Design Studio Workshop: Adding Up the Benefits

by Jared M. Spool

Few user experience activities bring as many benefits to the team as a one or two-day design studio workshop. When you add all these benefits up, it’s hard to argue why you shouldn’t be regularly building these workshops into every project.

If you’ve yet to participate in your first design studio workshop, you’re in for a treat. It’s an opportunity to bring a team of smart folks together to work through the details of a design challenge or two (or three). It’s a great way to quickly move a design forward, while also getting everyone on the same page for where the design is going and how you’ll get there.

How We Run a Design Studio

There are many different flavors of design studio workshops and everyone has their own favorite way of doing them. Over the years, we’ve developed one method we (mostly) stick to and it works every time.

Any workshop starts with some detailed preparations, and ours is no exception. First, we invite the team members and create working groups of three to five individuals. (For example, if we invited 10 folks, we’ll make three working groups: two with 3 members and one with four.)

During the setup we’ll need to gather our supplies and choose the design challenges we’ll focus on. Sometimes, the design challenges are obvious next items, the team is wrestling with. Other times we’ll want to use a KJ Technique to identify the top project priorities to tackle. (Check out The KJ Technique: A Group Process for Establishing Priorities to see how we do this.)

Starting the Workshop

On the day of the workshop we usually start with a short introduction, followed by a warmup session where everyone taps into their memory on how to draw simple pictures with pens and paper.

Then we divide into our pre-assigned working groups, quickly go over the design challenge we’ve assigned each group, and get them to start sketching ideas. We have each person take 8 minutes to draw as many small designs as they can think of on a 6-up page template (pdf). After the 8 minutes, we have each person describe their sketches to their group-mates, then draw more 6-ups for another 8 minutes.

We repeat this two or three times to generate lots of ideas for each design challenge. Once they’ve got their quick sketches done, we take a moment to post them on the wall and reflect on what we like about them.

Each participant then picks an idea they’d like to flesh out more, grabs a 1-up template (pdf), and starts to draw in a little more detail, this time for 5 minutes. More sharing of each diagram, and repeat two or three more times, either continuing with the same initial idea, or switching to another one they’d like to flesh out.

Now, we are about 3 hours into the workshop and, for each design challenge, we should have generated 15 to 25 starter ideas and honed in on 5 or so really interesting ones. After a lunch break, we dive into the ideas behind the sketches, with an informal critique session we call Good and Bads. Here the group members identify some of what’s inspiring about each idea.

Stepping Back To See the Big Picture

All along, we’ve been taping our ideas to the wall. Now, we’ll sort the ideas by a user’s journey timeline. For example, for a shopping site, we might have the steps of finding the product, deciding if it’s the one we want, putting it in the shopping cart, and checking out. We’d organize our sketches under those categories. We can now see which steps we’ve neglected and which ones we have made good progress on.

Then it’s time for a little show-and-tell, where each group presents to everyone in the workshop, again discussing what’s good and bad about the ideas they’ve worked on. This gives folks a chance to point out the similarities that have emerged across groups. Typically, really interesting new perspectives become obvious at this point. Lots of “Aha!” moments should happen now.

Returning back to our teams, the groups continue to flesh out their ideas with more 6-ups and 1-up sketches. They fill in the gaps and integrate some of the inspiration they got while looking at the other groups’ work.

We round out the workshop with a discussion of what we’ve learned, the good ideas that have emerged, and where we want to take the design next. We talk about what we’d tackle in future workshops and next steps for everyone.

A Ton of Tiny Benefits

What we love about the workshop is all the little tiny perks that come from going through the process, starting with the preparations. People love to be included in coming up with design ideas. So being invited to participate is an instant team bonding activity. When we form our working groups, we always match up people who don’t normally work together, which makes that bonding work even better.

Figuring out which design challenges to focus each group on is usually a learning experience. If we need to use the KJ technique, we come away with a new list of priorities that can drive work beyond the workshop. Even if we’re working off an existing agenda, composing the writeup for the design challenges helps with many future design activities. (We use the format we described in The Magical Short-Form Creative Brief.)

The warmup at the workshop’s start reminds everyone (especially the executive stakeholders we’ve invited) that everyone can draw simple sketches. We do a series of practice sketches of shapes and simple scenes to get everyone used to the pens and paper. Frankly, we could just stop here and we’d see a marked improvement in people’s communication of design ideas. Reminding adults they can draw is really empowering.

Bringing Ideas Into the World

The 6-up sketches are a great way to get everyone to put different ideas out there. It avoids the trap that teams fall into when they attach themselves to the first design idea that comes along. Because we force people to come up with 15 to 25 ideas in a short period, they see their first ideas isn’t their best one.

The points where everyone shares their work-in-progress are often inspiring. They see an idea spawn further ideas, which in turn, spawns additional ideas. The energy in the room after the 6-up exercise is palpable. It’s fun to be exploring all these possibilities.

When refining an idea with a 1-up, the participants takes a stab at problem solving. For the non-designers in the room, this is an eye-opening experience. It lets them refine a design idea at a level of detail they’ve probably never thought about before.

For the experienced designers, they learn the perspectives of others. Their group-mates’ perspectives cause amazing epiphanies to emerge.

Moving the Needle

Once the sketches go on the wall, it becomes clear to everyone just how much they’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time. Placing the sketches into the user journey sequence makes it clear which parts of the experience the group often ignores.

One outcome is often a realization that more research is required. While this adds a bunch of work that wasn’t previously planned, by conducting the workshop early, it can save a lot of problems down the road.

As the workshop concludes, the team now can see the dominant design ideas that have emerged. The team will have some more work to do, but because of the workshop’s efforts, they will have significantly moved the needle towards a substantially better user experience.

Benefits of Repetition

The benefits don’t stop with a single workshop. Teams that conduct regular workshops start to see even more benefits emerge.

Each subsequent workshop will involve others who have never participated before. Those folks then learn about the design process and gain a shared understanding of what the team is working to accomplish. This makes the entire organization more design literate.

Later workshops can tackle more difficult problems at greater detail. Once people are familiar with the process, it’s fast and efficient to work through a design challenge and generate great solutions.

We know we’ve succeeded when a team starts to automatically schedule multiple design studio workshops into every project, knowing these will jumpstart and boost the project through the inevitable challenges they’ll face. That’s when we know we’ve made a change in the organization, one that empowers them to create better designs.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.