Conducting Collaborative Design Sessions – Part 1: Prepare

What better way to create a user-friendly website than to let users help design it? In Part 1 of this series, we'll show you how to prepare for a successful collaborative design session.

View the Other Parts of this Series:

What is a collaborative design session?

Typically, requirements gathering and user research involve compiling a list of goals, needs and preferences for both clients and users. You then work alone, with contractors or with an in-house team to translate those findings into a working website design. With collaborative design sessions, you're letting participants help to directly incorporate their own ideas into the design. Depending on the type and stage of design your project is at, participants can be team members from other web disciplines, client stakeholders or users. In short, collaborative design sessions are meetings where a website is designed by a group of people rather than one specialist.

Why collaborate?

Designing a website in a collaborative manner holds numerous advantages, both for the users and you, the designer. These benefits include:

  • Participant satisfaction - Because they're invested directly in an enjoyable design process, participants will feel more enthusiastic and proud of the outcome. Next time they need website work, they'll come to you because they'll know you care about their opinions.
  • Immediate feedback - Rather than waiting until the site is launched to find out how users like it, you're able to present prototypes and see users' reactions first-hand. This feedback is extremely valuable, especially early on in the process while change are easy to incorporate.
  • Credible decisions - Since your design decisions are derived specifically from user input, you'll be able to easily justify these decisions and explain the reasoning behind them.
  • Fewer revisions - You can prevent guesswork, misinterpretation and multiple rounds of revision if you have stakeholders communicate by literally changing the prototypes or other deliverables to suit their needs.
  • Higher quality end product - Since you'll be incorporating real user feedback over the course of the entire project, the end product will be highly customized for its users from the moment it's deployed.
  • Business networking - This holds true particularly for freelance designers. By working with others, you're establishing yourself as a trusted expert in your field and making valuable connections with others in the industry.


Collaborative design sessions can be used at any stage of the design process to generate ideas, validate progress and test solutions. Clients and users will feel acknowledged, invested in the project and proud of the outcome. However, taking on the dual role of both designer and meeting facilitator makes conducting collaborative design sessions easier said than done. In this 4-Part series, we'll provide tips to help you:

  • Prepare for your meeting
  • Inform your participants at the start of the meeting
  • Facilitate the design process throughout the meeting
  • Maintain the relationship with your clients and users

So let's begin with preparation. You may have noticed that people require some level of structure in order to think creatively. If given a blank slate, they will only design what they're familiar with. The following tips will help you provide this necessary structure, get people excited and save time during the meeting itself.

Send out an agenda email

At least a few days before the meeting, send out an email that addresses the following items:

  • Why - Explain the purpose and goals of the meeting. If stated in a clear and concise manner, this can serve as an anchor to keep people focused during the meeting.
  • Who - Be sure to invite everyone you need. Include a separate note-taker so you can focus fully on your facilitator and designer roles. Don't invite anyone you don't need. Smaller groups tend to be more productive, and it's best to avoid internal politics if working with client groups.
  • How - Get people excited about the process by mentioning some of the activities or exercises they'll be involved in. Give an agenda of the topics or phases of the meeting in the order they'll be addressed.
  • When - Make sure everyone is available and aware of the date and time of the meeting.
  • Logistics - Provide directions to the location of the meeting if necessary. Make sure everyone knows what to bring to the meeting, if anything.

Agenda Girl

Create your personal agenda

Set time limits for each topic or phase of the meeting according to the list you distributed in the agenda email. You don't have to show this to your participants, but you should adhere to these time limits. This will build trust with your participants by showing that you value their time and that you are reliable.


Give Homework

Assigning a preparatory task will make participants feel as though they've already made a contribution to the project. They'll be eager to share their ideas and arrive at the meeting with part of the work already done. The task can be as simple as a request to:

  • Think about a topic related to the project.
  • Take notes when performing an activity related to the project.
  • Bring examples of something specific to the project.


Provide an appropriate environment

Ensure that you hold the meeting in an environment that encourages participation. It should be casual and open with ample wall space to pin up ideas, show progress and enable people to easily reference previous work. Provide a variety of materials to express and record ideas, such as:

  • Post-it notes
  • Colored markers
  • Big sheets of sticky paper
  • Whiteboards
  • An overhead projector

It's also a good idea to provide food or snacks. This helps lighten the mood and keeps people energized (just be aware of anyone with food allergies). You may even find creative ways to incorporate food into the meeting activities.

Work Environment

By deliberately setting participants' expectations through proper preparation, you can dramatically increase the productivity of a collaborative design session. But what happens once everyone gets together? In Part 2 of this series, we'll show you how to start your meeting off on the right track.

Many of these concepts were gleaned from a seminar lead by Sarah Bloomer for the June 2009 meeting of the NHUPA.

Continue to Part II...


  1. Mike Anderson August 29, 2009
  2. Kayla August 29, 2009