Blog Banner

Three failure conditions for UX workshops

As Next Mile, we’ve been involved in UX workshops for years and have played every part: facilitator, designer, tech expert, customer, and decision-maker. We’ve witnessed many good, few great, and several tragic moments in UX workshoppery.

UX workshop failures wound technology projects in a notably grievous manner: they make stakeholders’ nagging doubt palpable and viable for the first time. We’ve come to classify workshop failures into three categories:

  1. Assimilation failure
  2. Negotiation failure
  3. Percolation failure

Where possible, we highlight corrections and fixes. However, as you are well aware, corrections are often so contextual that a generalized prescription won’t solve anything.

1. Can’t assimilate

First, UX workshop facilitators frequently fail to assimilate their clients’ context, and in turn, fail to make their ideas assimilable, never building that genuine bridge between worlds. Assimilation failure begins with the vibe and how UX work feels to non-UX clients.

Overeagerness wrecks the day

Let’s pretend you’re Director of Something at a multinational corporation. It’s currently Tuesday at 8:45 a.m., your inbox has exploded anew, your to-do list has become self-replicating, and despite the untamable fire, you’re sitting down to a full day of workshops. If you’re excited, it’s because today’s workshop gives you an excuse to close your laptop, tune out the incessant noise, and regulate the stress (maybe).

Then a bespectacled, high-energy, low-EQ UX expert spins a buzzwordy spiel about what’s going to happen: how you need to “step off the runway”, how productive things will be today, where the parking lot is, and how salvation lies just at the end of a bunch of to-be-defined work. The Miro board will be persistent and curated by the quietest UX person. Many Post-it notes will sacrifice their lives to today’s ritual. It’s 8:52 a.m. now and you already need Advil. One flick of the lid and your laptop’s cool OLED glow welcomes you back home to split your attention…

Starting a workshop well requires getting every participant onboard. It’s hard, but the trick is to go easy. As a facilitator, you avoid being jarring by meeting the room where it’s at, then slowly steering it where you want. Your client will give you signals should you decide to read them. Non-destructive entry is the first step to assimilation.

Speaking two different languages

Ever seen the UX team and the client team using different words to mean the same thing? Or, for added cringe, seen both teams use the same word to mean two different things? One of these happens in every workshop without fail.

Colloquially, 90% of arguments are semantic in nature, i.e., they’re differences about definition. In a UX workshop, this happens because internal jargon conflicts with tech-industry-isms. Unsettled semantic differences create space for doubt because they make each side feel unheard (“they just don’t get it”) which makes the day’s work unaligned.

When you’re facilitating, it’s easy to drive the operation so hard you forget to listen or think critically about the discussion unfurling between participants, so settling semantics becomes an easy miss. When you do settle things, it often lets the whole group move ahead together. If you’re facilitating, pause, breathe, and reflect on what’s happening in front of you, and work out any suppurating semantic dissimilitudes.

Critical, meltdown-level semantic failure happens when a facilitator declares a standard-issue UX behavior “correct” when the normalized company behavior will do just fine. Less critical, but still grating, is constant correction and dismissive behavior towards corporate-speak.

Alien methods and tools

In a manufacturing, financial, or commercial setting, Post-it notes are for exceptions, whiteboards are quick lists or decorating walls, and nobody uses Miro for anything. Now pile on get-to-know you exercises, prioritization/sorting via digital whiteboard, or a Strategyzer canvas and the cognitive burden for those on the receiving end of a UX workshop throttles progress at best and erases workshop gains at worst.

To merge UX world with client world, workshop facilitators either have to:

  1. Use their UX methods and tools exceptionally well
  2. Do something more in line with what your participants are comfortable with

Any facilitator must answer whether or not they want participants concentrated on the activity (describing, solving, or designing) or on the novelty of all this fancy design stuff. We usually recommend option B, but the trouble with B is that you have to understand your customers’ world. The choice a facilitator makes tells us a lot about them as a UXer.

The “expert” facilitator

Ever dropped a 🍿 emoji in the company workshop side-chat channel when a facilitator and some participant start sparring over UX principles that are in conflict with company knowledge? It’s often funny, occasionally valuable, and always toxic.

Nothing breeds doubt quite like this one. To everyone on the UX team: UX expertise never supersedes a client’s customer expertise. No matter how you feel, no matter how many examples you can cite. Clients do want your expertise—to understand digital, fill in gaps, and convert their expertise into design. Context trumps convention, just as context motivates experience. Your expertise in their domain will not be required at this time.

2. Can’t negotiate

Second, UX workshop facilitators fail to help clients negotiate the boundary between fantasy and reality.

New information changed the situation

Things change between planning and workshop day, or maybe just after. If your client is prone to quick decision-making, or subject to a volatile market, you might find yourself opening a workshop only to hear “before we begin, we should talk about (blank) which might change our discussion.”

When this happens there’s a right and wrong approach. Go ahead as planned and work in the new information as best you can? Recalibrate the workshop to accommodate the change and sacrifice your well laid plans? Your answer will depend entirely on a. your planning and b. the prospective impact of the new information.

Their intentions are in conflict with your reality

We’ve sat through a surprising number of workshops where the group activities and the side-chat channel seem like different meetings. One is full of well-curated answers to highly targeted activities while the other is riddled with WTFs, WRONG WRONG WRONG, etc.

This is more the purview of the client (facilitators rarely get access to the back-channel). Once detected, hether you’re on the UX team or the client team, it’s a sign to stop the workshop and recalibrate. Does everyone agree on the mission? Do we have the right people in the room? Are we ready for a workshop at all?

Work for work’s sake is a death knell for workshops and a terrible sign for project health. Stop. Reset. Restart. You’ll be glad you did.

Accepting assumptions too quickly

UX workshops are understandably fast. Critical people get pulled off the line to participate, setting other work and deadlines aside. Paradoxically, a lot of decisions (and money) get tied up in an outcome that must succeed, which should suggest that slower is better. When does that ever happen?

Haste creates assumptions—assumptions then accepted in haste. Those made early lead to a string of decisions and actions. How many times does someone say “we’ll need to prove this?” only to use that very thing as a basis for decision and workshop success? Worse, how often do assumptions accidentally become decisions? This is the part where the UX team knows it has lost influence in the project and works for completion instead of quality.

This is another one with no easy solution. Clearly segregating assumptions with their dependencies is the best way to protect yourself from ready, fire, aim behavior.

3. Can’t percolate

Third, the workshop format promotes fixedness and action and discourages percolation, the necessary background and foreground sensemaking that reveals simpler answers than those you left the workshop with.

No rest for the weary, no room for thought

We’ve talked about the pace of workshops being different from the daily grind, the need for speed due to the value of time contributed, and the impact of assumptions. All of these are symptoms of a foundational challenge: most people need time to think.

Any UX workshop designed for participation excludes the quiet thinkers, the time-to-process people, and the say-it-another-way crowd, promoting the ideas of the loud, the combative, and the external processors. Even if it feels uncomfortable for you as a facilitator, call on quiet people sometimes, and allow space to work and think in your workshop format.

Ideas take time to develop

Variety of thought also manifests in the group as a slower-than-desired path to ideal outcomes. Great ideas are rarely inspiration only—most are drawn from deep pools of repetition, stirred by experience, and extracted from the mundane. Workshops can’t facilitate this.

Instead, workshops are useful for creating alignment, not fostering extended, informed disagreement or knowledge-seeking. Most include prioritization or list-reduction exercises that push healthy examination and dissent out of the conversation after only a cursory examination. This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as the UX workshop facilitator calls those pieces out for future work (or neglect).

Reiteration isn’t innovation

More cringe: we’ve watched teams of expert professionals generate piles of Post-its to describe their work, then get asked to choose, sort, group, and filter like their expertise were ingredients in a Chipotle burrito bowl. Every facilitator I know (myself included) has slipped on this ice. Workshops are not good for the uninitiated.

The eventual outcome is often a reiteration of known known’s in a reductive list where the only insight is insightful to the facilitator. Inevitability is not innovation. Driving innovation in a group setting requires that facilitators run exercises that help client participants expose and unpack their customers’ experience with their products or services. Mix in your own UX expertise in the form of good questions, outside knowledge, or exercise-revealed insight about your clients’ customers, and you can facilitate genuine innovation in a workshop setting.

Please, know your audiences

Procurers, sellers, participants, facilitators, experts, and recipients all have different motivations for agreeing to a workshop. Each in turn creates their own agenda (no matter what is provided) and measures the success or failure of a workshop against their own, often unmined expectations.

Early on, we assumed mature UX firms understood this, but have been frequently surprised when they don’t. Many top-tier firms drive right past the obvious, leaving key constituencies underserved and unsatisfied, creating a sleeper cell of obstructionists.

We’ve seen this “audience problem” addressed with the “why are you here?” or “what do you hope to get out of this?” introduction exercises, but by then it’s too late because their answers:

  • Are too late to alter the course of a tightly-scripted workshop.
  • Torpedo any pre-work that was done by the participants.
  • Necessitate flexibility that’s beyond all but the most seasoned facilitators.

Knowing why you’re really there—public and hidden reasons—will make or break long-term success. If your UX team can’t start with a comprehensive understanding of motivation at this level, maybe skip the workshop altogether.

We’ve delivered lasting UX successes by preventing these exact UX workshop failures. Contact us if you want to see how you stack up, if you’re experiencing these challenges, or if you’d like to insure a high-stakes kickoff against these failures and their consequent swirl.

Find additional insight at our blog or contact us for a monthly summary of new content.

If this speaks to a problem you’re facing, we'd love to see if we can help you further.