Five tips for better workshops

“Let’s do a workshop with everyone.” While this has become the ritual for initialising any sort of design process, it can be a huge waste of a lot of people’s time. So how do you make sure it’s actually worthwhile and leads to good results? Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years.

Everybody likes the idea of a workshop, right? You get to sit down, get your hands dirty, and work things out — together. It sounds like a blast. In fact, at A Color Bright, we start most of our design processes with a workshop. It helps us get into the groove of a project and establish a shared understanding of its cultural context as well as a sense of ownership amongst the entire team. It’s also usually the best way to create a solid foundation to build on: a set of objectives and principles that will guide us in making important decisions moving forward. But how do you achieve that? How do you make sure a workshop is actually useful and doesn’t just feel like a waste of everyone’s time (with complimentary croissants)? Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years that help to not just get everyone in a room, but also to get the most out of it.

1. Talk to every participant prior to the workshop

Much of the success of the workshop relies on the work done before it starts. Before getting to the actual workshop, try to have a direct conversation with each participant. It’s always helpful to get an idea of everyone’s opinion and personal priorities before group dynamics start kicking in. You can use standout quotes as a conversation starter in the warm-up session: Where do we all agree already? What are the sharpest contrasts?

At the same time, this is a good opportunity to set expectations, especially when you work with bigger organisations with a fetish for org charts and hierarchies. You don’t want the Director of this-and-that to walk into the room and wait to be served a bunch of options to pick from. If you are in the business of developing digital products, you want to make clear from the get-go that the only way to do this successfully is to form true partnerships where everyone on the team has the same emotional commitment and is willing to contribute, not just “deliver” or “sign off”.

2. Do qualitative user research

The last thing you want in a workshop is a bunch of people speculating about “what the user wants” without any sort of factual knowledge to base this on. Now, conducting user research is far from easy, especially for smaller product studios like us, but there’s always something you can do.

Every conversation with an existing or potential user will deepen your domain knowledge and add a healthy perspective. If you plan to create personas during the workshop, these conversations will be helpful for that. At the very least, they will spark some thinking.

3. Prepare the room beforehand

Growing up as a kid, it didn’t get much better than the yearly Weihnachtsbescherung. Your parents would prepare the Christmas tree, carefully arrange the presents, turn on some music, and light up some sparklers — all behind closed doors.

Then the bell would ring, the door would open, and you would walk into a room full of wonder… Remember how great that was? (If you don’t, you’re probably not German. Just trust us, it’s magic.)

As it turns out, this magic doesn’t get lost when you grow up.

Make sure the room looks great before your participants arrive. Everything you can do before the workshop, you should do. Print the agenda, put a matrix on the whiteboard, prepare some moodboards, have pens and paper and post-its and other paraphernalia ready for everyone. Also, clean up those sketches from your last meeting, ffs. It sounds simple, but it makes a huge difference.

4. Fill in the blanks

For everything you want to do and achieve during your workshop, plan to use a particular method or framework. “Now let’s all discuss” simply won’t do it.

Presenting and dot-voting story boards that answer various “How might we” questions.

There is no such thing as too much structure in a workshop. Even if you’re friendly with all participants and it might feel awkward at first to take on the role of the facilitator with a keen eye on the agenda, people will appreciate a clear framework and being given specific instructions.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. There is a plethora of established methods, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to one of them.

Make sure that every exercise — and its desired outcome — is 100% clear at all times. Spelling out tasks in written form is helpful, as it will allow participants that might have lost you for a second to easily figure out what what is being asked of them. Here’s an example: imagine you do a moodboarding exercise and want people to cluster images that embody certain attributes. Put a label on the wall that says “To me, these images convey ‘authoritative’ the best” instead of just “Authoritative”. That way, it’s not just crystal-clear what people are supposed to be doing — you also end up with a self-explanatory artefact you can photograph and use for reference after the workshop.

Whatever method or framework you use, always explain how it works, where it comes from and why it’s useful. Repeatedly. This has nothing to do with being defensive about the value of your workshop; it’s about clarity and getting exactly the results you want.

5. Tools > Documentation

So you got someone to take notes? Great. The problem is that documentation is nothing without synthesis. In fact, it’s a huge waste of time. Everyone knows what you did or spoke about in the workshop, why bother putting it in an email?

A much better outcome is a tool (or a set of tools) that the team can take with them and use in their work moving forward. Think: a product canvas board with instructions on how it will inform the future process. A story map to be put on the wall in your war room. A low-fidelity click dummy. A design mantra.

After all, it’s not about the workshop per se. It’s about providing everyone on the team with the best possible tools to do excellent work and create a product of actual value.

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