R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for the Method: Workshop Facilitation Guidelines, Inspired by Aretha

If there’s one thing that really annoys me about people who do research, it’s those who can’t be bothered to do it right. Bad research is just downright rude and those who do it insult me with their laziness/stupidity/bad attitude.

Good research takes time, effort and appreciation for its greatness. I’m talking about respect here. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Respect for the method, respect for the participants and respect for the process.

To ensure that you stay on my good side (I know this is really important to you), I’ve put together a list of things to consider when planning a workshop. To help you remember them, I’ve set them to the tune of one of my favourite songs by the one and only Ms. Aretha Franklin.

Are you ready?

Firstly, lets talk about a few things you need to get control of: Recruitment, Environment and Structure.

R. Recruitment

This is important. Think this through and get the right people in the room. Figure out who is going to come and why you need those individuals there. When screening participants, think about what matters. Equally important, figure out what doesn’t.

I recommend focusing on deep things here like motivation, attitude and behavior rather than demographics. For example, choose people who feel a certain way about or have used a service/product/brand or those who would never use it. How somebody thinks, acts and relates to others and the world around him or her are first and foremost.

Demographics, though useful to know, are best kept last. The fact that a man is 71 does not necessarily mean that he doesn’t understand technology and won’t be able to engage with you on Twitter. Think about phrases like, “a range of ages”, “at least 3 in household” or “a mix of male and female” and ask yourself if that is enough, Baby, for what you want and what you need.

E. Environment

This needs to be considered before and monitored throughout the workshop. I prefer casual and fun, but my advice is to do what works for you. Match the mood to your personality so it is easy for you to maintain. Treat everyone equally and give each participant a chance to contribute. Focus group moderators often do a terrible job at this, encouraging an atmosphere in which the most outspoken are heard most frequently.

The beauty of a workshop is that it can be designed to let everyone shine. Facilitation, activity design and structure (discussed below) and the layout of the room itself all play a role here. Keep the mood light while demonstrating the value of engaged participation. Encourage playfulness and reward contribution (regardless of its perceived usefulness) while explaining to participants what their stories are teaching you and how they will be used to create a better user/customer experience, service or product.

Not everyone comes into the room giddy at the site of post it notes and coloured markers, but if you craft a suitable environment, you’ll be surprised at how many will come around.

S. Structure

My workshops often appear chaotic to outsiders. Viewing the madness for a random ten-minute time slot may not provide comfort to a sensible, well-disciplined product manager, but that is intentional. I aim to make people uncomfortable in order to get them to new places. That doesn’t mean I don’t plan and structure my sessions. I fully endorse remaining open to change and going with the flow and all that good stuff, but a workshop should have a purpose. It is important to keep a goal in mind the entire time (well, most of the time).

Respect for the method means knowing your objective and strategically designing every activity to meet this, while simultaneously ensuring that each flows into the next. Also consider the setup of the room and the number of participants. By carefully combining group and individual activities with a bit of general discussion and instruction, you can ensure that all voices are heard. That’s all I’m askin’!

As an example of this orchestrated genius, my favourite activity starts with a request to participants to each draw his or her experience with a service or product in six simple steps (similar to a comic strip). It is important this is an individual task to ensure that every participant’s story is heard. However, this then becomes a team activity when they share stories with each other, discussing potential pain points and later creating solutions in one or several groups.

And don’t tell me you can’t get people to draw because you can. Keep on tryin’ (just a little bit), be assertive or clever or whatever it takes and you should get at least stick people from 99% of participants. Aim for about 75% multi-colour drawings to keep the fun going.

The last 4 points in the R.E.S.P.E.C.T workshop guidelines are things that you need to make sure to do as a workshop facilitator: Prepare, Engage, Care and Thank.

P. Prepare

It seems obvious but this can really mean a successful workshop vs. a waste of time.

Enthusiastic co-designers vs. annoyed hostages (i.e. payment for their time might soften the blow but they’re still running out of the room when the bell rings). Show respect to the participants by doing these things beforehand:

Absorb any information that can be gathered in an easier way. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Searching online for industry background, previous research and goals, culture and history of the company you are researching for.
  • Speaking to any relevant project stakeholders beforehand to ensure you know their main questions and objectives for the project.
  • Seeking out and actually reading past research and other relevant documents. This is mainly to avoid wasting time repeating work but is also usually interesting and informative. Please do not be afraid of reading. It’s what makes the world go ‘round: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss
  • Performing any initial research if necessary. Anything you could accomplish by sending out a survey has no place in a workshop.
  • Plan a schedule and prepare all of your activities beforehand. I already mentioned the importance of structure. It’s not crucial that you stick to time estimates, but knowing the next activity that you are working toward usually is. I find it useful to plan more activities than necessary, because you don’t know what the group dynamic is going to be like until you’re there. You might get through things quickly or you may run out of time. It’s always good to have backup.
  • Design (and practice) your introduction and icebreaker. Most people over the age of 12 are not at home in this type of environment so this handholding step is required. It’s a good idea to run your icebreaker by a few people who are cooler than you to make sure it isn’t too lame. Nothing worse than starting off with a roomful of eye rolls.

E. Engage

Handle this. It is the requirement of a workshop facilitator to make sure that all participants contribute to every activity. If a schoolteacher can keep 5 year olds engaged for several hours, day in and day out, you can certainly keep adult participants engaged for 2 hours at a time. This is mandatory and it is your job. Do not let them get bored or you have wasted everyone’s time including your own.

I find that 2 hours is an ideal amount of time to request that people come in for. It’s not so long that it hinders participation and just long enough to not require a break in the middle. Adding 30 minutes requires a 15 minute break that turns into 20, meaning you’ve earned yourself a whopping 10 min and eliminated participants who can’t clear their schedules for that long. If you need more time, consider multiple sessions.

You should also consider the time of day.  You may have to do an evening slot to accommodate those who work during the day. If you think you can get the required participants during business hours, 10-12am is nice because people have checked their emails for the morning, are usually on their second cup of coffee, are not quite ready for lunch and haven’t yet hit the afternoon crash.

As previously mentioned, a fun, casual environment in which everyone feels they can speak comfortably is a good start. Add energy and humour to this and you should manage just fine. If you cannot do this on your own, bring an enthusiastic helper and/or sugary sweets.

C. Care

Really. Like not just doing that ‘pretending I’m actively listening’ thing where you nod your head and say, “mhmm” every so often. News flash: nobody falls for that.

Talk with people and listen to what they are saying and respond with follow up comments and questions. The participants are there to teach you about who they are and what they do and think. Take advantage of this opportunity by being present.

I once planned a workshop for a client who did a fabulous job at this. When the session was wrapping to a close, she excused herself for a few minutes and returned with a magazine for each of the participants from a collection of the organisation’s past editions. Each issue had been carefully chosen based on relevant articles to what she had heard about them in the session. I cannot explain here how impressed everyone was.

T. Thank

T stands for Thank you. If you forget everything else (don’t forget everything else), please remember to thank the participants for giving their time up for you. They didn’t have to help, but they did. And now you know so much more. You best be thanking them. All they’re asking for is a little respect.

I always judge the success of my workshop based on whether or not I get a few thanks in return. To me, this means the session was worth their time as well (note: thanking you while you are handing them money does not count).

And there you have it. 7 key factors to remember for successful workshop facilitation, all brought together neatly in an enjoyable mnemonic that will now have you singing and snapping with attitude for the next several hours at least (just a, just a, just a).

You’re Welcome.

Kristy Blazo

Kristy Blazo

Kristy is a lively UX professional from Detroit with great strength in digital strategy. She is inquisitive and passionate about human interaction – and knows to look beyond data to provide the best insight possible. Having completed studies in engineering, design and anthropology, Kristy has an outstanding ability to ‘design the right thing’, not just ‘design the thing right’. She works for user experience consultancy U1 Group in Melbourne.

U1 Group

U1 Group

U1 Group is a pioneer Australia-based UX consultancy that has been in business for more than 12 years. It provides clients with digital certainty—uncovering valuable insights, recommending bespoke solutions and ensuring users come back again and again. Specialists in research and strategy, our team offers a definitive journey to success, not just a flashy design.

We love sharing afternoon tea, discussing silly games on the App Store and taking turns to bring our dogs into the office on alternate days.

comments powered by Disqus