Friday’s 13 Tips to Overcome Design Workshop Facilitation Nerves

October 28, 2022
Friday the 13th Hockey Mask

Facilitating design workshops can oftentimes feel as scary as Friday the 13th. The nerves that build up moments before meeting with a client can feel the same as the nerves I would get as a kid while watching the classic 80’s slasher film as Jason skulked around Camp Crystal Lake. In both scenarios, I was/am always waiting for something bad to happen.

As a designer who has preferred the safety and comfort of sitting behind my screen with my headphones on, facilitating workshops has been something I have been, and still am, working on. I am sure there are many of you out there that can relate.

In the spirit of the spooky holiday, here are 13 tips I have collected that should help you confidently facilitate your next workshop!

1. Keep the Physical/Virtual Setup in Mind

Before you think about anything else regarding the workshop, you should first consider the environment. Will it be virtual, in-person, or a little bit of both? Depending on that answer, some tools work far better in-person than virtual. I asked Carly van Waveren, an Interaction Designer here at SEP, about these facilitation tips.

Before stepping  into any in-person workshop, ask yourself:

  • How many people will be in this workshop?
  • Does everyone need to participate?
  • Does everyone have the necessary tools?
  • Where will people be facing?

As for a virtual workshop, ask yourself:

  • What platform(s) will we be collaborating on?
  • Does everyone have a link to access the meeting?
  • Does everyone have a microphone and camera?
  • Are your microphone and camera ready?

These items might seem trivial at first but are often overlooked. Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions will help you avoid the awkwardness of having to rearrange mid-session and will mitigate the time wasted doing so.

2. Choose Your Facilitation Tools and Setup Carefully

There are hundreds of tools and ways you can facilitate workshops as a designer. However, it is critical that you are intentional about every tool you choose to use.

Will those involved in the workshop know how to use the tools you choose, or will you need to prep them beforehand? There is no one right answer to what tools are best. Instead, be intentional and choose your setup based on the existing contextual knowledge of the team you will be working with.

Just because you read an article saying sticky notes are the superior tool for collaborative workshops does not mean that holds true for your team’s specific needs. All tools are valid; they simply have different levels of effectiveness depending on a team’s dynamic and capabilities.

3. Prepare as an Individual and as a Team

Many of us are driven enough to prepare ahead of time, but do we always keep our teammates in mind? Most, if not all, workshops are highly collaborative and require input from several different perspectives.

To ensure your team performs at its best, you must prepare with your teammates and talk through how you will handle obstacles together. It is unreasonable and ineffective to count on a single person to extract the most value out of the workshop.

I know for myself, before the workshop happens, I often tell my teammates, “I can lead the activity, but if you sense me struggling, please step in and interrupt me at any time.” This way, I give my team the clear go-ahead to interject when necessary.

Carly also mentioned doing dry runs of workshops with your internal team. This not only helps iron out the workshop flow but also gives your team the opportunity for feedback. In short, don’t leave your team behind!

4. Different Workshop Activities for Each Stage of The Triple Diamond

You might be asking yourself, what is the Triple Diamond1? To simplify, it’s a visualization of the product design process. The original concept was created by Mike Chen while working for Zendesk.

Since then, SEP has taken that foundational concept and crafted its own iteration breaking the process down into 3 core categories:

  1. Problem Space
  2. Solution Space
  3. Execution

Are you able to identify the space your team is in and are you converging or diverging?

Given your answer to both of these prerequisites, Carly made a great point that there are various workshops that work best with different stages of the design process. For example, if you are trying to identify your client’s problem, a User Journey Mapping Session would be of greater value than a Design Studio Workshop.

Knowing where your project is within the design process will help you determine which activities would be most helpful to you and create a shared understanding of the project’s maturity across all parties involved.

5. What’s The End Goal, And What Will Everyone’s Responsibilities Be

One of my greatest fears going into workshops is that the end result will not have much value for the client. When talking with Chris Hartley, a Sr. UX Designer at SEP, he mentioned in order to suppress that worry, a great way to get things started on the right foot is to set clear expectations in the beginning.

He doubled down on how important it is for everyone to know their role during the workshop with attendees.

  • Who will be the facilitator?
  • Who will be the transcriber?
  • Who should contribute?

Setting these expectations about roles and responsibilities in the beginning will only set you and your team up for greater success and an overall smoother workshop!

6. Break the Ice!

Icebreaker activities feel surface level at times, but when used properly they can be an advantage to getting a workshop off to the right start. More specifically, there are two advantages icebreakers can bring to the table.

One advantage Carly pointed out was that they can be catered to getting your client and teammates into the right headspace. She mentioned a time when she was leading an activity where the team was going to need to think in very granular detail.

To get those involved thinking at the right zoom level, she had them draw out the steps of how to make toast to the most minute detail they could come up with. Though it might sound a little funny at first, it truly did help her set the context for that workshop moving forward.

Chris then identified the second advantage; icebreakers serve as an opportunity to break down barriers and ease the tension/formality of a workshop. Everyone involved in a collaborative environment should feel empowered to be themselves and to bring their own unique perspective to the table when trying to solve complex problems.

7. Always Have a Pivot Plan

If you have ever facilitated a design workshop, you know they often take turns in unpredictable ways. That tends to be the nature of this ambiguous work, and that’s okay!

Although it is easy to get lost when these unexpected shifts happen, you should always go into workshops having identified where potential pivots could happen. Chris emphasized not only the importance of a general plan but also the importance of pivot options B, C, D, and so on. At one point or another, you will have to pivot.

Sometimes if the original plan doesn’t work out, it can feel like a mistake. It is not. Having the flexibility and adaptability to shift with these developments will not only keep your team’s forward momentum, but it will show your clients that you are willing to tackle any obstacle head-on and have the toolset to do so fluidly.

8. Take Breaks Or You Will Break

The title is a bit dramatic, but there is some truth to it. Oftentimes, workshops take long chunks of time to get through, especially if the topic at hand is complex and layered. A recent example of this would be the weeklong discovery workshop I recently finished up with a client.

We met with them in person for 5 days straight. Each day was chock full of various workshops. However, in order to avoid fatigue, we were extremely intentional when we planned for breaks. We tried to have a break every 90 minutes to keep all members involved working at their highest capacity.

If you tried to go a full 8 hours of working with little to no room for breaks, I can all but guarantee the last 4 hours will be some of the most ineffective work you’d ever see. Much like a muscle, your brain needs time to recover and time to context switch. If you know the workshop will be long, you need to plan to have breaks to allow all individuals to sustain a productive level of collaboration.

9. Encourage Others and Welcome the Inexperienced

You are not the only one who can be nervous during these workshops. When speaking with Chris about facilitations, we both were able to identify that as facilitators, it is our responsibility to encourage others to speak up and have a voice at the table.

Whether others are doubtful of their expertise or don’t want to speak over more senior individuals, it is important to make all parties feel welcome to speak up and give their perspectives during the various workshop activities.

In fact, when I work with a non-designer on a design, I would say almost every time their perspective brings new light to a design challenge and frequently plays a large role in solving a particular challenge we are having.

Many times, perspectives that contrast my own have served as a light bulb moment that otherwise would have remained undiscovered!

10. Prepare a Schedule Ahead of Time but Know That it is Not Law

There should always be some kind of schedule included with planning. For me, I find basic time windows work best for each activity. For example, a kickoff design workshop with 2 activities could be:

  • Intro & Ice Breaker (15min)
  • Activity #1 (30min)
  • Activity #2 (30min)
  • Takeaways & Action Items (10min)

This sets expectations for all involved but isn’t too rigid. If one of these runs short and the other runs long, that is perfectly fine. The key here is to make time for each listed item. In general, I always like to plan for about a 10-minute buffer between each item. This allows for more flexibility as you conduct the workshop.

11. Lean Into Conflict!

When confronted with conflict, I think most people’s initial instinct is to run in the other direction. In a workshop setting where a team is looking to create better alignment, it’s essential to unravel that conflict. It can be tricky to do, and even more so to do it well.

Whether it’s two stakeholders from the client side who don’t see eye to eye, or even two of your own teammates disagreeing, those involved in the workshop should strive to solve said conflict to ensure all parties continue efforts in the same direction. If you are leading a workshop where conflicting opinions or perspectives arise, be sure to either capture that conflict and resolve it in the very near future or better yet, resolve it right then and there.

Whatever you do, do not avoid it because if it is not solved now or soon, it will come back to haunt you! 👻

12. Know How to Handle Sidebar Conversations

Sidebar conversations are going to happen. Even if you come prepared with a schedule, it is human nature to have conversations that diverge from the specific subject at hand. We are social beings!

Sometimes they are necessary, but other times they can serve to distract from the activity at hand. If you find yourself in a workshop where too many sidebars are happening and the workshop is beginning to lose momentum, it can be hard to address.

At times, you will have to face them head-on and politely redirect those in the sidebar to refocus on the task at hand. Using phrases such as, “I don’t want to waste your time…” and “To make sure we don’t have to reschedule this meeting…” makes addressing sidebars far less accusatory and more team-oriented. The best you can do is politely diffuse the sidebar and get the team back on track.

13. Keep it Casual and Invite Levity

My last tip is the one that I still actively tell myself before every workshop. I often become too rigid and robotic when I get anxious or nervous, knowing I will be facilitating. I come off as emotionless, which makes the workshop’s tone fun for no one. 🙅‍♂️

Instead of putting your guard up, invite levity to the discussion and be yourself!

In general, design workshops are messy by nature. Some of the ideas and topics that will get brought up during collaboration might not go anywhere, and that’s fine. The important part is to get everyone’s perspective out there for the whole team to see and then eventually come to an alignment on some kind of shared understanding.

If people show up closed off and guarded, participation will be low and idea generation will suffer. Instead, make it fun and empower people to share ideas, even if they are unsure of themselves! It is okay to be wrong. The whole point of these workshops is to discover what works and what doesn’t! At the end of the day, everyone in the workshop is human.

Final Remarks

Hopefully, at least one of these 13 tips can help you gain confidence in your ability to facilitate your next workshop. I am sure you will still get nervous, but I promise those nerves will eventually fade, and facilitation will seem far less scary. I could sit here and type out every tip I have for successful facilitation, but ultimately, the best way to overcome those nerves is to continue to facilitate and get more reps in. Face it head-on. You will make mistakes, you will learn, and you will get better. Eventually, that scary figure that lurks in the corner that is ‘facilitation’ will morph into a routine task you are confident taking on regularly.


References

  1. Chen, Mike. “The Zendesk Triple Diamond Process.” Medium, Zendesk Design, 20 June 2021, https://medium.com/zendesk-creative-blog/the-zendesk-triple-diamond-process-fd857a11c179.