Conducting Collaborative Design Sessions – Part 3: Facilitate

Clients and users need guidance when contributing their design ideas. Part 3 of this series will prepare you for the challenges inherent in facilitating collaborative meetings.

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In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we explained how to prepare in advance for collaborative design sessions and how to begin your meetings with a solid focus and foundation. To get the most out of your design session now that it's begun, you need to ensure that your participants feel comfortable sharing their ideas. A number of things can get in the way of this, which we will discuss in this article. However, to combat these factors, you must first understand your dual role as both a facilitator and design specialist in this meeting.

Understand your dual role

Unless you invite or hire someone to facilitate your design session, you'll be both a facilitator and a designer. These two roles are not always compatible because the facilitator role implies some level of authority. This authority makes your input about the actual design seem like the final word. This may have a tendency to discourage your participants from sharing other ideas.

As the facilitator, you want to lead the session without pushing your own opinion about the project. Sometimes you'll find yourself in a situation where you need to keep the discussion going, get it back on track or clarify something. In order to do these things without sounding like you're forcing a specific idea in a biased way, you can use questions or statements similar to the following examples:

  • What I heard you say was...
  • Tell me more about that.
  • That reminds me of...
  • Can you put that idea into a single sentence?
  • Did I get this right?

As the designer your goal is to help participants arrive at the optimal solution to fit their needs. When they express a need but aren't aware of one or more possible solutions that would address it, you can suggest ideas by:

  • Asking questions that would lead the participants to discover new possibilities on their own.
  • Showing examples of multiple possibilities so you don't sound like you're proposing one as the definitive answer.
  • Making it very clear that you are stepping out of your facilitator role and into your designer role before simply proposing a single idea for one possible solution.

Handling both of these roles can be tricky. If you feel you're having trouble with it, don't be afraid to explicitly state your role at any given time.


Build trust

When gathering requirements, feedback or ideas from users and clients, it's critical that your participants are open and honest with you. You need to build trust with them so they feel comfortable telling you what they really, truly think. Here are several things you can do to make yourself more trustworthy:

  • Make your role clear - As explained in the section above, make sure people are clear whether you're acting as a facilitator or a designer at a given moment.
  • Manage your time - Stick to the time limits you set in your agenda. Even if your participants have more ideas during one portion of the meeting, stop them and move on to the next agenda item. If a change or addition to an earlier phase of the process is brought up later on, add it to the artifacts you've produced up to that point.
  • Use humor - Where appropriate, humor is an excellent way to lighten the mood and keep things casual. If your participants can see that you're a regular person who likes to laugh, they'll relate to you more and be more willing to confide in you.
  • Acknowledge all input - Be sure to repeat, write down or at least acknowledge all input from all participants in some way. This will save time because the person who proposed the idea won't feel like they need to repeat themselves. It also builds trust by making sure everyone feels like their opinion counts and is being considered.


Don't leave anyone out

As mentioned above, it's very important that all input is acknowledged. But sometimes there are the more quiet types of people who don't like talking or participating directly in meetings. These people often have great ideas, but neglect to share them for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They're too nervous or don't like public speaking - In this case, you may have to directly ask the person what they think. If the atmosphere of the meeting is casual and conversational, it should help nervous participants feel more comfortable.
  • They don't think their idea is worth sharing - One technique for handling this is to have people write their ideas down anonymously and hand them all to you. This way, no one individual will be the center of attention in association with a specific idea.
  • Someone else in the group is dominating the discussion - Some people are more talkative. You may have to tactfully thank these people for their idea and ask them to see what others have to say.
  • Organizational politics prohibits them from addressing certain topics - This is often one of the most sensitive situations in any meeting, particularly meetings where participants are attempting to work as a team toward a common goal. We'll discuss this in more detail below.

Sometimes, there will be political conflict or difference of opinion between participants. The first line of defense in this case is to avoid including potentially conflicting pairs or groups of people in the same design session. For instance, rather than inviting both a senior manager and a junior person from a client group, try to convince the senior manager that he doesn't need to attend. Do this by requesting his ideas and noting them so he can clearly see his opinion is acknowledged before anyone else. Then assure him that you'll follow up with him separately to let him know everything that went on.

If the session is already happening and a conflict breaks out, it's up to you as the facilitator to diffuse it. First, acknowledge both sides of the issue and record both opinions for everyone to consider. Then, move on to another problem or topic so that people can cool down and have some time to reconsider their ideas. If the issue requires a decision on the part of the participants, you'll have to come back to it later. One way to come to a conclusion with minimal argument is to reach a consensus among all participants or stakeholders through discussion. This may not be possible, so be prepared to use voting as a method for decision making. If all else fails, you can take both sides of the argument with you at the end of the meeting. When you present the next deliverable, explain how you addressed both sides of the issue, or why you chose one side over the other. Ideally, your clients will respect your design expertise and knowledge of best practices.


Clearly, there are quite a few stumbling blocks along the path to success when facilitating the main portion of a collaborative design session. Don't let this discourage you. If you've prepared yourself and your participants sufficiently and introduced the meeting with a strategic approach, it should run relatively smoothly from there. By following the tips in this article, you should be able to handle most anything your users or clients throw at you. Once your meeting concludes, you'll want to follow up with your participants. Part 4 of this series will show you how to do this in a way that will keep them interested in the project and coming back for more.

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


  1. Dzinepress August 11, 2009
  2. Tyanne December 14, 2011
  3. xqkebegs December 16, 2011

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