How to Conduct Research Workshops in Design

Workshops are fun and can act as collaborative research experiences to elicit rich insights about your audience. Through hands-on activities or active discussion, workshops help participants discover unknown and undefined needs or identify specific steps in the way they perform a task that can then inform the design process by generating ideas and opportunities. Contextual workshops are conduct­ed in people’s workplaces. With this method, participants can express their ideas, thoughts and dreams in several ways: with words, through the creation of some form of artifact or drawing, or engaging in activities to generate and analyze ideas.

Your level of participation will depend on your role and the goal of workshop. For example, you may only explain activities or fa­cilitate the conversation to better understand participants’ ideas behind what they do and help them articulate their process. Or you may also be part of the activities and work together with the participants in the development of the ideas (these are called co-creation workshops). In either case, make sure that participants explain what they did and why after they complete each given activity. You won’t have an interview guide or list of questions; but you could have a workshop outline and should spend time with each participant to discuss the outcomes of the activities and better understand what is meaningful to them.

When to use this method:

  • To come up with new ideas, or redesign something
  • To better understand how people think about a given problem or technology
  • To confirm whether what people say they do and what they actually do is the same
  • To include people as part of the design process

Online workshops

Although participants won’t be all physically together in a same space, there are many activities that they can do together online. To design online workshops, first identify what you need to learn, then define the study structure and create the activities you want participants to do, and after that, get familiar with digital tools. Do this early on to have time to evaluate pros and cons, as there are multiple digital tools and platforms you could use: for example, Explain Everything, Mural, Miro for collaborative whiteboard platforms. Most of these tools have free trials, and some allow you to invite participants without having to register, which is a plus.

Whatever tool or combination of tools you choose to work with, make sure you can record the session and participants’ outcomes. Also, aim at gathering different types of data: visual, written, audio, to get a holistic understanding of the situation and participants’ ideas. 

For more guidance on how to facilitate research workshops in design, check out my book.


Workshop & Activity Ideas

Rather than exercises, here are some studies that my students or I have designed and conducted (on line and face-to-face) with participants to learn more about their needs and behaviors, or better understand their interactions with a design.

ACTIVITY 1: Mapping patterns. Design a study to better understand people’s behaviors and establish patterns. For example, this can help better understand how people shop in a supermarket, whether there is a connection between aisles and products. You could gather this information by observing and talking with people, or by asking people to map their routes in the given location—supermarket, Student Center, etc. Designate stations where people can stop by to draw and talk about their visit. Make the activity fun and engaging.

ACTIVITY 2: Designing together. Design individual online sessions for participants to provide design ideas early on in the process. Participants’ input can help identify what design features are more important, and better understand behaviors and common uses. Use digital whiteboard tools to give participants a space to visually share their ideas. Design specific activities for each participant to complete while you observe and record their thought process. Pair the activities with think aloud techniques to gain an even deeper understanding of their decision making. Insights can help inform the design of interfaces, new tool features, etc.

ACTIVITY 3: Creating digital mood boards. Design online group sessions or workshops to better understand people’s likes and dislikes, and what key concepts mean to them. Visual activities help participants articulate how they feel about a specific situation, for example, by creating a digital mood board. Participants are asked to attach a color, shape, smell, and a city, and create a collage to illustrate their emotions about a new product; or to represent how they feel about an existing design. Resulting mood boards would provide indicators of how people feel about the object of study and could inform future design decisions.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Series 1: Understanding how to design for real people | Bridging Theory and Practice

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