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GuidesProduct developmentHow to create & run engaging design workshops

How to create & run engaging design workshops

Last updated

22 May 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

New products help drive business growth. But developing a successful product is never done in isolation. Developing the Next Big Thing requires colleagues to collaborate—brainstorm, problem-solve, and critique. And while some of these collaborations naturally occur informally, businesses can't rely solely on water cooler conversations to drive new product development

Business leaders must pull together design workshops that help generate ideas that can eventually be transformed into viable and successful products.

What are design workshops?

Design workshops are formal meetings where team members engage in group exercises that help them achieve one or more specific product design processes. Each workshop has a specific outcome in mind and may be held in person or virtually, or using a combination of the two.

The most effective design workshops involve considerable preplanning. That's because it's easy to have meetings that don't accomplish much, if anything. 

Like any meeting, a design workshop could have unclear or ambiguous goals, devolve into tangents, and end without tangible action steps. It could be dominated by the voice or voices of a minority of participants and generate conflict and resentment. And unsuccessful meetings could necessitate more than necessary, decreasing participant engagement.

But an effective design meeting—one that’s well-organized, goal-oriented, and relevant—can help you generate and refine product ideas, build team cohesiveness, and even have fun.

When should you hold a design workshop?

When working in-house, you'll likely be looking to launch new products according to a combination of internal and external dynamics. You may be directed to do so by the CEO based on existing financial performance data or a competitor's entry into a new market. Or consumer sentiment analysis may provide a roadmap to a brand extension likely to succeed. 

In some cases, the reasons may even be fairly arbitrary. However, if you've been asked to develop a new product, you'll want to schedule a design workshop as soon as possible.

If you're working for a product development firm, you'll also want to schedule a design workshop early into the project. The workshop should include both your colleagues assigned to the project and key client staffers. This composition can help ensure that your firm and the client share the same vision for the product from the beginning.

Planning successful design workshops

When planning a design workshop, you must consider several factors, including your goals, participants, venue, timing, structure, and assessment. 

Goals

Perhaps the most important aspect of the workshop is your goals, as they inform how you’ll plan for every other element. You need to know what you want and need to accomplish for your new product development (NPD) project to succeed. Your goals should be relevant, tangible, and achievable. Start by writing down your goals before taking any other step.

Participants

If you know what you need to accomplish, you should know who you need onboard to make it happen. Choosing participants shouldn’t just be a matter of their technical proficiency and creativity but also how they interact with their colleagues in group settings. Their temperament may help you decide whether to invite them to participate and how you structure your workshop. 

For example, if you have a group of technical experts who are all shy, you may want to avoid improv-based exercises. Or, with a potential participant who dominates conversations, you may wish to select exercises that equalize everyone's role (if they receive an invite at all).

Venue

The venue is another important consideration, especially in today's hybrid work world. If your workshop will include all virtual or both virtual and onsite participants, you'll need to follow best practices for making such meetings effective (not an easy job). Even if your meeting is onsite, you'll need a venue in which distractions are minimal. Minor noise from an adjoining room can be enough to disrupt the effectiveness of a workshop. Select your venue carefully and ensure it’s as distraction-free as possible.

Timing

Beyond scheduling your workshop at the outset of your NPD project, you'll also want to evaluate internal calendars carefully. Participants may be working on other projects at or near completion. If half your team is struggling to meet another project's deadline, they won't be able to focus effectively on your workshop. And for the best results, you must have all participants devote as much attention as possible when they're with you.

Structure

You also must consider your workshop's structure in light of your goals and other factors. What discussions or exercises will elicit the response(s) you seek? Which approach is best, given the professional and group dynamics at play? How can you establish clear expectations at the outset and minimize confusion while maximizing creativity?

Start with an agenda that includes your goals for the workshop. Also, come with predetermined discussion topics and exercises. But avoid being too rigid. Some of the best workshops occur when the facilitator and participants determine the direction of the discussion and brainstorming approaches together. This dynamic occurs when participants are highly engaged and creative. 

But your session may occur on a day when your most motivated participants aren’t as focused or in a setting with disengaged participants. Having the tools ready for a highly structured workshop is important in these cases.

Assessment

You also must make space for post-workshop feedback, ideally at the end of the workshop or shortly after, when participants' memories are still sharp. Capturing feedback will help you improve future sessions. It may also help provide insights into the responses you received. For example, if the ideas your workshop generated were somewhat off the mark, post-session feedback may reveal that some participants were confused about aspects of the workshop.

What are some best practices for running effective workshops?

There's no set formula for running effective design workshops. Each workshop will have different goals, group dynamics, business constraints, and other considerations at work. 

However, there are some guidelines you can follow to maximize your chances of running an effective workshop:

Small groups work best

You don't need dozens of people to come up with feasible ideas. In fact, the larger the group size, the more difficult it can be to manage group dynamics and stick to your workshop's schedule. Try inviting five to eight people to your workshop for the best results. Bring in a mixture of people from different departments and backgrounds to generate diverse, viable ideas.

Avoid hybrid workshops, if possible

It can be difficult to ensure that every participant has and feels like they have an equal voice in any meeting. But that task is incredibly difficult when some participants are in person and some are on-screen. Try to keep your workshop to either all virtual or all in-person to make things easier.

Map out your activities

No matter how precise your agenda is, your activities will always take longer than you think. And that's ok. You want the icebreaker to involve laughter and camaraderie. To an extent, you want brainstorming to branch off in directions you hadn't anticipated. 

But even if the session is not as fluid and engaging as you hoped, simply transitioning from activity to activity can take time. Getting people reoriented after a lunch or bathroom break can also take precious minutes. 

No matter what combination of activities you plan, map out precisely how much time you believe they should take, leaving ample time for transitions and even a little padding for unanticipated distractions.

Include a warm-up

Chances are quite a few of your team members won’t be primed to participate in your workshop. They'll be coming from other meetings or have other professional thoughts on their minds when your session starts. Expecting all of them to be as creative as needed isn't realistic. 

So, to get their creative juices flowing, start with a fun warm-up exercise that requires active participation and isn’t directly related to your project. Doing so can help them redirect their focus to the exercises you’ve planned and help them bring their A-game when you start.

Establish ground rules

Great design workshops not only achieve their predetermined goals. They elicit thoughtful and respectful input from all participants that infuse diverse perspectives into the output. In doing so, they build team focus and cohesiveness, paving the way for productive collaboration throughout the rest of the NPD project. But this cohesiveness doesn’t just happen on its own. 

You play an important role at the outset by establishing ground rules that lay out how participants should engage, facilitate equal participation from everyone, minimize conflict, and handle conflicts that occur appropriately. Establishing ground rules that cover communication, criticism, device usage, and participant roles can make your team feel comfortable enough to share freely, even when they have outlandish ideas.

Prioritize quantity over quality

It's easy for participants to come up with an idea they like in the first exercise and then spend the next few exercises refining it or coming up with extremely similar ideas you want. But that's not what you want from a good design workshop. You want many ideas: the pragmatic, the outlandish, and the creative. 

You'll spend time after the workshop paring down the "bad" ideas. But even in them, you'll often find elements you can use. Select exercises and approaches that help you generate quantity over quality for the best results.

Don't go it alone

Planning and facilitating a successful design workshop is a lot of work. And it's natural to feel overwhelmed. But you don't have to go it alone. Ask a colleague to co-host your workshop with you to alleviate some of the burden. 

Also, delegate tasks, like note-taking, to participants. Giving them roles can help them feel more invested in the process. Rotate roles among participants as well to keep things fresh.

Track your time

If there's one aspect you should avoid delegating, it's time tracking. One overlong exercise can necessitate you rushing through the remainder, impairing participant creativity. But you want to retain a fluid feel to each that allows participants to brainstorm effectively without pressure. 

Make sure you've scheduled your activities with a buffer for transitions. When the workshop starts, announce how long participants have for an exercise at the outset, then keep a watchful eye on the clock.

Prep beforehand

A distraction-free environment is most conducive to successful design workshops. Make sure you spend some time beforehand testing A/V equipment, preparing refreshments, checking temperature controls, and dealing with any nearby noise. Show up early on the session day to ensure everything is in working order.

What does a design workshop agenda look like?

Pulling all of this together may seem daunting. But with some time, thought, and effort, you can run a design workshop that launches you into your NPD project's next phase.

If you're struggling to assemble a workshop plan or agenda, use the following as a guide. This agenda assumes that four hours have been budgeted for the workshop and that it will involve five participants. (Allot more time for each section if you have more participants.)

  • Introduction (10 minutes)

  • Participant introductions

  • Brief discussion of the workshop goals and agenda

  • Initial warm-up exercise

  • Background (20 minutes)

  • Discussion of the project in detail, including available research

  • First brainstorming exercise (40 minutes)

  • Exercise (30 minutes)

  • Sharing results (10 minutes)

  • Break (30 minutes)

  • Second brainstorming exercise (40 minutes)

  • Exercise (30 minutes)

  • Sharing results (10 minutes)

  • Third brainstorming exercise (40 minutes)

  • Exercise (30 minutes)

  • Sharing results (10 minutes)

  • Next steps (1 hr)

  • Discussion of all results (20 minutes)

  • Discussion of next steps (20 minutes)

  • Feedback on the session (20 minutes)

Use this template for your own design workshop. Keep timing in mind and leave ample time to transition from activity to activity.

Design Sprint

Another popular approach to design workshops is using the method from Google Ventures called The Design Sprint. It takes up a full five business days and follows a strict schedule working through five distinct phases. The design sprint was developed specifically for digital products and concepts. It attempts to go from concept to fully tested prototype ready for development.

What kind of exercises should I include in my design workshop?

You can incorporate multiple exercises into your design workshop. Here are a few that product designers have used to great effect:

Brainwriting

A participant spends a finite period writing their thoughts and ideas down on a sheet of paper about a specific prompt. The next participant reads what’s written and spends the same period doing the same thing. The exercise continues until all participants have written their thoughts on the sheet, the contents of which are shared with everyone.

Mind mapping

In this activity, participants take turns writing their thoughts on a single page and drawing lines of connection between the words and phrases that appear. Share the final result with all participants and discuss it.

Role-playing

Imagine scenarios relevant to your NPD project, have your participants assume specific roles, and ask them to act out a scene in those roles. Try not to be overly specific, or you may constrain creativity.

Sketching

Ask participants to sketch their ideas for a finite period according to a specific prompt. You can also conduct this exercise like brainwriting, in which each participant contributes ideas to a single sketch on a shared sheet, one at a time.

FAQs

How do you facilitate a design workshop?

Being organized is critical to facilitating an effective design workshop. And while you need to keep things moving in a specific direction, try not to be too rigid. Create a space where participants can get involved and have fun.

What is the importance of a design workshop?

A design workshop can help you generate ideas for new products or brand extensions, identify potential solutions to consumer challenges, and build cohesiveness among new product development teams.

How do I prepare for a design thinking workshop?

Start by determining your goals for the workshop. Consider what tangible outcomes you need from the workshop to move your new product design project forward. Determine the setting, timing, venue, tools, exercises, and participants you need to achieve those exercises. 

Make sure you craft an agenda with enough time to achieve your goals in a distraction-free environment. Check your equipment and other logistical issues beforehand as well.

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