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How do you run a workshop for 170 people?

Clément Hamon
Maker of stuff, doer of things and opinionated on crisps flavours. Wannabe Lanvin Gang.
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How do you run a workshop for 170 people?
This article was a joint work by Junior Product Designer Clement Hamon, and our former Lead Research Luke Kelly.


Our product team has doubled in size twice over the course of about 18 months, which is a challenge any startup will be familiar with. For us though there’s an additional problem: not everyone who walks through the door is an expert in luxury.
 
When working in most fields designers, researchers, and product owners will have a healthy reservoir of first-hand experience to draw on when trying to find their feet. Most people will have used a mobile phone at some point; if they don’t drive they’ve probably at least been inside a car; you don’t need to be on social media yourself to understand what it’s for.
 
Put another way: not all of our product team have been inside a shop where you need to ring a bell to get the door unlocked. Even fewer will have been to a runway show, and hardly any (to my knowledge) have a personal shopper who revamps their wardrobe every 6 months. Those are the kind of experiences we’re redesigning though, which means we need to get people up to speed quickly on the subtleties which define them. What’s more, we are a platform: what the consumer sees is only half of the story.
 
Hence the request to run a workshop for the entire product team about how research can drive our roadmap. Not the easiest task at the best of times, and even harder when you only have a week to prepare. We’ve summed the main learnings up here as a series of key rules for running large-scale sessions, starting with the most obvious: know at the outset exactly what it is that you’re trying to achieve.

1. Make sure you have clear goals for the session and work backwards from there

In this instance, we had three quite broad outcomes which we were trying to reach. Firstly, we wanted to help everyone in the room understand the context of our business more. Our business extends all the way from the front row of a catwalk show to the loading bay of a 40,000 square foot warehouse, and new employees might have experienced neither. A great way to communicate what makes these environments tick is video, so we edited three short films from our research library to create a whistle-stop tour of three key partners on our platform: boutiques, warehouses, and personal shoppers.
 
Secondly, we wanted to show how these different contexts directly affect our product. As well as providing an overview of each partner, each of the films also focused on their experience of our returns process - an area simple enough for people to quickly understand. The return rate for all online fashion sites is typically at least 20%, and during sales season can spike even higher. For us, that might mean a personal shopper returning 30 of the 75 pieces ordered for a fitting with a key client, or a warehouse processing thousands of orders a day. The problems can be the same in each instance, but how they impact on our users can differ wildly.
 
To drive this point home we provided everyone taking part with three distinct issues we’d identified with our returns process via workshops with our customer service teams, and space to fill in the ones they could identify themselves from the research videos. Seeing three issues each manifest differently across three unfamiliar environments in this way also let us achieve our third goal: explain to all of our new colleagues how our design process is supposed to work.
 
To help achieve this we ran a "live” workshop with real data: actual problems that we need to resolve. Having sat through a fair few "hypothetical” workshops at previous companies ("imagine you’re designing a zoo for rescued unicorns”), we knew this was important for keeping people focused and engaged - which is even more important when working with such a large group.
 
So 170 people, split across 15 tables, all working on real problems, in environments they might not have previous experiences of, in an exercise designed to generate actual solutions. And we only had an hour to do it in. It’s no surprise then that Rule Number Two is all about the need for preparation.

Some of the objectively presented outputs.

2. Make sure creativity is carefully contained: empower people within strict limits and clearly structured exercises

Once we knew what our goals were, the first step was to sit down and timebox out each exercise. We knew were we wanted to get to – a room full of people feeling like they knew more about our business and a selection of workable concepts – so the trick was to strip out every non-essential step from our 60 minutes.
 
Prioritising concepts for instance: voting is great but takes time we didn’t have - it’s far quicker to have one decision-maker. Deciding who makes the decisions can also take time, so a simple dice roll was used to minimise the time we would lose to politeness. Presenting concepts to each other meanwhile would eat up the entire hour if we’d tried to give every group visibility of each other’s work, so the sharing work section was restricted to each table rather than extended to the whole room.
 
Effectively we wanted to funnel people through a closed structure using material that was evocative enough to inspire creativity. The videos gave both a 10,000 foot view of our partners, as well as specific insights into some of the problems they experience; defining these issues at the outset gave people a clear focus for the session, as well as a format for documenting other things which they might then choose to tackle. Most importantly, having a clear structure meant we could identify at the start all of the materials we would need to make the session work. This takes us neatly onto Rule Three: divide and conquer.

Our workshop booklet surrounded by some of the explorations leading to it.

3. Work out who is good at what, then leave them to get on with it

We defined the structure above in a simple word doc, then started working down the column of "materials required” and assigning people to each one. The most important thing here was specialising: work out who can do what to the highest standard, then stand back and let them work their magic.

Clément took responsibility for designing all the templates and collated these into a notebook which people could take away and keep after the session was over. Structuring the materials in this way reinforced the structure of the session itself, as the notebook also acted as a step-by-step guide to the different exercises (which again saved us precious time). Rufus and Ashka meanwhile took over responsibility for the logistics of organisation and printing – no small task in a session this large – whilst also making sure the rest of the design team knew what we were trying to do. Giving them a sneak preview and asking them to spread out so that there were at least two designers on each table, meant we had nearly 30 moderators helping the session run smoothly.

Luke meanwhile focused on editing the three videos which would be shown to the entire group at the start. These were constructed to be as punchy and entertaining as possible so that we could be sure we had everyone’s attention. Using video to provide context and the notebook to provide structure also minimised the amount of explaining we had to do: the whole workshop was introduced in less than 5 minutes. Whilst the videos themselves can’t be shared for data protection reasons, all of the other materials are downloadable here. Which just so happens to lead us onto the most important rule of all.

4. Reuse everything

Seriously. See a powerpoint template you like? Reuse it. Been to a workshop with a great exercise? Reuse that too. Like the subtitling style used in a video? Or the way putting a song in the background lends research films a feeling of coherence and completeness? Reuse. Reuse all of those things. In the vast majority of cases it’s better to spend your time improving something great rather than reinventing it from scratch.
 
So how do you run a workshop for 170 people? Reuse this one, and make it better.
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