Why you should think twice before arranging yet another workshop

As a product designer I obviously love a good workshop. Give me some Sharpie pens, some post-it notes and some paper and I’m like a pig in mud. I even enjoy a good remote workshop. Give me a video conferencing link and a digital whiteboard and I’m like a virtual pig in virtual mud.

Workshops have always been a popular tool in the designer’s toolkit. The rise of the 5-day design sprint, with its multitude of workshops has further cemented its place as the go-to method for tackling every conceivable design challenge. Need to capture some requirements? Run a workshop. Need to create some design ideas? Run a workshop. Want to analyse some research insights? Run a workshop. Want to review a design? Run a workshop. Nowadays it seems that workshops are the answer no matter the question.

In-person and remote workshops are great for many things, but they are not the solution to every design conundrum and believe it or not, there are alternatives. Here is why you should think twice before arranging yet another workshop, and what some of those alternatives could be.

Workshops are not always inclusive

Whilst I might love a good workshop, that’s certainly not true for everyone. Even with good facilitation, workshops can be stressful for participants who might not be very comfortable presenting their ideas, might find it hard to have their say during the cut and thrust of discussions, or simply find social interactions very mentally draining.

Workshops can be resource-intensive

Workshops can seem like a quick and efficient way to get things done. However, if there are lots of people involved, especially people that probably don’t need to be there in the first place, the resource costs can quickly add up. For example, a half day workshop involving 10 people adds up to a whole working week of collective time for the workshop, plus of course time to prepare for the workshop, along with time spent on post-workshop activities, such as communicating outputs and actions.

Even relatively short workshops can be surprisingly resource-intensive.

Workshops don’t provide much thinking time

Good design is like a fine wine. The results can be stunning but rush the process and you’re likely to end up with something that is not very palatable. Workshops tend to favour rapid thinking and ideation. Spending perhaps 5, 10 or 15 minutes on a design exercise simply doesn’t provide the sort of thinking time that some particularly knotty design challenges require.

Workshops are a poor fit for complex problems

Workshops rarely work well for tackling complex problems because all the time is spent having to explain the problem, leaving very little time to actually solve it. Furthermore, workshops tackling complex problems tend to lead to superficial solutions. Participants simply don’t have the time and sufficient level of understanding to suggest otherwise.

Workshops can get repetitive

Even the best workshops can get repetitive and there are only so many times that you can re-jig the format in an attempt to maintain interest. A workshop where people are simply going through the motions isn’t going to be a productive use of anyone’s time.

Remote workshops usually suck

Remote workshops can work (take a look at my Running remote workshops that don’t suck presentation for some handy tips), but to be honest this is the exception, rather than the norm. What might have worked face-to-face all too often turns into a harrowing experience when carried out remotely.

An alternative to workshops

Rather than automatically booking yet another workshop, ask yourself: Is a workshop the right approach? If the answer is no, then consider some alternatives. These could include:

Asynchronous discussion

Getting ideas and input asynchronously (i.e. not at the same time) can often be a better approach than a workshop. For example, sending out a document for comments or sharing designs and asking for people to leave their feedback.

Asynchronous ideas with a follow-up discussion

Capturing ideas and input asynchronously and then discussing together can be an excellent approach. I know that technically a group discussion is very much like a workshop, but with this approach you can often get the best of both worlds as collecting ideas and input asynchronously is more inclusive and allows for plenty of thinking time. You can also do the reverse. Run a workshop to generate some ideas and then asynchronously get feedback and further suggestions.

Pairing or individual discussions

Sometimes pairing with someone on a task, or getting input individually is a better approach than a workshop. For example, pairing with a subject matter expert can be an excellent way to tackle complex problems (see Unlocking complex problems by working with domain experts for more about working with domain experts).

Recap

Workshops are a brilliant tool in the designer’s toolbox, but they’re not the right tool for every job. This is because:

  • Workshops are not very inclusive.
  • Workshops can be resource-intensive.
  • Workshops don’t provide much thinking time.
  • Workshops are a poor fit for complex problems.
  • Workshops can get repetitive.
  • Remote workshops can suck.

Rather than booking yet another workshop, consider if a workshop is the right approach and whether alternative approaches might yield better results.

See also

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Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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Neil Turner

Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.