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Kick Off Proactive Research with Question-Gathering Workshops (+ Guide)

Instead of prioritizing one-off requests, bring multiple departments together with a workshop designed for long-term impact.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Nicky Mazur

There have been a few moments in my user research career where I’ve felt a bit stuck. It can be a challenging feeling to overcome, especially when you’re alone or feel like you work in a vacuum.

One time, in particular, was especially difficult. I had been working for a company for about a year and felt stagnant and overwhelmed. I had been reacting to research requests, doing mostly evaluative work.

I needed to do high-impact research or more efficient research. Instead, my work was reactive and shallow (how I described it to my manager). As a result, I wasn't making the cross-departmental impact I wanted to, which was necessary for the next step in my career.

And honestly, I was sick of usability testing everything under the sun.

So I decided to get out of my (introverted) comfort zone and do something my manager suggested: a question-gathering workshop.

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I wanted to understand what big-picture questions teams had, and how their questions linked together across the entire product.

What is a question-gathering workshop?

A question-gathering workshop is a way to understand and align with your stakeholders on a larger scale.

For a long time, I only gathered questions or research requests through an intake form (and before that, through two-sentenced messages or a drop by my desk).

An intake form is a great resource and tool. I still use it today, but it can have limited effectiveness. I would get many scattered and often smaller requests that required usability testing. Very rarely would I get a more foundational request.

Additionally, sometimes I would get a request and complete a study for a team only to receive a similar request from another team that I could have included in the previous study. This process got frustrating for me very quickly.

I wanted to understand what big-picture questions teams had, and how their questions linked together across the entire product.

That's where question-gathering workshops come in.

For a question-gathering workshop, you invite relevant stakeholders such as product managers, designers, sales, marketing, customer support, account management, developers, or any other departments interacting with customers. During this workshop, you gather all the questions these stakeholders have, group together, and prioritize themes.

The outcome of this workshop is a list of prioritized questions that impact multiple teams and are usually highly impactful and strategic projects. These projects then create the backbone of (or get added to) a research roadmap and backlog. Based on stakeholders' questions, this roadmap sets you up to conduct high-value and efficient research.

My workload and projects changed immensely when I finally conducted my first question-gathering workshop. I was still conducting usability tests, of course, but I was also tackling larger projects that impacted multiple teams, such as a customer journey map.

Before you invite stakeholders and conduct the meeting, you must know precisely why you’re running the workshop and what you want as the outcome.

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How to run a question-gathering workshop

I was intimidated the first time I ran a workshop like this because it required quite a lot of planning and coordinating. Back then, I wasn't as confident in my workshop facilitation skills, but this type of workshop is a great place to start if you want to build up your confidence.

Here are the steps I take when prepping for and running a question-gathering workshop:

✔ Get clear on the goal and outcome

I say this every time, but considering the goal and the outcome of your workshop (and work, in general) is the first step in setting it up for success.

Before you invite stakeholders and conduct the meeting, you must know precisely why you’re running the workshop and what you want as the outcome. With this, you’ll pick the best workshop participants and activities that align with your desired outcome. Think of it as reverse engineering.

For me, the goals of a question-gathering workshop are:

  1. Bring relevant people together to identify questions or gaps in knowledge about our users
  2. Uncover research questions that span multiple teams to conduct the biggest impact research
  3. Bring teams together to collaborate on larger research initiatives and bring transparency to work

The outcomes of a question-gathering workshop are:

  • A prioritized list of the most common questions across multiple teams
  • A research roadmap and backlog that align with the teams' and organization's goals
  • An impactful and efficient research practice that drives value cross-departmentally

✔ Figure out who to invite

Understanding who to invite to your question-gathering is the next crucial step, and one way of doing this is to refer back to your goals and outcomes. So, with these in mind, who do you need to invite to get this information?

For more strategic workshops like this, I invite 1-2 people per department, such as:

  • Product managers
  • Designers
  • Developers
  • Sales
  • Account management
  • Marketing
  • Customer support
  • Business intelligence or business operations
  • Data analytics and data science
  • If possible, C-suite

This is a long list of people! We would have a workshop filled with 20 people if we took two from each department. That’s a lot when it comes to asking individuals’ questions and opinions.

Whenever I have this many people to invite, I usually conduct two workshops and try not to have more than 10 participants per workshop. Additionally, I think about the relationships across departments. For example, product and account management didn't get along well in one company, so I separated them into different workshops.

I recommend thinking about who you need in your workshop to answer the goals of the most significant questions across your organization.

✔ Plan the workshop

Once you have your goals and outcomes settled, as well as who to invite, it's time to plan the structure of the question-gathering workshop.

Of course, there is no one way to conduct a workshop and no perfect activity. However, I’ll walk you through how I structure these workshops. Feel free to tweak and change anything that would work better for your particular situation!

1. Introduce the workshop

I start by introducing the workshop goals and outcomes. This gives people a positive mindset of understanding what we are doing today, why they’re here, and what we’ll accomplish by the end of the session. In this session, I also discuss what I expect from them as participants, such as "Yes and..." or parking lots.

2. Do an icebreaker

Similar to research interviews, I always start with a warm-up. In workshops, I call this an icebreaker; it’s a fun activity for participants before diving in. My favorite is "The Aliens Have Landed," where each participant has to describe what the company does to aliens who can only speak in emojis.

3. Brainstorm questions

During this stage, everyone brainstorms big questions about users. If participants are struggling with this, I prompt them by asking, “What are the gaps in our knowledge?" or "What would you need to know about users to make better decisions?"

➤ Question sharing

This is the section that takes the most time in the workshop, and where you have to be careful with the number of participants. Each person reads up to two questions they have to the group, and the group discusses the question.

➤ Question coaching

Sometimes stakeholders can write leading or unclear questions. If that's the case, you can come in and help them re-frame the question in an unbiased way. For example, one of my stakeholders wrote, "How often are our users pulling analytics data from our platform for presentations?"

This particular question is a bit leading and narrow, so instead, I coached the stakeholder to ask a more open-ended question and get at what he wanted to understand: "In what situations are users pulling analytic data?"

➤ Question grouping

While participants are sharing questions, start to group similar questions together into clusters, as these will become themes of questions that can impact multiple teams.

4. Prioritize

The next step is prioritizing the questions and mapping them on an impact and effort matrix. I prioritize through dot voting, so each participant has a certain number of votes on the most impactful research projects for the organization.

Once we get an idea of the topic projects, we plot them on a matrix to understand the estimated effort the project will take. This effort includes how much effort the research study portion of the project will be, because it’s essential you take on only a few high-effort projects at a time.

5. Address next steps and wrap up

In this part of the workshop, take the time to address any questions and assign action items. One of those items for you will be to create or update your research roadmap based on the exercise. You will also meet with the relevant teams to develop a research plan and kick off the projects.

✔ After the workshop

Once you’ve finished the workshop, it's time to dive into all the fantastic initiatives you've uncovered through the workshop. As mentioned, one of the best ways to do this is through a research roadmap. With this tool, you can track your impact and ensure you aren't taking on too many high-effort projects simultaneously.

And as always, ask your stakeholders for feedback on the workshop. You can ask them directly or by sending an anonymous form. I like to include a mix of survey-based and open-ended questions to track my impact and satisfaction with workshops (this is something we talk about in my membership, too).

By asking for feedback, you can continue to iterate on and improve these workshops. You’ll grow your facilitation skills, so that they’re always valuable for you and your colleagues.

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Ready to run one?

Question-gathering workshops are an incredibly powerful tool, and I highly recommend them if you’re interested in moving toward a more proactive, cross-departmental, and effective research practice.

Check out this template to help you further structure your presentation!

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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