5 Tips for Planning a Great Design Sprint Workshop

EchoUser’s workshop veterans share their secrets for planning a great design session.

I got into design because I love tackling design problems. But, working on my own isn’t nearly as fun as working with others. At EchoUser, my colleagues and I commonly lead workshops with clients to supercharge the design process and bring teams together. It’s a great way to kick-off design work, learn new design techniques and engage in research findings.

In this post, I’m sharing some of EchoUser’s favorite tips for preparing for a design workshop. Behind every tip, there’s a story of an EchoUser learning it the hard way.

Tip #1: Set the right expectations.

One of the greatest values of the workshop format is that it gives people a chance to try out new ways of thinking and doing. As valuable as design workshops and sprints are, the ideas that result aren’t final, fully-fleshed out solutions. Instead they serve as instigators for future work and exploration; it’s important to communicate that during the planning phase and workshop day. Be explicit about what the group is doing and what they’re going to get out of it.

Joanne Wong, senior experience designer, summarized this best when she said, “The process is as important (or actually more important) than the solution. I found that a lot of people were really focused on the solution. We always had to reel them back in to understand that the discovery phase and the problem space is really important.”

It’s also important that each person or group knows why they are involved — they will be more engaged because they know they are needed. Ideally, leadership is involved as participants who can lead by example but also work with their teammates as peers. I’ve heard of situations where a leader from one company kept walking in and out from the workshop, which may have affected the group dynamic.

Snippet of a workshop schedule.


Tip #2: Build a detailed schedule and checklist.

I know how challenging it is to get on everyone’s calendars. So you want to get the most out of the time you have. In the same way that a design project is done when the final deadline approaches, a workshop ends when the time slot is over.

My colleagues and I like to plan schedules at 5-minute increments and include everything: introductions, activities and breaks. It helps us know if we’re on track to finish all we hoped to accomplish. Focus on how long activities will take and use timers; otherwise, “it’s very tempting to give people more time,” says Laura Chang, director of EchoUser East.

Along with managing the schedule, make sure to prepare a checklist with materials, space and food. You don’t want to forget markers or extra sketching paper! It’s a small detail, but checklists help you make sure you don’t forget to ask about details like dietary needs before ordering lunch.

Tip #3: Prioritize your schedule, and choose the first things to go.

Detailed schedules are great, in theory. But, I’ve learned that no matter what, I have to plan for an seemingly inevitable reality of a late start or change of plans. Maybe a key participant is leaving early to catch a flight, or a conversation gets completely derailed and goes on twice as long.

Plan in advance for what activities can be adjusted, shortened or removed. That way, when (not if) you have to adapt the session, you already have a game plan and don’t have to think that much the day of. It’s like designing a product, you shoot for the ideal but have to make trade-offs to get to release.

“We’ve definitely fallen off of the schedule many times; one workshop was an hour behind on the first day. However, the detailed schedule allowed for us to see what we should cut out and allowed us to shuffle things around,” says Joanne Wong, senior experience designer.

Tip #4: Don’t moderate alone.

Even if you’ve got an exact schedule and you’ve done your best to streamline the day, don’t think you can do it alone. Throughout the workshop, you need to be documenting activities with photos, capturing notes and guiding teams through unfamiliar activities, all while keeping an eye on the time and gauging the mood of the room. That’s a lot of work for 1 person.

Since EchoUser workshops often have full group and small group activities, we like to plan for a moderator for every small team of 3-6 participants, with potentially a lead moderator who manages the whole room. During large group activities, moderators serve as presenters, photographers and note-takers. When the small groups take over, the moderators mentor teams in creating artifacts and helping them when they get stuck.

I’ve also found it really valuable at the end of the workshop to have multiple people for debriefing to understand better what was happening in the room.

Prototyping a workshop game.


Tip #5: Rehearse everything.

With every workshop, I try out new methods and agendas tailored to the tasks or client. I like to rehearse the format once I have a pretty solid schedule. There’s two ways we’ve done it here at EchoUser: 1) prototype and test activities either as small practice runs, or 2) run a brief, sped-up version of the entire workshop.

With a new activity, I like to prototype it with some colleagues to test out the timing, instructions and solicit general feedback. As a result, I can decide whether it makes sense in the agenda, needs better focus on workshop goals or needs to be streamlined.

I’ve also worked with colleagues who have run full workshop dry runs. Working through the agenda at a speedy pace, moderators critique the flow or timing. This also is a good time to practice presentations to make sure they fit in the time you’ve allotted for them, or to adjust your agenda to fit your presentation length.

Planning workshops gets easier as you have more formats and practice under your belt. Next time, I’ll share 5 more tips on executing a great design workshop on the day of.

Laura Mattis

September 27, 2016

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