or mid-sentence. I also announce that absolutely everyone has to draw.
  3. 3 minutes: Present the problem, answer any remaining questions and tell everyone to take a few sheets of paper. I reiterate that everyone has to draw
    Total: 11 minutes

Part 2A: Running the design studio

During this part of the design studio, I leave the agenda up, which outlines each activity we will do and the amount of time associated with it

  1. 8 minutes: everyone takes 8 minutes to sketch as many different solutions to the problem as they can. There is not limit to the ideas — they can be as wild as people want them to be. There are no wrong ideas. Remind developers and product managers not to think technically, but, instead, creatively. Give participants 2 minute warnings
  2. 5 minutes: each participant chooses their favorite sketch and posts them on to the board
  3. 15 minutes: each person has about 1 minute to pitch their idea to the group
  4. 5 minutes: everyone takes another 5 minutes to sketch as many ideas as possible again
  5. 5–10 minutes: if people would like to exchange their favorite sketch with a new one, they can post it on the board and get 1 minute to pitch their new idea
  6. 5 minutes: the group votes on the top three ideas/sketches. This can happen a few ways: the moderator can provide each person with two colored stickies and they can sticky their top two choices, the three sketches with the most stickies are considered the three chosen. You can also present each sketch, have people put their heads down and thumbs up for up to two sketches. Either works, but I like to keep mine as anonymous as possible
  7. 5 minutes: participants give any feedback on the top three ideas/sketches
  8. 5 minutes: talk about follow up and answer any questions
    Total: 53–63 minutes

Total time in part 2: 64–74 minutes

Part 3: Post-design studio work

Now that you have run your design studio, you have to provide follow-up to the participants.

  1. Write up the results of the design studio. This includes a big thank you, as well as a reminder of what you did and why, and then attach the three chosen sketches in addition to the others. Talk about how the designated designer(s) will mock up the sketches into prototypes, which will be tested in usability tests. Invite the participants to the usability tests
  2. Have the designer(s) turn the sketches into prototypes and run the usability tests. Be sure to share the results with the team and get them excited for the next design studio!

Design studios are a really great tool to get people excited about user research and creating ideas based off of research. These types of exercises really help when trying to evangelize user research. If you are having problems convincing stakeholders to attend, look up sample design studios and show them the results, it can help. I encourage you to run your own design studio and see how it works! Also, comment back, I love hearing from people :)

Nikki Anderson

Written by

A qualitative user experience researcher who loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs

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