6 Tips for Facilitating a Human-Centered Design Workshop for Students

Arden Klemmer
Sep 26 · 10 min read
Illustration of Arden and Eduardo under a tent, one student taking notes, and another student putting Post-Its on the wall.
Illustration of Arden and Eduardo under a tent, one student taking notes, and another student putting Post-Its on the wall.
Running a Human-Centered Design training workshop presents a lot of human-centered challenges. Here are some tips to survive.

We’re frequently asked to provide educational workshops on Human-Centered Design (HCD) methodologies for design students, as well as for professional groups who want to bring Human-Centered Design thinking to their established practices.

Background

Earlier this year, we were invited to teach a week-long workshop on Information Architecture at the International Business School at Jönköping University in Sweden (pronounced: yawn-shupping). We visited Andrea Resmini’s Information Architecture and Innovation class for five days of guided instruction. Resmini is one of the silent forces behind the world of Information Architecture (IA) and started the Information Architecture Institute, so we were excited to work with his students and visit his studio.

In this post, we share some insights from that experience to help guide you as you develop your own Human-Centered Design workshop.

Jönköping University

1. Decide How to Structure Your Workshop

Planning your workshop’s structure is your first step. How many people will attend the workshop? How well do they know each other? Will there be time for group projects (highly recommended)? If so, what will the workshop’s final presentation look like? How will you balance classroom time with user research and presenting time?

The answers to these questions will be driven by the length of your workshop, your class size, and the content you’re teaching. If you have a very large group of students, think of how you can keep teams to four to six students, the optimal size for group participation. This could be accomplished by segmenting larger teams into “departments,” or having small, cross-functional teams attack different parts of one problem. Limiting the number of problem spaces gives everyone time to present and offers plenty of ways for individuals to contribute. If you have a smaller class… yay :).

With the Information Architecture and Innovation class, we knew that there was a big gap in participation. We set up small working groups to make sure everyone had space to speak and contribute, get their hands dirty in their own community, and tackle real problems.

While students learned about different methodologies in a group setting, they immediately applied these methods to their group projects. We had them close the week with a demo that gave students a chance to share their work, pushing them to synthesize their results and develop a prototype against a deadline. This provided an opportunity for them to see their learning in action in a positive, supportive setting.

Man in fedora in front of a dry erase wall. Two axes are drawn, covered in post its, showing impact vs accessibility.
Man in fedora in front of a dry erase wall. Two axes are drawn, covered in post its, showing impact vs accessibility.
Eduardo standing behind a student as he gestures towards the wall, presenting for his group.
Eduardo standing behind a student as he gestures towards the wall, presenting for his group.
The yellow room in Andrea Resmini’s class for Information Architecture and Innovation, with yellow “whiteboard” walls, and a tent in the center.

Here’s a sample schedule for a five-day* workshop:

  • Getting started — introductions, ground rules, ice breakers
  • Teaming and surviving design projects
  • Project selections and problem statements
  • Field research
  • Retro
  • Stakeholders
  • Research methods overview
  • Conducting user interviews
  • Field research
  • Retro
  • Empathy maps
  • User personas
  • Charette
  • KJ Method
  • Field research
  • Retro
  • Ethics lecture
  • Card sorting
  • Synthesizing your findings
  • Field research
  • Retro
  • Synthesis
  • Project presentations
  • Retro

*Don’t forget to include periodic breaks and lunch!

We also spun up a Slack channel for the class to communicate throughout the workshop. Because some students weren’t able to come for the full five days, we had one student send out a recap at the end of each day.

2. Assess and Utilize Your Space

Eduardo presenting under a tent in the yellow room, students seated in a circle or chairs around him.
Eduardo presenting under a tent in the yellow room, students seated in a circle or chairs around him.
We had a lot of mobile furniture and open space in the yellow room, which allowed students to sit with their group and also in a circle with the whole class.

Your design workshop should make good use of the designated learning space, and should be stocked with all of the attendant supplies for a hands-on design workshop. We recommend:

  • Open Space. Participants are encouraged to leave their chairs and move around. Don’t make it hard for them.
  • Tables. Ideally, these are big enough for groups of four to six, and small enough to rearrange. Sometimes we insert obstacles or tasks in the workshop, which require the group to move their tables. This places them into the role of designer.
  • Post-Its, Sharpies, and printer paper. Sharpies provide the perfect level of fidelity for fearless ideating. The goal is to get everyone communicating fluidly and quickly with pictures, words, phrases, and graphs.
  • White boards and dry-erase markers. Whether it’s on the walls or on wheels, vertical space is great for collaborating with groups. If you don’t have white boards, large easel pads or static-cling dry-erase sheets will do the trick.
  • Stickers. We use stickers for voting. Bold colors and shapes help differentiate votes from a distance.
  • Egg timers and buzzers. Of course your phone can do this, but we try to keep workshop attendees *away* from the distraction of technology, and we like to model that behavior ourselves. When timeboxing activities, you will inevitably have to ask someone to stop talking. This can feel rude (it’s not). Having the support of a very loud buzzer is helpful.
  • Painter’s tape. Painter’s tape is a handy way to divide the wall or floor into sections, axes, swimlanes, whatever!
  • TV or projector. If you’re also lecturing during your workshop, a slide deck is imperative. Of course, you’re speaking loudly and clearly, but a visual aide can help attendees grasp your message. For bullet-pointed phrases and graphics, make sure everything is big and high contrast.
  • Snacks and caffeine. It takes a lot of energy to learn all day. Make sure the students have sustenance. Consider different health and dietary restrictions.
Three students writing on post its. Table is covered with paper, post its, and half-eaten snacks.
Three students writing on post its. Table is covered with paper, post its, and half-eaten snacks.
Students refueled with healthy snacks as they worked, intensely, all day.

At Jönköping University, Resmini built a four-room studio for students to learn in an interactive way. The space includes the main classroom, a kitchen (where students notoriously break the coffee machine in creative pursuits), a VR room, and a bean bag room. The walls of the main classroom are painted an eye-searing yellow, and it’s equipped with dry-erase walls and a tent in the middle.

The yellow classroom is where we held most workshops and team building activities, but every room was utilized in some way. The students frequently moved to other rooms to work out ideas in a quieter setting. (If you work in an open office, you know how valuable private space is. This is also true for workshops where folks are working on different group projects in one main room.) The kitchen has a karaoke stage in the back, so lectures and final presentations were held there.

3. Demonstrate Key Concepts and Methodologies

Like any well-planned curriculum, explaining the key concepts and methodologies you want learners to absorb during the course of your workshop is critical. Target your concepts and methodologies and find hands-on and interactive ways to demonstrate them, so that students begin to get a feel for how each methodology works before wielding them on their own. We’ve been known to send a self evaluation on the methodologies before and after the workshop.

In the Jönköping workshop, we taught students the “why” and the “how” of the Human-Centered Design approach, and gave them a toolkit of methodologies for implementing that approach through a combination of lectures and interactive demonstrations.

Our lessons covered:

  • Problem statements
  • Stakeholder identification
  • Conducting user interviews
  • Charette
  • The Jiro Kawakita (KJ) Method (similar to affinity mapping)
  • Card sorting
  • User personas
  • Empathy maps
  • Journey mapping
  • Prototyping
  • Synthesis!

You don’t need to present students with every possible design methodology. Select which ones will be most useful to your students, and focus on teaching those effectively. Get creative with your demonstrations to make sure the methodology sticks.

For instance, Eduardo Ortiz, one of the workshop’s co-teachers and our company’s CEO and Co-founder, had a bad fever on the second day of our workshop. On the third day, we taught about empathy maps, so we made an empathy map of Eduardo with the goal of overcoming his illness, and the students helped fill it in. By using a common experience from the day before, we had great material to contextualize the difference between Eduardo’s goals and tasks, influences and feelings.

Eduardo presenting in the red kitchen room. Students are sitting in the foreground watching. Screen shows FEMA project.
Eduardo presenting in the red kitchen room. Students are sitting in the foreground watching. Screen shows FEMA project.
Eduardo’s presentation was not only informative, but it gave students a needed change of pace, switching to listening mode in a different room.

Make a point to iterate every day.

One way to incorporate iteration into a short workshop is by asking the class for feedback and integrating it into the workshop the next day. This shows them you’re listening, and models what a successful feedback loop looks like. In another workshop, we had a tiny television for our presentation. People at the far end of the room couldn’t read the slides. So we updated our slides to have a bigger font and higher contrast the following day.

4. Apply Methodologies to Real Problems in Real Time

Your design workshop should give students the opportunity to use the new concepts and methodologies on real problems in real time. This will help them contextualize the lessons quickly and give them practice applying their thinking to other real-world design problems. One thing we teach is that these methods are tools, and tools can be modified to meet your needs. Applying methods to real world examples requires tool modification right away.

Students “hit the streets” on the first day, and began collecting real information about their users and stakeholders to establish a hypothesis and build an evidence-based solution. Students were challenged to synthesize quickly and frequently.

Our goal was to get students comfortable with the following hairy, real-world design challenges:

  • The “diverging and converging” phases of a project. You may not have group consensus at all stages of the creative process, and that’s okay!
  • Interviewing strangers or classmates. It feels awkward, but you can do it, and it’s valuable.
  • Modifying research methods to meet your needs. Learn the tools, understand why they’re designed the way they are, then use the tools how you want.
  • Navigating bureaucracy. Get crafty with the resources and timeframe you have available.

5. Have a Plan When the Methodology Fails

Four students in conversation, one is standing at the wall, placing Post-It notes in a grid.
Four students in conversation, one is standing at the wall, placing Post-It notes in a grid.
One group used an affinity map in order to re-articulate their problem, agree on the simplest solution, and move forward in consensus.

Students will hit roadblocks. These moments provide a wonderful opportunity for students to recall a lesson from the previous day. We ask students who are stuck to use one of their new skills to get over their roadblock. For example, they might define their “stuckness” in a problem statement and hold a charette to come up with a solution as a team.

When prototyping, it also helps to remind them that it’s okay to make things really, really simple. When students hear “prototype,” they think software. But a prototype can be a piece of paper. It can be an action. As long as they’re modeling a section of their product and testing how users interact with it, that’s a prototype!

6. Have Students Synthesize and Present Their Work

Showcasing student work not only celebrates their achievements, but it also gives them a concrete timeline to work within, and demonstrates how much can be accomplished quickly with the new methods they learned.

Our week in Jönköping culminated in a “demo day” of student projects, including the demonstration of a working prototype.

The students’ projects were:

  1. How might we incorporate student feedback and ideas earlier in the curriculum development process so that courses are truly student-centered?
  2. How might we improve the process of booking study rooms so that students can use those resources better?
  3. How might we reduce the amount of waste generated at cafés around campus so that Jönköping University can follow its mission of environmentalism?
  4. How might we improve communication in group work so that students with varying communication styles can benefit?
Student presenting in front of a screen which shows a mobile wireframe.
Student presenting in front of a screen which shows a mobile wireframe.
Student presenting in front of a screen which displays an image of the on-campus café menu.
Student presenting in front of a screen which displays an image of the on-campus café menu.
Four students on stage in the red room, one is speaking in front of a screen, which says “Methodology.”
Four students on stage in the red room, one is speaking in front of a screen, which says “Methodology.”
On the final day, students presented their work.

This last project was particularly fascinating because of its self-referential nature. Our class was exactly the group they were targeting: group work among students with different backgrounds and communication styles. Students in our class that week hailed from Finland, Germany, Madagascar, Brazil, China, India, and Moldova (oh and Sweden, but fun fact, there were no Americans). The students also ranged in age from those in their twenties to their fifties. The amount of diversity in one room was pretty remarkable.

Through research and observation, the group’s problem statement evolved from this line of thinking:

Students who don’t talk should learn to be more vocal…

to this one:

All students need to make space for different communication styles.

They originally assumed these differences were cultural in nature, having to do with the students’ individual backgrounds. But soon, their thinking shifted, as students learned that there were a multitude of factors influencing the communication dynamics, including: gender, personality type, the length of conversational pause, manners and customs, comfort speaking English, and how well students knew each other.

The prototype this group produced was a pair of badges to be worn during group meetings. One badge read, “I’m quiet, ask me questions.” Another read, “I talk a lot, please interrupt me.” They were able to test these prototypes on the other groups in the class as well as students convening in the library. One observation was that the very act of wearing a badge was enough to change that student’s behavior.

Regardless of why the badges worked, they did actually help conversations become more evenly distributed. As teachers, it was cool to witness. As designers who believe design has the power to make the world a little better, it was affirming.

That’s all!

Selfie of Arden and Eduardo in face masks.
Selfie of Arden and Eduardo in face masks.
Recharging at the hotel.

&Partners

We build ethical technology products that disrupt the status quo through human-centered design and research.

Arden Klemmer

Written by

Artist <> Designer | Director of Product Design, &Partners

&Partners

&Partners

We build ethical technology products that disrupt the status quo through human-centered design and research.

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