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The Craftsmanship of Workshop Design


The beginning of a creative workshop is always a bit daunting. You can be extremely prepared, have years of experience, rehearse a hundred times and ask colleagues for feedback. But you never really know, what kind of group dynamic will meet you in the workshop room. It is therefore extremely important that the workshop facilitator can sense the room and feel the dynamic, and then adjust the workshop accordingly.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a workshop for users of the software we are developing in the Watchme project. A bit of background is necessary here:

In the Watchme project, Jayway works with technical partners and universities in several European countries to expand the current e-portfolio with narrative and visual feedback for students and supervisors. Jayway’s main responsibility in the project is to create visualisations of data that will be presented to students and supervisors at participating universities.

In a creative digital design company, there is never a shortage of ideas. In my mind, I have already pictured many different visualisations that I believe would be cool and useful for users. Before I let my imagination guide my pen, however, it is important for me to get inside the mind of the user and make sure that I understand what they imagine the software to act, look and feel like.

So I travelled to Utrecht in the Netherlands to extract precious wisdom from users. I wanted to encourage them to tell me and show me what they expect from the software, we are making for them.

A brainstorming exercise to warm up.


18 participants joined the workshop. I facilitated the exercises with help from 3 colleagues on the project; they joined the groups, helped clarify questions and guided the participants throughout the day.

5 hours were reserved for the workshop and 3 different educational tracks were asked to participate: Veterinary, Medical and Anaesthesiology Training. The group of participants was diverse and consisted of students, supervisors and teachers from the three tracks – all these user groups will be using the system once it is finished. Some participants were familiar with the Watchme project, and some had already used the e-portfolio in its current form.

The workshop consisted of three parts: Brainstorming, analysis and sketching. This structure was designed to open up for opportunities at the beginning of the day and then narrow down the scope throughout the afternoon, finishing with very concrete ideas.

First, in the brainstorming exercise, the users came up with feedback categories that are helpful to them. Then, time was allocated to a thorough analysis of these categories – why they were relevant; what kind of data they include; how it should be presented to users; and what challenges are related to the category. Finally, users were asked to sketch visualisations for each category and explain to the group their thoughts behind the drawings.

Post its. Lots of post its!


The learnings and insights we gained from the workshop are worth gold in the design process. We got to know the users a lot better, clarified some of the questions that have come up along the way and found inspiration in the material they produced during the workshop.  It may not sound like a lot of time but 5 hours spent with future users of a system is enough to learn a lot about their mindset, perceptions, ideas and expectations – if the time is administered correctly, of course.


The trick with a creative workshop is to ask questions that get the users talking about relevant topics. Closed questions, that let the workshop participant to get away with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, are not very productive. Never ask: ‘Do you think this feature is a good idea?’ – users will almost always say yes, because they don’t want to offend the designer.

Instead, open questions are very efficient:

  • “What situations can you imagine using this system in?”
  • “In what ways will this visualisation motivate you?”
  • “What does this visualisation tell you about your progress?”
  • “Why is it important for you to know this information?”

Such questions encourage the user to describe scenarios for use of the system in detail and to explain what they do and don’t like about a feature or visualisation.

Open questions get the users talking.

Flexible facilitation

Creative exercises must be open enough to allow the participants to use their imagination, but they should also set a firm framework for the exercise, so that discussions are relevant to the goal of the workshop.

The facilitator has to be flexible and allow for unplanned conversations when interesting topics are brought up, but must also be able to get the conversation back on track if it goes off topic. I find it useful to write down the topic, if I have to interrupt the conversation and get back to it later in the workshop or even after. This way, I can steer the workshop back onto the topic-in-question but without forgetting the spontaneous discussion. Whenever our workshop participants discussed a feature of the current e-portfolio, which lay outside of the project scope, I re-directed the conversation, but noted the feature and what was said about it, so that the providers of the e-portfolio can decide whether it is something worth acting on.


In my workshop, I introduced the brainstorming exercise by saying that users were allowed to dream big and think outside the visualisations they already knew. I noticed that it was difficult for some to do that, so I hung a variety of visualisations of data up on the walls in the workshop room for inspiration. This helped workshop participants to realise that there are other opportunities than the visualisations they are already familiar with.

Also, as I was supervising groups as they were working on their analyses, I sometimes challenged their ideas: “How about a different angle on that?”, “Have you also considered…?”, “Are there any other solutions?”. If the groups struggled to think of other alternatives, I suggested a few to broaden their perspectives and show them that there are more solutions.


Sketching is a really daunting activity for many. We are used to expressing our thoughts with words. Drawing is uncharted territory; blank paper is terrifying. I asked the workshop participants to force themselves to draw a line or a doodle. That first stroke breaks the ice and creates a connection between a person and their canvas. It is easier to turn the first doodle into something meaningful than to start from scratch.

The first pen stroke breaks the ice.


My colleagues and I are very satisfied with the workshop. We managed to create a workshop environment, where participants were comfortable sharing their thoughts and expectations. Discussions were honest and critical but at the same time respectful and open-minded. We received participants’ input on our existing ideas and acquired many new ideas from participants.

The workshop design and extensive preparation went a really long way to achieve this – but our ability to go with the flow, feel the dynamic and channel the participants’ energy in the right direction were the real steps to success.

Did you find this interesting? Read more about the outcomes and learning from the workshop on the Project Watchme website.

This blog post talks about the case study: Project Watchme.

Natalia Cabaj