Running a user experience workshop

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we are joined by James Box co-author of Undercover user experience design to talk about running a user experience workshop.

Skip to the discussion or this week’s links.

This episode of the Boagworld show is sponsored by Media Temple and Headscape. Please support the show by checking them out.

Paul: Hello and welcome to the podcast for those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul. We are being joined by Marcus. Hello Marcus.

Marcus: Hello Paul. I never know whether I am supposed to join in that point. Because I join in and then you tell me off for joining in. If I don’t join in, then there is a pregnant pause.

Paul: This time actually said, hello Marcus. That should have been an indication that you knew when to come in.

Marcus: Yes, I know.

Paul: Anyway. But more importantly we are being joined by James Box. Hello James. How are you?

James: Hello chaps, how are you?

Paul: Very good. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you.

James: It is, yes. What was it, some karting action?

Marcus: That was the last time, yes. When you whopped us.

James: Did we?

Paul: Oh, did we? Like you don’t go on about it all the time in your office.

James: The trophy is round my neck at this very moment.

Paul: You said you were drinking a beer, are you drinking out of the trophy? Is that’s what’s happening?

James: Kind of, yes. I did say beer, but it’s champagne. You destroyed my illusion actually, I imagined you two sitting on a sofa with one another, maybe curled up in front of a fire.

Paul: Well we’ve just gone on a romantic break to Rome together. Does that count?

Marcus: We have, yes. We stayed in the loveliest hotel.

Paul: Oh, it was a dump. Oh my word it was the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

Marcus: Paul had a neon lit balcony which was rather nice.

James: Oh I think I may have seen a photo on that on social networks at some point.

Paul: I was terrified to walk out onto the balcony in case I got abducted by aliens, it was this green eerie light. It was very disturbing.

Marcus: Or the wall gave way. One or the other.

Paul: Yes, the whole thing was strange. But we were there on business, weren’t we Marcus? Are we allowed to say what client it was? I see no reason why not?

Marcus: Me neither.

Paul: We met with Doctors Without Borders who are just amazing, what they do.

James: Yes that sounds like a nice little gig.

Paul: Yes they are a very interesting charity. Because they are not just one charity, they are this collaboration of different charities in different countries, which creates some unique challenges and stuff to work with. But we had a really good meeting with them. But the best thing about the meeting was that it didn’t go on as long as we thought it would do. So we got the whole afternoon and we went to Vatican City, didn’t we Marcus?

Marcus: Yes we did but on the 100th 2000-year-old marble statue you start to get a bit blasé about them.

James: I remember that feeling. It’s almost, how many more of these are there? That one looks quite similar.

Paul: And it’s the point as well, that we went with a tour guide— which fortunately did turn out to be a tour guide and not a murderer as we thought at one stage— she just randomly said, oh you’re walking over a second century mosaic floor. And you look down and think I shouldn’t be standing on this, that’s bad. But we did think we were going to die, didn’t we Marcus?

Marcus: Yes because we got there late and we jumped out of a taxi and were immediately pounced upon by a woman saying avoid the queues, come round the back and pay lots of money and we’ll get you in quickly. So because we arrived late we thought actually that would probably be really good, but are we going to die? It turned out we didn’t. So that was good.

Paul: But we did get led down some suspicious alleys.

James: Can you get on the guest list for Vatican City? Is that possible?

Paul: I don’t know. Not knowing the Pope personally, I don’t know.

James: I can introduce you on LinkedIn.

Paul: So you’ve been there have you, I gather from your comments about the statues?

James: I have, a few years ago. It was a holiday so not business but it was pretty good and obviously you get to the end of the Sistine Chapel, and that was the exciting bit, sneakily trying to take photographs.

Paul: Oh you are one of those, are you?

James: Google glasses or something.

Paul: I was tutting at people like you. But obviously very quietly because you can’t speak in there, so I was tutting under my breath.

Marcus: I found it very amusing that it said, no speaking and when you walked in there it was almost party volume. People can’t shut up can they?

Paul: So we need to explain to the listeners a little bit about James and who James is. So James, you still work for Clearleft, you’ve been there for a gazillion years now, haven’t you?

James: I was kind of dragged here actually. I’ve actually been trying to get out for a long time and want to use this podcast as an SOS. But I’ve been here for around eight years. I joined eight years ago, I was one of the first employees.

Paul: Now there’s 150 of you or something isn’t there?

James: Yes, in that ballpark, about 20. But it’s been an interesting journey, quite a slow organic growth for us and we’ve met lots of lovely people along the way and most of them still here as well.

Paul: Talking of lovely people, you and Kenneth together wrote a great book called Undercover User Experience Design didn’t you?

James: Yes Kenneth and I co-wrote the book 3 years ago now. Kenneth was working at Clearleft at the time. It was a labour of love it has to be said, it was probably the worst paying gig I’ve had in my life.

Paul: Yes, you don’t make money out of writing books do you.

James: No and obviously I was doing it for the love and I wanted to share with the community. It was actually a very rewarding experience. I got to point to a book on the bookshelf with my mum which was quite satisfying. I think overall we felt we had a bit of a story to tell and we want to share that with people.

Paul: Of any just read it relatively recently, after three years. But at least I have read it, which for me is quite remarkable because if it doesn’t have explosions or gratuitous violence and I tend not to read it. But no it was a really good book. I’ve already gushed over it on Twitter so I’m not going to do it again now, but I do encourage people to get it because it is excellent. And you can definitely tell the bits that you wrote the bits that Kenneth wrote.

James: Yes, I guess mine are the funny bits right?

Paul: Yes, Kenneth’s is the highbrow bits, and

Marcus: Yours are the lowbrow bits. That’s what Paul was going to say.

Paul: I was going to use the word pragmatic.

James: I was wondering how long it would take to get to this level. It’s because of the karting isn’t it?

Marcus: I can offer you even greater praise because my work related bookshelf is about a foot long as opposed to Paul’s which I imagine is probably 6 foot long, but it’s in there, amongst the few books I have read relating to work, because I am just not big reader of work related books. So I think it’s a good one.

James: Well I feel honoured.

Paul: You are.

James: I’d be interested to know what either side.

Paul: Yes what else have you got on your shelf?

Marcus: Content Strategy for the Web and

Paul: Good choice.

James: Similar colour as well.

Marcus: Smashing Book No. 3 – Redesign the Web.

Paul: Which is also a similar colour.

James: Yes so you organise your books by colour spectrum? Which says something else about you Marcus.

Marcus: I wish they were by size because that’s what I like to do them by, but they’re not. I’m disappointed in myself looking at it now.

James: Well it’s Friday so you can do that afterwards as a sort of celebration?

Paul: Yes to kick-off the weekend!

Marcus: I know how to live.

Paul: I’m just disappointed that you’ve got the physical book, I obviously just read the e-book because I am with the cool kids in the 21st-century.

James: I was actually working in the office two years ago now next to an unnamed colleague, who I won’t reveal who it was, and they were reading the e-book which they’d torrented with no shame at all.


Marcus: Tell me it was Andy, please.

James: I’m not going to say.

Paul: I need to put some thought into that.

James: I tell you what though, he’s a doctor.

Paul: I didn’t know you had any doctors.

James: We don’t any more.

Paul: Oh, so he’s left? And he’s a doctor. Honestly I don’t know.

Marcus: I still don’t know.

James: I’ll leave that mystery with you. Maybe it’s a competition?

Paul: Yes, who can work it out? If you’ve worked out who it is posted in the comments on the show notes because I want to know and I’m too lazy to work it out myself.

Marcus: Goes to the Clearleft website

Paul: What they won’t be on there now, will they.

Marcus: They have an alumnus section.

Paul: Do they? I haven’t been to the Clearleft website for years. Has it changed?

James: It changes slightly every now and then.

Paul: That’s the way it should be.

James: We’ve done some work to the What We Do section, trying to describe a little bit more about how we work. It’s recently changed actually, so thank you for drawing attention to that. I don’t know if there is an alumnus section.

Marcus: They used to be, I am looking but there isn’t any more.

Paul: So basically if you’ve left now, you’re no use to us?

Marcus: Oh yes, you have changed the What We Do section. I haven’t been in there for a while. It’s gorgeous.

Paul: I’m looking at the timeline, there’s a lovely timeline and I wondered whether it had people on, but it doesn’t.

James: I’ve really got you with this one haven’t I?

Paul: I am just looking at disturbing pictures of Jeremy.

James: The picture Richard is quite disturbing I find, as well. Not disturbing just, how can I describe it?

Paul: Oh yes, kind of, yes.

James: That’s the kind of reaction.

Paul: You don’t seem to know where the camera is, looking offered a complete angle.

Marcus: That’s a bit boy-bandy that shot, isn’t it.

Paul: Yes it is. That’s an ‘I fancy myself, I look better from this angle’.

James: Well I just wanted to add a little bit of intrigue. I’m actually looking at the avatar my left aren’t I?

Paul: Yes you are looking at Jeremy, lovingly.

Marcus: Depending on how wide your screen is.

Paul: Or perhaps you are looking past Jeremy, trying to work out what that expression of Richard’s is?

James: There’s actually both things going on there. Just casual idolisation of Jeremy, the internet’s Jeremy Keith and then slight bewilderment as to what’s going on over his shoulder, which is Richard. It looks as though the doctor has just done something to him. Sorry Rich.

Paul: It’s interesting, you’ve got four people in a column if you are viewing it on a desktop. Andy, Richard, Jeremy and James. And at either end of the column, you’ve got Andy at one end – Founder and Managing Director, James at the other end – User Experience Director. In between you have Jeremy Keith – The Green Bean King and Richard Rutter – The Chief Purpose Officer.

Marcus: This is why people love Clearleft.

James: Jeremy actually has many CMS within the CMS that allows him to change his job title at will.

Paul: Across the whole site, it ripples through? Good choice.

James: Effectively across the Internet. And Rich, that’s a new one, Chief Purpose Officer. I like it.

Paul: I kind of like it. Purposeful.

Marcus: Normally he has a quite sensible title as well.

James: Yes he did used to have.

Marcus: Intriguing.

Paul: The choice that he’s gone with I feel goes much better with his picture. Because he looks very purposeful.

Marcus: Are you regretting bringing this up now, James?

James: No I am really enjoying this actually. I was wondering if we could actually start doing a bit more and look up other people.

Paul: Where there are so many, I don’t know half of your staff anymore which is really sad.

James: It’s like an advent calendar really, I can open the doors for you.

Paul: All the different people, wow, there’s so many. And you are doing much better than Headscape. You’ve got a good mix of male/female ratio there.

James: That’s something that we’re really pleased about because we used to be a little bit in balanced in that department. But it’s actually changed a lot over the last few years. It’s something I think our industry is struggling with a little bit, so we’re trying to change that.

Paul: There are a few people on that list of which I’m not sure which of the two categories they fall into, like Andy, so it’s nice. Well-balanced.

James: Well we have three Andy’s.

Paul: Yes that’s why I kept it fake because I wouldn’t want to get myself in trouble with an Andy.

James: You’re obviously not going to risk the wrath of Budd.

Paul: No I am terrified of Budd.

James: Me too.

Paul: I think everybody is. Anyway this is getting very kind of incestuous. No. I don’t know where I was trying to go with that.

Marcus: In-crowdy?

Paul: In-crowdy. I was trying to transition to our sponsor. So then we can talk about what was supposed to be talking about.

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There’s a free trial, you can try it out and see what you think of it and you can also get a special discount as a Boagworld listener if you use the promo code BOAG for 25% off of your web hosting. Go to and then you can enter your promo code on signup. So thank you very much Media Temple for supporting us, they support everything. So basically thank you Media Temple for supporting everything that ever happens in the web community because they seem unable not to sponsor an event. So if you have an event that needs sponsoring then talk to Media Temple. They just give money away for free now, it’s wonderful.

Marcus: So maybe if you just want some money, you could just ask them for some money?

Paul: Yes that’s what they do now. Apparently you have to in some way related to the web or web design, but yes they give away free money. Fact.

Marcus: I need a new phone to test my website on.

Paul: Yes, they will pay for that, definitely. Guarantee it. Yes anyway, they are going to hate me.

How to run a user experience workshop with James Box

Paul: Discussion topic. So I was sitting down and trying to come up with different things that we could cover on the podcast. User Experience – we doing a series on user experience and one of the subjects that I came up with was to talk about user experience workshops, what they are, how they work, why you should do them, what different types there are etc. And I instantly then thought of Undercover User Experience Design is that’s one of the things covered in that book and that made me think about Kenneth which made me then think about James and so then I thought let’s get one of them on the show.

So when Kenneth said no, no that’s not true actually.

James: I was just waiting for that.

Paul: I thought Kenneth? Who would want him? Let’s get to the real talent of that writing partnership and will get James on the show. So that’s what we’re doing. So James, let’s talk about user experience workshops. As a user experience director person, what kind of user experience workshops do you run? What different kinds are there?

James: Yes, that’s a good question. If you asked me two years ago I’d say there was one or two but I think over the last few years we’ve really started to explore how we can use workshops through almost every stage of the design process. So we’ve moved away from just thinking about requirements and trying to reach consensus in a slightly more participatory meeting into actually carrying out design exercises, whether that’s strategic stuff at the start of the project or detailed design stuff towards the end of the project. So there’s a heap of stuff in there. I think if we talking UX in the strictest sense, where we really began with this stuff was using them as a way to inject empathy into a project. Everyone knows the scenario where you start a project and your client has a shopping list and that shopping list has a number of features and if you are lucky you get some business objectives. And what you’re trying to do is unpick those and tried understand how that relates to human behaviour at some point. So we’ve learned to try and bring those things into workshops but also reverse engineer them, to start thinking about, oh this is a really interesting objective you are trying to achieve here, let’s think about the impact you are trying to create with that and think about the people you are trying to influence and think about why you are trying to do it. So start to get under the skin of what were actually doing, which is creating experiences for people, hopefully through some sort of empathy for the user themselves.

So I think a good example would be to carry out some kind of, we use a tool called empathy mapping quite often. This is something that’s one of those things that we’ve been using for a while but I suspect it was originally part of the Gamestorming book by Dave Gray which is a fantastic book for this stuff. But it’s essentially a way to quickly try and build empathy for a particular user and you have a very simple template, you get a group of people together, you are sent think about a person and put themselves in their shoes for a while. So you’re not necessarily trying to think about the task at hand, you’re trying to think about what happens in this person’s world. What is it they see on a daily basis, what is it they hear on a daily basis and how does that make them feel? And from that you’re starting to actually build empathy for them but also hopefully trying to forget the inbuilt bias we have to think of ourselves. So you can start to disassociate the product that you’ve got with your needs and hopefully with the customer you are designing for. And then you eventually end up this context around this user, something that’s been built up collaboratively between three or four people. And then you can start to apply that, that context to the product. What kind of needs does this person have? What kind of pains do they have and how can we help provide them with some solution to that?

Marcus: It’s kind of collaborative persona development?

James: Some people would shudder at that idea, if we had Alan Cooper here, the God of personas, he would shudder at that idea that a persona could be generated through a bunch of people standing around with an opinion. And I think he’s right to be honest, I think a persona in its truest sense is research based. But it’s very rare, certainly for Clearleft to have a three month ethnographic research budget for each project.

Paul: That shocks me.

Marcus: That’s very, very rare in our cases as well.

James: So what we’re trying to do, I guess it would be better phrased as a proto-persona or some sort of early-stage persona. It’s certainly not going to be scientifically rigourous, but it is going to help us think about needs above and beyond our own. So an empathy map is a really good way to start building up some knowledge around a user and that can lead into a persona. And if your colleagues or a client have had a role in generating that they can start to feel some kind of empathy for that person and we can then base the conversation around business objectives, around needs, around features through the eyes of that user as opposed to the whims of a marketing department or ‘my mum uses it this way’ type argument.

Paul: There is a difference between empathy mapping and personas in the sense that empathy mapping is very much focused on people’s pain points or what they are thinking or feeling and that kind of stuff. While a lot of personas seem to end up with— and this is maybe the bad production of personas— but so many personas that I see are like demographic information and what brands they like, which actually I am not convinced how useful that information is. I’d much prefer to know pain points and feelings and questions and those kinds of things. I personally find that a lot more useful.

James: I couldn’t agree more. I think most of the time what we have to deal with as personas are normally market sectors of some kind and what you just described there is a 25 to 35-year-old ABC1 females tend to like this kind of brand. And there is some value there, we are closer to understanding that person than we were before having that information that’s only one part of what we trying to work out. Actually trying to establish who a specific person is and what problems have they got that we will consult for them? Ultimately if I had to boil down the essence of a persona, I think this is what we are trying to get to is an understanding of the problems that person has in their lives and how we might be able to create a response to those problems in some form. A marketing segment is a useful way to start narrowing down towards those problems but it’s not useful at that level it has to be drilled down to some of the things that you’ve described around needs states, behaviour, and motivation. Really what you want to imagine is a specific person that you actually want to have, a character you have in your mind.

Paul: How do things like customer journey mapping fit into this for you? Because that’s taking some of the stuff from empathy mapping and spreading it over a journey. Do you see a value in that? Because that can be quite time consuming to produce can’t they?

James: It’s important to say right now that all workshops are time-consuming. I think for a long time people considered them a silver bullet to solving design problems. They’re not, they are hard work, you have to prepare and practice as you would for any kind of performance in some ways. It’s difficult, and you will make mistakes when doing them. I’ve made lots. But customer journey mapping in answer to your question has become probably the backbone of almost all of our workshops in the last year or two. We’ve just come off an interesting project for a large English retail company and part of what we were trying to achieve there was to share understanding across a diverse product development team around how we’re solving real problems for real people. Which does sound obvious but all too often when not really solving users problems, we’re solving business problems. So we use customer journey mapping as the natural next point in the journey after empathy mapping. We have a rough idea of the kind of person that we are looking at, a proto-persona and then we started to look at how this persona, how this product might fit into their lives. And we generated a number of journeys around that.

And these became the spine of all of our work. We were trying to understand the joined up journey of making a purchase or research, or sending a product back or calling customer service, whatever it might be and understanding how that happens across a number of touch points over a period of time. I think the beauty of it was really everyone could understand that. You could be a project manager, you could be a developer, you could be a UX designer, vision designer etc. you could walk up and you could understand it because it was basically a story. It was a story of a person in a real-life situation.

So customer journey mapping has become a really important part of what we do, whether that’s in a workshop or just part of the design process itself.

Paul: So once you got that journey map what do you do with it? Do you turn into some pretty infographic or is it more to inform your own decision processes? What value does it provide you?

James: We just throw it away.


There are two modes to the way people work. This is oversimplifying it you’ve got the thinking mode which you’re just using artefacts to try and understand the domain. At that point a customer journey map is probably going to be a series of post-it notes, is going to look pretty ugly on a brown bit of paper on the wall and anyone who had produced that thing would probably not understand what it was. As a bit of a mess but if you were there at the time it helps tell a story. And that’s thinking mode. It’s about working these things out, the same way a designer would open Photoshop Sketch or something to reason about how an interface might look. This is just another tool for reasoning about how an experience might work. So that’s thinking the other mode is communication.

So you reach a point where we’ve done enough thinking, we’ve reached a consensus and now we want to communicate some of that stuff back. So in that case I think you would look to try and turn that hodgepodge of ideas and scrawls into something which actually can be sent around as a piece of communication to everyone. An infographic is a good way to do it, although I have to be honest and say that the way that Clearleft work is to look for the lowest fidelity possible. So just enough fidelity is probably the way to think about it. We try to minimise the amount of time we spend on literally just boiling it down into a piece of communication. We tend to put more emphasis on the thinking time and a lot of that would be just taking photos of the stuff and we can interrogate it all, we can put it up on the wall afterwards. I think a lot of the walls in Clearleft look like a lot of the walls in crime dramas.

Marcus: That’s excellent.

James: You got a bunch of suspects, albeit they are users and were trying to understand the journey and were trying to look for connections and make sense of all the stuff. So in a way that idea of moving stuff around is actually really important to us. If it’s in a document, or if it’s digitised that’s actually difficult to do. You actually saying you’ve made the decisions here and we now want to communicate them out. So we tend to err towards the thinking side but you can see some beautiful examples of the stuff in the wild around customer journey mapping which I think certainly has value, especially to distribute it to large teams.

Marcus: I really like the idea of leaving your sketchy stuff there so you can fiddle with it. But on the flipside of that is that I always really like to summarise into a document what’s been done at a workshop just help me pull it all together as well as communicate that to the clients. But yes I love the idea of still having all your tools lying around because you do tend to go very digital after that and it’s much harder to change things.

James: I think you are totally right about what you are talking about there is the shift from thinking to communication and actually having to document the stuff and having to record it. You can’t synthesise it and maybe get rid of some of the stuff that made sense of time, you improve the language a little bit and during the transition between thinking and communication and it helps to clarify that stuff in your mind. Don’t get me wrong, I can completely see the value of that and at times we certainly go down that route but I suppose what we rarely do is to produce a deliverable in that way. We rarely say one of the things you are buying from us is a shiny customer journey map. We just say we are going to use this as a tool and if it ends up being a piece of communication that’s great, but it’s not what you are buying from us.

Paul: I guess it also depends on the client and the client’s organisation. Certainly many of the clients that I work with, you’re not working with an organisation that has a single voice. And so producing a deliverable like an infographic that communicates the direction and educates people about the direction you’re going in can prove a necessary part of the process just in order to bring people along with you and help them to understand why the decisions you are making are the decisions you are making.

James: There is a difference between what and why though, you can see what we’ve come up with but to really understand why you are going to get more of that information if you participate in the production of that, in a workshop or something along those lines. I’m not anti-deliverables, I think there’s a really good value in those things. I would prefer to have a deliverable in the type that you were talking about there that is something that we’ve collectively produced and is something that we all agree that this is the way that we wanted to end up. And you’re right, it is a very large organisation, if you’ve got international offices those things need to be communicated digitally. Not going to get away with sending a couple of crappy iPhone shots. Is difficult so you need to get that into a more legible way and form that we can all understand.

Paul: Do you see the primary benefit of running user workshops as really being almost an education and engagement process rather than necessarily providing a lot of value to you producing the final deliverable? I know it’s a bit of both but you know what I’m getting at?

James: I do, I do. Yes, I think when I first started running design workshops the value that people were getting from them was more in having participated in something and actually almost a sense of catharsis. Getting their ideas out of their head and sharing with other people. They began in that way and that was valuable in its own right but I wasn’t entirely convinced we were actually generating utility of value to the project. We were actually just getting things out. I think it takes a while to actually refine workshops so you do start to produce meaningful things so once you get into the habit of understanding that essentially what you are trying to do is create design thinking with a bunch of people and you want meaningful outputs from that, I think you learn how to use workshops in a slightly more constructive way. I think my hit rate is probably one third of them still end up being kind of fun and everybody enjoyed what we did but we didn’t actually make that much progress in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Two thirds of them I think are now more about adding value to the project. As the more you do these things the more you learn to refine them and get value from them.

One thing I haven’t said so far is that the real purpose of them, of a workshop for me is just the term of shared understanding. I think Jeff Patton’s book, User Story Mapping I think it’s called, is a fantastic book that really communicates this concept around customer journey mapping and the value of building that shared understanding. It’s an obvious concept but actually the amount of projects I’ve worked on where if you actually asked people, everyone has got a slightly different understanding of what we’re doing. And one of the things that’s really beautiful about customer journey mapping is that you avoid that ambiguity. Running it in a workshop you start to tease out all these inbuilt assumptions and biases that people have and in doing that you are eliminating that ambiguity in the project. You are starting to actually build a common model about these things. If I had to say the one thing, the one benefit about workshops is that. It’s a shared understanding which is an incredibly valuable thing to have on a project, it can add so much momentum. That horrible feeling when you are two thirds of the way for a project you suddenly realise that there is a hardwired assumption that no one has challenged throughout the whole project. You need to get these things out early and having these workshop exercises allows you to do that, they allow you to ask stupid questions. So shared understanding is the main reason why think workshops are valuable.

On the other side of it I do genuinely think you can create interesting generative ideas for projects by building on that notion of wisdom of crowds. Having a diverse set of people in a room and structuring some exercises that allows all those people to contribute in a way that isn’t going to make them feel uneasy, but to get a broad range albeit shallow ideas around how you might solve a problem, I feel that’s one of the most valuable things alongside shared understanding is this generative act, is this idea that you can produce a number of different options or ways to tackle a problem. So yes shared understanding, generative nature of them and I think yes there certainly is some kind of feel-good factor which comes along with that which is valuable but is not quite enough in its own right.

Paul: So how far do you take this in a sense, this collaborative process of shared understanding and generating ideas. Creating a customer journey map is quite an abstract, well it’s not abstract, that’s not the right word, but do you go as far as doing things like wire framing as a group or at what point does the professional need to go away and do this by themselves?

James: It’s a really good question because I think there’s also workshop fatigue. At some point people need to put their headphones on and reason about something and give it some thought and that’s a lot of the reason why someone would come to a company of experts, is for them to impart their wisdom. They don’t want it to be something that’s designed by the crowd. But we take it quite a long way having said that. An example would be the last project I mentioned, so we probably spent the first, to be honest the whole project was collaborative but the customer journey maps we developed we broke into three teams of about six people. Each team had a persona that they were very familiar with and then we prioritised some high-value journeys which we then customer journey mapped. Once we had an idea about what those high-level experiences were across that journey, it could be they phoned up and talked to a switchboard, the next one could be that they researched the product on their phone the next one could be that a click and collect on the desktop website or something. So we had a very high level understanding and then we take it to the next level of detail. So we would actually start to think about what are the interfaces in that process that people would use? And if they are things that we’re going to be dealing with i.e. pixels then we’d actually start to break those things down. So I worked with Jeremy and Charlotte here and essentially we broke the interface into tiny components engaged the stickies as interface components. So we took these journey maps right the way down to the interface level and what it meant was that people were designing the interface, whether they were an experienced graphic designer, a product owner, someone who sat in on the workshop for the day, whether they were someone from Clearleft, we all had a way to actually understand how this person has these problems, they are going to address them in these ways with this interface. And was really rights towards the end when we started pushing this stuff into pixels, into code. I guess we were trying to delay that. As possible so that we could achieve as much shared understanding and also keep the cost of change really, really low. It’s really simple to move a bunch of stickies around, it’s more expensive to move a bit of code around awesome pixels around. So we try to keep it for as long as possible, that’s probably the furthest we’ve taken it. Normally we don’t have access to our clients in that way, they are busy people and they haven’t got eight weeks of collaborative time. So another example would be we just have a couple of days a really intensive workshopping where we talk about some really high value parts of the site where we really need their domain knowledge to help solve the problems. And then we’ll do a customer journey map but then we’ll take it away and then start working it up into something like a wireframe or a prototype or something along those lines.

Paul: I can imagine that this people listening to this going, this all sounds quite scary. A room full of people, running a workshop for a day, doing customer journey maps and maybe dealing with some kind of interface elements or empathy mapping, this is scary stuff.

Marcus: Is the best part of my job.

James: I think some people are more suited to it than others as well. I could think that one of the first collaborative design workshops I ever ran and it was with a quite well-known public body in the UK. They are a bit of a quango now but they had a half a commercial arm and half a civil service arm and bought these guys together and essentially we were talking about quite deep stuff, like what’s the strategy here, what’s the business objectives and let’s start prioritising them, those kinds of things. And it was an absolute nightmare. I was completely out of my depth, there were Post-it notes everywhere, arguments going on all over the place, it was an act of diplomacy that never happened really. Yes it is scary because it’s not just like opening a board game and playing by set of rules here, there’s a lot of improvisation going on in changing things as you going. But my advice is to really start small. Start your workshops for an hour and do them internally. Run as a practice and then only after that start to scale them out.

If I say I do a daily workshop, I do two two-hour slots. Two hours in the morning, a nice lunch, get people away from the walls, get them thinking about something else and then two hours in the afternoon. Honestly I don’t think people can really add much value after that. That’s a lot of time to be talking and coming up with stuff that people are just unfamiliar with. So you build up to that. Is definitely scary and you have to accept that you are going to have some failures along the way and that’s difficult to explain to a client when you are spending their money – ‘Oh that didn’t really have any value whatsoever!’ So you have to pick your battles and do it when you feel it’s appropriate, rehearse these things.

Marcus: I learnt a lesson at the beginning of this year – don’t try to do a workshop remotely with people from all around the world.

Paul: You tried to do a remote workshop?! Oh no.

Marcus: That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I won’t ever, ever do it again. I can remember thinking we can only do an hour at a time, but even that was 50 minutes too long. Where do the workshops go wrong? That’s one, you need to be talking to people directly. Don’t try and do anything like that remotely because it’s painful.

James: I think it’s a little bit like usability testing in that regard, you can do remote testing and it does work you just don’t get the nuances that you word if you’re sitting next to someone and you can understand when they’re struggling, what their body movements like and what the expression on their face is like. There was something about the, I was going to say intimacy that sounds like the wrong kind of workshop, but there’s something about being in the same space together, it adds so much more to it. So I can understand that.

We working quite an agile fashion here and we use a lot of retrospectives. We’ve had remote retrospectives that have been okay-ish, not too bad. But yes it’s just not good. I feel for you Marcus.

Marcus: The problem was we had 10 participants who were all in different countries. Somebody would drop out and then to people would start to try and discuss something and then someone else would chip in, it was just that the technology couldn’t cope along with the fact of all that you just said that with these kind of exercises you do need to get a bit more intimate I guess. Bearing in mind who the client was that’s not the right word.

James: Bikram workshops, that’s the way forward I think.

Paul: To make it even worse, you want the tactile nature of a workshop. The Post-it notes and the pens and the drawing stuff out of flipchart paper, up to do that kind of stuff in the digital environment often means that one person is driving. You lose something with that one person driving, it’s their interpretation of what’s going on. And yes there are tools out there that allow collaborative white boarding and that kind of stuff but is not the same as sitting down and letting people fiddle an experiment themselves.

Another thing, in terms of making it easier on yourself if you’re trying to do this kind of thing for the first time, is to give yourself breaks in it. It can be very tempting for you to be the one standing at the whiteboard drawing stuff the whole time or you to be the one that’s constantly leading the discussions, but break people down into groups, get them to do exercises together because that gives you breathing space to think about the next step on and where you’re going from there. One of the big mistakes I made in the early days of work shopping was that I was knackered because I was talking the whole time, I was doing stuff the whole time. But now I do as little as possible and get them doing as much as possible and it works much better I feel.

Marcus: You do like to talk all the time though Paul.

Paul: Shut up Marcus. James was going to make a good point and you’ve interrupted him just an insult.

James: I worked with a colleague and we were talking about a workshop that we ran trying to work out what could have gone better etc. and she made a really astute observation which was what was the purpose of the workshop? And I said, oh it was a collaborative design thing. And she said, okay, what was the agenda? And I said, we all got together, we got into the room and start the workshop I did a 20 minute talk on setting the context. And she said, do you see the irony there? You want people to come in and do stuff and then you spend 20 minutes talking to them.

And that was a really good point. And since then I’ve tried to, the moment people walk in, just get them to do something even if it’s a silly icebreaker. You’re setting the expectation of what’s going to happen for the day.

You know what it’s like, you come back after lunch and you’ve got another two-hour session ahead of you. If you start talking people are just going to drift. See got to be doing stuff. And people want to do stuff. They don’t want to sit them be talked at so that was a really good lesson for me.

I think the other thing is that you embrace a little bit of that uncertainty there. You allow people to be a little bit unsure as to what’s happening because in that space you get some interesting ideas come out. But you’ve also got to be aware of the fact that you’re there to steward this thing and facilitate it and make sure that if you’ve got the cynical person sitting over there in the corner who’s questioning everything that you go over there and interrupt and say, well actually let’s think about this in a different way for a minute? And if you got someone over the other side of the room who is thinking too broadly we can go and say, let’s try and get this a little more focused. So you are just there to facilitate other people doing things as opposed to doing things yourself and letting people comment on it.

Paul: Yes, realising you are a facilitate is the heart of a successful workshop in my opinion.

Marcus: One more point, on the subject of if you are just starting out doing these things is don’t do it on your own. Have a partner with you or in our case I will have one of my designers or developers or Chris comes along with me and we work together on it. I think that really helps particularly if you get into a dead-end and you might be in a position where you come up with a particular way forward for whatever it is you are discussing and everyone in the room is going ‘not really’. So it’s really important to have somebody else who’s looking after you and who can step in if need be.

James: We were lucky enough to have Jeff Patton come over recently and come down and do some little user journey mapping stuff with us. One of the interesting things that he bought along with him was that he didn’t have a slide deck, he had a camera that was pointing down towards the desk— the kind of camera you would buy to test mobile devices— and he drew the slides as we were talking. What it did was engage you as you saw those things being created at the same time but it also liberated people to realise if we’re going to do some sketching here doesn’t really matter what it looks like, all we are trying to do is express ourselves. And that was really nice, it wasn’t you walking into this pre-planned regimented set of steps, it’s very much where in improvisation here, we’re going to make this up as we go along. Even the guy that’s running it is doing it. And I thought that was really, really powerful but I haven’t had the confidence to do that myself yet. I’d like a little bit of a comfort blanket, a few slides here and there. But I did think that Jeff was really good at doing that.

Paul: I think that kind of improvisation element to this is really important. For example when I go, and I think this comes with experience, but when I go into a session like that, yes I’ve got my agenda, yes I’ve got the things that I want to cover in the session, but I have a collection of different ways of doing exercises. So that’s why something like Gamestorming which you mentioned earlier is so great. has got a whole selection of exercises so you can adapt to the audience that you’ve got. Something as simple as a prioritised list of user groups is something that you may well want. There are countless different ways of getting to that prioritised list and once you see the audience and once you know the people and the characters you can adjust accordingly. For example if you are doing that after lunch you would want to make that a fun, silly exercise to wake people up and get going after lunch. So I tend to do a lot of competition stuff where I will pit one group against the other – who can come up with the most different user groups in a five-minute segment? Just to get them going and excited and I think doing lots of different types of exercises, picking the right exercises for the group is very important.

Another thing you said about the drawing and actually drawing the slides as you go along, is getting people over that hurdle of ‘oh I can’t draw’. And really good way of doing that I often find is that the first exercise I require people to draw I tend do as a group exercise. So they are in a series of different groups and I say ‘the person that is worst at drawing is going to draw this, if I see any artistic ability whatsoever then your group is going to get disqualified’. Because they then immediately or fight over the pen because they think that they are the worst drawer. And it makes it fun and it gets past that were trying to produce something pretty thing.

James: One of my colleagues, Anna Carson, she introduced me to a really nice way of doing that which is closed eye portraits. Essentially what you do is pairing people up, give them a piece of paper or index card and set them in front of each other and then they have two draw a portrait of that person in a minute without breaking eye contact. So you literally cannot draw a good portraits like that. It’s just a silly thing to do but what you also saying is that it doesn’t matter about the quality of the drawing today, we are literally using this as a way to get things out people’s heads and have something to point at. So that’s always a good fun thing to do after lunch as well.

Paul: It’s that fun element, doing something fun make such a difference to the day because ideas flow much easier than is a good atmosphere and everyone’s laughing.

James: It’s play isn’t it really? When I watch my kids it’s in their make-believe worlds where all of a sudden Star Wars and Trains I just in one universe. It seems crazy but that’s kind of what you want people to do, you want people to feel as though it’s okay to do things like that. You don’t want to be questioning everything and trying to demonstrate their intelligence about why an idea won’t work. You actually looking to generate some silly things and have a bit of fun doing it. So playfulness is really important thing I think. I think frivolity can get a little bit, when you start talking about that with clients they are like ‘this is fun but I am paying you’.

Paul: There is a balance.

James: Most the time clients are pretty good with it.

Marcus: I am really struggling to think of an example, may be because of just blocked it out of my mind, of a session that I’ve done well I’m thinking people don’t want to be here. I think clients love the sort of thing, it breaks up there standard year let alone week or month and everybody’s really keen to be involved. Maybe I’m just forgetting the really miserable ones?

Paul: Those eyes one or two people in a room that don’t get it and don’t appreciate it but not many.

James: I wouldn’t say that there are people in there to sabotage it or anything along those lines but I think you do have to be on the lookout for people who want to skip over bits of an exercise that will actually help other people understand it, who want to go further on. You have other people who just want to follow existing patterns in a robotic manner. So they are not necessarily there to be destructive but you always have to be aware and it comes back to that facilitation thing where you can adjust the situations and say ‘that’s a really good point there but we could park it today and revisit those things later, let’s move onto the next thing’. I don’t think its necessary people are there to ruin things sabotage things is just you have to coach people into the way of thinking that’s going to add value to that day.

Paul: And it’s about keeping the momentum going as well because there is another group of people that can be challenging sometimes, that are people who are very detail orientated and they want to complete every little detail of what people are thinking about when actually you are more interested in generating ideas rather than validating every single one of those ideas so it’s a balance.

Anyway I think a better wrap up no matter how much I would love to continue this conversation. There were so many ways of doing UX workshops there were so many good things that you can get out of them that we could go on forever.


Paul: But I want to talk about Acquia, our second sponsor for the day. I do love to work with these guys recently and I’ve really become to like their attitude and approach to things. I’ve actually written a blog post that’s come out recently or will have come out recently by the time this goes out about enterprise and open source and content management systems and all the weird attitudes lots of organisations have about their purchasing and dealing with software. I see companies spending years selecting content management systems and spending millions and I just don’t get it. I just don’t understand why they are going down these proprietary platform routes rather than using something open source like Drupal. And that’s why I’ve come to love the work that Acquia are doing. Because they approach things in a very different way.

They use Drupal but then provide the level of support and hosting that you expect from a proprietary system without having the massive costs and drawbacks with that proprietary system. So they make it easy to adapt and change to different requirements as they come along. You got the robustness of the Drupal community behind you, it makes it so much easier in so many different ways. The platform that they provide, so they provide this hosting and support platform for you that makes it easy for your developers to build complex applications really fast but they offer as well that resiliency that you need and security that is just so important these days.

They got loads of integration options and they can really help you take an open source solution and make it something robust and secure and adaptable to work for many organisations that have traditionally gone ‘oh we need to go with this enterprise solution’. So definitely check them out. I’ve come across these guys a lot especially with my work in the higher education sector so I recommend checking them out if you work as part of an in-house team especially if you do so in higher education because they are doing loads there at the moment. They offer a huge range of services, far more than I can cover on the show but I did just want to mention them. You can find out more about them at

That is about it for this week’s show. James I am sorry to say you have to endure a joke from Marcus, I promise it will be over quickly.

James: I am looking forward to it.

Marcus: This is a joke from Ian Lasky who we haven’t had a joke from before, so thank you Ian. It’s a very short joke which is good, always good when I am saying them. I do have to explain because it uses the term GCSE in it. To those people who are outside of the UK that’s a type of exam you take when you are 16, that sort of age.

‘I did my pirate GCSEs. I got seven C’s’.


Paul: That doesn’t even deserve a snigger.

Marcus: It does. Come on.

Paul: Thank you Ian.

James: That’s made my weekend.

Paul: Has it really? That’s a sad reflection on what your weekend is going to be like then. So there we go. Next week we’re going to be looking at lean UX whatever that is. This is something I’ve been hearing a lot about and reading a lot about and so we are going to look at the subject of lean UX next week and we’ve got Adam…why did I just stall there in the middle of a sentence? I looked at his surname and began to panic.

Marcus: Do you want me to say it Paul?

Paul: Yes, go on.

Marcus: It’s Pycroft.

Paul: It is Pycroft isn’t it. Why could I not say that? What was wrong with me there? I had a complete freezing moment.

James: It’s a subject that is very dear to my heart so I would definitely join in.

Paul: I just want to redo that bit Marcus, you will edit it won’t you?

Marcus: Yes Paul.

Paul: So next week we are being joined by Adam Pycroft to discuss lean UX which is subject that I’ve been reading a lot about recently. You’re not going to edit this are you?

Marcus: If I remember I might.

James: Edit the joke out.

Marcus: I couldn’t possibly do that, people would complain.

Paul: So this is a subject you are enthusiastic about is it?

James: I am yes.

Paul: I guess it goes back to what you are saying earlier about deliverables and keeping things lightweight and that kind of thing.

James: I think so yes. A lot of people think lean UX is just quick UX but I think actually that’s a misconception. I think for me it’s trying to build in principles from lean start-up. Things like build, measure, learn and hypothesis driven design. So I would personally be fascinated to hear Adam talk about that and I’ll join you.

Paul: Ahh good then. There you go a recommendation from James so it must be good. To talk to next week and thank you very much as always for listening. Goodbye.