10 ways to get more from your UX workshop

Paul Boag

Running workshops is a key part of engaging stakeholders with user experience. But doing it right is critical if you want to avoid design by committee.

Are you the poor soul that has user experience in your job title? That means you do all the ‘ user experience’ stuff by yourself… right? Of course in truth you know that user experience is a team sport. In fact you need the entire organisation to be onboard. Unfortunately the task of making that happen falls to you! Good luck with that.

One thing you can do is start running user experience workshops. They are a chance to get stakeholders thinking about user needs. A chance to educate them about best practice and get them excited about the potential. At least it is if you do it right.

Workshops can also go horribly wrong. I have been in workshops that have devolved into departmental infighting or design by committee. I have watched one or two big mouths dominate. And no I am not talking about me!

But don’t let that put you off. It doesn’t take much to run them right. What follows is a few of my top tips for running your next user experience workshop.

1. Focus on users

Okay this sounds like an obvious one, but make sure the workshop focuses on users. It is amazing how often a workshop will lose focus. Conversations turn to features and departmental objectives.

Make sure you define your audiences early in the workshop. But don’t stop there. Spend time discussing their needs, journey and what questions they have along the way.

2. Define your digital goals

Next up make sure you have some defined goals for digital. This will provide a framework for your discussion and stop the group wandering off on flights of fancy. Without clear goals you will find them launching yet another mobile app before you blink!

If this is your first workshop, take time to define the goals for digital as part of the session. If you have run workshops before, make sure you pin up the goals you agreed for all to see. They will keep you on track.

3. Make it fun

A user experience workshop is as much about winning hearts and minds as anything else. It is about showing attendees the value of user experience and getting them enthused. As such it is important it is an engaging fun day. A day where they go away fired up about the possibilities.

That means its important to create momentum and a fun atmosphere. Without that it becomes just another meeting. Just another issue that needs resolving.

I like to make things competitive. Set one team against another producing ideas. Get them presenting those ideas in a talent show format or do exercises against the clock. Also it never hurts to have doughnuts or cupcakes as prizes.

4. Don’t start designing web pages

When talking about user experience it is tempting to dive into wireframing key pages. This does have its place, but don’t do so too early. You will find the workshop bogged down in politics, arguments over content or personal opinions on design.

Book Cover Template
By getting people to design a book jacket they will be forced to prioritise messages. But you will avoid getting into the specifics of designing a website.

Instead try designing a book jacket to help people prioritise content. The most important messages will go on the front, followed by the back, spine and inside flap. Because this is not a final deliverable everybody will relax and be less precious.

I know it sounds strange but get people designing a reception area. Their choices about the furniture, wallpaper, pictures and signage can inspire your design. They will talk about colour, textures, styling and other aspects of how they want to present themselves to the world.

5. Vary your exercises

No matter how fun the exercise it will become boring if you do the same thing again and again. Make sure you use a variety of approaches. In one exercise get them voting on a list of objectives. In the next get them drawing pictures to represent their vision of the future.

I would like to tell you that coming up with a selection of exercises takes years of experience. But you can just go to gamestorming.com and get loads of ideas.

People working around a desk with a variety of different drawing tools.
Don’t let your sessions become boring. Use a variety of props and exercises to engage people.

6. Use voting to keep momentum

One thing that can kill the momentum and fun of a workshop is discussing decisions. This is also the point where things turn into design by committee.

One person expresses one point of view and another opposes them. This can lead to confrontation. Or even worse it could lead to compromise. Compromise is where the group tries to reach a consensus and produces something nobody is happy with.

One solution is to get people to vote. Voting is a quick way of reaching a decision. But it can also be a great way of levelling the playing field. If a senior manager is in the room or a particularly dominant person, voting can stop them from holding too much sway.

7. Set time constraints

Setting a time constraint is another great way of limiting endless discussion. It also ensures you don’t get bogged down in details. I give participants far too little time to do an exercise. It falls to me to work out the details later. I just want their initial thoughts.

In fact if at least one participant does not complain they have inadequate time to complete a task, then I haven’t done my job right!

8. Make it interactive, not just discussion based

By now you may have gathered I am not a fan of sitting around a table discussing things. It’s something to do with the fact that I bore easily. But the last thing we want from our workshop is for it to be boring.

So wherever possible lets get people out of their seats doing things. I don’t mean role-play exercises. For the love of all that is good don’t do that! That is outlawed in the Geneva convention.

People working on a UX wall
Wherever possible lets get people out of their seats doing things.

But you can get people rearranging post it notes on a wall or huddled around a big sheet of paper drawing things. Anything to get them up and moving.

Another nice trick is not to have a break for coffee. Instead have refreshments on hand all the time. Encourage people to help themselves when they want or even pop out of the room if they need to. That will help keep people moving around and make the whole thing feel less like an all day meeting.

9. Spend time looking at barriers

The one problem with all this momentum and positivity is that it can be easy to sweep the barriers under the carpet. The trouble is that if you do that they start seeping out causing problems later on.

That said we don’t want the workshop to become too negative so I tend to turn barriers into a game. Split your group into two teams and get each team to write down as many problems or barriers as they can think of in the allotted time. Tell them that at the end of the time limit the other team will have to find answers to their list so they should be as hard as possible.

Then at the end of the time limit instead of swapping lists, get the group to search for answers in their own list. That will teach them for being so negative! Not only will this get a laugh it will also allow people to work themselves past the barriers they have identified.

This is not the only way to address barriers. But it does allow you to do so in a fun way that keeps people engaged.

10. Refine and report back

Remember a UX workshop is not about details. It is about exciting people and getting them thinking. We don’t want them getting bogged down in the details of the user experience because to be frank you are a lot more qualified to do that.

But it is important people see the fruits of their labour. Afterwards take time to refine and organise the outputs of the workshop and report back. Show the group how their ideas will be helpful in shaping the user experience going forward. That way they will feel a sense of ownership over anything you go away and create. This means they will be much more supportive.

So those are my top tips for now. To be honest this post could have gone on forever. So why not add to it with your own tips in the comments below.

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