Four tips for achieving successful UX workshops

To design innovative experiences we need to experiment freely and openly. Running UX workshops is one of the contexts in which we facilitate that experimentation. This works well when designers brainstorm together because they are trained with that mindset. Facilitating UX workshops becomes more challenging when ideating with non-designers who have not participated in a UX workshop and are sceptical about its value.

In this post, I suggest four tips for achieving successful UX workshops and gaining the trust of the more sceptical participants.

1. Establish trust

For a successful workshop, participants need to take part in all activities and trust that the outcome is valuable. One of the challenges we face, as facilitators, is that this value is not evident to everyone. It is very difficult to make people believe in the value of the workshop before they have actually observed or participated in a successful one.

Participants come to us with ideas in mind. Through the workshop, we might lead them to question these ideas and discover that the solution is in something completely different. We might validate their ideas. We might come up with new ones. We might not discover anything new. The truth is, we don’t know what the outcome will be and we can’t guarantee it. The fear of the unknown is what drives this scepticism. What can we do to establish trust?

A- Show precedents
Participants need to be convinced that a workshop will be a constructive activity that will advance the project. Prior to setting a date for the workshop, you should explain to participants how you usually work, how you would work with them and why you take that approach. Show them examples of what you were able to achieve in other workshops and how the outcome guided your design decisions.

B- Set expectations
You can set expectations by sending an agenda. During the workshop you will discover things that will guide the next activity so you need the agenda to be high level and flexible. If the workshop is too structured, it limits creativity and you end up feeding the results. The agenda is there to give participants a rough idea about what to expect and to guide them to invite the right people to be there on the day.

C- Give them a task
Participants want to feel that they are prepared for the meeting. Imagine taking a test without having to study. The idea of not having to prepare for anything can be worrying. Give them a task. For example, you can ask them to be ready to demonstrate any current system they have and talk about what they like or hate about it. Thinking of a few ideas makes them feel more confident about their readiness for the workshop.

D- Ease them into it

Tip: Start the workshop with a quick warm-up to show participants the value of the activities they will take part in, and ease them into actively participating and sketching.

For example, if I am planning a user personas activity, I start with the following warm up:
I ask participants to draw a phone. I participate in this as well. Each participant will draw something slightly or sometimes drastically different. This shows that there are multiple ways for representing the same thing. Once they’ve done that, I ask them to draw a phone for someone far-sighted. This gets them thinking about the user. Finally I ask them to draw the same phone for someone who wants to use it while swimming or skiing. This sets the context. The three sketches each participant draws will look different. When we design, we can represent the same thing in different ways. We don’t do it in a vacuum. The user and the context guide the design we create. This quick warm up establishes the importance of identifying who the users are and the context within which they are operating. It also primes participants to sketching and being active.

2. Build a safe environment

You’re probably familiar with the saying “It’s quality not quantity that counts”. While that is true, in UX workshops, you need a lot of quantity to get a bit of quality. The reality is, if you have a large enough number of ideas generated, there will be a lot of bad ones but there will also be a few good ones. You need to go through the bad ones before you can get to the good ones.

Every idea at this point is good because we need to diverge before we can converge. This divergent and convergent stages of the design process is what the British Design Council describes as the Double diamond process. You come up with as many ideas as you can without limiting yourself before you narrow those ideas down. This allows you to explore different angles and interpretations without getting hung up on a single one.

The Double Diamond Design Process Model The Double Diamond Design Process Model

For divergent thinking to work, you need participants to share all their ideas without self-editing or feeling judged. You need to establish an environment that allows them to feel safe to share ideas whether these ideas are good or bad. How do we build such an environment?

Tip: Write down everyone’s idea regardless of whether you think it is good or bad and let participants know that there is no right or wrong answer.

In addition to generating a lot of ideas, this approach is good for two other reasons:
1- It is much easier for a participant to let go of a bad idea once you have acknowledged it by writing it down.
2- Iterating on someone’s bad idea can generate a good idea.

You can look at DesignKit by IDEO for examples of ideation methods you can use.

3. Learn to risk failure

As designers, we are used to iterating and learning from each iteration. We don’t think about iterations as failures. We view them as part of the design process. The same should be applied to workshops. However, workshops are not often seen as a work in progress. As I mentioned earlier, some participants may be sceptical about the return on their investment when it come to workshops. They believe it takes up time that could otherwise have been spent designing the end product. This fear puts pressure on the facilitator of the workshop to avoid any failure. The problem with that is that failure is part of the process and some ideas will fail. Creativity requires experimentation and failure.

You are the person facilitating the workshop but you are also a participant in it. You explore different options and will not always have the answer. You need to redefine what failure is and see it as a constructive step. When something fails, you can rule it out and try something else until you succeed. If you try to avoid failure, you end up dictating every step of the workshop and its outcome and limit creativity which defeats the point of having a workshop. You stop taking any risks or thinking outside the box. The workshop is like a playfield where you can experiment, push the limits and build a successful outcome from your difficulties along the way.

Tip: Set failure as an expected part of the process but also think a few steps ahead. Be prepared for the failure and have an alternative plan. If you have multiple approaches ready to be tested, it won’t matter if one of them fails.

4. Fail small by prototyping

A great way to test ideas is through prototyping. It allows you to quickly disregard and/or improve ideas through iteration. Prototyping should start at the early stages of the design process. In workshops, it helps you materialize your ideas. It can be applied to graphical user interfaces not just physical products.

For example, to test the navigation in a web application, you can quickly sketch out and assemble a paper prototype. It allows you to focus on the user experience without being limited by any software and you can quickly edit it.

A- Discover whether your idea works
Prototyping saves time in the long run. You don’t want to invest too much time building something that will fail. You want to test your idea quickly. The sooner you know it is not a good idea the better. You might consider starting with a low fidelity prototype. However, this depends on the hypothesis you are testing. In some cases the prototype might need to be more fine tuned.

B- Make your idea better through iteration
You improve your design by iterating on it. The more you iterate, the more you improve. You get new findings through each of the prototypes. No matter how much time you spend designing something, some things are only revealed while testing the design with end users.

You can explore different ways of prototyping. Your prototype can take a completely different form from the final product but, of course, make sure it is an appropriate form of prototype for what you are testing. Prototypes allow you to quickly validate or disprove a hypothesis. You need to keep that in mind to find the quickest way to test your hypothesis.

Tip: The prototype does not have to take the same form as the end product. If you are testing a service, you could use role playing or storyboarding to think like the users and the journey they would take. You can prototype for a web interface using paper prototypes to navigate through pages. A quick sketch is sometimes the best solution.

For ideas on sketching and early prototyping design methods, Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences is a good source to look at.

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