The Co-Design Workshop: The Facilitator’s Pocket Guide

A three-hour design sprint for digital product design

A Domain7 co-design workshop with a client’s team members.

In nearly all our projects at Domain7 we plan for one key moment where all team members—from our side and our partners’—come together for a collaborative design workshop. We set aside an afternoon or a morning, bring any insights and research we have gathered, and emerge with the foundational layout ideas that will become part of the final, built product.

Many organizations are still taught to wait for the solo sprint of a designer or coder working independently to create a solution to vet. We find the “Mad Men” approach creates two major problems:

  • The Persuasion Problem: Once a creator has conceived of an idea, they must pitch it to the client. No matter how good the concept is, this automatically creates an oppositional “us vs. them” dynamic, where ideas are being critiqued, instead of contributed to.
  • The Blind Spot Problem: Clients and partners have plenty of industry and community knowledge to contribute, but they often aren’t given a structured opportunity to participate. By deeply involving them in the conceptual phase, their knowledge is baked in.

The solution to both the persuasion problem and the blind spot problem is involvement. The Co-Design Workshop hits this need head-on, and improves the product design process in two unexpected ways: speed and quality.

  1. The workshop is fast-paced. Ground is covered very, very quickly in these workshops, often shaving off weeks of conceptual “back-and-forthing.”
  2. And it’s boundary-pushing. A well-facilitated workshop can generate abundant and diverse ideas beyond what one individual can produce.

Facilitating a workshop like this is a skill that can be taught and grown like any other. The biggest barrier is the initial mindset switch from “designer” to “facilitator.” You are a facilitator, and this is a collaborative process. Once you embrace that, what you choose to design changes.

Consider this guide a starter kit. Try it out, see how it goes for you. As you gain confidence and experience—like any other skill—iterate on it. Make the method your own. Develop your own style. Adapt the agenda to what suits the project, the team, the required output. Thousands upon thousands of possible approaches exist. Our hope is that this unlocks your confidence and ability to solve problems the collaborative way. Please let me know how it goes for you.

Here’s what you’ll need to get going:

  • A proper invitation: Don’t just add a calendar item or send an asynchronous Slack or email message about the workshop. Talk to people about this in real-time. You’re doing more than scheduling a meeting; you’re inviting people to bring their time and energy in a way that may differ greatly from anything they experience in the course of a year.
  • A well-chosen space: Using the same-old boardroom for these workshops can send the wrong message, that this is business as usual. Consider finding an environment that is open, spacious, well-lit (with natural light), with lots of wall space (for post-its. Ah, yes, the post-its).
  • Snacks and hydration: What we’re about to do is hard mental work. Take care of people’s physical needs to get them prepped to contribute. Coffee and finger-foods are workshop fuel.
  • A timer: A mechanism for tracking time down to the minute will be crucial for keeping the momentum going. (Your own Timer function on your phone works great. We also use BitTimer app for the iPhone, and Time Timer on occasion .)
  • A noisemaker: Depending on the number of participants and the size of the room, you may need a way to signal that it’s time to return one’s attention to the front of the room. A gong, a bell, a harmonica…your choice.
  • Low-fidelity sketching supplies: Post-its (the small kind), post-it easel pads (the large kind), markers, blank 8x11 sheets

Agenda and flow

  1. Setting context and explaining rules (5–10 mins)

This will be an unfamiliar style of exercise for many. It may be important to set up the event by sharing some stories and perspectives on what’s about to happen, in order to:

  • Establish credibility: Feel free explain where these methods come from. (Google Ventures, Adaptive Path, IDEO)
  • Encourage creativity: Participants may be uncomfortable being asked to contribute actively and creatively. Referencing work like David Kelley’s TED talk can help.
  • Explaining the flow: Participants may need to see “what’s coming” in the agenda so they can prepare for this participation style. Feel free to offer a peek at this agenda in summary form.

2. Forming teams (3–5 mins)

Dividing people into teams can take a lot of time, so know your method beforehand. Decide whether you’ll ask people to self-organize by certain traits (“find your shoe tribe” — connect with people wearing similar shoes), or number people off. Aim for three people per group. (Often, I’ll create groupings in advance: not all expert designers in one group, not all clients in one group, not all workshop-newbies in one group.)

3. Issuing the brief (3–5 mins)

It is crucial to have utmost clarity on the brief in advance. Deciding on the exact scope of what you’re asking people to redesign will make sure the activity is achievable. The “brief” may put forward a specific product to improve (with screenshots of a single screen), or issue a general challenge you want people to address (the specific scenario or user journey faced by your audience). You may wish to create post-its or posters in advance for the wall, outlining the scenario at hand.

4. Discovery (10 mins)

This is a rapid version of the Interview Matrix facilitation method. The aim is to have people interacting with real users—a key practice in Design Thinking.

The raw notes of what the user thinks and feels aren’t intended to be publication-worthy. They are intended to get co-designers into the mental space of the user on their journey.

Pick a question from Step 3, such as, “What do you need most to accomplish this task?” or “What are the key pieces of information that will help you do this?” Groups then split up in a lightning-round of asking questions and taking notes on the insights that arise.

If you don’t have access to actual users during this workshop, ask participants to imagine that they themselves are the users in this journey. Ask them to think of all the steps, pieces of information, or tools they would need in order to complete this journey and to record their responses. These notes can be unprioritized and loosely organized.

5. Synthesis and prioritization (10 mins)

Instruct teams to regroup and collate insights into a single sheet. Teams are encouraged to group similar items, and place asterisks beside the top 3–5 must-have insights they believe users can’t do without.

6. Crazy Eights (6 mins x 2)

Crazy Eights is a well-documented exercise (based on one called 6–8–5), perfect for generating creative output quickly. Working as individuals…

The quick-draw panels of Crazy Eights generate micro-ideas about features, interfaces, copywriting, and the overall experience. They don’t form concrete layouts, but they help participants express the focused versions of ideas stuck in their heads.
  • Have each person fold an 8x11 piece of paper into eight panels. (Or four, double-sided, if you want more space.)
  • Set a timer for 6 minutes, marking 40 second intervals
  • Use those 40 seconds to scribble out a sketch or idea in a single panel. It can be a button, a feature, a user scenario, a tagline…wherever your mind goes.
  • You’ll fill out eight panels (hence the crazy and the eight), front and back.
  • Your ideas will be bad, obvious, simple, messy and confusing. That’s the point.

At the end, take a look at what you drew, and start the timers again, with another set of 8 panels. Expand, explore, push, scribble, generate, play. It’ll make sense later. (And if you want even more detail on Crazy Eights, here you go.)

The tentative, awkward drawings in the sketch round are exactly what makes this process work well. We’re not looking for pro-grade quality, we’re looking for messy ideas we can evolve and expand.

7. Team Sketches (15 mins)

  • Teams now come together and compare their Crazy Eights drawings.
  • Groups discuss and explore the ideas from the drawings, and come to an agreement on the top features or ideas they want to include in one consolidated master sketch.
  • Groups sketch a single layout that incorporates the top ideas. (You can draw an outline of a smartphone, tablet or laptop to serve as the frame.)

8. Flamethrower Rounds (10 mins per round)

Time to create a space for speed-critiques. A member from each group is sent to another group…

a. The host group has 3 minutes to present and pitch their sketch

b. The visitor has 3 minutes to ask any questions

c. The hosts turn their back and take notes as the visitor “flame-throws,” tearing the idea apart critically, mentioning any bad ideas they notice.

While feedback is being given, host teams record feedback on a “feedback grid”: a quadrant with each square labeled Plus, Minus, Ideas and Questions.

(You can do this step twice to increase the amount of feedback.)

This is worth repeating:

  • Yes, the hosts should actually turn their backs. It sends an extraordinary signal about being on the same side, and being impervious to the criticism.
  • Yes, recording feedback on the grid is a valuable step.
The Flamethrower Grid for recording feedback. Not just useful in a workshop setting: try taking notes on a grid like this, even when you’re receiving feedback interpersonally.

9. Revisions (10 mins)

The teams regroup and share their insights and feedback from the Flamethrower found. Making any changes they see to be necessary, the group redraws their product idea as a master sketch.

Sketches won’t be pretty. Neither will the results of the critique.

10. Pitches (or “Gallery”) (20–30 mins)

Teams now pitch their product/screen/redesign to the entire group, in 3-minute pitches.

It’s important to keep to this time limit. Depending on the number of participants, people can be tempted to talk about their drawings for quite some time.

11. Silent Critique (5–10 minutes)

Hang all the final drawings on the wall. Participants use colour-dot stickers, post-its or sharpies to indicate the features or ideas they were most drawn to.

12. Debrief (20 mins)

The entire group discusses what common themes emerged:

  • Which features or ideas stood out? Which are most intriguing and exciting?
  • What seems most challenging and difficult to achieve?
  • Where do we see areas that are clear no-go’s?
  • What must-have’s are we seeing?
  • What was a challenge? What conflicts emerged?
  • What do we want to test with real users?
  • How did this feel for you as a participant?

Preparing for next steps

What happens after the workshop?

  • Document it: Before anything is removed from the walls, be sure to document and take photos of every sketch.
  • Design it: Schedule independent time for your designers or design team to synthesize the sketches into a recommendation. This recommendation can be in the form of a wireframe or a fuller fidelity design.
  • Discuss it: The design recommendation will contain many familiar elements that were created in the workshop, and provides a canvas for further ideation and conversing.
  • Test it: We highly recommend getting user feedback before continuing with the design and development workflow.

Common questions:

Participants will often have objections or distractions to an experience like this. It may be important to design an environment that accommodates these protestations, or to directly address them in your opening remarks.

  • “I don’t design.” You may be surprised how many everyday business and management tasks can be improved through “design thinking.” By allowing yourself to explore these alternative methods, you may find a new secret sauce for your own workday. My colleague Stanley Lai’s piece on design thinking is excellent for that.
  • “I’m not creative.” Fair enough. A workout is how you improve your muscles; a workshop is how you stretch your creativity. We encourage participants to trust the process, and see what they learn.
  • “I already know workshop methods and collaborative design.” Perfect! We invite those who are seasoned designers to participate as “embedded mentors” that can help those around them, and to give us constructive feedback for how to improve this for next step.

And that’s all you need, at least for now! Follow those steps, and you’ll have completed a Co-Design Workshop. How’d it go? Send me an email and let me know, I’d love to hear about and learn from your experience.

Related reads on Design Thinking and C0-Creation Workshops:

Interested in learning more about how to facilitate or host a workshop? Drop us a line.