Discovery Techniques

The Secrets of Creating Great Design Workshops

If you’re a designer these days and someone isn’t bugging you to learn to code, they’re probably telling you to work on your “soft skills”. By which they mean, “You gotta learn to work with people. Designers are facilitators.” I’m here to tell you that they’re not wrong.

Facilitation is one of those things they don’t really teach in school and there’s no formal training program when you get on the job. When you’re trying to get better at something, it’s helpful to have a basic recipe, a pattern to fall back on when you’re in over your head. This is that recipe, and there are three ingredients:

  1. The purpose: The desired outcome of a group session
  2. The framework: The rules of how people will participate
  3. The questions: The tools you use to elaborate participants’ contributions

Nielsen-Norman Group suggests a similar recipe, though I’d quibble with the absence of follow-up questions. The questions in their recipe seem to re-state the purpose or goals.

1. Start with purpose

Why’d you get the group together? What do you want to get out of this activity? What do you want at the end that you don’t have right now? Usually my workshops have two purposes a project purpose and a team purpose.

Project purpose

Your activity should move the project forward, revealing information from where it had been hidden. Perhaps you need more insights about your product’s target audience, or you need to align the team around priorities, or you need some ideas for a new feature.

Team purpose

Every activity feeds the team’s collective intelligence. It builds trust and helps people learn each others’ working style. Teams don’t get stronger by staying in their cubicles. A good group activity gets teams fired up because they’re excited about the problem and the people they get to work with.

2. Use a framework

Once you have a purpose, identify a good structure for running the activity, what I call a framework. I turn to Gamestorming frequently to give me ideas for group activities, adjusting them liberally to suit my purpose and circumstance.

A framework is like a set of blanks you ask participants to fill in. You give them the blank and they give you the response. The way you ask and how the blanks relate to each other give meaning to their responses.

Yes, a mad-lib is a framework.

There’s a little more to frameworks than blanks and context. I’ve used lots of different frameworks, and they break down into these four kinds of activities: prompting, chunking, composing, and engaging.

I. Prompting

A prompt gives people a problem to think about. Take the time to craft a good prompt, one that challenges participants but isn’t so constrained to prevent them from venturing responses.

There are many ways to prompt an activity. The two I use most frequently are:

  • Technique 1 — Question: The easiest way to prompt a group is to ask a tough question, one with lots of possible answers but no clear distinct answer. A favorite is “What features are important to users?” or “What do our users want to accomplish?”
  • Technique 2 — Scenario: Another typical prompt is a scenario, a short story about a user. The emphasis here is the problem faced by this group of people, the part of their world that’s broken. Be clear about what you want participants to do about this scenario: draw screens, map out a process, explain the user’s journey.
Two techniques for framing a prompt. A simple open-ended question may be all it takes. Use a scenario when participants need more background or inspiration to provide meaningful responses.

Think about: How much information do you need to provide in the prompt? Can they draw on their own experience, or do you need to provide background? How much do you need to constrain the prompt (through assumptions or considerations)?

II. Chunking

Turning information into smaller bits makes the whole easier to manage. Chunking information is a step on the way to the workshop’s goal, and yet is useful in and of itself because you’re creating the building blocks for deeper discussions. By identifying or generating chunks of information, participants can then manipulate the chunks to reveal different relationships and connections. Three of my favorite methods for chunking:

  • Technique 1 — Post-its: Participants can respond to the prompt by writing individual answers on post-it notes.
  • Technique 2 — Round table: You go around the table (as many times as necessary) and ask each participant to respond to the prompt. I usually capture the responses as a list on the whiteboard or in a text file projected for all to see.
  • Technique 3 — Universal elements: You don’t need to generate the chunks on the fly. In a sketching session, for example, people are combining basic shapes (rectangles, lines, text) into screen designs.
Techniques for chunking in a workshop. People can generate their own chunks of information (for example, on post-its) or use existing chunks (for example, shapes in a sketch).

Think about: The chunking exercise rests on participant confidence. Participants should be able to draw on their own knowledge to respond to the prompt. With high confidence, participants can safely scribble out post-its for 15 minutes. But, if they lack confidence because the prompt is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, they will need more facilitator involvement to draw them out. They’ll also need to hear other responses to inspire their own.

III. Composing

With all the building blocks out on the table, you can ask your participants to manipulate them in different ways. Though combining chunks or elements, participants form more complex responses to the prompt.

  • Technique 1 — Open groups: Participants are responsible for developing groups, as with KJ Analysis. This approach is helpful when you’re curious about how people think about these ideas, how they model them in their minds.
  • Technique 2 — Closed groups: Participants place their chunks into pre-defined groups. One of my favorite frameworks is Force Field Analysis, where participants identify forces working for and against a desired goal.
  • Technique 3 — Sketching: Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch, but drawing pictures is a composition of universal elements (like rectangles, lines, and text).

Think about: How can you get your participants to create holistic pictures quickly? What additional information might they need to group chunks into compositions? Is it more useful to you to know those groups ahead of time?

IV. Engaging

A composition doesn’t stand on its own. Rendering a judgment about it–however uncomfortable that might be–puts the ideas into the context of the project. In this part of the workshop, you’re encouraging participants to engage with others’ work.

Chunking and composing alone create a landscape, while engaging participants with that landscape creates another layer of information. You’re asking them to help you understand what’s important. You’re asking them to reveal their perspective on that landscape.

  • Technique 1 — Dot-voting: Look, people love stickers. I don’t know why. They just do. Give them six. Ask them to put 3, 2, and 1 on the chunks or groups they think are most important.
  • Technique 2 — Critique: As much as they love stickers, they hate criticizing each other. So, critique may require educating participants on doing it effectively. That said, these discussions can be eye-opening, and set the right tone for subsequent work. Unlike dot-voting, critique is most powerful when participants have a chance to revise their work.
A composition is a landscape, and engagement adds a layer of information about how that landscape relates to the project overall.

Think about: While engagement can be as simple as putting a voting sticker on a post-it, some engagement activities require more time and training, like formal critique. How much can you invest in training participants to be effective at engagement? How much information do they need, like knowing the criteria for what’s important, to render a judgment.

I designed a facilitation framework to help people write problem statements. The prompt is identifying the user role, as well as the request for information about the user. The chunking is writing down a few different options for activities and then how users perform those activities. The composition is pulling those ideas together into a problem statement. Engaging is subtle: Participants are asked to make choices about which of the three activities they want to focus on.

The basic framework for writing problem statements.

There are tons of facilitation frameworks out there. The truth is, however, that most follow this structure: prompt, chunk, compose, engage. You create blanks, ask people to fill them in, then use their responses to elevate the conversation. Missing one of these steps renders the workshop less meaningful, less productive.

3. Elaborate through questions

As you near the end of the workshop, you see the framework come together. Participants have generated bits of information, recomposed them in different ways, and perhaps discussed individual ideas. But you’re not done. It’s time to step back and reflect.

With at least 10–20 minutes remaining in the session, I reconvene the entire group and we have a meta-discussion. These conversations allow participants to surface their observations about the activity itself. Some of the questions I ask–usually in a round table format–include:

  • What’s one thing you learned today?
  • What questions do you still have?
  • What idea did you see today that you like best?
  • What did you see today that surprised you most?
  • What is one thing that got buried that you think is important?

These conclusions add yet another layer of information. They help you build consensus and set expectations. They help you walk away with a clear vision of next steps.


Looking for an experienced team to help define your product, perhaps by running a great design workshop? EightShapes has been serving organizations like yours more than 10 years. We work on projects of all shapes and sizes, bringing to bear the best design tools and techniques. Have a project that could use our help? Let us know.

Practical Design Discovery (A Book Apart, 2017)

This article is part of a series on discovery techniques, an extension of my latest book Practical Design Discovery (A Book Apart, 2017).