What I’ve Learned Hands-On About Ideation Workshops (and What UX Courses Won’t Teach You)
Tips to help the dynamics succeed, from careful observation of the context to the courage to “twist”
By Paula Madeira, from Sensorama Design.
If you’re just getting into UX, or even if you’ve been in it for a while, ideation workshops can be intimidating. There is great pressure for it to be a turning point, for a fantastic idea to emerge and a solution to the problem to be discovered, and for everyone to end the day happy knowing that the mission was accomplished.
Ideation workshops are a big part of the work process of a UX Researcher or UX Designer, however, they are not given due importance in the UX courses we have out there. In my humble opinion, the reason is simple: an ideation workshop is something that takes practice, time and is very difficult to simulate without being in a real context.
I didn’t even know how to make them when I started working with UX. What is the best format? How to get the facilitation right? What if it goes wrong and we spend hours of someone’s day for something that didn’t achieve its goal? So, after a few months in the field, I decided to talk about what I have learned about organizing and facilitating ideation workshops.
If you are a person who is starting, who is going to start or who simply has difficulties in this process, I am here to give you some tips on how I have matured in this part of the work. Here are the four most important things I discovered after some good and some bad workshops from the projects I’ve been on:
- Planning is important because time is important
The idea is not to say something obvious here, but a well-planned workshop already has a 50% chance of being a success. When working with UX, whether within a product team, design team or in a consultancy with user experience projects for companies, time is a crucial element.
Possibly the company you are going to work for or work for already uses an agile framework. If this is not the case, most likely the project in which you will be inserted will have a certain number of days, weeks or months to be completed and delivered. This means that the time to do the workshop is also limited. It will be difficult to carry out a dynamic that lasts more than a day or many hours.
Therefore, it is necessary to work well with the time at hand and put together something that fits within the established time for the ideation to happen.
But how do you know if what was planned fits within the established time? In a project we worked on, we had to create an ideation workshop that had to run in 3 hours. After putting it together, colleagues and I ran the workshop among ourselves to verify that our time estimates per task were realistic with what we had proposed.
Will a test round of your workshop always be possible? No. In these cases, you, as a professional, must understand how the client or the team you are in works and also understand the methodologies you will use. Which brings us to the next topic.
2. Not everything can be solved with a Crazy 8
I know, I know. I can’t think of a User Experience course I’ve taken where Crazy 8 wasn’t part of the process for solving a fictional case. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to belittle its strength and usefulness, because it is a simple and effective method. However, with the infinity of methods that exist, the chances of finding something better and more objective than Crazy 8 are considerable.
Sometimes Crazy 8, especially remotely, requires a lot of time and effort for a result that some other methodology could bring. We had a project in 2021 where we used Crazy 8 in an ideation with the client, and it was very good, because it made sense in the context and from there we were able to extract the main ideas to start creating the first wireframes of the project.
On the other hand, I’ve already been on a project where it was used and the other methodologies ended up being more useful than it, in addition to Crazy 8 taking up precious time that I had on my hands.
With that in mind, know that it is a good methodology that can bring great results, but it is not to be used all the time, without deeply analyzing whether it makes sense or not. So open your mind to the amount of possibilities out there for methods. Sometimes, great ideation workshops require a lot of study and research time to find ways to ideate that go a little beyond the obvious. Which brings us to the next topic.
3. It’s OK to change an existing methodology (and even create one from scratch)
The magic of UX lies in the fact that (almost) nothing is written in stone. Ideation methods are like a big lego with different and colorful pieces that you can do the same as what is in the box, or you can move the pieces around as you prefer. But you may be thinking: how crazy to change something that someone else has already done, tested and taught to do just that way. Worse yet, create something when there are thousands of frameworks ready to use?
There are a range of frameworks that can be used. But it may be that the way the person thinks doesn’t match the reality of your project or your team, and that’s why it’s okay to modify it until it’s perfect for your needs.
It’s what I like to call a twist. In a team that I am part of, I had to think of a good ideation workshop to solve a problem. Through research, I came across two very interesting methodologies, but I had two problems:
- One of them is called 1–2–4-all and it suggested times that weren’t realistic with the time I had or the number of people in each level, so I modified it to make sense for the context;
- Another one is called Round-Robin and I thought it was fantastic, but I concluded that, for the problem we had to solve, it focused a lot on the negative points and so I changed it to be a process that involved more suggestions and constructive criticism. Also, for the analysis part I was inspired by some other methods that I’ve seen other colleagues using and adapted.
In these two examples above, which were even used with the same team, the result we got was fantastic. And what helped to achieve this result was understanding the problem, planning well and, above all, understanding the team. Which brings us to the next topic:
4. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what works best for the team and project you are on.
Of course, User Experience is about people. But people go far beyond those who are our users. In the context of UX work, it also comes in to deal with and understand stakeholders, product managers and many other people with different roles and positions who will be with you. Observing well how each person acts and thinks individually, as well as the group dynamics, helps enormously when choosing good methodologies.
In teams where we have people of different levels of seniority and in which the most senior participate actively, we need to carefully analyze the processes so that we do not take as a final idea what is just HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, those moments when the opinion of the person with the highest salary prevails).
In a product team I’m part of, it happens a lot that we have people of different seniorities in the same workshop. I came to realize that keeping everyone in the same room, talking at the same time, killed some ideas prematurely. Worse, some ideas were not even allowed to arise! This perception made me turn all the workshops of this project to more collaborative dynamics, dividing people into breakout rooms, mixing the people of the team and balancing and at the same time empowering everyone’s speech.
This move I took did not happen overnight, but as a facilitator it is important to be aware of anything that could bias results and erase the speech of a team member. In an ideation workshop it is important that everyone feels heard and that their ideas are being valued, even if in the end they are discarded after the group assesses that other ideas are better solutions for the product.
To conclude, a summary
When developing ideation workshops, keep these four points in mind:
- Planning is halfway to the success of a workshop and time is a limiting factor that we must be aware of at all times.
- Explore the possibilities of the infinity of methodologies that exist to arrive at solutions.
- Don’t be afraid to modify something existing or create something new that fits the needs of the team or project you are a part of.
- To choose the best methods, observe and analyze well the context in which you are inserted and what the people you work with are like.
Ideation is an important and challenging process in the UX area. As we have seen, being an observant, curious and organized person helps to make these moments of workshop development and facilitation more assertive. And we hope these four tips help as well!