How to plan a user experience workshop

Caption: Photo of design-thinking workshops presented by Puget Sound SIGCHI and IxDA Seattle for the 2012 Seattle Design Festival. Photo by  IxDA Seattle  via Flickr and a  Creative Commons license .

Caption: Photo of design-thinking workshops presented by Puget Sound SIGCHI and IxDA Seattle for the 2012 Seattle Design Festival. Photo by IxDA Seattle via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.

Design should be collaborative and iterative. Team communication should be lean on deliverables and long on shared vision. And it should be rapid, rapid, rapid. If workshops aren't your go-to design method, then you're missing out on the most collaborative, iterative, lean, vision sharing, rapid, rapid, rapid activity you can do. With clients or teams or stakeholders or users, workshops drive deep, broad, and shared understanding more quickly than any other design method.


Without a doubt, the one, worst thing that can happen in a workshop is to walk out the door and not have gathered the information you need. At that point, the workshop was almost entirely a waste of time. (And time is the one thing you should never waste.)

I've always enjoyed workshops (or "working sessions" as we call them for the "workshop" averse). Over the last three years, I've led close to 50 workshops for an enormous variety of clients, industries, projects, and teams, and I'm often asked, "how do you run a workshop?"

Running a workshop is mix of art and science, soft people skills and hard design skills. Beyond that, however, beyond the thinking on your feet, Jedi mind tricks, and other feats of facilitation, the most important part of running a workshop is planning a workshop.

Planning a workshop has its own share of art and science, but it starts with your answers to five, key questions:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. What outcomes do you need to accomplish your goals?
  3. What people should help create those outcomes?
  4. What activities will help create those outcomes?
  5. What ways will everyone participate?

All five of these questions are as straightforward as they seem.

1. Workshop Goals

Your workshop goals can be specific or broad. Generally, what's your reason for having the workshop? Is it so you can understand the users? Is it so you can review a specific approach? Meet everyone?

Here are a few sample goals from workshops I've run over the last three months:

  • Understand client's process for creating, maintaining, and marketing content
  • Understand user's needs, goals, and context
  • Understand users journey into and across system
  • Understand users interaction with a system
  • Sketch as many screens as possible
  • Review as much material as possible

I like that last goal a lot. Talk about "broad"! Our stated goal during planning was just, "review as much material as possible". See? Nothing fancy. We just knew what we wanted to accomplish.

2. Outcomes

The outcome is the physical object you would like to have created at the end of the workshop. That is, when the workshop ends, you need to leave the room with a physical thing that helps you complete the next piece of work. What is that thing?

Here are a few example outcomes I've created in workshops:

  • List of changes
  • List of users
  • List of user attributes
  • List of systems and interactions
  • Sketch of user journey
  • List of tasks
  • Sketch of user task flow
  • List of screens
  • Sketches of screens
  • List of project goals, barriers, or drivers
  • Description of project success
  • List of success measurements

For a workshop I am running soon, one of the outcomes is to understand the intricacies of the client's product and service delivery model. That's what I want to walk out with: a flow or notes or both that describe what customers are served direct, via resellers, or via distributors.

Identifying the physical artifact you will create is critical to understanding the participants and activities you will need to run a successful workshop.

3. People

Now that you've identified the physical artifacts you want to create during the workshop, figure out who you needs to help create them. After all, workshops are about collaborative with people.

In our workshops, we usually insist on having representatives that can answer four types of questions:

  1. What are the business needs and constraints? This is usually a representative from a specific line of business.
  2. What are the end-user's needs and context? This is often someone from the line of business, as well. 
  3. What are the technical and data constraints? This is usually someone from IT.
  4. What are the project and organizational constraints? This is usually the primary stakeholder or champion.

While it's possible that one or even two participants can answer the above three questions, it's also pretty common to have additional participants who represent complementary lines of business or departments. And sometimes its worth asking customer service or sales or even realy customers to attend, as well.

For a national transportation company, we ran a workshop last Fall to identify the strategy and vision for a customer portal. Participants included representatives from customer service, IT, and billing as these were the departments most likely to be most affected. However, participants from marketing, retail, roadside services, and maintenance also attended and provided important insight into the portal's vision.

Invite as many participants as you need to achieve the outcomes you want to create. However, you should try to limit attendance to ensure you can elicit the appropriate contributions from all participants. At around eight participants, you will start to lose your ability to guide the conversation to include everyone.

4. Activities

Knowing your participants and your outcomes provides the foundation you need to plan your activities. For each outcome how will you start? How will you make decisions? What format will you use to create or collect the outcomes.

Unfortunately, Advice on how to plan activities for specific types of outcomes is out of the scope of this post. However, knowing the outcomes and participants will give you an idea of where to start. 

You should have a feel for the types of activities you need to do based on your desired outcomes. Do you want to walk out with screens, flows, personas, requirements, process models? What activity will generate the outcomes?

5. Participation

How people will participate is usually the first thing people think about when they plan a workshop. Activities are a combination of the thing you are doing with the way you're doing it. Ask yourself about your participants: who will be in the room? Are they more comfortable with words or pictures? Lists or paragraphs? A whiteboard or PowerPoint? Sticky notes or a spreadsheet? Just as important, what are you more comfortable with? 

Rather than starting your workshop plan with a list of standard activities, combine your desired outcomes with what you know about the participants, to design workshop activities that allow your participants to contribute in comfortable, useful ways. 

Go run some workshops

If you've never run many workshops, they can seem daunting. Standing up in front of a room of strangers, asking the right questions, shutting down the talkers, and pulling teeth from the others. All these eyes on you, all this control you give to the participant. What if the activities land with an unenthusiastic dud? What if they won't participate? What if they spend the entire time staring at their email?

Sure, all these things can happen. And, sure, the more workshops you do, the better you'll get at managing the room. But trust me when I say this: the most important part of running workshop is planning a workshop. 

Like any plan, your plan for the workshop and its activities will disappear the minute it contacts the participants. The only thing you have going for you is the thinking you did around your goal and the outcomes you need. 

You can't always control your participants, but you can always control your workshop goals and outcomes. So, get out there. Instead of your next round of stakeholder interviews or requirements gathering or sprint kickoff meeting or whatever, plan a workshop. Start employing the most collaborative, iterative, lean, vision sharing, rapid, rapid, rapid design activity you can do.