Notes from a very meta workshop on workshop facilitation (UXDO)


A few months ago the wonderful Giles Colborne and I were given an interesting challenge by Sjors Timmer and Matthew Solle who were organising the UXDO event for August. Would we run a session on Workshop Facilitation.

Of course we would, but the question was… could we run a workshop about workshop facilitation?

Well, it was certainly worth a shot.

And so it was that twenty something very meta workshop participants bravely joined us last week for a workshop on workshop facilitation. It went a little something like this….

Workshop Plan: 

We posted our workshop plan, including timings, onto the wall.

Workshop Plan

The workshop was structured broadly following the KJ Technique with some collaborative affinity sorting and then ending with some group discussions on key topics. We structured the workshop in a way that promoted  a pattern of widely exploring the breadth of the problem area, then synthesis or exploration of the  patterns that emerge from our exploration and then consolidating into actions and findings.

7pm: Welcome

7.05pm: Private brainstorm (Exploring the problem space)

Question: What are the biggest challenges you face when putting on workshops?

Write challenges on to post it notes – one idea per post it notes, in capital letters using an appropriately heavy marker.

7.10pm:  Post up 

To save time we didn’t do the ideal thing of discussing each idea as they were called out (to
capture all the nuances). Instead we asked people to volunteer whether they had similar ideas and posted them in clusters. You wouldn’t want to do this in a ‘real’ workshop as you want to give people plenty of time for discussion.

7.40pm: Grouping and sorting

We did a collaborative affinity sort by gathered in small teams, giving each team some of the clusters of post-its and re-grouped the post-its into their final clusters. We labelled the clusters with problem statements. This allowed the group to understand what the real problems were and how issues that might on the surface appear different sometimes stem from the same problem.

7.55pm: Dot voting

We gave participants Three votes each to vote for the problems they felt were most significant in blocking their ability to run effective workshop sessions – these would be the topics participants wanted to discuss in more detail later in the evening.

8pm: 1-1 Ranking

Here we deviate a little from the KJ Method. We compared cards in pairs. Rank them all, according to the question ‘What is the bigger roadblock to you running an effective, productive workshop.

8.15pm: Group discussion

We broke into small groups and brainstorm the problems and solutions
Again, this took two parts: firstly, examine the problem – what is it? what causes it? – make notes about this at the top of the flip chart. Then solutions – what’s worked well? why? List ideas on the bottom half of the flip chart.

8.35pm: Groups present back
We heard from all the groups on their problems and solutions

8.58pm  Wrap up and head to the pub! (Although, in all honestly, we did end up running a little late… too much interesting discussion!)

Workshop planning tips:

TIP: Workshops are about the attendees, not your designs. Turn your attention outward. Make
the participants feel valued and listened to.

TIP: Every workshop needs to go through a phase of expansion (where you gather ideas) and exploration (where you understand ideas) and consolidation (where you set the outcomes). Your workshop structure should follow this flow.

TIP: The attendees have given up their valuable time to be there – recognise and respect this. Be clear about what you need from them, plan well, get as much as you can out of the day and communicate it back.

TIP: We posted the agenda and timings up on a big sheet at the front of the room. The agenda is not a secret and making it visible helps everyone to know where they are and where they’re going. It also means you can discuss it and make visible changes (if you need to) during the workshop.

TIP: When you’re planning your workshop remember its important to leave plenty of time at the end for your wrap up. People need to be heard. We’ve been to workshops where the moderator has ended by saying ‘we don’t have time for a wash-up, but please think about what we’ve said today.’ What a let down. Make sure there’s enough time to go around the room one last time.

TIP Make sure they’re putting just one idea per Post-It. Post-Its are the atoms of your workshop – and you don’t want to split the atom in the middle of a workshop.

The outputs: Affinity sort

These are the problem statements (and the related post-its) that we gathered.

Affinity Sort 1

Before the workshop

How do we know who to invite?
Inviting the right people | Getting the right people in the room | Decide who attends | Who is coming? (+ What do they do?) | Right people | Knowing about the likely audience

How do we agree on a date?
Agree on a date | Right time in the process

How do we communicate the problem to solve?
Describing the problem | Agreeing outcomes | Selling the whole idea | Agreeing the content, purpose, objective | The outcomes you need from it | Reason why | Agreed purpose

How do we create a good physical environment?
Venue & equipment | Cleaning the whiteboards | Venue | Choosing funky music | Maximising resources & space | When should I start to prepare | Right location | Finding a good space | Post it notes not sticking | Establishing the ‘right environment’ | Which alcohol to bring | What should I bring?

How do we make sure they’re in the room?
Making invitations that people will stick to | Make them show up | Getting people enthusiastic | Convincing stakeholders to participate

What to do?
How to structure the workshop | Lack of good methods | Appropriate method for participants | Which activities lead to the right results

Affinity Sort 2

During the workshop

How to manage time?
Knowing when to stop | Managing time

How do we get the group to work well together?
Group dynamics | Group social dynamics

How do we introduce the session?
Setting expectations | Warming up participants | Ensuring participants are prepared

How do we create the right social environment?
Break silos | Make people think creatively | Getting the client to pick up the pen | Breaking down the fear of collaboration

How to keep participants focused?
Keeping people on track | Retaining control of the group | Keeping participants on track (work issues) | Keeping people focused | Attendees not focused on listening (wondering mind) | Agenda saboutaged | Keep open without losing control

How do we best get people to participate?
Framing the right questions inspirationally | Communicating to the attendees appropriately | Knowing my own limits and strengths | Facilitating and guiding without stifling | participants not understanding workshop method or format | Letting go during the workshop – appropriately, of course

How do we maintain interest from all attendees throughout?
Keeping up energy | Going deep | Attention | Focus | Engagement | Keeping up momentum | Maintaining good, healthy energy | Going the long haul – energy

Difficult People Affinity Sort

How do we deal with Hippos*, Wallflowers & Snipers
Overcoming ‘silent stares’ | Hippos! \ Handling strength of opinion | Negative attitudes | Encouraging people who are sceptical | Commitment | Wrong PX in the room – it’s not working! | Participant’s fear of coming up with bad ideas | Getting quiet folks to speak | Ensuring that everyone involved has a say | Shouty people | Avoiding one dominant voice | What to do with bigtime extroverts | People who hate workshop format as participants | Negative attitudes.
*Hippo – Highest Paid Person’s Opinion – i.e. important people who use their power from outside the workshop to override debate within the workshop.

Affinity Sort 3
After the workshop

How to communicate the outcomes of the workshop?
How to collate report on results | The what | Playing back findings | Summarising the workshop’s findings | Remembering details | Not missing something | Summarising efficiently | Who is writing up? | Processing — distilling

How to communicate the worth of the workshop?
Communicating the value of the workshop

How to act on stuff after the workshop?
Getting people to own actions.

How do we deal with a lack of consensus?
Managing differing opinions | Designing together without feeling the result is a big mess of compromise | Culture problems | Getting people to collaborate | Managing dissent | Divergent personalities | The personalities of people involved | Facilitating towards a good outcome

Tips for collaborative affinity sorting

TIP: Have someone to manage the labelling while the moderator leads the discussion.

TIP: We asked teams to begin each problem statement with the words ‘How do we…?’ so that we were sure these were real problems – questions that could be answered – rather than vague ‘stuff’.

TIP: There is no scientific way to approach this – point people to a bunch of post it notes and a space on the wall/table and have them get started – it will come together (and start to make more sense to everyone) as you go.

TIP: Encourage people to call out their groupings as they go. ‘I’m starting a group about scheduling over here’, ‘Does anyone have a section on difficult people yet?’ for example. The best way to encourage this is to lead by example.

TIP: Allow and spend plenty of time on this activity – it can be quite time consuming but is a format for having some really important discussions and building a shared understanding of the problem space. Have these discussions and push the group to make sure that the problem statement labels really accurately reflect the content that they represent. Don’t allow generalisations and ensure clarity.

The outputs: What the groups came up with in their short discussions on the key problems we explored.

How to communicate the problem to solve

Problem / solution – How do we communicate the problem to solve?

1. The problem
Not used to working together, no sense of being part of a wider team. Don’t speak the same language. See the problem differently – like that old chestnut of the blind men and the elephants. Don’t think there’s a problem. Think the solution is ‘obvious’ (we should just be doing what I say). Assume ‘my view is the true view’. Legacy of wrong thinking – commitment to wrong ideas or mindset.

2. The solution
Re-framing – make sure the problem is not described from one privileged viewpoint.
Don’t assume participants agree on the problem definition. Agree on the problem.
Listen to their views and opinions – respect. Weave their different views into a view of the problem.
Get a universally respected figure to set up the problem statement.
Get an outsider to state the problem (that’s what we do with user testing – users are our ‘outsiders’).
Bring it to life with examples. Case studies.
Encourage open discussion.

TIP: Always make sure you have clearly defined the problem(s) you’re attempting to resolve in your workshops and that everyone has a shared understanding of the problem and it’s importance/relevance.

TIP: Get the information into the world! – write your problem statements down, in clear, agreed, understood words and post them up in a visible place in the workshop venue. Refer to this liberally throughout the workshop and encourages others to do so.

TIP: Make your workshops a jargon free zone – don’t let others intimidate through use of language and make sure everyone feels comfortable asking others ‘what do you mean by that term’ or ‘what does that acronym stand for’. As every, the best way to achieve this is to lead by example – use the simplest language possible to convey your point, avoid jargon where possible (including UX jargon!) and explain it wherever it’s not possible to avoid it, don’t let people use language or terminology that you don’t understand – set the example by asking others to explain, even if everyone else in the room apparently understands what is going on (often they don’t either!)

What to do!

What to do? (in your workshop)

1. The problem
It’s about lack of experience, not knowing the domain or culture, lack of confidence and it being too easy to stick with past methods.

2. The solution
Just do it – try something. Practice beforehand [so you feel confident in new methods]. Learn from others, be ready to make mistakes, learn by doing. Build up a good stock of resources. Talk to clients, colleagues, etc. Share your experiences. Take part in other people’s workshops – watch what they do.

TIP: Don’t get carried away always trying to come up with new techniques to use in your workshop. Make sure you’ve got a few options for each phase of opening, exploring and closing discussions and a few for the various ‘difficult people’ you might come across and focus on becoming really great a facilitating those. Others will come on your radar over time, pick them up when you see them.

TIP: Plan your workshop so that you spend time on opening, exploring and closing each problem/issue you’re trying to resolve or understand. There are no good shortcuts – skimping on any of these phases will negate the effectiveness of your workshop. Some workshops will be mostly exploring, or mostly resolving but pretty much all workshops need to go through all these phases in order for people to engage with them properly and for you to have somewhere to go to (a specific course of action) beyond the workshop.

TIP: If you’re doing something for the first time, do a pilot first. Yes, it takes some time what you learn from it will be invaluable and then you’ll be on top form for when it really counts. Respect your workshops participants more than to experiment on them on the fly if there’s any chance it could all come to nothing.

How to keep focus

How to keep participants focused on the subject we’re workshopping? / How do we maintain interest throughout the workshop 

1. The problem
Facilitator hasn’t understood well, importance has not been communicated effectively, discussion goes in endless tangents, losing sight of the objectives, people expecting to talk about topics other than the planned ones.
Boring – the format doesn’t give people an opportunity to have fun, don’t want to be too bossy [that’s] not fun, lack of engaging activities.
Human factors – tiredness, need breaks, hunger, mood swings, good view out of the window.
Technology interrupts – email, phones.
Group dynamics – language barriers, bad mix of people in the room, people seeing people they haven’t seen in ages for a catch up, chatty people, people have their own topics they want to talk about.

2. The solution
Mixing up types of activities,
Give them sweets (controversy here over which ones and how to avoid sugar crashes!)
Plan breaks, phones and laptops off (promise they’ll have time to check later), more exciting creative activities, icebreaker to engage them from the start, make things relevant and practical, let people talk a/b themselves.

TIP: The absolute best way to keep people focussed is to make sure they understand clearly what they are doing and how it contributes to solving a problem that is important to them. This means making sure that the problem is clearly defined but also that you’re continually linking the activity you’re currently working on back to that and showing how it is all coming together.

TIP: Don’t let people feel that they’re wasting time – this means making sure that you’ve planned activities that clearly lead towards an valuable outcome, and making sure that people see where they are on the map – how does what they’re doing now get them to that outcome. Kee people in the loop, don’t go for a ‘big reveal’ at the end.

TIP: Make sure you plan reasonable length breaks at least every 90 minutes – to get more out of people over a longer stint, make sure that you are mixing up the format of your activities – get people on their feet, moving around the room, working in different groups, talking, writing, sketching – building variety into the format increases stamina.

Dealing with Difficult People

How do we deal with difficult people / create the right environment?

1. The problem
Different knowledge levels | People feeling threatened | How do we deal with different people to get a representative outcome? |

2. The solution
Make sure you talk to people 1:1 before hand to warm them up | Communicate clear objectives | Choose activities and tactics that treat everyone equally | Herd the Hippos together | Break down hierarchies through play.

TIP: Make sure you know who is going to be in the room before you workshop, if you don’t know much about them try to get an insight into their personalities and use this knowledge to plan activities that will help get the best from the group.

TIP: Build up a repertoire of activities especially to deal with people who either dominate discussions or who are reluctant to contribute, if you find yourself ambushed by this situation in your workshop, be ready to change techniques on the fly rather than persisting with ineffective methods.

TIP: Read widely and talk to others about techniques for talking with difficult situations in workshop – memorise these and practice using them so you can confidently take control and steer the participation in a positive and productive way.

Reading list

  • Gamestorming: Gray, Brown, Macanufo (great overall manual with lots of suggested activities)
  • Facilitation at a glance: Bens (Leisa’s bible. Available in a spiral bound edition!)
  • How to run a great workshop: Highmore Sims (an alternative to Gamestorming)
  • Icebreakers: Tizzard & Evans (pocket sized book of useful icebreakers to keep in your bag)
  • How to make meetings work: Doyle & Strauss (good on the roles that people need to play in meetings – see also Kevin Hoffman’s Slideshare ‘I hate sports but I love kickoffs)
  • Dealing with difficult people: Brinkman & Kirshner (has a great framework for understanding and managing difficult people and simple strategies you can put into practice)
  • Games People Play: Berne (helpful in understanding when, why and how you’re being pulled into a negative relationship)
  • Team roles at work: Belbin (useful for understanding team dynamics and the value that different types of personalities bring to teams, see also Belbin’s website to get your personal profile – for a fee)


Giles and I have lots of people to thank – this workshop happened because Sjors Timmer willed it into being and told the world (with Matthew Solle lurking in there, too) and thanks to the generosity of Fortune Cookie for giving us the space (and letting us in early) and providing the refreshments and human support in the forms of Jeff Van Campen and Matt Lindop. The attendees threw themselves into things and came up with lots of tips and ideas which we’ve tried to capture below. We hope we’ve done them justice (comments welcome).

Other people’s write ups

@francisrowland created these sketchnotes during the evening – it’s also his picture that is at the top of this blog post – thanks Francis!

And @timcaynes  gave an participant’s eye view on his blog

If we’ve missed any others, please let us know and we’ll add it here.

Making a more engaging UK UPA

UPA Affinity Sort

Having been a vocal critic of the UK UPA in the past (by which I mean the organisation and it’s activities over the past five years not the current or recently past committee), I was really pleased to be invited to facilitate a workshop or two at their March event ‘Crowdsourcing the future of the UK UPA’.

There were a wide range of workshops held that evening, the one I was facilitating was focused on gathering and prioritising concepts that the UK UPA could act on which would make it feel like a professional organisation that we felt more aligned with and wanted more to be a part of. There were two workshops and the participants included UPA stalwarts and newbies, UXers and ergonomists, people from London and beyond.

The workshop used an incredibly rapid fire KJ Technique formed of individually listing items relating to how engaging the UK UPA was/was not for us and why that was so, followed by a quick post up and affinity sort, dot vote for issues we felt most strongly about.

Both workshops were characterised by a mixture of frustration and an energetic desire to be more involved and for the UK UPA to continue to grow and be an influential voice and resource for people who are currently active or interested in usability.

Aggregated Priorities
Once we aggregated the issues that most resonated across the two groups, the following priorities emerged:

1. Let us contribute: It was noted that the activity that the UK UPA is able to achieve is limited by the time that the committed yet otherwise busy committee members are able to contribute. There was an almost universal desire for members to be able to contribute meaningfully – whether by contributing content, updating the website, setting up Special Interest Groups that could hold their own events, and many other ways.

This requires the UPA giving up a little control – the current model of ‘tell us you want to help and we’ll delegate something to you’ sucks the enthusiasm and motivation out of even the most committed UPA fan. The net benefit would be a much more active association achieving a lot more for and with it’s membership, and a greater sense of involvement and community amongst the membership.

2. Teaching people who are new to usability: there was a general perception that the UPA could play a big role in educating people about what usability is, what usability work entails and why this might be a rewarding career option for young people and career changers. There was a particular passion for outreach into schools but also for providing tools to help educate colleagues with other specialties.

3. Have an opinion: participants also expressed the desire the the UPA have an authoritative voice on matters relating to usability, particularly high profile and particularly contentious issues. People wanted to be able to turn to the UPA to see what they thought about things.

4. Different event formats: participants also expressed the desire to mix up the event formats a little so there was less ‘lecturing’ and  more participation – debates, design jams, social events were suggested as options. Special Interest Groups were also mentioned in both workshops.

5. Learning more by sharing our experience: The ability to talk to each other, as members of the UPA and attendees at the events was something that participants would value – both online and offline. People wanted to be able to ‘find each other’ online after an event and continue conversations. An emphasis of events and content that showed real practice was also valued.

6. More friendly: Some participants noted that attending the events could be quite scary and intimidating and that more could be done to help alleviate this, also to help facilitate networking between participants. Some participants noted that they had attended several UPA events but not actually made any more connections with usability professionals as a result. (Related to points 4 and 5 above)

7. Who is the UPA? Participants wanted the UPA to more clearly articulate the position it wanted to occupy with our profession and the role it wanted to play and consequently, what our expectations should be. Development of a clear ‘value proposition’ or mission statement for the association.

8. More than just UX As a part of her introduction to the evening Chandra Harrison, current president of the UKUPA went to some lengths to make it clear to us that the UPA is about more than just usability. She may actually have gone so far as to provide the value proposition that people were looking for (ref: point 7 above) when she talked about the UPA being the organisation that brings together people from across all kinds of industries and professions who have an interest in making all kinds of things easier and better to use.

As it happens, participants (particularly in one group) found this a very appealing proposition and wished that they actually saw more content from across these various professions/practices as a part of the events program, more participation from people outside of UX at the events and more content helping us to understand the similarities and differences that are experienced across these audiences.

What’s next?

Another thing that Chandra made very clear in her introduction was that the committee are very time poor and already working very hard on projects for the UPA and that – although they were pleased to be holding this event and inviting ideas – they were not able to commit in any way to moving forward on any of the points that came out of the event. I understand from talking to members of the committee that many of the issues raised above are in the process of being tackled right now and, as it happens, by addressing the first one on this list, this problem actually starts to go away a little (although, no doubt, it also introduces a few more challenges).

Attending another UPA meeting confirmed for me though that actually achieving these objectives is going to require more than just a series of committee led initiatives, it’s going to require significant cultural change.

I’m optimistic that the very fact that events like this can take place under the auspices of the UPA is reason for us to have hope.

Why bother? Why do I care?

You may not identify as a usability professional. I don’t either. But we’re not the only ones who get a say in this. As long as other people look at what you do and call it usability (and you know a lot of people do), then this is our professional association.

Call yourself what you will, the way the UPA conducts it self is a reflection on anyone who rightfully or wrongfully gets lumped under the usability banner.

As long as this is the case, I want an association that I can be proud of. That demonstrates good usability practice in the way it presents itself online, that doesn’t feel completely out of touch with contemporary practice – UX, Ergonomics, whatever else you do that is affiliated with usability. I have enough on my plate trying to fight the good fight with people who don’t know any better, I should be able to count on the UPA to support me in this, not to undermine me.

So, this means that I’ll be critical. Constructively so wherever I can.

But it also means that if you want me to help out – and not just as someone you can delegate some tasks to, but on something that can actually properly make use of my experience, passion and abilities – then the UPA is welcome to call on me. As they did last week.

I hope you care too. And I hope the UPA can do exactly what it apparently wants to do – bring together people from all different professional circumstances who care about usability so we can learn more and do better and make this a better world to live in.

And on that evangelical note… why not go check out some more photos from the crowdsourcing night.

Dear UKUPA, pls UXify yourself.

Seeking feedback on how to get more members to vote in #ukupaelections - 300+ members and only ~30 voted so far.
There are 8 ukupa committee members, 11 ppl standing for election, 281 other ukupa members, only 30 in total have voted have voted? That's crazy!

Having been a relatively vocal critic of the UK-UPA and some of their current activities, I would hate for it to be said that all I do is snipe from the sidelines. I do have some suggestions as to how the UPA can address this issue, but it will take significantly more than 140 characters.

I think that focussing on the lack of members voting in these committee elections might be totally missing the point. Here is a classis situation where we’re focussing on tactical problems when, actually the issue is strategic.

What does the UKUPA do? A quick scan of their current website tells you this

UKUPA brings together UK professionals from the design, technology and research communities who share a vision of creating compelling technology that meets users’ needs and abilities.’

UKUPA website

Blah blah blah – what on earth does that actually mean? According to the predominant content on their current website it seems to mean they do job listings. And very little design.

But wait – the UKUPA are in the process of (very slowly) launching a new website. Perhaps it will give us more information about what they do?

Why, yes it does – it tells us that they have a committee, and they vote.

And, yes they certainly do vote. A lot.

UKUPA 'Beta' website

A quick scan of the discussion on twitter involving UKUPA will show you that pretty much all they’ve been talking about for the past few months is voting for committee positions.

Now, clearly *some* people are interested in the committee and who is on it but I think the (surprisingly small) membership may be sending a big message – shut up about your committee already. For every one person that’s on the committee there are dozens who are not. Making such a big deal of your committee is not really a particularly inclusive strategy. It certainly doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about the UPA. It makes me feel like Not A Committee Member.

The very fact that it *has* a committee, to my mind at least, makes the UKUPA seem dated – many of the great things happening on the UX scene at the moment are grass roots initiatives that are so busy getting stuff done that the idea of a committee is ludicrous. Let alone a committee of 8 people!

That, combined with the fact that the name of the organisation centres on the term ‘usability’ I think is indicative of the problem you’re facing – relevance. What are you offering the UX profession that is worth handing over a membership fee? Do you really need a committee? If so, what are they actually doing?

You may well have good answers to all of these questions but these are not being well communicated. Spend time answering these questions and less time dreaming up prizes to coerce people to vote for a committee they probably don’t really want.

As I write this I am conscious of four things:

  1. the committee is very much a part of the UPA’s culture
  2. The UK UPA is part of a global UPA machine
  3. the UK UPA does provide valuable services to the UX community in the UK – in particular, the events they run each month are generally very relevant and well attended and provide a great service to the community.
  4. the UK UPA currently has 300+ members.

If we were running the UKUPA, what could we do with this information?

Here’s what I’d be doing.

Firstly, look at your member data, talk to your members. Find out from people:

  • how long have they been members? Are lots of new people joining up or are most people long term members?
  • why are people joining? are they looking to validate themselves in the profession by showing they are ‘members of the Usability Professionals Association’ or do they want discounts at events?
  • why are people not leaving? Can they not be bothered cancelling the standing order or do they feel that they are getting value from their membership? if so, what do they value?
  • why are people leaving? what are you not delivering that they want?
  • what do the members think the UPA could be doing better? What do they want the UPA to do for them?

Do NOT do this in a survey.

Secondly, look at your value proposition, branding and positioning

  • find out what image the UK UPA is projecting and ask whether it’s the right one. Talk to people who aren’t in the UPA, let them be critical (stop being so defensive)
  • think seriously about changing your name. ‘Usability’ isn’t helping you now and it’s not going to get any better as time goes on. (Yes, of course I know you’re part of the global UPA – that’s a whole other issue)
  • think about what value you’re providing to the UX profession and communicate that clearly. Talk much more about that on your website/twitter etc. and much less about the committee
  • re-think the whole committee thing – why do you have so many committee positions? really – why? who is it really serving?
  • spend less time organising elections and more time organising mentoring (not that I want to pre-suppose what you might find out when you’re doing your customer research)

Finally, deliver content and communications that match with an updated value proposition and update the website design so that it communicates those values effectively- both in content and quality of design.

As a general rule, the events that the UKUPA runs are excellent examples of content that is desired by the UX profession – that’s why the people vote with their feet and attend these events. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the disconnect between the success and relevance of these events and the rest of the UK UPA machine?

As friends and colleagues of mine have put themselves up for committee positions in the UPA I’ve been tempted to become a member and support them with a vote but every time I consider it, I opt out.

From where I’m sitting, there’s no value to me professionally to align myself with an organisation that feels generally out of touch with the UX profession as a whole.

As a fellow event organiser, I know that UXers are crying out for more opportunities to come together and learn from each other – there are UX events every other week and every event seems to go to a waiting list – the need is there and the community is there.

I hope the UPA is willing to firstly admit there’s a problem and then be brave enough to UXify themselves. Then perhaps we ‘ll all become proud and active members. And then, when appropriate, respond to your calls to vote.

Until then, I’m out.

Designing at speed – DesignJam1

I had the pleasure of mentoring at the first Design Jam in London today.  The event brought together about 50 UX designers from student to seasoned professional to form teams of about 4-5 to design a solution in response to a design challenge.

The challenge for today was:

What is the ideal interface to keep track of previously viewed online content, across multiple devices and locations?

You can see what the teams came up with by checking out each of the team wiki pages.

It was a lot of fun running around from one team to the next seeing what they were working on and, hopefully, helping to guide them towards a solution to present at the end of the day. It was really interesting to be able to observe  nine teams approaching the same design question, and to see where the common challenges emerged. Some observations and advice:

  • Spend less time choosing your idea and more time defining it. Specifically, what problem are you solving?

    Peter Drucker, a business management guru said ‘Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.’ Nowhere is this truer than at DesignJam. If you want to have something interesting to present at the end of the day, you need to quickly identify a specific problem that you can solve, and then you need to be able to describe that problem in a concrete story. Keeping track of previously viewed online content, across multiple devices and locations‘ is so broad as to be meaningless from a designer’s perspective. But, being able to re-find a hotel website I saw a week ago when considering a holiday, or the location of the event I’m going to tomorrow, or finding the link to that funny website my friend emailed me about the other day – those a real, concrete, solvable problems.

    It doesn’t really matter which one of these you choose, what matters is that you quickly identify a relatively small, concrete problem that you can solve and that you can describe the problem clearly and believe that the problem is real, and describe how life will be better for people with this problem resolved.

    The elevator pitch technique is one method you might want to consider to help get yourself to a stage where you *really* *clearly* understand what you’re working on and why.

    I really can’t stress how important this part of the project is – this is the foundation on which all the rest of your work is built on, and the most important thing is not *which* idea you choose, it’s about how clearly you’ve defined the problem you’re going to solve and the value you’re going to deliver – your value proposition.

  • Define your audience by understanding the important behavioural characteristics.

    Ah, the vexed issue of personas.I saw a lot of personas at DesignJam today and very little evidence of them being used as part of either the problem or solution definition. Personas *can* be very valuable but only if they’re used in the right way and that is as a tool to help you understand what are the behavioural differences that are significant to your design problem, preferably informed by real data points (your mum, husband, grandfather do count as data points in a DesignJam scenario!).

    Time is precious in a DesignJam environment (as it is on all the project we work on, right?) – we need to make sure our time is being spent in the best possible way. I witnessed too much time being spent making personas because it felt like the next logical step in the design process. In most cases, I would have preferred to have seen groups spend time defining usage stories or tasks and then, if it became clear that there were divergent behaviours and we needed to choose to support one kind of behaviour or another, then capture that somehow – and perhaps a persona is a good way to make that behaviour more understandable.

    Having said that, one of my favourite designs today emerged in response to an ‘extreme’/edge case persona – so persona’s can be a starting point – but what drove this design was not the persona as such but the behaviours we were able to identify that were specific to that persona (and very different from our own) – in this instance, the use of links in email as a primary trigger point for viewing websites, also getting relatively few emails from relatively few senders.

    If you must do personas, then do as few as possible. If you’ve got more than three personas, I want to know why.
    If you’re going to spend time making personas, then I want to see you actually using them in your design process.

  • Get sketching! Generate and evaluate lots of design solutions before you start wireframing

    So, all that time you probably spent trying to come up with A Good Idea, spend it here instead. Quickly generate as many ideas as you possibly can. I reckon it was at least 2pm before I saw people starting to sketch out ideas at DesignJam today (teams started tackling the design problem at 10am and were supposed to present at 4pm).

    A really popular approach to generating lots of ideas at the moment is to do 6-up wireframes another technique I quite like is Design Consequences. However you do it, the key is to get as many ideas as you can onto paper. And then – once you’re out of ideas – to use your clearly defined design problem and whatever user behaviours or personas you have defined to evaluate which aspects of which ideas are strongest.

    Once you’ve evaluated the first round of ideas and you’ve got fresh ideas in your head – do another round of visual brainstorming. Rinse, repeat until the answer becomes obvious. Eventually, it will. Then everything will start falling into place.

  • A group is a resource and a liability (user your numbers, appoint a facilitator)

    When you’re designing with a bunch of other designers (or actually, with any group at all), there are two key things to remembers – firstly – use all the people in your team, get them all actively designing, make sure everyone is sketching and contributing ideas, remember to do things quietly and individually sometimes and to do things collaboratively and together at other times.

    Secondly – make sure that someone is driving the team – keeping you on a schedule, working out how you’re going to get from here to the end of the project, making sure that you’re staying true to the project problem you’ve defined, making use of the personas you’ve defined, keeping everyone focussed, on track, and working productively. Have this discussion at the beginning of the project rather than waiting for a ‘natural leader’ to emerge (especially if you’re working somewhere where politeness is at a premium and potential leaders might be nervous of treading on other team members toes)

  • Pitch clearly and persuasivelyThe day wraps up with each team presenting their design to the larger group –  for me, this is as important as all the design work you’ve done throughout the day. A clear, focussed and compelling presentation enables you to convey to the group what you’ve been working on, what problem you’re solving, who you’re solving it for, and finally, to show the design solution you’ve come up with.That clear value proposition and the user stories or tasks that you’ve defined come in handy yet again and show be key to framing your work in a way that is understandable and compelling to your audience.

    Don’t think of this as ‘just the presentation’ – as much as any of the design work you’ve done throughout the day is great experience and practice for your day to day design work, the same couldn’t be truer for this part of the process. As designers, we’re only ever as good as the design we can convince our client/team to implement and this means that we’re constantly presenting our work – explaining what the problem is, why we’ve done what we’ve done. This is something that, as designers, we should be able to do at the drop of a hat because of the preparatory work we’ve done earlier in the design process.

While these thoughts are specifically in response to the DesignJam day, I think they’re pretty much universally true to any design project and very common issues that come up on projects I’m involved with. The hothouse environment of DesignJam brought it home, yet again, how difficult it can be to facilitate a team around designing a solution – it’s tough work but very rewarding.

Well done to Johanna Kollmann, Joe Lanman, Franco Papeschi and Desigan Chinniah for organising the day and to everyone who participated for putting in such a great effort. See you next time!