Top tips for delivering co-design workshops

Steve Lloyd-Smart

12th March 2019

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As a long standing member of the mHabitat project delivery team I’ve clocked up many workshop miles across the length and breadth of the UK, engaging an incredibly diverse range of people in different scenarios. Along the way I’ve learnt a great deal about how to get the best from people during these sessions.

Here are some top tips for delivering co-design workshops:

Prep a set of resources - then prep another

Prepping extra resources gives you flexibility.

Your timings are a guide, participants may get through activities faster or slower than you anticipated. Sometimes certain activities won't resonate with certain groups of people in certain circumstances (don't over-analyse it unless it repeatedly happens!)

Co-design workshops tend to be fluid. Being prepared to be flexible and adaptable is essential to get the most out of them. I always like to have a back-up set of activities or create extensions to existing activities just in case.

Scope the venue

Don’t underestimate the impact your chosen venue will have on the engagement of workshop participants and consequently its success. 

Pick somewhere with natural light and make sure there is plenty of space between tables for people to move around and allow to allow the noise to disperse. 

I also recommend serving tea/coffee/lunch in a different area. I like this set-up because It gives me the opportunity to set up the next activity and photograph outputs without climbing over the participants.

Think about what you’re going to wear!

It sounds trivial, but how you dress helps set the tone for the day. 

When I'm facilitating I'm there to guide people through a process, not act as an authority figure, so I dress casually, smart jeans and a shirt usually, and I tend to dress down more for work with young people … I want them to be totally open and honest with me and, from my perspective, wearing a shirt and tie is just another barrier to building the trust required for an honest conversation.

Don't deliver discovery workshops in schools (if you can help it)

I've done a few projects involving delivery in a classroom setting and regardless of how well they went I've always felt I could have got more out of the participants if I delivered it elsewhere. When young people and children are in school they fit themselves to the expected structure and hierarchy - breaking this mindset is incredibly difficult in a couple of hours.

Know your participants

It is essential to consider the requirements of your participants and plan accordingly. 

Take, for example, working with a group of individuals on the autistic spectrum - you'll likely need to dial back on the colour and noise levels, provide detailed explanations of what is expected of the participants and, with fatigue from over stimulation being an issue, finish within a few hours. Ideally you would select a venue this group is already familiar with to avoid the stress of having to go somewhere new.

Don't forget to assess individual accessibility needs. People with learning disabilities or who use communication aids may require one to one support from a facilitator and a carer during the session to help them engage.

Provide adequate resource

My ideal set up is a lead facilitator and a facilitator per table of five people (and 20 participants maximum). It sounds like a lot of resource (and it is) but it makes a massive difference to people’s engagement in the process. As a lead facilitator it allows you the opportunity to reflect on how people are engaging with your activities, and make any changes to the agenda, whilst the table facilitators often pick up on requirements and motivations you would otherwise miss.

Don't expect 100% engagement

It’s likely that the people attending your workshop are doing it for free or for a token incentive. Don’t expect to keep them engaged all day and build plenty of flex into your timetable.

Recently I had a workshop where the participants found they had a lot in common and ended up having interesting discussions on a range of (non workshop related) topics.  I just allowed them time and space to do this and stuck in an ad hoc coffee break to let everyone go and chat. The flexibility I had built into the schedule allowed for such an event. It kept the participants happy and allowed me the opportunity to top up on caffeine and cake whilst implementing a back-up (shorter) activity that still provided me with the outputs I needed.

Ultimately, for me, the whole point of running these workshops is to get people to open up and be honest. To get to that point you need them to feel comfortable and the tips above will help you get there. Throw in curious, creative and empathetic facilitators and you have all the ingredients for a productive and rewarding workshop.

Steve Lloyd-Smart

Integrated Design Lead