Conducting Collaborative Design Sessions – Part 2: Inform

Getting the most out of your users requires that you take the initiative. In Part 2 of this series, you'll learn how to begin your design session in a goal-oriented manner.

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In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the benefits of collaboration with users and clients at various stages throughout the design process. We also provided tips to help you more effectively prepare for your design session. At this point, your users have been thinking about the topic of your meeting and are eager to share their ideas. When they arrive, you need to initiate the discussion in a way that will keep them focused on the meeting objectives and help them feel that the process itself is as rewarding as the outcome. The following tips will help you achieve these benefits and set the stage for a successful and productive collaborative design session.

Follow your agenda

This is one of the most critical factors in any meeting. Remember the agenda you created and sent out to all your meeting participants? To start the meeting, review this agenda by writing it out in front of everyone. Post it on the wall so everyone can follow along as you complete each task. When you reach the time limit you allotted yourself for each agenda item, draw a check mark beside it to chart your progress. This may seem trivial, but it holds many advantages because it makes participants feel more:

  • Focused - Setting clear goals for the meeting keeps people oriented and focused.
  • Trusting - Following the same agenda you sent out in advance builds trust by showing your consistency and reliability.
  • Rewarded - Seeing progress gives the group a rewarding sense of accomplishment.
  • Comfortable - Writing it out and going back to it to check things off reinforces that this is an interactive session where people can feel comfortable getting up and participating.


Share process artifacts

Bring people up to speed about the problem they're trying to solve by sharing artifacts from the design process to date. Artifacts can vary in formality and can be derived from past meetings with clients, users or your internal team. By showing participants the work that has already been done, you'll be able to avoid reinventing the wheel. Also, reviewing these materials will get everyone warmed up and ready to start sharing new ideas. Some typical artifacts include:

  • Research results
  • Photos of past design sessions
  • Goals/requirements documentation
  • Personas
  • Use cases
  • Wireframes
  • Prototypes
  • Site maps
  • Flow diagrams

You may also find it useful to organize your artifacts into a slideshow or timeline format in order to make it more memorable for participants.


Agree on the foundation

You may be using some of the above-mentioned artifacts as a foundation on which to build the next step of the design process. If this is the case, it's best to be sure in advance that everyone has agreed upon them as a valid set of assumptions. Otherwise, participants may:

  • Become sidetracked trying to refine past deliverables.
  • Question the reasoning behind past design decisions, instigating lengthy and potentially heated discussions.
  • Feel that what they're designing in this session is not the optimal solution, neglecting to engage with their full effort.
  • Design contradictory or incompatible features.

To avoid these potential pitfalls when presenting each artifact, include documentation of previous agreements such as dates or signatures. It is best to explicitly state that the purpose of these artifacts is to serve as a guide for this design session. Once everyone is clear and in agreement, you can move on to the next stage of your agenda.


If your meeting does happen to get side-tracked in this area, it isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes you may discover that your participants are not ready to make decisions about the next stage of design, which can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • Clients may have a new development within their organization that causes existing artifacts to require adjustment. You can't always accommodate this because it can lead to scope creep. However, it can help you develop a more scalable solution that will allow for similar adjustments in the future.
  • Clients may not have realized they were formally agreeing to something or that someone else on their team gave agreement on their behalf.
  • Clients may not fully understand how the existing design artifacts satisfy their business goals. They may require further explanation before moving on.
  • Users may have thought of a new feature and want to add it. Be careful - this could also cause scope creep, but sometimes when this happens you'll discover something that feels like it should have been obvious, and that would really make the overall design more complete.

Although it requires you to deviate from your original meeting objectives, resolving issues like these takes precedence over your agenda because without doing so, you can't make legitimate, informed progress.

Keep rough drafts looking rough

Providing a foundation for the next stage of design is only one way to use project artifacts. Another common use of artifacts is as a rough draft that you want participants to refine during this meeting. For this purpose, you should leave these artifacts in a low-fidelity state. For instance, you can use:

  • Paper prototypes instead of clickable prototypes built on the computer.
  • An overhead projector pointed at a whiteboard to write edits directly on an existing web page.
  • Post-it notes to create sitemaps that can easily be altered.
  • Whiteboards for drawing easily editable wireframes.

Some of the advantages of keeping artifacts and process documentation low-fidelity during collaborative design sessions are that:

  • You can store, photograph or transcribe edits made during the session much more rapidly.
  • Participants will feel comfortable suggesting and making changes directly to the documentation.
  • Creativity is encouraged by the hands-on nature of recording ideas and edits.
  • Numerous possible solutions can be generated and compared much more efficiently.

Card Sort

Overall, the first portion of your meeting should be used to introduce and agree upon the objectives, agenda, and progress to date. While it is important to be aware of potential setbacks, if you've prepared properly in advance, this initial part of the meeting should go quickly and run smoothly. Now that you and your participants are all on the same page, it's time to dig in and start designing. In Part 3 of this series, we'll explain more about how to provide the guidance your participants need in order to express their ideas and contribute to the design.

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


  1. Dzinepress August 3, 2009
  2. Lillah July 5, 2011
  3. Andi September 27, 2011
  4. Eternity September 27, 2011
  5. Veruca September 28, 2011
  6. Allayna December 14, 2011
  7. lnjxem December 15, 2011
  8. mouotgrew December 16, 2011
  9. Nikusha June 15, 2012

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