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Issue № 354

Facilitating Great Design

by Published in Creativity, Project Management · 6 Comments

Whether you build websites as part of a design agency, as a freelancer, or with an internal team, you don’t design in a vacuum; you work with people. To collaborate and develop a shared understanding of goals and assignments, you have meetings. It doesn’t matter what kind of process you have—waterfall, agile, or “jazz improv”—you cannot get to site launch without having had at least a few meetings. In any design process, coming together insures your project against breakdown due to unrealistic expectations, limited resources, and differing definitions of the problem or the solution.

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Today’s web design professionals practice any mix of graphic design, information architecture, user interface design, usability testing, user research, and front-end or back-end development skills. The value of the modern web design professional is not those disciplines, however, but the ability to combine them to solve real problems, especially as a group. Effective group work requires structured, strategic meetings, and good facilitation provides that structure.

What does good facilitation look like?

Imagine the most fulfilling, collaborative design meeting you’ve ever had. Hours seemed to fly by, and those hours were productive. Political and mental barriers melted away and in their place were innovative ideas, or realistic solutions for complex problems. For several shining moments the team worked as one; the conversation or the activity was equally fun and productive, and you left the room feeling smart and empowered. It’s highly likely that someone in that meeting was a facilitator, either by design or by accident. If you can’t identify the facilitator, chances are it was you.

To the untrained observer, a great facilitator seems to perform Jedi mind tricks: a skill that we’ve all wished for during a troublesome meeting. Imagine if you could simply wave your hand to reach consensus with a disagreeing counterpart. Projects (and life) would be so much easier. Most of us have seen this happen in meetings. Without aggression or argument, and with seemingly little effort, a meeting Jedi guides the discussion into a productive and beneficial space. Some person in the room manages the process to explore and evolve contentions to reframe understanding around a shared goal. For example:

  • At a kickoff meeting for a web redesign project, a member of the team is fixated on putting dozens of Facebook Like buttons on each page, so that users can “like all the things.” The content strategist leads a team-based competitive game where working groups create and ship imaginary digital products that align social interaction to content that users care about. In subsequent discussion, social media becomes content strategy rather than a feature. Attack of the Like buttons averted.
  • During the prototype phase of building an iPhone app, a team member becomes obsessed with the typography, (lack of) color, and other graphic design elements. The information architect demonstrates a sequence of transitions from prototype to final design for a number of tangentially similar projects. Obsession dissolves.
  • While selecting from graphic design direction options, a client is convinced that the website must “look like my iPad.” The creative director leads the group through a freelisting activity, where the team lists every design problem the iPad solves, then explores the alignment between those problems and the project’s problems. The client associates specific techniques with overlapping problems. Conviction evolves into insight.

These examples share a similar pattern: they begin with dissonance, usually rooted in differing perceptions of a technology or design technique. Then, through a planned activity specifically designed to expose and explore that dissonance, the group develops a more sophisticated, shared vocabulary around the problem. Finally, the group reaches an understanding through persuasion, collaboration, or both. Good facilitation is the tactical skill that empowers you to orchestrate this process, and it’s a skill that anyone can learn.

Facilitation basics for any meeting

First published in 1976, How to Make Meetings Work introduced a role-based process, dubbed “the new interaction method” for improving any kind of meeting. For a successful meeting, someone in the room must assume one of the following roles:

  1. a group member (most of the folks involved),
  2. an organizational leader,
  3. a recorder, and
  4. a facilitator.

A facilitator has the right combination of knowledge about the problem, a playbook of meeting protocols to open, explore, and narrow focus on the problem, and prior experience running a group through those protocols. The facilitator plays an entirely neutral role. By adopting neutrality, and not contributing or evaluating ideas, the facilitator creates a locus of trust.

Inspired by How to Make Meetings Work, Sam Kaner and Jenny Lind set out to document the core values, organizational strategies, and a diverse set of solid facilitation methodologies in their 2007 book, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. The book argues that for organizations to be effective, they need to involve all members of the organization in the decision making process.

However, the natural dynamic of larger or multi-group discussions often leads to awkward disagreements and dead ends. Solid facilitation methods help you move around, over, or through these situations. A good facilitator “support(s) everyone in doing their best thinking” during a meeting—they build and execute participatory processes. To do so successfully, they serve four functions during a collaboration:

  1. Encourage participation. This one’s a no brainer, but it’s harder than it sounds. There are bulls and daffodils in every meeting and it’s the facilitator’s job to elicit and balance everyone’s contributions. One approach is to have participants write down their ideas before speaking them out loud. This technique prevents bigger personalities from dominating by simply being louder, and it forces participants to write approximately the same amount of content. Another technique is to change the order of people called upon for ideas, ensuring that you have a clearly non-biased pattern: go around the table clockwise, then go counterclockwise, then choose randomly. Mix it up.
  2. Build a “shared framework,” or understanding of the problem. To build shared understanding, you must define what different concepts mean for different people, and make sure everyone agrees on a single meaning for key concepts. Building shared understanding is one of the toughest things facilitators have to do. One approach is to manage the scope of the discussion by establishing what you are and are not going to talk about in the meeting invitation, and reiterate the discussion’s scope at the beginning of the meeting.
  3. Seek inclusive solutions that “work for everyone with a stake in the outcome.” This requires the group to explore the design challenge more than some may be used to, especially senior leadership. (“Can’t we just build a website?”) Touch on the ways in which the website affects every person in the room, and the departments the project represents. It will take more time now, but will save time and headaches later. Early in the process, ensure everyone has voiced their ideas/feedback/concerns and make sure those concerns are clearly documented for everyone to see. Then, when someone hammers the same point repeatedly, it’s easy to point to the documentation and say This has been documented, and will be addressed.
  4. Finally, design solutions based upon shared responsibilities. If you’ve designed an amazing collaborative session and assigned all the work to a single party, you’ve wasted your time and your participants’ time. Good strategies depend on everyone involved participating. For web design, this translates into some simple best practices. Involve the developers in the early meetings. Make sure the information architects are part of the quality assurance scrums. Generally, be less siloed about the design approach based on discipline, and offer the option to participate whenever someone MAY have something to add.

Facilitation basics for design collaborations

Being neutral and designing solid participatory processes will help you facilitate effective discussions. These four additional concepts have been invaluable in helping me connect with clients in meeting scenarios unique to the web and application design process.

  1. Provide clear guidance through a series of steps intended to reach an agreed-upon end result.

    Select the best activity for the problem at hand. The good news is there’s been a renaissance of fantastic resources that will help you build that playbook. Books like Gamestorming, Visual Meetings, Back of the Napkin, and Business Model Generation provide pre-built, engaging collaborative activities for design and beyond, built upon ideas found in game theory and sketch facilitation. These resources will help you align activities to the specific parts of your web design process, whether you are at the beginning, middle, or end. They also organize activities based on additional constraints such as time, materials, environment, and the number of people involved in the process. With a few sticky notes and a whiteboard, you can accomplish just about anything.

  2. Always follow this pattern: allow for divergence of opinion, permit participants to explore those opinions within constraints, and then force ideas to converge.

    Divergence — Exploration — Convergence is a simple but powerful pattern, prominent throughout meeting and facilitation literature. For more productive meetings, workshops, and conversations, always follow that sequence.

    Ever been in a kickoff meeting where someone says “That’s a terrible idea!” in the first five minutes? It felt awkward and perhaps even hostile, because someone has jumped right to the end of the pattern (convergence) before you’ve had a chance to diverge and explore. By designing your kickoff interaction to embrace diversity in the beginning of the meeting, it establishes trust. That trust makes it safe for people to want to participate. As long as the subsequent prioritization process is transparent, people will feel like they were heard AND they participated in the outcome.

    On the surface, the kickoff meeting’s goal seems straightforward—we need to agree on what we will—and will not—be doing for a particular project or sprint. But for even the simplest website redesign with a small client team, there could be half a dozen versions of that “what” in the room. Therefore you must elicit each version of what’s expected right at the beginning of the meeting. Establish the level of diversity in expectations—remember, as a facilitator, you’re not judging those expectations at this point. Once expectations are out on the table, explore the relative merits of each one. Then provide some methodology to prioritize, and if appropriate, eliminate options.

    “The bookend” is a great technique I use to elicit expectations. At the beginning of a meeting, ask the group a grounding question about their expectations for the meeting. “Write this down: What do you want get out of the next two hours?” Have them put it aside for later. Before you leave, give anyone whose expectations have not been addressed during the meeting a chance to express their concerns. Collect those expectations, document them in a shared location, and address them in future collaborations or subsequent project work.

  3. Provide a real-time representation of what’s going on during the meeting where people can see it.

    One person—not a facilitator—must take notes during the meeting. Fail to assign a note taker and you flush any detailed insights gained during the meeting down the toilet. In addition, a facilitator should provide a visual representation of the discussion in a format that everyone in the room can quickly and easily reference.

    There are lots of ways to do this. Use an easel with large, adhesive-backed paper. When you start a topic, label the top of the paper with that topic and number it (starting with number one) with a nice big Sharpie. Once the team fills the sheet with ideas, pull it off, stick it on the wall, and start a new piece, labelled number two. At the end of the meeting, pull all the sheets off the wall, roll them up, and transcribe them as an outline of the key issues raised. The note taker has the transcript, but this is the discussion’s larger narrative and a great way to remind folks of the key insights gained during a discussion.

    As a facilitator, be effective at paraphrasing the essence of the ideas raised. When someone makes an important point (important either to the project, or simply important to them), take the time to verbally echo their point back to them with greatly reduced wording. Ask “Is this what you mean?” If you get a yes, Sharpie that idea large on one of those big sheets of easel paper. Keep capturing those mini-ideas, and display them where everyone can see them. Soon people will cut down on repeating themselves, be more to the point, and hit the discussion with new ideas faster.

    This is also a powerful way to course-correct a meeting that has gotten out of hand. If a discussion lacks direction, discreetly get up, go to an easel (or whiteboard), and start capturing the essence of what people are saying. When folks ask “What the hell are you doing?!,” just say “This helps me follow the discussion.” I’ve introduced this ambush note-taking technique to people in both agencies and in-house teams. I’ve heard stories where people stand up and applaud when someone starts capturing the conversation in a visible way. People are much more careful about what they say when it’s being written down, and it’s a great way to focus people’s attention.

  4. Keep in mind that everyone in the room, no matter what they say, believes that their recommended action equates to doing the right thing.

    I can’t count the times I’ve been facilitating meetings where someone, out of the blue, has said the most ridiculous thing you could possibly imagine. “You know, I love that black and white image. Let’s make everything black and white. Everything, everywhere.”

    After suppressing anger, or laughter, I always keep this in mind: we all have different perspectives on the process we’re involved in. But anyone who takes the time contribute truly believes that their idea is going to make things better. It may be off the mark, misinformed, or even crazy, but it’s more important for you as a facilitator to understand why that idea surfaced in their brain, and how it relates back to the value they hope to add to the project. The more you understand those values as the individual contributors perceive them, the easier it will be to design a project strategy that will not just be adopted, but embraced.

Use the force, Luke

Great web design is perceived as appropriate and enjoyable by users and clients alike. To get there, you have to have a process. To build consensus about where that process should go, you have to facilitate understanding of the myriad overlaps between business and user needs, art direction and brand, and innovation and ease-of-use. Great design is facilitating these forces.

May the forces be with you.

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