How to plan and run the perfect UX workshop

Star wars lego meeting

Want to get some ideas to for a particular design challenge? Run a workshop. Want to evaluate designs with stakeholders? Run a workshop. Want to gather insights from domain experts? Run a workshop. Want to prioritise a set of features? Run a workshop. Want to… OK, you get the idea!

Workshops are a really key part of the UX process but all too often they are poorly thought out and poorly run. Here are my tips for planning and running the perfect UX workshop.

Planning the workshop

As a former Scout (well Sea Scout to be more precise), I like to think that former Scouts make for very good UX professionals because we always try to, “Be prepared” (which if you didn’t know is the Scout motto). Running a good workshop is all in the planning and preparation. As a rule of thumb you should spend around twice as long preparing for a workshop as the workshop will actually take. Therefore if you think you’ll need a 2 hour workshop you should be spending at least 4 hours preparing for it. Here are some of the things you should be thinking about.

Boy scouts

Like the boy scouts, it’s important to “Be prepared”

Establishing the goals of the workshop

First and foremost think about the goals of the workshop. Why are you having the workshop in the first place? What do you need to get out of it? It can often be a good idea to start with the desired workshop outputs and work backwards from there. For example, if your desired output is a prioritised set of features, then how can you best arrive at these?

Planning activities

Having established your workshop goals you’ll want to plan out what you’re actually going to do during the workshop. Think about not just what you need to get out of the workshop but also what is likely to work well?

Design games can be a great way to engage people and to help stimulate dialogue and conversation. If you need inspiration the Gamestorming and Innovation Games websites both have lots of ideas for potential workshop activities. If you’ve not tried an activity out before it can be a good idea to carry out a quick pilot to get an idea of timings and to see it the activity is likely to work well for your workshop.

Deciding who needs to come

There is often a tendency to invite everyone and their dog to a workshop, but really you should only invite people that absolutely need to be there, and that will actually have something to contribute. It’s generally best to keep workshop numbers as small as possible (Jeff Patton talks about the sort of group size that you would have for a dinner party) so it can sometimes be a good idea to run multiple workshops with smaller groups. This ensures that the group isn’t too large and unwieldy. Also, if someone doesn’t need to attend the entire workshop don’t be afraid to invite them to only part of it.

It’s worth thinking about whether anyone will need to dial in to the workshop. Having participants join via conference call or video phone completely changes the dynamics of a workshop, so it can often be a good idea to run a separate remote workshop, along with any face-to-face workshops. This way you can optimise the workshop to participants dialling in, or taking part in person.

Finally think about how many people you will need to help run the workshop. Of course this will vary depending on the group size and type of workshop, but as a general rule two people running a workshop is better than one. You will generally have a main facilitator and a note taker / glamorous assistant, although these roles might swap during the workshop (i.e. someone facilitates one activity and someone else facilitates another). This ensures that the facilitator is not trying to simultaneously run the workshop and capture everything that is going on at the same time.

Putting together an agenda

Agendas are a necessary evil of workshops so don’t think that you can skip this important part of the planning process. Workshop agendas serve two main purposes. Firstly they help you plan out and think about how much you’ll be able to fit into your workshop and secondly they let participants know what to expect (of course if they actually read it!).

When putting together an agenda I’ve found it useful to list the activities I’d like to carry out, estimate how long each is likely to take (in minutes) and then see what combinations I can fit in the time available. Don’t forget to allow for breaks (you don’t want your workshop turning into a 3 hour Lord of the Rings-esque marathon of endurance) and be realistic when estimating how long an activity is likely to take. You want to aim for short bursts of activity with certainly no more than 90 minutes between breaks. Try to front load the workshop with the most important activities and as it can be hard to gauge how long activities will take it can be a good idea to have a set of ‘nice to do’ activities in your back pocket. If you’re running ahead of schedule you have the option to whip out your ‘nice to do’ activities, or alternatively just finish the workshop early!

Choosing a venue

I can’t stress enough how important it is to choose the right venue for a workshop. In the immortal words of Phil Spencer (my TV look-a-like) think location, location, location. Shoehorn everyone into a room that is far too small and the workshop will probably suck. Choose a venue that is too noisy and distracting and the workshop will also probably suck.

Tiny meeting room

Probably not the best choice for a workshop. Ensure the venue is big enough to comfortably accommodate all the participants.

When choosing a venue think about the number of people that you’ll have, the sort of activities you’ll be doing and the sort of environment that will be conducive to the workshop. Generally bigger is better and you’ll no doubt want a screen and lots of wall space for sticking stuff up. If you’re going to ask people to be creative try to choose a more informal venue (stark boardrooms hardly scream creativity) and it can often be a good idea to use a venue outside of the office so that you can ensure that you have everyone’s undivided attention.

Making sure participants are prepared

Running a workshop is a bit like being a school teacher. You will need to do your lesson prep; you will need to think about how to control the unruly children at the back (watch out for the senior stakeholders – they’re always worst behaved) and you will want to give your participants some homework to do prior to the workshop. Send out a little homework pack a few days before the workshop (too far in advance and people will invariably forget and claim their dog ate their homework). This is in order to set expectations and to ensure that everyone comes prepared with thoughts, questions and ideas etc…. In your homework pack you should include the workshop agenda, details of when and where the workshop is and any prior work that you want participants to undertake. You might ask everyone to go through a document or presentation deck, to find some examples of something, or simply to think of some ideas to bring to the table. Don’t make the homework too onerous (otherwise no one will do it) and don’t’ expect everyone to have done it (again senior stakeholders are the worst culprits). It’s a good idea to remind people in person (or over the phone) a few days before the workshop. Emails are all too easy to ignore and talking to someone ensures that you can also check that what you’re asking for is clear and has been understood.

Preparing the room

You don’t want to start the first 10 mins of your workshop setting up the venue so it’s important that you have access to the room prior to the start. Get any technology up and running (there’s nothing like playing projector button bingo at the start of a workshop), stick up any stuff that you’ll be referring to and get the room into the best possible set-up. Think about what is likely to work well table and chairs wise (or even ditch the chairs and tables) and ensure that you have enough supplies of blue-tac (other blue tacky substances are available), flip chart paper, post-it notes (other mildly sticky posting note type things are available) and any other items that you will be using. It can also be a great idea to provide your participants with some workshop snacks and goodies. Not only will you get sugar fuelled discussions but thanks to the principal of reciprocity (basically give someone something for free and they will subconsciously feel indebted to you) you should get greater participation from your participants without them even realising it.

Running the workshop

Life is like a box of chocolates and a workshop is like a sandwich. And like all good sandwiches it should have three layers. There is the opening bread layer, the middle main filling layer and the closing bread layer. Just like a sandwich each layer / section has a different role to play.

Smoked salmon sandwiches

Like a sandwich your workshop should have 3 layers. The opening section, the main section and the closing section.

Opening the workshop

You should spend a short time initially opening the workshop. Make it clear what the goals of the workshop are, what is going to be covered and run through any house rules, such as mobiles to be switched to silent and only one conversation at a time. Ensure that it is clear what is being asked of participants and find out if anyone has any initial questions.

If participants don’t know one another it can also be a good idea to have a quick round of introductions and perhaps play a little ice breaker game (not literally unless of course the meeting is being held in an ice rink). I’ve found something like a quick game of Pictionary, or even getting everyone to say one interesting or surprising thing about themselves works well.

Facilitating the workshop

The workshop filling should consist of your various workshop activities. This is where good facilitation is key. As I’ve already mentioned I’ve generally found it best to have a designated facilitator for each activity and then one or more note takers / assistants. Running a workshop and taking good notes is only really feasible for very experienced facilitators and relatively small groups, so try to get some help running the workshop if you can.

Introduce each activity before it’s undertaken and make it clear to everyone what is expected of them. It’s a good idea to use examples to help give people an idea of what they need to do and don’t be afraid to stop or change an activity if it’s not working. Finally, try to keep a close eye on time. It can be all too easy to lose track of how much time is remaining and find that you’re not going to be able to cover everything that you wanted to.

Closing the workshop

All good things come to an end and like a good book or film (apart from those rubbish two parters – damn you Peter Jackson) you should bring your workshop to a well-rounded conclusion. It’s a good idea to spend some time at the end of the workshop going through what has been achieved, looking at next steps, assigning actions and generally ensuring that any loose ends will closed off.

Like a good host you should thank everyone for coming and remind them how awesome they’ve been (even if they haven’t). Finally remind everyone of any follow up workshops and activities (think homework at the end of a school lesson!).

Recording outputs

No doubt you’ll create lots of outputs from your workshop. These could be in the form of post-it notes, sketches, scribbles, ideas, lists and so on. You’ll want to keep a record of these outputs so make sure that you not only photograph everything, but also that you take as much away with you as possible. This is why it’s generally better to use flip charts rather than white boards (as you can take the pages away) and to stick post-it notes on paper, rather than directly on a wall or window.

Post it notes on paper

It’s a good idea to stick post-it notes onto paper so that they can be easily taken away.

After the workshop

Remember when as a child you had to write thank you cards and letters for birthday presents? (I suspect it’s all via email and Facebook nowadays). A little thank you goes a long way so after the workshop be sure to thank all the participants once again and reiterate any follow up actions and activities. Share any workshop outputs so that everyone continues to feel involved and can feed in if necessary. Finally ask for any general feedback about how the workshop was run and spend some time reflecting yourself (think of it as a mini retrospective) so that you can make the next UX workshop you run even more perfect!

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