As we continue to work remotely, numerous people have asked me about workshops and the best way to run them. And honestly, workshops can be tricky.
When I was starting my career, I repeatedly ran the same workshops, relying on "how might we" statements, sketching, and dot voting. While there isn't anything wrong with these techniques, they limited the scope of my workshops. They also didn't help mitigate any difficult participant types.
Plus, people started getting bored of my workshops, and candy and pizza only got me so far.
After hitting the same obstacles over and over, I decided to dive deeper into the world of workshops to become a better facilitator and have a much larger workshop toolbox to use.
Before we dive into all things workshop, let's take a moment to define what a workshop facilitator is. A facilitator is someone who plans, guides, and manages a group to ensure:
- The group meets its goals and expected outcomes
- Equal and fair participation across all workshop participants
- Engaging content and activities that lead to more informed decision-making and alignment
The internal schedule enables me to stay on track and tweak timings as we go if needed, and the external schedule grounds participants in what to expect from the day. You can see an example of my in-depth agenda here.
I time-box every part of my workshops, from the introduction to activities and even wrap-up and Q&As. I can keep everything on schedule by timeboxing, ensuring we get through all of what we need to cover in the day.
Review the workshop goals
Before I dive into the content of a workshop, I take the time to review the workshop's goals with participants. The goals remind the group of what we need to achieve by the end of the workshop.
Start with energizers
Energizers are my favorite way to begin a workshop as they get participants excited and into the correct mindset. Depending on your goals, you can choose an energizer that helps people be more creative, open, and innovative. Some of my favorite energizers are:
- Alternative uses. Pick an everyday object (ex: a paperclip) and have each person list how many different things a paperclip could do. Have each person share their most unusual use for the item
- Tell a story: Each person contributes one word to a story, going around in a circle. Have the facilitator transcribe and, after five minutes, read out the story to the group
- The aliens have landed: Aliens who only speak in emoji have landed on our planet. Each person has to describe the organization using emojis only to communicate.
- Opposite drawing: Everyone draws a picture of the same thing using their less dominant hand. After five minutes, everyone shares with the group
I have seen a lot of workshops that don't have breaks. Not including breaks is a recipe for disaster - people get tired, distracted, and bored. I always include varying lengths of breaks, such as a quick three-minute stretch, a five-minute coffee break, or a 10-minute check emails and disconnect break. If my workshop is two hours or more, I always include at least one 10-minute break.
As mentioned, I had a tendency to use the same workshop techniques for every project. I knew how long the activities would take and how to run them, but over time they lacked engagement, excitement, and innovation. Plus, if a goal didn't fit the activity, we had an unideal outcome.
After another ideation workshop (which is a great technique, by the way), my manager approached me with a new goal. In the next workshop, I had to try all new activities. My mouth dropped to the floor, and I panicked, but it was one of the best challenges he could have given me.
I began to include convergent thinking, people coming together to brainstorm and solve problems, and divergent thinking, participants brainstorming and ideating independently. I also ensured there was a mix of activities for different levels of creativity, varying between drawing, sketching, speaking, and writing.
By changing my techniques, my participants became more creative, they were able to think in different ways, and I gave ample opportunity for people to participate with different styles of engagement.
Some of my favorite techniques are:
- Crazy 8's: Drawing/writing, convergent and divergent thinking
- Method 6-3-5: Drawing/writing, convergent and divergent thinking
- Reverse the problem: Speaking, convergent thinking
- Worst possible idea: Drawing/writing, convergent thinking
- Do, undo, redo: Drawing/speaking, convergent thinking
- One-two-four group: Speaking, convergent and divergent thinking
Often, I’ll include several of these activities in a session to ensure a mix of techniques and styles. Ideally, I want to have both convergent and divergent work, which means mixing activities such as worst possible idea + Crazy 8's or how might we statements + method 6-3-5.
Use your goals
If you have trouble coming up with activities for your workshop, I always recommend looking at your goals. What do you and the team need to accomplish by the end of the workshop?
I like to plan my workshops based on the product development phases, so where we are as an organization with the idea, concept, prototype, or product.
To do this, I created three main workshop themes:
- Create or innovate on new ideas based on problem statements from research
- Assess current ideas to identify problems before launch
- React to research findings or post-launch learnings
Each of these themes has goals that I use for workshops and also correspond with different activities. For example:
Create or innovate on new ideas
A workshop within this theme would aim to:
- Generate a specific amount of ideas to test
- Come together to solve complex user problems
- Find the unknown unknowns
- Gain a deeper understanding of pain points and how to solve them
With this in mind, I would pick activities that would help us achieve these goals. Some activity examples would be:
- Empathy mapping
- How Might We statements
- Crazy 8's
Assess existing ideas
I use this theme after the team has created a prototype or concept. The goals for this theme are:
- Identify and solve problems in ideas before they launch
- Get critical and early feedback from users
- Come together to create a better solution
- Create a specific number of new ideas to tes
When trying to get feedback on the prototype or concept within a workshop, I would try the following activities:
- Method 6-3-5
- Usability speed testing
- Do, undo, redo
React to research or post-launch findings
Sometimes we need a workshop to give our research that extra boost of attention. At least, I know I do. Often, a report is not enough, so holding a workshop to bring people together is a great way to utilize your insights.
Some of the goals for these workshops include:
- Maintain launched products (ex: usability issues, customer support)
- Gain a deeper understanding of your user
- Create deliverables
For these workshops, there are several different activities I would choose, based on the goal:
- Maintain launched products > gathering issues across departments and prioritizing them via the RICE model (rather than dot voting)
- Gain a deeper understanding of your user > reviewing research + how might we statements
- Create deliverables > persona generation, journey mapping
Once you get comfortable planning and facilitating workshops, a great next step is to create a workshop playbook.
Overall, with workshops, practice makes perfect. I facilitated plenty of workshops that felt disappointing and unengaging, but each taught me how to improve next time.
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.
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