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User Research Workshops: Why, When, and How You Should Ideate as a Team

Motivating your stakeholders. Unearthing new insights. Building trust. Reducing bias. There are countless reasons to host workshops as a UXR. Here's how to execute one with confidence. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

UX workshops go by all sorts of names: design studios, innovation brainstorms, design sprints and synthesis workshops, to name a few. But they all have one thing in common: without these workshops, there is less of a chance for stakeholders to sit with, and deeply understand, research insights.

As researchers, we spend a lot of time with our research—it’s our job. However, for those on the periphery, workshops are a great way to get stakeholders involved throughout the research process.

Yes, workshops take a lot of work (that’s why it’s called a workshop), but they yield a major return on investment for your research. It may be easier to put together a report with all of your research findings and send that out to stakeholders, but you can run into a few problems with the report-only approach:

  • Stakeholders only see the outcome of the research. They don’t see all the minute details that are looked at during synthesis, which may open their eyes to additional perspectives the researcher may not see. Also, reviewing this type of raw data allows for more empathy to be built, since they get to see the users up close.
  • They can be general. It takes a lot of time to synthesize all the data from a research study and put together a concise report someone would be willing to read. Not only that, stakeholders often want reports almost immediately after a study, not leaving us with enough time to really digest the research. This could lead to generalized findings from the data, since there was not nearly sufficient time to tie concepts together.
  • Findings can be biased or one-sided. If you are the only person looking at and synthesizing research, the findings you choose to highlight could be biased. We are all human, and tend to pick out ideas that stand out to us in particular, which could leave the report with a slanted perspective on the study. 
  • Sometimes we get tired of synthesizing/reporting. It can get lonely or boring to work through a lot of raw data on your own, and sometimes we can start thinking about our next study before even finishing the current report. With this, our recommendations may be a bit stale and rushed.

Workshops have an immediate motivating effect. People leave feeling like they can have a positive impact…There is a collective authorship, and the agency that comes with knowing what the team can do together.

Nikki Anderson

Benefits of a workshop

There are many things a good workshop can do that go beyond what your normal report can. Not only can workshops evangelize the culture of user research in a company, but they also make your job as a user researcher much more fun. Through workshops, you have the chance to engage with colleagues and give them a creative outlet for an afternoon or a day.

Here are the main benefits I have derived from running research workshops:

  • Bringing people together. Instead of reading or commenting on a digital document, people are sitting in a room, dedicated to going through the data. Meetings are abundant, but workshops bring people together in a way that meetings can’t. They can spark enthusiasm and joy.
  • Generating better ideas. Two brains are better than one, and a room full of brains is more than a researcher could ever ask for. Usually we are the only ones massaging through our data, bringing forth those aforementioned biases and a lack of perspective. With a room full of diverse colleagues, we can come up with ideas that go beyond what one brain could comprehend or devise.
  • Coming to a shared understanding. There’s an illustration that stuck with me of three people talking to each other. Each person has a thought-bubble above their head: one with a circle, one with a square and one with a triangle. The caption reads: “I’m glad we can all agree.” Oftentimes, when we read something in a document or simply talk about it in passing, we can think we have the same understanding when, in fact, we’ve come to different conclusions. Workshops allow for deeper discussion that gets teams truly aligned.
  • Building trust. Workshops are an opportunity for people to come together and build a sense of trust. During a workshop, you see your peers working on a common problem in order to improve something. This sense of camaraderie helps people remember that they are all on the same team, working toward the same goal, and that working together can make that goal a reality.
  • Inspiring action. Workshops have an immediate motivating effect. People leave with a sense of agency, feeling like they can have a positive impact. Good workshops allow people to leave with a deep understanding of what their responsibilities are, and what others are responsible for. There is a collective authorship, and the agency that comes with knowing what the team can do together, and what part you yourself can do.

When to run a workshop

Considering workshops take time to plan and run, you probably won’t be able to run them super frequently. There was a time where I was running way too many, which led the workshops to become sloppy, and their output to be less helpful, and my colleagues to burn out.

Here are some instances when I find workshops most useful:

  • After a usability/concept test to design new ideas and iterate. This doesn’t have to be with a whole team. It could just involve a designer, or a designer and product manager. If it is a really big project, such as a new product offering or large feature, consider including developers as well.
  • After generative research to innovate on new ideas. Include a larger group in generative research synthesis, because it’s a really cool way to innovate. There is usually a large amount of data to sift through after these types of studies, so the more perspectives and ideas I can get, the better.
  • When you’ve noticed findings have gone unaddressed. When I’ve been seeing a recurring issue that hasn’t been acknowledged, I will generally pull in the relevant team members to see if we can brainstorm some ideas to test.

If you are used to writing and sending reports, I highly recommend trying out a workshop in addition to your report. Most stakeholders leave workshops asking me when the next one is, or how to run one themselves.

How to facilitate a workshop

The first rule of facilitating a workshop is making sure you have it planned out to the minute. I generally spend twice the amount of time planning a workshop as I do running it. The second rule is to make it interactive, because, as you’d assume:

Interactive workshops = more fun = more engagement = deeper understanding of the content

Try not to host a workshop with you just talking about your research findings; that’s more of a presentation. A workshop is meant to have interactive activities that allow participants to dive into the data, brainstorm, and create ideas.

Here are steps I follow when planning and facilitating a workshop:

Before the workshop

1. Define your goals. Every workshop needs tangible goals, so participants understand desired outcomes and the direction a workshop will take. Goals also help you determine which activities are best suited for the desired outcomes. I often set a near-term goal to define what the immediate outcome of the workshop will be, and a long-term goal that helps clarify the broader reason for the workshop and why the near-term goals are important.

    2. Create an agenda. Schedules are important as they will help prioritize activities and keep the workshop on track. I come up with an agenda that gives a step-by-step plan of what will happen for whatever time I have people in the room. Create a sequence of activities so they can build off each other. Key findings will most likely inspire an approach or perspective toward the next activity. Share this with participants beforehand!

    Include breaks. If you’re running a full-day workshop, this should go beyond a lunch break. Plan for one or two coffee breaks to give participants time to “air out” and answer any emails or messages.

    In addition, you can consider “nice-to-have” activities if time permits. I’ve learned to overestimate how long I think something will take, especially time for introductions, aligning expectations, and answering potential questions.

    Pro tip: I usually try to limit my workshops to five hours a day, with the sweet spot being about three hours.

    3. Invite the right people. Only invite the stakeholders who make sense. If there’s a project for a certain team, invite that team only. If you are going to host a broader workshop, invite people with a varying degree or skill sets, knowledge and perspectives. I tend to enjoy workshops with smaller teams in an intimate setting, as members in larger teams can get away without participating and it’s hard to ensure everyone contributes. It’s also nice to invite key colleagues, such as customer support, to these workshops, as they have a different frame of reference than, say, a product team.

    4. Define your role. If you are facilitating a workshop with your own research being discussed, it can be tough to take a step back. I’m convinced this is what it would feel like if I was a designer watching a user interact with my newest designs. Set some ground rules for yourself, for instance:

    • When participants ask you questions about the research, encourage them to come up with their own interpretation.
    • Ask the group open-ended questions, using techniques such as the ORID framework.
    • Allow participants to think freely and openly about the research, without you inputting your perspective. People will often look to you as the expert, so it is important to not bias their views.

    5. Plan activities. As I mentioned, activity-filled workshops are the best way to engage stakeholders with the research. It’s important to understand what you want out of the workshop, as this will help you determine what activities would be the best. There are a plethora of resources available on different types of activities and I use books like Gamestorming, or IDEO’s Design Kit. Generally, I follow a popular pattern for facilitating by planning certain activities in a particular order:

    • Opening: Divergent thinking activities that generate all manner of ideas
    • Exploring: Emergent thinking activities that combine different ideas, group themes, or ideas together, forming connections or building out different combinations
    • Closing: Convergent thinking activities that help the team organize thoughts, decide on the best idea, and determine next steps to move forward

    During the workshop

    6. Facilitating means participating. One of the most important parts of facilitating a workshop is actually being a present member in the workshop. A facilitator’s job is not simply just to sit there while everyone else talks. Instead, you are:

    • Preparing the team for the upcoming activities by explaining why you are doing them, why it is important, and what participants can expect.
    • Providing examples, when necessary, as this can help those who are unfamiliar with the process.
    • Time-boxing during activities as it is very easy for people to continue past an allotted time, and for the workshop to get off-track.
    • Keeping a ‘parking lot’ for questions or comments that need to be discussed later, outside of the workshop.

    7. Read the room. It is the facilitator’s job to assess the room in front of them and keep a pulse on how everyone is working together. I have witnessed some workshops get argumentative, when teams clash over the importance of certain areas of a project or how to prioritize projects at hand. It is extremely important to create and keep an open, collaborative environment. If the conversation is getting too heated, or energy is running low, I call for a 5- to 10-minute break. I also encourage participants to talk through what they are feeling if discussion gets too intense, and always reserve the right to place the topic into a parking lot.

      After the workshop

      8. Document outcomes. It is super important to capture notes and outcomes from the workshop. I have watched some people just pack up the room, and the context was forever lost. In this case, especially if you don’t have time after the workshop, photos are your best friend. I usually assign a notetaker to help me during the workshop, and also someone to help me clean up afterwards. Then I will digitize the documentation in whatever way makes the most sense. For instance, an affinity diagram of Post-its becomes an Excel sheet. Or an online diagram. Or, eventually, even a persona.

      9. Follow up with next steps. Next steps are what make or break a workshop. All the best workshops I have attended have a “next steps” section where the participants are thanked, and there is a recap on the workshop’s findings and an alignment of expectations of what is next to come. Everyone should leave the workshop feeling empowered and knowing what they each have to do in order to succeed. I always send a follow-up email to the team, recapping the workshop’s outcome and any remaining action items/responsibilities.

      While running a workshop is a lot of work, it is extremely satisfying—for the facilitator, and for all the participants involved. As researchers, we do a lot of the same activities that are needed to plan and facilitate a workshop: we recruit, write research plans, moderate, and stay neutral. Getting our team together for a workshop is a way to share what we do, put our best skills forward, and build on what we know.

        Need a user researcher to help you with your company’s approach to research and user-centricity? Check out my user research skill-building workshops for companies!

        Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

        To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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