10 tips for running effective design sprint workshops

Recently I’ve been lucky to run a range of design and product workshops with Outlandish, the worker-owned tech agency. It’s something I love doing. From 5 day Design Sprints based on the Google Ventures handbook approach, to one day MVP planning, design, product roadmapping sessions and more.

In this time, there are a few simple techniques that I’ve come to appreciate that can significantly improve the experience of those in the room and the output of the day. And of course smooth the way for the facilitators!

Some of these have already been recommended by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz in their book Design Sprint. I mention them again here because, when you’re reading the book prior to running your first design sessions, it’s easy for their importance to be overlooked. 

Others have been learnt the hard way or been suggested by colleagues. And some are plain-old inspired from a year I did as an English as a Foreign Language Teacher – they hold up just as well in the UX design room as they do in the classroom 🙂

Okay, in no particular order, here we go:

1. Show the running order

In the Design Sprint book Jake Knapp recommends showing the agenda at the start of the day, indicating all the different stages and activities you’ll be running.

There is something so fundamental about doing this, but it’s easily forgotten as you strive to get everyone settled and to get going. 

Sure you can just launch into the day and try to take people on a creative journey, but attendees derive confidence in you if they know there is a grand plan. That things are heading in a certain direction – even if they don’t understand what the items on the running order mean or what they’re going to be doing.

Showing a topline running order means they relax. They give themselves over more to the activity. And your day just got a lot easier.

2. Ask permission

Another simple win. After the introductions and showing the order, check the understanding of your guests. Then, explain your role and the desired outcome of the day. Finally, ask your attendees to allow you to lead. That’s all. Just ask your attendees something along the lines of “if I have your permission, I will be running through these activities and taking us towards this goal. How does that sound?”

They will say it sounds good – yes, you have their permission. And of course they’ll say this. But in this moment there is a transaction that takes place and trust is imparted to you.

3. Speak less

It’s scary to speak to a room, to lead a workshop. There is the fear that you won’t be understood. You feel a pressure to fill the air and over-explain. You feel that people expect you to have all the answers.

But that’s not true. It’s mostly in your head.

So breathe. Take a moment before you speak. Talk a little slower than you usually might in a conversational setting. Actively listen to yourself as you talk.

And when you’ve said what you have to say, lean into the pause. Leave it hanging in the room. 

Generally your attendees will want to help you or rise to your challenges.

And as for questions: recognise that you don’t need to have the answers. If someone asks a question, open it to the room. You are there to help the day run beautifully and the attendees to be as productive as they can be.

When you do these things, you pay more attention to what you’re saying. You see where your tongue is taking you and how to finish the idea you’re halfway expressing.

4. Prepare. Prepare prepare prepare…

When I was teaching English, I liked to have a running order, by the minute. For example, prior to running a class I’d make notes like this.:

  • 3 minutes –  warm-up activity the ‘eee’ and ‘i’ game
  • 5 minutes – write past-perfect example sentence; elicit other examples; elicit grammar points
  • 15 minutes – set questions
  • 5 minutes – check answers and understanding
  • … etc

At every step I would also prepare what I needed say, almost like a script. 

And I do the same thing with running workshops.

However I know that we will probably stray from this. I know that I can’t keep referring to the running order every few mins – it’s impossible. I accept that I will get sidetracked, or I’ll forget something. But that’s okay, because the act of preparing helps me really get comfortable with the activities and feel relaxed. And in the room, it helps me have a better awareness of time.

5. Be aware of the power in the room

The main client has a lot of power. They’re probably an important decision maker too and it’s important that they’re invested and involved.

However they’ve got a team with them, and some of them in that team have a very different status. The intern. The assistant. The new hire. The student help. And the reality is they’re likely to have just as valid input. It’s probably imperative, in fact, that new thinking is required on this project – and perhaps even they’re closer to the product’s target user than the CEO.

However it’s easy for the CEO to have a louder voice and the intern to be excluded. So, ensure that everyone is given full chance to speak and participant. And make sure that the intern, the assistant don’t just get a turn at the end of an activity, after everyone else has spoken and now the clock is ticking to move on. But rather, mix them up. Mix everyone’s turn to speak up.

6. Make them stand

There’s something about tables that puts lead in people’s butts and makes them want to sit. This is murder for a collaborative process.

Keep the space more space than table. Give plenty of room around the whiteboards. 

Take the tables out. Leave enough for people to sit at when they really need to write something, but ensure that it’s light on tables space. Even a little cramped. People will feel inclined to get up and out of their seat.

Equally, direct them. Don’t be afraid to explicitly ask people to stand up. Ideally before explaining the rest of the activity instructions.

“Okay, for this next activity I need everyone out of their seats. So, please stand.” 

[gestures, people stand up]

“What we’re all going to do is take one sticky note, write on it a user type, and post it on the board. And we’re going to do that for as many user types as we can think of for the next 2 minutes.”

7. Work the board

A simple trick from my teaching days: partition a slice of your board off at the start. Draw a line to make a column to one side of your board.

Here you’re going to list any vocabulary that your team might be unfamiliar with, key dates, or other headline insights. Use it to reduce the cognitive load.

8. Make those sticky notes work for everyone

There’s a reason why sticky notes are sticky, and that is so they can be unstuck. And moved.

The process of design requires that people form associations and take action. 

Writing notes and sticking them to a wall allows us to immerse ourselves in the chaos of information. Our brains kick in and try to form associations, and soon enough we find ourselves forming connections and spotting themes.

Moving the notes and resticking them elsewhere allows us to form new connections, spark ideas and conversation, and so on.

If an activity requires sticky notes (e.g. for an idea generation activity, or capturing insights and research), make sure that they go on sticky notes. And insist on one idea, insight or whatever per note. Then get them up on the wall.

Really, do push your team to do this. They’ll find it unusual at first, and you’ll need to guard against over-talking and discussion of the notes as they’re created, but soon they’ll see the value of doing this.

9. Everyone is still talking? Park it.

You need to keep focused and work towards producing something at the end of the sprint, day or this specific activity. If everyone just can’t refrain from questioning, discussing and debating an issue, park it.

A simple way to do this is to have a ‘park board’ – a section of the board or a big sticky bit of paper up in on one wall. When the conversation starts to drag, suggest to the team that we park this issue and revisit it, and write down the issue on the park board (give it a helpful title, such as “What’s our users’ attitude to risk?”).

At the end of the sprint give a few minutes to revisit the park board. Ask the team if they feel that any of these issues are redundant, if they’ve been answered during the sprint or testing, or if they are still active.

If the latter, this might give the team a focus for their next post-sprint activities.

10. If you say draw, then draw

Design have a lot of creative activities. Many of these involve drawing, such as the Crazy 8 and Solution Sketch activities.

However, drawing terrifies a lot of people. Or they are the type of person who feels more naturally inclined to make lists, draw flows, or write quick specs. I’ve been in many workshops where they have avoided drawing and instead made notes or lists instead, and they are never as useful.

They. need. to. draw. To sketch ideas.

Sketches are not about quality. Sketches, by their very nature, are vague, incomplete and hazy. They allow for happy misinterpretation; they include room within them that allows a viewer to mentally add more or use it as a springboard for another idea.

Notes, lists and flows, on the other hand, suggest permanence to an idea. That it is set, complete and a way forward. They do not stimulate further creative responses in the same way as a sketch.

So don’t let your attendees off the hook! Explain the importance of sketching to them and reassure that them finished sketches are disposable, just assets to inspire, and not fully proposed ideas.

11. Know where to stand during feedback

Okay, one more…

As the facilitator and someone who’ll probably doing the majority of the speaking during the session, attendees feel naturally inclined to address any feedback to you. Be aware of this. They need to be feeding back to their peers, not ‘reporting to teacher’.

So when people are feeding back, try to stand in the midst of the group. Even better, stand behind them, so others are between you and the person at the board explaining their work. This way eye contact is made with their peers, group engagement happens and feedback is taken board.

And that’s it! Hope those are of use 🙂