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Discovery Workshops: How to Best Kickstart a Project

Every project starts with a kickoff meeting. This is a great opportunity to meet with project stakeholders, gather their views, and begin a collaborative relationship. The meeting should begin to define and solve the main problems, but often it becomes a day-long trudge through old details. At JH, we’ve developed a playbook of engaging activities that tap into the excitement of a new project and capture insights from across the project team.

When do we run a workshop?

We don’t limit workshop activities to kickoff meetings. We typically use them throughout the discovery and design phases of a project, selecting the appropriate activities from our playbook for the problems at hand. During kickoff, we might be establishing business priorities or understanding user needs, while later in the process we could be focussed on a particular interface.

How do workshops help?

Workshops offer much more than problems and solutions. They’re fundamentally about the people taking part, how they communicate, and the connections they build. Here’s some of the reasons we love using workshops:

  • They allow different stakeholders to offer their unique perspectives, employing democratic methods that help to neutralise the HIPPO effect
  • They provide a collaborative context where ideas and decisions are made and shared as a group, helping to establish understanding and consensus early on
  • They are fun to attend, keeping everyone engaged during the workshop, and letting them leave with inspiration and enthusiasm for the project

What exercises do we use?

Here are a few examples of workshop activities we regularly use:

Note and Vote

How can you gather ideas while avoiding groupthink? The Note & Vote exercise democratises the brainstorming process, neutralising group dynamics like introvert/extrovert clashes. Ideas are are generated individually, then shared with the group, and finally voted on to set a priority. The top ranking ideas can feed into other exercises or form part of the project brief.

Participants vote on the most important content and features for a product page

Gut Test

Struggling to describe how things should look and feel? A Gut Test helps to clarify preferences by viewing a series of websites and assigning each one an instinctive 1-to-5 score. Everyone’s scores are tallied so the group can discuss the winners and losers. This exercise informs the direction we take with mood boards and mock-ups.

Empathy Map

How do you make decisions that benefit the user? With an Empathy Map, the group must put their own views aside and think from a user’s perspective. By brainstorming goals, thoughts, and feelings, a simple user persona is created. As the project proceeds, personas can be validated and fleshed-out as research is conducted.

Role-playing as a user builds empathy and a simple user persona

Priority Sorting

Not sure which features to prioritise? When Priority Sorting, each person sorts a set of cards from most to least important, according to their view of the project. The exercise works best for 20-30 features or objectives. By combining the rankings, common choices and outliers can be identified. The sorted ideas can steer the scope of work or establish a long-term roadmap.

Design Studio

Is it possible to iterate a design in 90 minutes? By running a Design Studio session, the group gets to quickly sketch and present concepts, first individually and then in teams. It allows different perspectives to be visualised, and drawing levels the playing field between colleagues. The final designs provide starting points for wireframes and prototypes.

Participants present their thumbnail sketches to each other then provide feedback

Even More…

Our playbook stretches even further. For example, we also assess features using Impact/Effort Scoring, we conduct an Interface Inventory to audit legacy designs, and we plot User Journey Maps to understand the end-to-end experience.

Opportunities are found to improve the whole experience around the website

Where can you learn more?

If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of workshops, and how they function, I recommend the following resources which have proven useful in developing our playbook.

  • Good Kickoff Meetings — provides step-by-step instructions for some of the exercises in this post and general facilitation tips
  • Kick Ass Kickoff Meetings — also from Kevin Hoffman, an overview of the problems with traditional kickoff meetings
  • Establishing Design Direction — demonstrates how design exercises fit into the wider project process
  • Sprint — teaches GV’s 5-day problem solving process which extends into prototyping and testing
  • Gamestorming — includes more than 80 games that overlap with this post and the other resources