Designing Design Workshops: Knowing your audience
On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this workshop to a friend?
(I started writing this article prior to the pandemic and took the time to pause and to reflect about previous workshops I’ve attended or facilitated. Of course, I do not endorse in-person gatherings of any kind at this moment time. Stay virtual, people!)
Recently, I’ve found myself both sides of this question — as facilitator of my fair share of workshops on design research and as participant on multiple other design sessions. The word-of-mouth virality that this question probes suggests that the value of something to the world is determined by social endorsement: a workshop is good if enough people like it enough.
But who are these people, I wonder?
I wanted to make sense of the workshops that I’ve attended and created with my team. The workshop is one of most effective medium of sharing human-centered design in the innovation ecosystem here in Bangkok, Thailand. As I continue to challenge myself and my team in organizing curricula of all flavours — offline v. online, deep-dive v. big introductions, day-long intensive v. semester classes — I keep coming back to these questions in framing what effective workshops mean:
- Who is the target audience?
- What are the goals of the participants?
- What would they need to leave the workshop with?
These questions lead to discussions about how to re-think the workshops from the ground up. In this story, a “workshop” refers to an agenda-driven meeting where participants gather to learn, practice, and reflect on new ideas that is, presumably, valuable to their current role. Often, these workshops are open to the public with people from various disciplines and work roles attending, each with a preconceived notion of why they should explore design. Design here, of course, refers to the practice of human-centered design or design thinking for the purposes of innovation (which we’ve previously written about specifically here and more generally at GetSalt).
As my team and I plan future workshops — in the midst of this pandemic, because innovation doesn’t stop! — we’re taking stock of our experiences with design workshops and consider the audience(s) for each.
What are the types of workshops out there?
A good workshop is, obviously, one that address the need of the participants. In the context of design thinking, the needs vary depending on the roles people play in the innovation journey: executives who needs to evaluate new methods to middle management who needs to lead creative teams to field researchers who needs to take the tools into the wild. Each (and other) stakeholder is critical to incorporating human-centered design into an organization’s work process, and each have specific goals. The types of workshops can be classified generally according to:
 Mode of instruction, or how key learnings about design in the workshop are communicated to the participants
- Prescriptive: Reliance on step-by-step instructions like how-to guides or clear-cut key takeaways communicated by the facilitator in an authoritative voice.
- Emergent: Reliance on participatory exercises and guided debriefs to surface key takeaways in an interactive conversation between facilitators and participants.
 Key outcome, or the key metric of change that we expect for the participants after the workshops
- Mindset: An agenda meant to frame design thinking in the corporate innovation language that Thai companies can understand
- Toolkit: An agenda wrapped around the teaching, discussion, and practice of the many tools of design thinking, possibly within the context of a specific sector industry
Normally, people attending mindset as outcome workshops are there to be convinced; those finding toolkits as outcome have already decided that, yes indeed, they should go ahead with design thinking. Together, these axes paints a comprehensive picture of the various design workshops ecosystem that we have observed in Bangkok. Let’s dive into each one.
Welcome to the Temple of Design (Prescriptive-Mindset)
- Audience: C-Suite, upper management, and other key decision makers
- Participant goal(s): to gather information and independently evaluate the business value of design thinking
- Key takeaway for participants: “Design thinking works for other companies facing similar issues to mine”
Welcome to the Temple of Design addresses the needs of key decision makers in organizations, which is to evaluate for herself or himself the risk of investing more time, money, and human resources in pursuing design thinking internally. The agenda hugs tightly around exemplary case studies, practice exercises for at least 1 learning cycle (think: the wallet exercise), and memorable catch phrases. The participants should leave the workshop knowing what the design thinking is, who’s done design innovation well, and how it feels to do it — enough that they could go and convince others in their parent organization.
Of course, adopting a methodology requires emotional and financial investment, patience with politics, tolerance for failure, and ultimately trust that those failures will lead to important learnings. This type of workshop focuses on the mindsets of design thinking, shares highly relatable anecdotes about “creativity” in corporate world (cue: laughter), and busts the myths of innovating. It is always fun.
Getting buy-in from the people in the room, the facilitator might say, is the hardest part about adopting design thinking. The second hardest part is the design doing, which leads to our second and third type of workshop.
- Audience: HR development managers, customer-facing senior managers who works with design teams
- Participant goal(s): to learn how to incorporate new frameworks with existing team processes
- Key takeaway for participants: “This new set of tools might fit with [team x] in our company if we do [process y]”
If you ever put together an IKEA product, you know the experience: the instructions are simple (wordless even), the materials are there for you, and you build the confidence to put together more Billy bookshelves or even make your own. In a Train-the-trainer type of workshop, one might find printed worksheets and guided steps towards your journey of bringing design thinking to life.
The participants come from senior customer-facing practitioners in companies that have internal buy-in but are new to design thinking in general. They may be here to learn about the methods for their own use or to go train their teams. In either case, they need to learn new tools, know what to do with the tool, and in what context.
Lighter on cases than Temple of Design, this workshop should provide tools along with a step-by-step guide, ideally ones that they can take back to the teams. In particular, the cases should describe specific uses of the tools and — this is crucial — to dispel the assumptions that these tools will work without fail regardless of context.
And if the facilitators can’t give the context that each tool needs to shine — say, because the workshop is open to all industries from restaurants to hair products to dating apps — what then? There’s always the forums and communities where you can dissect a framework to your heart’s desire.
DIY Design (Emergent-Toolkit)
- Audience: Customer-facing practitioners in a design role
- Participant goal(s): to customize the tools to fit with the work processes, users, types of products/services, industry
- Key takeaway for participants: “I think this tool could work if we include more [tool a], less [tool b], add on to our existing [process c], although [tips d and e] might not work with our [insert industry].”
Colloquially known in some quarters as dinking (we’re joking), there’s a million shades of design when it comes to its applications “in practice”. Although the methodology begins with empathy, at the end of the day, the demands from different industries and products will surface different obstacles.
Practitioners who are activated to find out more about new innovation tools are a good fit for this type of workshop: they need to know how the tools could work for them, even to tweak it to their own roles right then and there.
In this type of workshop, we would utilize the tools (e.g. interview guide, user persona, journey map) in response to a model prompt (e.g. redesigning the shopping mall) and letting insights emerge through learning-by-doing and group debriefs. The effects can be similar to the dynamics on subreddit threads where the crowd chips in with their humble opinions, inspiring collaboration across disciplines within the time frame of the workshop itself.
If you’ve exhausted all of these options and still can’t find your solution, it might mean that you’ve reached the limits of introductory workshops.
Group Therapy (Emergent-Mindset)
- Audience: industry-specific design practitioners and technical experts
- Participant goal(s): to feel inspired by new perspectives within their field and find fellow innovators working on a topic that they’re working on
- Key takeaway for participants: “Design thinking works for what I do and now I know who I can talk to about my field”
These are the circuit party goers for the innovation world. They’ve attended all the classes and are certified by a plethora of institutions, offline and online. They know all the buzzwords, and probably have a job title around innovation. The (likely) evening networking-esque program will have little guided facilitation and introduction to the methodology (the participants have the technical expertise and know the lingo). The agenda revolves around a lecture-style talk with big-picture, industry-specific cases, and (hopefully) design principles distilled from success. The organizers expects to become a thought leader in the topic, the participants hopes that they too, can take home best practices — straight from the horse’s mouth.
The insights of best practices may sound prescriptive, but because everyone in the room are likely experts in their own field, the real, applicable nuggets will be probably emerge independently during the post-workshop drinks or on their drive home. Design principles, after all, are broadly applicable — everyone will have to figure out how it works for them. Besides, most of the value from these workshops will be to see who’s doing what, or who’s a potential collaborator or competitor.
As with the answer to most questions IRL, a really good workshop is likely a combination of all these archetypes. Guided facilitation will be needed to drive key takeaways home for all the workshops, and good case studies are a must to convince the crowd of design’s power (which also reflects on the faciliators’ ability to tell a good story convincingly). Right now, we observed a healthy and effective dose of Welcome to the Temple of Design workshops which got companies everywhere excited about the methodology; now it’s up to us to run Train-the-Trainer and DIY Design to build the crowd’s design abilities.
Design thinking has saturated across many innovation circles and borderlines buzzword status in some. A key pain point — a need! — that I observed was that, after attending one or two (or more) of the introductory-type workshops (e.g. Temple of Design), many people do not know how to begin the practice in their own organizations. This is where “being mindful of process”, a core tenet of design thinking, or even “begin at the beginning” is not so straightforward.
At the end of the day, hosting a workshop is about reading (and to some level, controlling) your audience. In Bangkok, we have many amazing facilitators in the inspirational category and we here at Amplifi believes that a critical mass in the ecosystem is ready to move towards design doing to fulfill the promises of design beyond checking off a training KPI and surfing the innovation wave for PR purposes.
Make no mistake, there will be failures. But if we don’t strive to match the successes of iconic case studies like Airbnb, Bank of America’s Keep the Change program, or IBM’s cultural change in the scope of Thailand’s business landscape and culture, then we might miss out on the opportunity to design a more desirable future for all businesses and citizens alike.
Paricha Duangtaweesub is a partner and design strategist at Amplifi Design, a consulting collective using human-centered design to drive organizational change. We host design and empathy workshops for clients, and conduct ethnographic research to support new projects. This story is based on the author’s observations — it’s his firm belief that it takes a village to make design innovation succeed, and he’s happy to be a part of the ecosystem.