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The Why and How of an Effective Workshop

By: Mary Beth Rettger of The MathWorks

I've held several workshops for my company and I've done a mess of workshops at CHI and UPA. Workshops are a uniformly great experience: Put a bunch of usability professionals in the room, propose a topic, and magic always happens. The major benefit of a good workshop is, of course, the training opportunity. In a year when we won't be able to get everyone to the UPA conference, workshops provide us with a low-cost alternative. But that's only the most obvious benefit.

Why a Workshop?

Workshops are a way for people within our group to share methods and techniques. Since our members all work on different projects, they may be evolving their own special variations of standard methods or best practices. Workshops are a way for us to share that information periodically. Workshops also let us try to normalize methods across the group.

We also use the workshops to train other people within our company. If there is a topic that we think might be of interest to our company's development, QE, marketing, or doc teams, we invite members from those teams to participate. There are actually two benefits here: we get their ideas about the topic and we spread the word about the topic to their group.

Finally, we use workshops as a method to capture good ideas from people outside the company. We all know at least one other person who works somewhere else who either is interested in the workshop's topic or could contribute to it. We're gradually working our way through those pals. We pick people we think are interesting, intelligent, or represent an intriguing background because of where they work. We DON'T sign NDAs or make these external participants sign NDAs-and we make that clear up front. A workshop is only a success if the participants can share and only share what they feel is appropriate.

Before the workshop

We begin the process by getting the group involved in selecting a topic of common interest. Some of the topics we've dealt with this year are:

  • Dealing with qualitative data,
  • Comparing tasks (e.g. looking at how we each structure and word tasks),
  • Top 10 things that we do to keep a test running smoothly

More recently, we've been moving to more design centered topics. Generally, in the course of one workshop, the topic that we're interested in next becomes clear.

All of the invited participants are asked to submit a one-page position paper before the workshop. The position papers are typically short summaries of someone's experience on the topic or samples of documents that are related to the topic (in which case, the paper is probably more than one page). Unlike a UPA conference, these papers aren't used to select participants (if someone is invited then they can attend). Instead, these papers are handy tools for sharing lots of information and different artifacts.

We also ask the participants to include a few questions that they are hoping to have answered at the workshop. The workshop organizers can use these papers to help select discussion topics for the day. The position papers are distributed a few days before the workshop to all of the participants.

Members of the usability group take turns acting as a facilitator in running a workshop. It's important to have a strong facilitator who keeps things moving. In fact, it's often good to have two people acting as facilitators. With two people, one person can get a break occasionally, there's always someone else to take notes, and the facilitator doesn't get sick of hearing him or herself speak. I also recommend having a scribe to record the large group discussions (more on why this is a good idea later).

Structure of a workshop

The basic format of the workshop looks something like this:


1. Short introductions (15 min). In our case, since everyone knows each other, we don't spend a lot of time on introductions.

First round:

2. Break into small groups and do an introductory brainstorming topic about the major issue of the workshop (30 min)

3. Small groups report back to large group (45 min)

Second round:

4. Break into small groups, discuss a more specific topic (45 min)

5. Small groups report back to large group (45 min)


6. Large group discussion of final topic (30 min)

7. Wrap up, next steps, pluses/delats of the day (30 min)

The idea behind this format is to keep switching the discussion between small groups and the large group. This gives more people a chance to be heard (and to hear each other) and maximizes the likelihood that good ideas get shared with everyone. Ideally, you don't have more than three or four small groups since there is limited time for the groups to report back to the large group. Each small group should have at least five people in it.

Our supplies are limited to flipcharts, markers, and tape. We generally don't use PowerPoint or overheads. We've also discovered that it's a good idea to have some carbohydrates (muffins in the morning, candy or cookies in the afternoon) to keep the discussion fueled. Using a room with tables is also a good idea, so that people have something to write on.

The first round

The first round of discussion is often on a topic like "what works well, what doesn't work well" with regard to the workshops topic. It's a way to get people to quickly empty their heads about the issues they brought into the room with them. We might also ask people in this part of the session to suggest one or two questions that might be appropriate for further discussion by subsequent small groups. Small groups record their discussions on flipcharts so that they can prepare a report to the large group.

In the small groups' report to the large group we usually ask that the small group NOT summarize their whole discussion. We DO ask that they choose the top three issues that came up during the discussion, as well as a suggested topic for further discussion.

During this first phase of the workshop, the facilitator's job is to keep things moving (it's always better to make people feel rushed and wish there was more time, then for the participants to feel that the process is dragging on). During the report to the large group, the facilitator should also take the opportunity to draw parallels between what different groups say.

During the large group session the scribe takes notes of the discussion. This is the best method for getting a summary of what happened in the workshop. The alternative is to get the flip charts typed after the workshop. This often never happens (and the small group flip charts tend to be unreadable).

The second round

For the second round of discussion, participants are encouraged to move around so that they don't stay with the same small group. The facilitator then proposes topics for the next small group discussion. The facilitator should come in to the workshop with a few ideas of what this topic might be but then be open to any topics that came up from the group during the first discussion.

The large group must then quickly decide what topic (or topics) to discuss. The small groups created at this stage can either all discuss the same topic, or each group takes a separate topic. As in the first round, small groups discuss the topics, record their discussion on the flipcharts, and report back their top three issues. The large group reconvenes to hear small group reports.


Generally, we've found that it's appropriate to switch to a large group discussion of some topic at this point. Again, the facilitator should have a suggestion for a topic prepared before the workshops starts but it's likely that a good topic will also arise during the earlier discussions. A typical topic for the ending discussion is 'best practices for this topic, given what's been discussed'. Once the facilitator and the large group decide on the topic, the facilitator leads the discussion, recording key points on flipcharts.

We set aside time after the last large group discussion to look at our next steps. This includes:

  • Suggestions for another or further workshop
  • What actions might make sense, moving forward
  • What went well and what didn't go well in the workshop
  • Distributing flipcharts among workshop participants
  • Identifying who will type up both the results of the workshop and the next steps.

Don't worry about too much about the preparation or make the process too formal. The real key is getting interesting participants to attend. With great participants you even can hold workshops on topics that you don't know well. When I propose workshops for UPA, I generally pick topics that I DON'T have a lot of expertise in, in hopes that I will gain that expertise from the other people who attend. Just trust the process and the ability of usability people to figure out how to make the experience great, once the right people are in the room.

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