8 tips for hosting your first 
participatory workshop

Some practical suggestions from our workshop hosting experience.

A scene of our participatory workshop

“Why not give it a try?” Ricky, our senior user researcher said. 
“Design with people in my parents age without any design backgrounds? In-ter-est-ing……!” I couldn’t believe that he just threw such a crazy idea in our design planning meeting.

Before we go through the whole story, let me give you more context about it. Mozilla Taipei UX team is currently working on a new product exploration for improving the online experience of people between the age of 55~65 in Taiwan. From 2 month, 4 rounds of in-depth interviews we conducted with 34 participants, we understood our target users holistically from their internet behaviors, unmet needs, to their lifestyles. After hosting a 2-day condense version of design sprint in Taipei office for generating brilliant product concepts (more stories, stay tuned :)), we were about to reach the stage of validation.

How do we know if the concepts are solving users’ pain points? What will be the best validation method? We were discussing enthusiastically in the meeting. As designers with age 30+ years younger than our users, we weren’t fully confident with our concepts. Then we realized that participatory workshop might be a good approach especially for such a special segment of the target users.

We have lots of experience on hosting workshops, but most of them are internal. This is our first time hosting a participatory workshop externally, and also our first time having a group of participants who have lots of life experiences but zero for designing. That’s why I felt so anxious when we decided to give it a try. But in the end, we nailed it. We were so satisfied with what we learned from the whole process, and how efficient it is (compared to having individual user interviews).

Here are the tips summarized from our experience.

Set Goals

Starting with clear goals is the key for the entire workshop

Since we can’t accomplish all of what we have in mind in just one 2.5-hrs workshop, we need to make clear goals and scope at the outset to make sure we’re focusing on the right direction. During our planning session, we went through all the hypothesis and product concepts, and discussed about the questions we have for validation.

After the prioritization, the 3 goals we want to achieve through the participatory workshop are: validating the hypothetical scenarios, get users’ feedback for the product concepts, and get more insights from their crazy ideas.


Invite Participants

Participants who are extreme users help us get more valuable insights

Phone interviews are very useful for screening participants. Before we decided to hand out the invitation, we need to make sure that he/ she not only fit our participants’ criteria, but also is an expert on the use cases we set. Influencers with who can express their digital experience precisely are the best, because we’ll ask them to share their thoughts on the design topics, not just having Q&A interviews (from the previous street intercept experience, we found out that some of the people at this age bracket couldn’t do so).

The extreme user shared his cross-device online experiences with the team

3+1+1 is a magic combination of a team in the workshop

We set up 2 teams in the workshop. In each of the team, we have:

3 Participants
Consist of all genders, and from diverse industries.

A designer took notes from his observation

1 Designer
Considering our senior participants don’t have any design experience, we invited a designer to join the team’s designing conversation to avoid having 3 strangers staring at each other all the time. Surprisingly, our participants all expressed their thoughts quite well and contributed ideas smoothly.

However, senior participants preferred to speak out their thoughts instead of writing things down, so we switched the designer’s role immediately to note taker. From the learning we got, we suggest to have the designers to:

  • Listen and note down the differences between general users and participants.
  • Explore more insights and visualize the ideas.
A facilitator showed some examples to the participants

1 Facilitator
The facilitator will be in charge of maintaining the momentum in each session. Instead of brainstorming with participants, he/ she will focus on:

  • Create vibrant atmosphere and engage every single participant.
  • Trigger ideas by providing some examples.
  • Time control and redirecting to the topic when needed.

Design the Workshop

The warm up activity kick started the creative and imaginative atmosphere

The atmosphere was delighted from the outset

Don’t forget to add this most interesting session in your workshop! If you arrange the warm up activity successfully, the participants will not only practice creative thinking but also get more familiar with other team members in a delightful way.

The activity we ran is a super power game which is similar to the icebreaker in Gamestorming. In the first 10 mins, we asked participants and designers to share their own super power in their daily life, such as making 6 dishes at a time or finding the best deal of merchandise. This was a good chance for them to have a peek of other team members’ life and personality, and also for us to build a sense of the participants’ profiles.

Then, we provided a bunch of unrealistic terms on a sheet for them to select the ones they wish to own for their future superpower. The terms are so odd that they’re forced to discuss with each other to figure out what the meaning was, and got a sense of “nothing is impossible” through the activity.

Participants started some conversations by discussing the terms on the sheet

Validate the scenarios by asking true/ false questions

Answering right or wrong is easier than creating scenarios from scratch. We prepared 10 scenario cards related to the product concepts, and had a true or false question for each card. When designing the scenario cards, we intentionally keep the statements vague, so that we can ask participants to explain what the real scenarios look like without leading them. Here’s an example:

😟 “I want to bookmark this important article in my browser.”
😐 “I want to keep this important content in my space.” 
😀 “I want to keep this important content organized in my space.”

As you can see, we replaced the “bookmark” by a broader term “keep”, so that it will be open to have more discussions on what’s their current methods for collecting things from the internet. It could be other words like “download”, “save”, “copy & paste”,…whatsoever, and that’s exactly what we want to learn from the participants. So does the reasons we replaced “ article” by “content”, and “browser” by “space”.

Mixing 2 related actions into one card can be another trick. By adding a word “organized” in the statement, we can have another round of discussion for validating a possible afterward behavior in the same section. Participants have rights to correct the scenarios we offered, so that we will get several validated scenarios in the end of the session.

Participants explained what their scenarios look like when answering true/ false questions

Prepared design components can help participants easily generate ideas

Using prepared design components to generate ideas is easier than starting with blank sheets

Participatory design isn’t asking people to do the job for designers. Actually, It’s an interactive approach, which is different from passive user interviews, for us to learn more about the underlying needs/ motive for each of the ideas. Therefore, the subjects we asked participants to design weren’t all feasible but allowed us to get more insights of their priority and preferences. After the workshop, our product concepts were refined by injecting some ideas that transformed from the co-design activities.

We ran 2 different types of brainstorming for each topic, free brainstorming and brainwiting. As we expected, the free brainstorming was a bit difficult for participants to get started. So we prepared some examples to inspire them. As for brainwriting, it didn’t work quite well for the senior participants due to their dislike for writing that I mentioned above. Thus, I collected some tips we learned from running the brainstorming session:

  • Reveal some design opportunities by pointing out some keywords of the subject that can help participants get started.
  • Provide some paper UI components on the table to empower participants to present their ideas physically by cutting and sticking.
  • Keep reminding participants to think wildly and forget feasibility concerns.
  • For getting insights, always step into the conversations to ask participants about why they came across these ideas.

While Hosting the Workshop

Time management is important

Remember to setup a timer when running a workshop. You can use free tools such as vClock and Timertimer to show a full-screen timer counting down on a big screen, so it will make more sense when facilitators have to pause any conversations and move participants forward. Showing how many major tasks need to be accomplished in the beginning of the workshop can also prevent participants from spending too much energy on unnecessary topics. Time is limited, so let’s make sure people can finish all tasks before they walk away from the room.

Know more about their thoughts by observing their non verbal language while discussing

We expected some debates happening in the workshop, especially in the brainstorming session. Every participant’s opinion weights equally to us, so it’s very important to have facilitators to assure everyone can speak out their thoughts. Having consensus from a group of seniors is more difficult than younger ages, so we experienced longer discussions than other typical workshops we hosted. However, having all team members agree on the same opinion wasn’t our main focus. So we kept having an eye on silent participants by observing their non verbal language and then we approached them individually by asking for their opinions. When we approached them, they were very generous to share more valuable feedback which help us understand more from the discussion.


“If I had asked people what they wanted, 
they would have said faster horses.”

The most famous quote attributed to Henry Ford. Let’s don’t question if Ford ever said this, but focus on the quote itself. We literary ran through a similar process in our participatory workshop: asking people what they wanted. However, we were not pivoting to build the “faster horses” but involved in their discussion to look into the unmet needs behind their “faster horses” idea and then refined our product concepts based on the insights.

Participatory workshop isn’t a silver bullet for every project, but it’ll be one of the good methodologies for you to first-hand experience a user-centered design in an efficient way.

Special thanks to my colleagues: Ricky, Helen, Juwei and Mark for making this workshop happen, and our manager, Harly for the stunning photoshoots :)