My UX Workshop: Collaborative Discovery

Markers, whiteboard, post-it notes, index cards, note pads, donuts, coffee/water/tea

To do UX exercises like experience mapping, personas, customer journey and feature enhancement workshops can help convey important information about the market, the users, the product and business goals to the whole team. Consequently, user-centered design thinking methodologies become entrenched within your team culture. 

Decision-makers and stakeholders from the product team who might have valuable input: product owner(s), designers, developers, researchers, users, etc.

(Example: XPO Logistics – account billing/settlement was previously cumbersome and split into four or more screens with multiple steps. It was complicated and was riddled with feature bloat. After the workshop with UI, an actual sponsored user, developers and product analysts, we were able to reduce the process to one screen used in different areas of the business. Speed comes from familiarity with the interface and an easy UI – all of which emerged during the workshop process.)

Explain, Execute and Examine

Conventional business meetings are not very productive for UX design collaboration. I prefer to bring people together from different silos to generate new ideas and collect knowledge. A skilled facilitator has a framework that he or she feels confident adapting to any exercise. I don’t always stick to one particular recipe. Applying the tools and techniques listed has worked well for me in workshops, presentations, lectures or even public talks. These ingredients have served me as a good base. 

This job often falls on UX through workshops for ideation, prioritization of functionality, affinity diagramming, or creating empathy maps and numerous other design artifacts.

UX workshops have numerous benefits: educate people and make them empathic towards users, make stakeholders feel involved and responsible for ideas and research findings, create awareness of usability issues and design challenges, build common ground across all parties involved, and bring together many types of backgrounds and expertise.

I begin with brief introduction and explanation of the activity. Then, I must describe how to do the activity to the group. I walk through the process, identifying the steps needed to complete it. At this point individual stakeholders can contribute additional information to the activity, help clarify it for other participants. However, during this setup explanatory phase, I describe the general characteristics of the activity, but never state what will be learned as a result of taking part in the activity. As a facilitator, I am responsible for establishing a neutral, positive atmosphere prior to the exercise.  I avoid leading statements or questions that can influence participants. 

Set Goals: 
I setup goals for a workshop as part of the introduction process. This will help keep the session focused.  I define and agree on why we are meeting. I set a clear vision with measurable goals: make them transparent or even have attendees collaboratively agree on them. When applicable, I define roles for different group members and explain who should do what as it relates to the goals. The roles can be specific to the activity or relate to people’s expertise, with the overarching goal to bring a particular perspective or knowledge to the activity. UX hidden goals: Get buy-in from stakeholders early. 

Discuss milestones and decisions:
Why it is important? If applicable, educate participants by generalizing and explaining other types of goals the activity is good for. How could individual participants apply the same process elsewhere? You don’t have to plan through every minute of your workshop but set topics or milestones.

Set time constraints and the agenda:
These steps can be done quickly throughout a 30-minute activity (start to finish), or could be expanded for a large, in-depth day-long workshop. This helps me limit endless discussion. I usually allow for far less time to complete an exercise than is realistically needed. I can work out the details later.  I make the agenda permanently visible during the workshop – e.g. on a whiteboard. I like to use Post-it’s to outline the agenda, which allows me the flexibility to adjust it quickly. I like to create small chunks with a concrete scope. 

Set up rules and a common behavior
A workshop is a place for people to collaborate. I make sure everyone has the same understanding of how it works by setting some rules – have everybody agree to them or create them together. I have been using these:
We defer judgment;
We ask questions;
We all have a voice;
We build on each other’s ideas;
We stay focused on the goals;
We have fun!

Setup a parking lot:
This is nothing else but a space called “parking lot”. I jot down thoughts, questions or ideas that are off-topic or cannot be handled during the workshop but need to be tackled at some point.

Step 2: Execute/Sketch

I let participants do what they have been assigned to do. I wander around and help individuals or groups, but I remain out of focus as the activity goes on, unless I have a specific. If participants get lost or (do not follow the rules of the activity), I go back to the  explanation phase and review the process to get people back on track. Otherwise, I observe and listen for comments that can noted after the discussion.

I don’t present myself as the sole expert. Rather, I define the strategy and empower participants to teach, learn, and contribute. If I’m asked about outcomes or expert-related questions, I re-frame the question and ask it back to the team.

For example, if asked am I doing this right? I reply:
Does the whole team feel this is the right train-of-thought?
Did you consider other options then choose this one? Why?
What got you here?
What makes you doubt this direction?

Throughout the execution phase, I track and vocally state time to the room. I usually announce the halfway mark, the 5-minute mark, and a 1-minute heads up.

Make it interactive:
Get people involved arranging post-it notes, help with whiteboard efforts, have refreshments if possible. 

Not about the details: 
We don’t want people to get bogged down in the details of UX. Refine and report the workshop back to the group members. Show the group how their ideas helped shape the UX design moving forward. This gives people a sense of ownership of whatever design is used going forward and they will tend to be more supportive. 

Voting can stop a more vocal person or senior person from having to much sway and allow quitter participants to contribute. (optional)

Address barriers:
Answer any clarifying questions. It’s easy to start ignoring barriers. However, they tend to crop up later and appear at very inconvenient points along the way if they are not addressed. Address them early. But I want to keep the workshop positive. One way is to turn barriers into a game. Get team members to form two or more groups and list as many barriers as possible in an allotted time. At the end of the time limit the other team tries to resolve the barriers, however instead I ask the team who thought of the barrier to resolve it – this makes them responsible for trying to resolve their own barriers. 

Step 3: Examine/Summarize

Once the activity is done, we explore the outcomes as a group. This breakdwon is separated into three parts: present, reflect, and connect.

I quickly organize the results to help determine the order and length of time individuals or teams present their outcome(s). Then, I ask questions about their ideas. My goal at this stage is to deepen the groups understanding and impact of what they have created.


Ask participants a series of reflective questions:
What did you get out of it? Where and how did you get stuck?
What was fun/hard/frustrating?
What did you learn?

I want to hear the participants point of view on the exercise. If there were multiple roles in the activity, I want to hear the viewpoint of each role. Consquently, participants will reflect on the activity, which helps to clear the excitement of the activity and begin the realization process.

To start the reflection process, review the feedback from the activity:

Did anyone else in the room experience this? How did you overcome it?
What surprises you about (output A) vs. (output B)?
What conclusions can we draw from this?

Connect Outcomes:
After the workshop, I review the results and begin connecting the outcomes
(the benefits) learned from the activity to what was previously learned and what’s left to learn, especially if they will be used in subsequent activities.


I don’t contribute while I facilitate. It is hard to play both roles well. As facilitator I act as an authority figure throughout the exercise. My contributions will have more weight, which defeats the purpose of this UX collaborative exercises. When there are more than one potential facilitator in a UX team, I will rotate facilitators for each activity. The benefit here is twofold: (1) I can avoid recurring bias, and (2) build up a facilitation competency within a UX team.

Iterate and improve this workshop model after time. Similar to how we iterate on our end products, we should iterate on our own workshop processes. After guiding a group through an activity, I document what went well and what didn’t. Where did participants ask you the most questions? Where did you find it hardest not to insert your bias? These insights will help the UX team improve our workshops over time.

End of workshop on positive note.