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Selecting Effective Workshop Tasks

This blog post is part two of a series. Read part one, Planning and Organizing Workshops, or part three, Dealing with Difficult Workshop Attendees.
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Having defined goals and set an agenda for a workshop are a crucial first step. But what happens during the workshop is even more critical. Last time, we looked at how to define goals and attendees. This time we’ll look at the tasks and activities you choose to use, and how they’re determined by your stated goals. In the last post, these were our workshop goals:

At the end of this workshop:

  • attendees will be able to define, plan, and conduct UX research on a new product feature.
  • attendees will have decided on a set of research questions, so they can gather user feedback.
  • attendees will have demonstrated the power of UX research planning to the organization.

Let’s take a look at a few common types of tasks we can use to get there.


The task of brainstorming simply asks participants to generate information. It’s not important exactly what they generate, as long as it’s on topic and there’s a lot of it. Using post-its, paper, and other tools for quick documentation are essential. One participant should be assigned as a scribe, so every idea is taken down. Participants should not be evaluating the worth of the ideas, just making a lot of them.

Sketching and ideation

Sketching and drawing activities ask participants to generate versions or concepts of a general idea. Sketching wireframes, tools, or content structures for example. This process is a bit more focused, as there is a concrete topic or interface structure everyone is riffing on.

Ranking and rating

Ranking is putting existing options or ideas in order from best to worst, or from one to five—just like the Olympics, where only one person can win gold, silver, or bronze. Rating is assigning a value to existing options. More than one option can have the same rating, like on Yelp, where lots of restaurants have three or four stars. These tasks force attendees to use discussion and debate to evaluate existing options and how they relate to each other.


Mapping asks attendees to provide suggested actions based on certain constraints or criteria. It can mean mapping pathways through research questions, an interface, or even product delivery strategies. The key is that the obstacles to success are previously defined, and the attendees choose procedures that minimize those risks.

Connecting tasks and goals

These activities form a core set that you can rely on in any workshop. Regardless of the specific steps in the task, it needs to relate to your goal. Let’s look again at our example.

We want to define UX research on a new product feature. This means it’s at the beginning and all wide open. A brainstorming activity would work well here, as you want to uncover new ideas and interface concepts.

We also want to decide on a set of research questions. This could call first for ideation on a general question format, and then ranking or rating to choose research questions the team feels will be most effective.

Finally, in order to show the value of the workshop and research in general, we want to demonstrate the power of UX research internally. There are a few ways to connect this goal with the activities. First, we can brainstorm a short list of internal company objections to UI and product changes. Then, we map our research questions to those objections, in essence forcing our research to prove them right or wrong. We’re making a direct link between information we want to get, and how it will affect design changes.

Setting up and running tasks

Now that you have some ideas of tasks to run and have connected them to the goals, we can go over how to actually set it all up in the workshop.

  • Introduce the task. Say what you will be doing, and why. Restate the workshop goals, even if you don’t think you need to.
  • Set teams. Keep the energy focused by assigning teams and groups. If you have a set of particularly outspoken attendees, make sure they are in a group that is able to work with more vocal attendees. I often ask workshop groups to choose a topical name (ice-cream flavors, colors, etc.) as it fosters a group identity.
  • Assign a scribe. By asking one team member to document their task, you do two things: force the team to record their decisions, and create a shareable record for those who did not attend. (Remember how our third goal was to demonstrate the power of UX research?)
  • Set a time limit. Everyone loves a finish line. By telling people exactly how long they have to finish a task, you tell them that their time is important and that this will be a focused session.
  • Let them work. Stop talking and let the attendees complete the task. As the facilitator, you only need to intercede if people are confused or completely off topic.
  • Review. Once the time is up, call everyone back to the larger group and either solicit conclusions, or state them yourself. Even for a small groups, review is critical to making sure everyone is on the same page.

Workshops are hard work. A lot of that comes in the preparation, but carefully choosing tasks that match your stated goals is also key to success. Think carefully about what you want attendees to do, and then define the activities to achieve that. Explain what will be happening, as many times as necessary, and then step back and act as a facilitator, the person in charge, so they don’t need to worry about it. Each of these steps sets you up for success. But people are complex, and not every workshop goes according to the plans you set out. In the third installment of this series, we’ll look at some techniques for dealing with difficult attendees.

About the Author

Senongo Akpem

Senongo Akpem is a designer, illustrator, and the founder of Pixel Fable, a collection of interactive Afrofuturist stories. For the past fifteen years, he has specialized in collaborating with clients across the world on flexible, impactful digital experiences. He is currently the Design Director at Constructive, a social impact design agency. Previously, he was art director at Cambridge University Press, where he led a global design team.

The child of a Nigerian father and a Dutch-American mother, Senongo grew up in Nigeria, lived in Japan for almost a decade, and now calls New York City home. Living in constantly shifting cultural and physical spaces has given him unique insight into the influence of culture on communication and creativity.

Senongo speaks at conferences around the world about cross-cultural design, digital storytelling, and transmedia. He loves any and all science fiction.

9 Reader Comments

  1. Great article. As a teacher of Web Design/Development and Computer Science, I appreciate this article. As I approach winter break, I’m in a reflective mood, and this came at the right time.

    I’ve been a teacher for 17 years now. About twice a month, our high school staff participates in staff development, and when we are given tasks aligned to important goals, the time indeed does not feel wasted.

    One of the activities that I like to do is a combination of brainstorming and ranking and rating. What we’ll do is be given an essential question related to a problem of practice (e.g. how do we engage more students in the classroom?). Then, in tables, staff will brainstorm ideas and write them on giant post-it easel pads (they are half the size of a table).

    After that, each sheet of brainstorming ideas is placed around the room, and staff members are given a slip of 5 or so stickers (stars, dots, smiley faces, etc.). We then silently walk around the room, read each brainstorming poster, and place a sticker next to any idea that we agree with. We can put more than 1 sticker on any idea.

    Of course, there are endless variations, but there’s something about walking (and being silent) that is powerful.

    I’d also like to give a shout out to my colleagues in the Oregon Computer Science Teachers Association, who put on staff training in the Fall, Spring, and Summer. We are teachers who teach teachers, and we do our best to model practices like the ones you are talking about here. I plan to forward this series to our instructors as suggestions for planning workshops.

  2. The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lot of great information which can be helpful in some or the other way. Keep updating the blog, looking forward for more contents…Great job, keep it up..

  3. @winikka Thanks for the insightful comment, and Im glad this post was of use to you! I think the activity you described would work really well, and makes clear the point that every teacher or trainer needs to have their own little grab-bag of techniques that they go to.

    And shouts to the OCSTA from me too!

  4. I couldn’t agree more that reviewing is critical to get the point home. Often times with all of the excitement people can easily forget how to apply what they just learned which doesn’t help anyone. Take the time to review the main points, and maybe even give them some homework to keep them thinking. Great article!

  5. Do you ever find defining goals and having a set agenda limits creativity? I mean I built my site on a whim. Most of my designs are done that way. Especially the written work. I find it has the most natural flow. I apply this to brainstorming and getting to creative solutions. The more we define where our minds are supposed to go, the more we limit ourselves as to the expansiveness of where the mind can go. What are your thoughts?

  6. Totally agree with the Article. It will be very difficult to get the the desired result if your Goal is not set. thanks for this Great post. looking forward to see more such great contents.

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