Alison Coward: How to run effective UX workshops

Orde Saunders' avatarPublished: by Orde Saunders

Alison Coward was talking about running effective UX workshops at DiBi, these are my notes from her talk.

Designers need to facilitate the creative output of others throughout the organisation.

Start with a collaboration mindset - you can't go wrong with this. If you have the answers then a workshop is the wrong thing to do - workshops are about sharing ideas.

Four key skills:

  1. Asking good questions - open ended questions (not a yes or no answer), stupid questions (people may be afraid to ask themselves), what if questions
  2. Listening and empathy - listen carefully to the answers to questions, need to be patient and leave pregnant pauses.
  3. Deal with ambiguity - workshops are meant to be messy, get used it - shows things are on track. Give confidence to the participants.
  4. Synthesising - help people see the connections participants are too close to. See patterns where others see chaos.

Keep it simple. If participants don't know what the facilitator did then that's good.


  • Introverts vs extroverts.
  • Senior people dominating the conversations.
  • Group think.
  • Discussion going off track.

Brainstorming - focus on Alex Osborn's rules. Generate ideas, don't select ideas. Divergent thinking is the aim - convergent thinking (making decisions) is at odds with this. 15 minute cycles are the practical maximum. Give people individual thinking time before group sessions, write ideas down. Anonymous post up and voting can break group think. Separate out generating ideas and criticising ideas - maybe appoint a devil's advocate.

  1. Craft a really good question
  2. Put ideas down
  3. Organise/group ideas
  4. Arrange the ideas

Plan the follow-up before designing the workshop - know what you want as the outcomes. Workshops aren't stand alone events, they are points in project flow. Decide on how you'll document it. Schedule time for the follow-up, don't try and fit it in around other things after the workshop has finished.

  • Function: what are the final outcome
  • Form: exercises and activities

People need to be engaged, understand the purpose, autonomous and have a purpose.

  • What constraints will you provide?
  • How will you use the room?
  • How will you use the materials?

Get people physically active - writing, walking, demonstrating.

Have your plan but be flexible on the day. Focus on one subject at a time, have extra workshops if you need. Have shorter workshops at first, especially if you are defining things.

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