How to plan and run an effective design ideas workshop

Simon Coxon
Feb 22 · 16 min read

[updated Sept 2019]

By Simon Coxon, Principal User Experience Designer at The Financial Times

[There are a lot of additions and changes following our retro on the original framework — previously structured ‘Inspire, Diverge’, Converge’. This caused problems whilst planning as the titles gave few clues to what you were supposed to be doing during each step. We’ve also broken out ‘Immerse’ and ‘Empathise’ as individual steps, detailed below.]

When you are exploring new product features or propositions, a workshop is a great ideation method for accelerating and expanding the imagination process.

Getting the most effective output from that session relies on working hard to plan, organise and facilitate. It may seem like a lot of effort to go into close detail, but I’ve found that the quality of the results equate to that input.

Having planned and run workshops at Advertising agencies for external clients for several years, as well as different business parts across the Financial Times, here are my tips to get the best results.


Planning the workshop

Defining goals

Before you do anything else, write down the goal of your workshop. Your team and stakeholders should align with this purpose, so there’s no point in doing anything else until this has been agreed.

The goal should be written as a clear statement, which will appear early on in your workshop deck. You should also print this out and stick it to the wall to help provide context during the workshop.

Participants and facilitators

It’s good to have a wide set of opinions and expertise in any workshop room. Groups made up from a variety of skill-sets will see problems from a different perspective and come up with solutions that others may not have the expertise or understanding to articulate.

Have at least one person from every discipline you work with. If you are running a workshop with your team, consider inviting other people from elsewhere in the business who may be able to contribute — these people should have a basic understanding of the subject matter, otherwise they will struggle to contribute.

It may be difficult to get people to commit, particularly from other areas in a business. You will need to reinforce how important it is that everyone invited attends and how much you value their input. Always plan for full attendance, but always accommodate for numbers to dwindle from drop outs.

Workshops with larger numbers of people are always harder to manage. For activities, it’s wise to break the room down into smaller groups. Four people is a good sized group — 5 people or more and you will see difficulty in gaining consensus, with less confident members disappearing into the shadows in bigger groups and larger personalities taking command.

You will want each group to feed back after activities. Too many groups feeding back will mean the workshop drags and you will see attention dwindling.

Each group within the room should have a facilitator. Their role is to keep the group focused on the task at hand, helping explain what they are doing at any one time and controlling the dynamics of the group — often the hardest task.

Everyone within a workshop should have a voice and ensuring the quieter people are heard as much as the loudest people can be tricky. A facilitator can take control of the group and ask the quieter people ‘What do you think Mr Quiet?’ or control louder people by redirecting to other people after they have spoken; ‘That’s great Mr Loud, but what does Mr Quiet think?

Where and when?

Get a meeting room or space booked as soon as you can. You’ll need a big open room with plenty of wall space to stick things up — these are like gold dust in most workplaces.

Think carefully about when you want to run a workshop. Afternoons feel more relaxed but energy levels start to deplete around 4pm. The best thinking is usually done in the morning, so try and start early.

Running remote workshops

As workforces find themselves working in different locations or with more employees choosing flexible working or working from home, the harder it can be to get everyone in one location at the same time. The FT has offices in Sofia, New York and Manila.

Luckily, there are some great applications that enable us to run workshops with people around the world. Miro (https://miro.com) is an excellent collaboration board, enabling users to contribute in real time.

Google’s Jamboard (http://jamboard.google.com) and Google Drawings (https://docs.google.com/drawings/) are also great free tools for online collaboration.

Any tool will require preparation in advance to ensure users can access the tool and understand how it works. Ensure to do this before the workshop to iron out any problems in advance.

The Workshop Deck

Having a ‘deck’ for the workshop will help to provide a structure for your thinking and planning. It also helps communicate activities throughout the session.

Each activity should have instructions that can be left on the screen. These can be broken down, step by step, for simplicity. Make these as visual as possible. Alongside details of the activity, show examples of expected output. Instructions are particularly useful as attention can drift and participants can check what is happening without having to ask.

The deck will also help you start planning your timing.

Slide from a workshop deck for mapping of ‘Cold, Warm and Hot’ acquisitions.

Timing

Be a massive pessimist when it comes to planning your timing. Most tasks will take at least twice as long as you plan for, unless you are commanding everyone with military precision, which doesn’t make for an enjoyable experience. You want the workshop to be fun and allow discussion or activities to run over where necessary as these moments can often provide big value.

Workshops never start on the hour so allow for people being up to 10 minutes late. Even once you have the focus of the group, this is usually well past the ‘start’ time.

Plan for breaks around the hour mark, following the larger activities. This allows enough time to get refreshed, have a stretch and sets a clear time to be up and running again.

There may be activities that you can drop if things have gone well or if you have run out of time. Having a break points in the workshop allows you to assess your timings and tweak as necessary.

Write down the timings meticulously, but fully expect them to shift. In your timings allow for when people arrive, transitions between one activity and another, toilet breaks and clearing up at the end.

Workshop example agenda:

  • Introduction — 10:05 am
  • Agenda
  • Rule setting
  • What you are doing (The Goal)
  • What you aren’t doing
  • Immerse — 10:10 am
  • Empathise — 10:30 am
  • Break — 11:00 am
  • Ideate activity — 11:10 am
  • Break — 12:00 pm
  • Focus activity — 12:10 pm
  • Voting — 12:40 pm
  • Wrap up — next steps — 12:50 pm

Agenda

Have a clear written agenda to set expectations during the session. Use actual clock times; eg. Introduction 14.05, Agenda 14.10, rather than Introduction — 5 mins, Rule Setting — 5 mins. This helps participants understand how long each activity should take and when it should finish. It helps you keep track of the progress you are making and understand just how far you might be behind. At the start of the session, quickly run through the agenda.

Etiquette

Keeping a workshop flowing can be be hard work. They certainly don’t run themselves. Managing participants and minimising disruption can be achieved by laying down etiquette guidelines early.

  • No devices — Laptops should be left outside the room, or piled up, out of reach. If someone needs to work or take a call, that has to happen outside of the room.
  • Productive listening — Participants should be encouraged to actively listen and allow points of views that they may disagree with.
  • Brevity = Intelligence — Keep points or discussion brief, to allow others a chance to speak and to keep activities moving forward.
  • Take issues seriously, not yourself — Workshops should be fun. They are not a place to argue. Ideas should not be shot down in a workshop. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion, but no one should inflict that on another person.
  • No late-comers — It’s hard for participants to catch up, especially if they’ve missed all the background information.

What you are doing (The Goal)

To keep everyone focused, restate the goal. Hopefully this will be blindingly obvious, but some participants may want to ask questions and clarify points. Have the goal as a printed statement stuck on the wall.

What you aren’t doing

Again to remain focussed, it’s worth stating what you aren’t doing as a result of the workshop. If you are focussed on a single feature, you may want to clarify the other parts of the service or product that you aren’t looking at so no one gets distracted. It’s better to be clear than spend unnecessary time on wasted efforts.

Warm up exercise

It can be difficult getting participants into the swing of a workshop, especially if more serious, senior stakeholders are present. A quick warm-up exercise helps remove inhibitions and breaks the ice.

The intention is to encourage expansive creative thinking, so pick an exercise that enables this.

A favourite of mine is ‘Industry mash-ups’. Pick two unrelated brands and get teams to imagine a new service or experience. Would a ‘Nintendo Care-home’ have residents racing around in Mario Kart style beds? One team imagined a ‘Starbucks Funeral Home’ that grew coffee beans on land where your loved ones ashes had been scattered.

Industry mash-ups example

Resources

This is your ‘go to’ set of resources. I have a plastic box with these items to make sure I’m always workshop ready.

  • 1 Sharpie per person
  • Post its, various colours and sizes
  • Pad of paper for drawing
  • Whiteboard markers
  • Whiteboard rubber
  • Dot stickers

Run through

Once you’ve planned and marked down timings, it’s worth having a run through with your peers. This helps highlight moments where information may be lacking where you will need to provide more background and help you see how well tasks are planned out. Activities may need clearer explanation or may need tweaking to improve how they flow. This is also a great moment to reassess your timings.


Structure — Immerse | Empathise | Ideate | Focus

[Our original framework was structured ‘Inspire, Diverge’, Converge’]

A framework for workshops

When your workshop revolves around solutions to a problem, you need to provide a strong platform for ideation. We use a basic framework that helps those ideas develop, no matter whether this occurs in a short, single workshop or across a week. Any ideation goes through the rigour of each stage of this process.

Immerse — Play back what we already know to stimulate thinking

Empathise — Put yourself in the shoes of the user to understand their problems and needs

Ideate — Generate as many ideas as possible

Focus — Refine and focus thinking to provide a clear direction


Immerse

The Immerse stage of the workshop plays back our key knowledge and insights, as a reminder and refresher that focuses efforts, but also to ensure everyone in the room understands the problem and aligns their thinking.

Ideas don’t get generated in a vacuum. Nor do the best ideas get generated from scratch in a short workshop. To start the creative thinking process early, share a Discovery deck, if available. This should help participants understand the problem, think wider than the current situation, fire their imagination and provide the information and insights for the next step of empathising with the user.

I recommend a summarised version of the Discovery deck as something participants are more likely to read. Providing this deck a few days in advance will get the best results as their minds roll small snowballs that gather size and momentum.

Not everyone will have made the effort to read the deck and points can be clarified within the session.

This isn’t necessarily about doing all of this work yourself. Other people in your organisation may already have understanding or experience of the problem. Utilise their knowledge. Explain the problem, the goal and see what they can contribute. The more you collate here, the wider the understanding the group will have of the problem. Sharing this knowledge between the group creates a stronger alignment of purpose.

Include:

  • Data analysis
  • User testing results
  • User research

Other stimulus

Try and provide rich inspiration that will spark ideas. This might be looking at competitors solutions or comparators from unrelated industries.

  • Competitor reviews (brief insights)
  • Historical efforts from within the company
  • Concepts or creative solutions from external unrelated sources

It may seem odd to include stimulus completely outside of the industry you’re discussing. But by looking and thinking wider, you can get some amazing ideas.


Empathise

The Empathise stage should uncover what you know about the user and their situation to enable the room to understand and anticipate their behaviour.

When we create features or products, we must frame these around the lives of our customers, real people. Thus, empathy is a huge part of the ideation process. Understanding behaviours, habits, motivations and needs are key to designing solutions that make a difference in their lives.

It’s important to use as much real information that we already know about the user, rather than make assumptions which may mislead your thinking. Don’t try and fill gaps with guesses — strive to fill them with further research.

For the Empathise exercise, consider:

Who — What do we know about them?
Context — Where are they? What are they doing?
Goals — What are they trying to achieve?
Needs — What do they need to do?
Emotions — What are they feeling at the time?
Pain-points — What problems are they encountering?

You should have these answers in materials already created by yourself or researchers — these should have been presented back in the Immerse stage.

Empathy mapping

To help frame your thinking, an Empathy Map is a quick and simple activity.

We’ve used Dave Gray’s Empathy Map Canvas to great effect

https://medium.com/the-xplane-collection/updated-empathy-map-canvas-46df22df3c8a

Norman Nielsen have a great article on how to perform a simple and quick Empathy mapping exercise, along with a basic framework:


Ideate

As the name suggests, the purpose of this stage is to expand thinking and generate a large volume of ideas.

Generating ideas with a flurry of Post-it notes

This isn’t a time for serious discussions, it’s about getting ideas out of heads and into the open. There are no bad ideas at this stage — often crazy ones, but these can trigger off thinking into different, maybe amazing directions, so don’t squash anything.

But neither do you want people to get stuck on one idea. So your methods and activities should encourage broad expansive thinking that opens more opportunities.

Restate the Goal

Before you start, refer back to the printed Goal statement on the wall. This helps everyone stay on track and aligned to the original purpose.

Activities

Make sure the activities are fun and enjoyable. But be careful they aren’t downright silly, as depending on your working environment, some participants will shut down as soon as they feel out of their comfort zone.

Think about what you want to achieve from the workshop and pick or even create an activity that will help generate the most of ideas within that context.

There are lots of existing resources online that you can use and pick from:

Interaction Design Foundation:
https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/introduction-to-the-essential-ideation-techniques-which-are-the-heart-of-design-thinking

https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/creative-exercises-better-than-brainstorming

Kevin Duncan’s Ideas Book is a great place for simple exercises:
https://theideasbook.net/

How might we?

A popular way of generating divergent ideas is the ‘How might we’ method of questioning. By framing your problem as a ‘How might we’, the problem is the focus and solutions are broad by nature.

Read more about ‘How might we’ at:
https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/define-and-frame-your-design-challenge-by-creating-your-point-of-view-and-ask-how-might-we

Room dynamics

You will need to keep on your toes throughout this stage. Getting groups engaged in the problem can take a lot of effort. You may need to guide thinking and ask a lot of questions to participants to help them to get into the flow of the workshop. Always keep on your feet. Move between groups to facilitate discussions and apply extra energy where it may be needed most.


Focus

Once you have lot of ideas, you need to start narrowing down and focusing on the ones that will give you the best opportunities, based on the goals that you previously set.

Narrowing down ideas during a workshop

After you have focused your thinking, you should have a set of tangible ideas that are clear and explainable to others. Those ideas need not be fully formed, but with scope to develop and evolve as you explore them deeper.

Restate the Goal

Again, refer back to the printed Goal statement on the wall. This will help eliminate ideas that veer wildly in a direction that doesn’t help you accomplish the Goal.

Presenting back ideas

At the end of the Ideate session, each participant should briefly present back their ideas to the room. Allow short questions, but don’t let this turn into a wide open discussion, as you will hopefully have a lot of ideas to run through.

Narrowing down

Once all the ideas have been presented back, you can With a large set of ideas, a quick round of voting helps identify those that are most favoured.

Dot voting is a quick and simple way of identifying the favourites within the room. Issue a small amount of sticky dots to each participant and ask them to assign one dot to each idea.

Like most voting sessions, these are best done without discussion, so no one is influenced by strong opinions. Three or four dots is usually a good number, depending on the amount of ideas you want to takeaway at the end of the session. If there aren’t enough dots spread around, simply issue a couple more dots each as additional votes.

However you vote, ensure that votes are made against the goals of the workshop. Eg. If your goal is to increase users consuming audio content, then make it clear before you all vote that ideas should be judged on whether they are fulfilling that.

You may want to take everything you have and prioritise outside of the room. This allows for deeper more considered evaluation of the ideas.

Developing ideas

There are numerous activities that can take place during this stage to flesh out the ideas from the Diverge stage. My favourite and proven method is Storyboarding.

Storyboarding

Storyboarding is a great way to bring ideas into a tangible form. By drawing their ideas, participants can bring something to life in a way that’s understandable to others. Fidelity doesn’t matter, it’s all about articulating the idea clearly and stick men and very rudimentary screen drawings can still do this perfectly well.

Storyboarding is simple and quick. Break into small groups of 2 or 3. You need a sheet of paper with 4 squares. In each square, draw each step of how someone uses that feature. The story should show a situation the user in in for context. Each square should have a one sentence description of what is happening. When finished, give the whole thing a catchy title, to help other people remember it.

Concepting ideas during a ‘Converge’ storyboard session.

Storyboards should be presented back by the groups to the rest of the room, talking through each step to explain how the idea might work. Be careful not to underestimate the time this will take. These moments always generate healthy discussion and you may want to have more than one round to explore ideas that are generated from round one. Allow plenty of time.

You may want to run another round of dot voting if you still have a large number of prospective ideas.


At the end of the workshop

Capturing outputs

Don’t forget to take photos of every piece of output. Not only does this save storing paper, but it makes sure you have a basic documentation of the ideas. I always collate these at the end of the workshop deck as reference and put them into a shared Google folder where others can add their pictures.

Take lots of photos of the people performing activities. These are great for sharing with others so they can see what happened on the day.

Debrief

No doubt, following the workshop, you’ll be exhausted. Running workshops is mentally and physically demanding, so my natural reaction is to retire to the pub. But before you have that much deserved refreshment, just take 5 minutes to note a few things down.

Ask the questions:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t work so well?
  • What would you do again?
  • What wouldn’t you do again?
  • What could you have done differently to improve the session?

Do it while you’re still fresh from the workshop as memory fades quickly.


Success story — Dynamic barriers

Having run a workshop with our Conversion stream and our B2C colleagues, we picked a stand out, but very simple idea that had been generated during the session and drawn up as a storyboard.

When non-subscribers read articles at the FT, they are prompted to subscribe with a generic paywall barrier, which appears no matter what article they had read. The idea was to create a journey that reflected the interests of the reader. If they had for example, clicked to read a Brexit story, they’d see a paywall barrier that related to the topic connected to that story.

The team developed this idea further following the workshop and having analysed our most read topics as well as looking at possible markets for expansion, we picked 5 versions we would A/B test, running the experiment for 4 weeks between April and May, 2018.

The most successful versions saw a 17% to 22% increase in conversion rate versus control.

The original storyboard for the ‘Dynamic barrier’
The live version of the ‘Dynamic barrier’

(all versions showed an increase in coversion rate versus control, but two tests did not reach statistical significance due to low numbers).


Wrap up

I hope this helps you in preparing and running your own workshops. I’m always adapting and developing new methods and you should evolve your own too. I’d love to hear any tips, suggestions or feedback from your own experiences.

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.

Simon Coxon

Written by

User Experience & Product Design professional

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.

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