The Four-hour Product Definition Workshop

Here’s the outline, in question form:

1. What are we trying to accomplish? (~30 mins)

2. Who will use this? (~30 mins)

3. What will they do with it? (~30 mins)

4. How do people experience the product? (~1 hr)

5. How can we improve on the experience? (~1 hr)

“Wait! That’s only 3.5 hours!” those of you who have never run a workshop shout — give your participants some bathroom/snack breaks, people. Otherwise, they’ll hate you (not kidding! more practical tips here)

And of course, you should start with an icebreaker — try not to be boring. If you must just go around the table and have everyone do the name/title/something random thing, fine, but set a time limit and have a visible stopwatch or someone’s going to take 15 minutes going on and on about the twists and turns of every project they’ve ever worked on.

[NOTE: Discreetly jot down people’s names so you don’t embarrass yourself]

… and we’re off!

Part 1: What are we trying to accomplish?

Please, please, please don’t assume you know this. Your stakeholders have told you everything they can about the project, but like an iceberg, 90% of what they know is still underneath the surface. They deal with it every day, all day, so they have bedrock assumptions that they view as natural and self-explanatory. If you are going to succeed as a designer, you need to draw this information out of them. They know it; they don’t realize that you probably don’t (for the best explanation of this phenomenon, see the late, great David Foster Wallace).

So ask: “What problem are we trying to solve?”

Then ask: “What does success mean for us?” and sometimes, the flip side: “What does failure look like? What would cause this product to flop?”

Ask the “dumb” questions and soak up as much as you can, because you need this context deliver a design that correctly matches your stakeholder’s expectations.

Then get out the post-it notes. You’ve heard a lot of talk (have you been keeping an eye on time?), now it’s time to get real. “What can we measure to determine if we’re being successful or not?” Give them a time horizon of a year if it helps.

You have a workshop kit, right? Build one and take it everywhere — worth its weight in gold.

Once everyone’s got their post-its on a wall, group them and have your participants dot-vote on the most important metrics. This is where you can see the “nice to haves” drop out.

In many a workshop, someone will wax rhapsodically about how the product needs to do X, or connect with group Y, only to ignore any metrics that might capture whether X or Y is happening. This exercise is all about seeing if people are willing to put their metrics where their mouth is. If they want their product to make people empowered and self-actualized, but the only metrics they care about are user growth and advertising revenue, that tells you something important about how to approach the project.

Make a note of the top potential metrics (nothing’s set in stone of course), and move on.

Part 2: Who will use this?

This is a proto-persona exercise. Use whatever template you like, but keep it super-basic. This is an exercise where some participants will freeze up like deer in the headlights and worry about being able to “do it right.” Your job as facilitator is to remove that fear by keeping this light, friendly, and simple.

Any more complicated than this, you’re asking for trouble.

Ask: “Who needs this solution?” Write up a list of groups/demographics who should make up the core user group. Narrow it down to 2–3 target demos through discussion, or if there are a lot of groups, dot-voting.

[NOTE: if your stakeholders flounder on who, specifically, needs their solution, that’s a huge red flag. You may need another workshop.]

Now pick one of the demos and lead everyone through creating a proto-persona, using whatever template you like best. The point here is not research — this is an empathy building exercise. Ask them to throw out a name, age, marital status, favorite video game, whatever is relevant for the product. Keep it light, ask for name, age, what they look like — there are no wrong answers.

Draw a picture yourself, and — this is important — even if you’re a whiz artist, make sure it’s terrible.

Why yes, I DO give art lessons — give me a call!

After you’ve collaborated/crowd-sourced one proto-persona, have everyone do another one by themselves. If you set the tone correctly, your participants will dive in and find this fun. If you’re getting a lot of resistance, that means that next time, you need to draw worse and tell more jokes.

Split up the target demos to make sure you have multiple people covering each target, but let everyone work individually. As people start finishing, this is a good time to take your first break.

Hang them up, present each one (in the interests of time, I like to do this myself, and you may need to choose a few representative ones if the group is large). Ask the authors themselves to explain at least one quote or detail to make sure you’re not missing anything (and so people feel valued!) Stakeholders who do a lot of work with customers are very high-value here — whoever handles sales, customer support, testing, etc. should be contributing their knowledge. Talk about common patterns you are seeing and at the end, ask people to add anything they think the personas have missed.

The goal here is to get people out of their own heads and into the heads of their users — accuracy is not a priority (do actual research for that, please).

Part 3: What will they do with it?

After talking about commonalities among your core users, it’s time to talk about what the essential experience is for them. Ask: “When people use this product, what are they trying to accomplish?” and hand out the sticky notes.

Once your participants have covered the wall in stickies, set a timer for 5 minutes and have them SILENTLY arrange all the stickies in groups (it’s also nice to overlap stickies which are essentially identical).

The rules are:

  1. No talking!
  2. You can move a sticky wherever you want
  3. This includes moving a sticky someone else just moved

Silence is important, because otherwise people will get sidetracked arguing back and forth about things which are ultimately inconsequential.

If your participants weren’t defective, you should have sticky notes grouped in clusters. Give them a marker and have them label each cluster descriptively (“login/registration, search, adding friends, etc.)— now talking is okay, and in fact desired.

Pass out the dots — give each person 3 or more dots, depending on the number of clusters (a rule of thumb is 1 dot per every 2 clusters). I like to make sure one dot is of a special color — that dot counts double. If you’ve got a Decider (CEO, project lead, whoever), mark their dots so you know where they vote — don’t pretend this is a democracy.

Count up the votes and based on number of votes and where the Decider voted, identify the three most essential clusters.

aka “Hang back and take pictures while your stakeholders do the work”

You are essentially at the halfway point of the workshop. We’ve set out what we’re trying to do, what we care about measuring, and who we’re trying to reach. If you’ve done this part well, the groundwork is set for some very productive work in the back half.

Part 4: How do users experience the product?

Set up an journey/customer/experience/story map on the wall (you can give everyone a short break here). Here’s how we do it, feel free to use your preferred mode of j/c/e/s mapping instead.

Oh yeah, make sure you’re in a room with a big wall.

Along the top, break down one of the key experiences (from the previous section of the workshop). If this is for an existing product, you can use the names of actual screens across the top “What I’m doing” row. For a new product, you’ll need to break down all the steps for starting and completing one of the essential tasks (usually this can be done via group discussion).

  1. Action — this is what a user is doing at any particular step. These can be very specific like “logging in”, “entering a search term”, “adding an item to their cart”, or they can be abstract like “deciding where to eat”.
  2. Questions — these are questions a user might have while they are trying to complete an action. Ideally, we should be providing satisfying answers to these questions in our interface.
  3. Delightful Moments — these are great experiences that will cause a user to enjoy what they are doing and want to continue using our product.
  4. Pain Points — these are frustrations and bad experiences that might cause a user to drop our product, never to return.

I usually put up the actions myself, left-to-right, go a column a a time, having the participants fill out sticky notes for sections #2–4 (protip: use consistent colors for each section so it’s easy to keep things organized).

This amount of space is ideal — look at those walls!
But we also have done this in a bus — be flexible!

Now it’s time to go through and look for commonalities. Group together stickies that are similar. If the map is manageable and you’ve got time left, you can talk through everything up there, but if not, do another round of dot-voting to narrow down the key topics for discussion.

Most of the focus here is usually on Questions and Pain Points. If you laid the groundwork correctly in the first half of the workshop, your participants will have already flagged many of the problems with the user experience themselves. And they definitely should be receptive to hearing any issues you have identified — you did have time to add some stickies of your own, right? (another reason why it’s good to have a second team member).

Now it’s time to craft Insights. Insights (capital I) are statements which express tension between the goals of your product and the existing experience of the product. They should be easy to understand and ideally, should point towards actionable improvements. You can encourage your participants to craft these, but I’ve found these work best if the facilitator proposes them and the team gives a quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether they agree. This is kind of the trial-by-fire for the facilitator — crafting these on the fly can be tricky, but I’ve found it works much better than putting this responsibility back on your stakeholders.

Insight 1: “We want our experience to be easy and intuitive, but when the first open our app, users don’t receive any onboarding instructions.”

Insight 2: “We want our users to be able to reliably find excellent restaurants, but we are gumming up the search results with ads for Applebee’s and reviews written by mental patients.”

Insight 3: “We want our dinosaurs to be scary yet ultimately controllable, but our scientists keep injecting them with raptor DNA.”

Insight 4: “We wanted this movie to be good, but we hired Michael Bay to direct it.” You get the idea.

You want to get around 3–5 Insights out of this section. This can be a real emotional low point in the workshop for your stakeholders, so be mindful of that. If you handle things the wrong way, you can make them feel like you’re punching their child (this is bad). That’s why this format is so critical — if you’ve done it right, you’ve built a shared understanding of the goals, created empathy for the users, focused in on the essential experiences, and then let the stakeholders themselves identify most of the ways in which those experiences are falling short.

That’s a much better way to gain credibility and build team cohesion than waving around your Professional Designer Badge and telling them everything they got wrong.

“Whoa! Who thought THIS was a good idea?”

Part 5: How can we improve the experience?

aka “Where the magic happens”

After a break, soothe their anxieties. This is exactly like boot camp, where you tear everyone down, then build them back up, but tougher, stronger, better.

Although I do probably use more pink sticky notes than your drill sergeant did

Until you’ve got some practice running one of these workshops, you’re probably short on time at this stage. That’s fine — just reframe each Insight as an Opportunity.

Insight 1: “We want our experience to be easy and intuitive, but when the first open our app, users don’t receive any onboarding instructions.”

Opportunity 1: “We have the opportunity to create a delightful onboarding experience so that our users find our product easy and intuitive.”

Insight 2: “We want our users to be able to reliably find excellent restaurants, but we are gumming up the search results with ads for Applebee’s and reviews written by mental patients.”

Opportunity 2: “We have the opportunity to selectively curate a list of excellent restaurants so that users received focused and reliable recommendations.”

Insight 3: “We want our dinosaurs to be scary yet ultimately controllable, but our scientists keep injecting them with raptor DNA.”

Opportunity 3: “We have the opportunity to train them to stop and roar for 8 minutes every time they corner a protagonist.”

Opportunity 4: “We can fire him.”

But if you have enough time, break out the pink sticky notes and let your participants do Opportunities beneath each column. Do another silent grouping exercise to cluster those opportunities, dot-vote, and congratulations! You’ve got a mandate to tackle those as your top priorities.

More importantly, you’ve got a team behind you with shared goals, shared ideas about how to measure those goals, a common understanding of who their users are, and a rich set of information about what the experience for those users should look like. All in four hours!

You did it!

Wrap it up by talking about next steps, timelines, etc., and send out a deliverable the next day summarizing the key learnings from each segment of the workshop. Include some photos showing teamwork, camaraderie, and of course, close-up shots of sticky notes that you took solely so you could remember all the details for writing up said deliverable.

Now if only someone could read my handwriting…

If you want more help on running/setting up a workshop similar to this, you should also read Harry Brignull’s Empathy & User Journey Mapping Workshop, or drop me a line at erik@purposeux.com. I’d love to talk with you all in comments — this stuff is, after all, what I think about all day.

You should follow me on twitter @ejexpress too, but only if you liked the jokes, because that’s pretty much all I do there.

Happy Designing!