I recently conduced a user workshop for a client on their premises with about a dozen users.  It was such a terrific way to get feedback on initial concepts we have on the redesign of a Web-based application. Everybody seemed to get something out of it: the design and development team got a lot of the answers we were working for, and the users felt included and valuable – a good message to send to users.

So, what makes a workshop “work?” My recommendations…

1) A good, well-timed agenda. In planning this workshop over the last couple of weeks, we focused on the most critical elements we needed feedback on, prioritized them so the most important were first, and divided them up into 30 minute to 45 minute topics to discuss. That way, we knew we’d get to the “meat” of the agenda even if we ran long in the discussions.

My client came up with a great way of tabling sideline discussions – he just put a sub-topic on a whiteboard and called it the “parking lot” – to be returned to later, time permitting. This helped keep us on target from a timing point-of-view.

2) Substantive presentation materials. Assume the best of your audience and shoot high in your material. Even if they can’t absorb all your points, it will make for better discussions, and generate more probing questions.

Depending on the nature of the slides (some can be SO much denser than others), you may need anywhere from 150-200 slides of material for an all-day workshop.

3) Multiple presenters with shared responsibility. It’s much better for an all-day workshop to have at least two presenters. Three or four is even better.  Divvy up the responsibility and alternate. It keeps the audience awake.

That said, I did attend a wonderful all-day workshop last year by a senior editor from Scholastic. She had a well-honed workshop she travels around the country with, and it was entirely her. So, it can be done.

4) Lots of interaction. We’re in the business of interaction, so we had a lot of points in all of our presentations where we stopped to listen and talk with our users. This included:

  • Simple Group Polls (Which version do you prefer? Would you use this feature?)
  • Group Discussions
  • Group Exercises (Help us figure out this list of items…)
  • Individual Exercises. (Keep the question on the screen, but hand out something for them to write on, to be collected and analyzed later.)

5) Food, drinks, and frequent breaks.  I really recommend giving people a full hour break for lunch with the ability to go somewhere else, providing a food table somewhere close by with refreshments for morning and afternoon, and breaking at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon so folks can catch up on messages or chat. Attending to the human elements will keep a workshop running smoothly and keeps your audience around to the end of it.

Consider user workshops. They’re an effective, time-efficient, and engaging way to involve users in the application design process, and ensure whatever you’re designing will really work for your users.

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