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.