As with any type of soft skills, becoming a better facilitator eventually comes down to how much experience and practice you get. Most importantly, facilitation leads to better user experiences.
Facilitation in the broadest sense means helping or enabling people to achieve a positive outcome. It’s an important and often under-appreciated skill for designers and other UX professionals to gain. It’s especially important as more teams embrace lean UX practices, which shift emphasis away from big deliverables toward facilitating outcomes such as continuous discovery and shared understanding.
Any kind of working session or meeting in which design decisions are being shaped needs a facilitator. The authors of Sprint, the popular book about running five-day design sprints, compare the facilitator’s role to Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s Eleven: The facilitator “keeps the heist running.” But you don’t need to run a week-long workshop to benefit from facilitation skills.
As a UX researcher, I use facilitation skills every time I lead an interview, usability test, client meeting or team presentation. You can facilitate kickoff meetings to improve shared understanding of a project’s goals and potential challenges. You can facilitate presentations to elicit more productive questions and feedback. Even impromptu discussions and group whiteboard sessions would benefit from better facilitation.
There are already a lot of great books, articles and resources about methodologies and techniques to use for collaboration. This article is focused more on developing the soft skills to feel more comfortable facilitating UX design, research and strategy sessions. You don’t need to be a full-time facilitator or leader, or even a designer. These skills can be used by anyone in any role to inject more productive collaboration throughout their design process.
Why Facilitation Matters
A designer or design team working in isolation is becoming less and less common. Sure, there are still places where a lone designer receives a brief and spends a few days or weeks on it before handing it off for someone else to implement. But more often than not, that initial exchange is just the start of a longer series of conversations.
"By collaborating with [clients] on the design, you accomplish two things: You give them a sense of control, and you educate them about the design process. This allays their fears because the process will no longer be unknown to them. – Paul Boag, "Designing With Your Clients""
In addition to the psychological benefits of collaboration, there’s an increasing need for consultation and communication throughout the design process. The knowledge that informs UX design is spread across several domains, and it changes constantly. Every week brings new technical capabilities, new competitors, new design patterns, new user expectations, new business needs and new stakeholder demands. There’s no way any one person can maintain a deep and current understanding of them all. The result is that UX design is constantly trying to hit a moving target.
Even if you have a steering committee and processes in place to manage change, the knowledge enshrined in user research reports, strategy presentations, technology roadmaps and design style guides will quickly be lost and forgotten without ongoing communication and collaboration by their various creators and champions.
Most of my recent work has been done on large web projects, including website redesigns for several colleges and a municipal government, and an e-commerce website for a manufacturer with over 3,000 products. In these types of projects, questions come up almost every week that no single person can confidently answer. For example, exactly what should go in the main menu? That depends on the style of menu. What style of menu should we use? Is it going to be a mega-menu? Well, that depends on the answer to the first question, what needs to be in it? These kinds of decisions rarely move forward (at least not in the right direction) until the right people put their little pieces of the map together to find the way. Someone needs to facilitate that discussion.
Without a facilitator, collaborative environments are susceptible to something called the bystander effect. Imagine coming across a crowd of people watching a garbage fire in the middle of the street on a nice summer afternoon. “Huh, this is so weird,” everyone thinks to themselves. “One of these people must have it under control.” It’s natural to assume that someone in that crowd must have either started the fire for a good reason or called the fire department. But everyone is thinking the same thing. Nobody’s really in control or taking initiative. That’s the bystander effect.
Something similar happens when unexpected issues arise in teams. Everybody knows that something needs to be done, but they assume someone else must be responsible. Someone has to take the initiative to get the situation under control. Like a scrum master or other “servant leader,” the facilitator of a discussion or collaborative session keeps things moving toward a positive outcome.
"Collaborative design is still a designer-led activity. It's the designer's responsibility not only to call these meetings but to facilitate them. – Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden, Lean UX"
When To Use Facilitation
Change Meetings To Working Sessions
The more comfortable you become with facilitating, the more opportunities you’ll find to practice it throughout your process. For example, kickoffs and presentation meetings can become facilitated working sessions. Working sessions generate more immediate feedback and, in some cases, even generate artifacts such as preliminary journey maps, research plans and wireframes — produced in minutes or hours, rather than days or weeks.
Working sessions or workshops are technically a type of meeting in the sense that “people are meeting,” but they don’t deserve the same level of disdain that meetings receive. What differentiates a working session from a traditional meeting is that — wait for it — you work on something. Traditional meetings are where people talk about what should happen; working sessions are where things actually happen — decisions and plans are made, artifacts and deliverables are created, outcomes are achieved, progress is made.
This isn’t to say that every coordination meeting or presentation is a waste of time. I’m also not an advocate of turning every discussion into a brainstorming session or “dot-voting” exercise. In the spirit of lean UX, be open and adaptable to whatever will achieve the best outcome, rather than getting fixated on specific artifacts and procedures.
If the team is vigorously debating something that will be costly to change, like whether or not to spend four months building an interactive product-selection tool, it’s worth spending time (possibly even a full week, as in a design sprint) making sure that everyone agrees you’re building the right thing. But if the team is gently debating something small that’s easily changeable, like which order to list items in a menu, it’s probably best to provide informed recommendations, quickly address feedback and move on.
Types Of Working Sessions
Learning when to use which facilitation method requires a bit of trial and error. Fortunately, a fairly robust body of knowledge is available on types of sessions and activities you can use to get started. Note that specific tactics for each type of working session or activity will vary, but the fundamental soft skills required for each are the same.
Here are some collaborative activities that can be used at different stages of work:
- Project kickoff
- Sketch a preliminary customer journey or experience map.
- Brainstorm preliminary research hypotheses and questions.
- Research and discovery
- Invite team members and stakeholders to observe user interviews.
- Collaboratively analyze findings.
- Collectively rate and prioritize requirements, ideas or recommendations.
- Sketch a preliminary product roadmap or action plan.
- Information architecture
- Run a card-sorting exercise to group content into categories or taxonomies.
- Wireframing and design
- Sketch and compare low-fidelity wireframes as a group (as in a design studio or design charrette).
- Collaboratively create moodboards or collages.
- Usability testing and validation
- Let team members and stakeholders observe user tests and collaboratively analyze findings.
In addition to the project steps listed above, periodic or unplanned discussions inevitably come up and would benefit from collaborative decision-making. Prioritizing work to complete before a deadline or within an upcoming sprint is a common example. Another example is dealing with unexpected technical issues that require design changes or compromises — which might mean additional decisions, approvals or consultations to work out. These types of conversations would all benefit from the facilitation skills outlined below, even if they happen in an ad-hoc way at someone’s desk or remotely.
How To Improve Your Facilitation Skills
Be Yourself — Only Better
Chances are that you didn’t become a designer or researcher because you love to facilitate group discussions. When I had to start facilitating workshops, I was terrified. At the time, I was content to sit at my desk, working with headphones on. But I found ways to be myself in front of a group, which made me more comfortable and actually carried over to other aspects of my work. It helped that I eventually had a facilitation coach who stressed the importance of personal authenticity and who validated a lot of what I was trying to do.
A facilitation style that works for the person in marketing or HR or senior management (or for your colleague who did eight conference talks last year) might not work for you. Don’t worry about being as charismatic or polished as others. The goal of facilitation isn’t to persuade people, as in a pitch meeting, nor to awe and inspire them to change the world, as in a TED talk (though, there happen to be some facilitators who can do that and use it to their advantage). The goal of facilitation is to help people (or help them help you) solve a problem. Let your source of confidence be your understanding of the process and your ability as a professional to translate inputs into positive outcomes.
Your approach to facilitation should reflect your creative process in general. For example, I hate delivering scripted, formal remarks. I don’t trust them; I expect change. I’d rather respond to immediate feedback and explore new ideas and iterate on the fly. So, I have a “move fast and break things” facilitation style, which seems chaotic to some people, but it works for me because I’m used to thinking and working that way 365 days a year. Other people might have a more methodical facilitation style, and it works for them because it fits with how they’re used to thinking and working.
It’s important to note that your own personality is just a starting point. As a facilitator, you’re also responsible for accommodating other people’s needs and styles. Someone who’s better at controlling the room might need to work on letting things flow more organically, listening and responding to change. Someone who’s a great listener might have to work on being more assertive, or maybe more organized. The perfect facilitator is as rare as the true UX generalist who can do it all. Getting comfortable with your own facilitation style means learning how to build better bridges with others.
Build An Adaptable Facilitation Toolkit
"The best facilitators have a full toolbox of tricks. They know when the whiteboard works and when it constrains the conversation. They understand how to use sticky notes or index cards. They know how to separate valuable explorations from wasteful digressions. – Jared Spool, "Five Indispensable Skills""
To be adaptable, you need a diverse set of activities, tools, resources and techniques. Sprint is a great resource for planning five-day design sprints or even just parts of design sprints, like a team-sketching session. Other resources, such as Gamestorming, Mind Tools and IDEO’s Design Kit have hundreds of activities and techniques to try. You don’t need to try or learn all of them, but the more techniques and activities you’re comfortable with, the easier it will be to manage different situations.
Get comfortable facilitating different types of activities:
- Open discussion. Sometimes the easiest and most effective form of facilitation is simply to let people talk. Even if you have a full day of hands-on activities planned, expect some free-flowing discussion to emerge (unless explicitly forbidden in a particular activity), especially around the start and end of activities, when concerns may be raised and shared understanding is being formed.
- Semi-structured discussion. Often, simply letting people talk isn’t enough to make progress. Without some structure, discussion might stall, veer off topic, become dominated by one or two people, or dwell on the same points for too long. A rough framework that breaks a problem or situation into separate parts will help rein in wayward talk and nudge people toward positive outcomes. Break down a broad topic or question into smaller chunks. Instead of asking something like, “What do you think of the website?” ask, “What are the website’s strengths? What are its weaknesses?”
- Structured activities. A lot of people prefer more structure. For example, instead of a semi-structured discussion, you could have people write ideas on sticky notes and place them on a template, such as a 2 × 2 matrix, an empathy map, a flow diagram (such as a journey map or a service blueprint) or a business-model canvas.
Also, explore different ways to facilitate structured activities:
- Hands-on activities. People are energized when they get to see something physically take shape. Even if all you’re doing is arranging sticky notes and colored dots on a whiteboard, there’s something satisfying about thinking with your hands and getting a concrete sense of progress being made. Getting people out of their chairs and moving also helps everyone stay awake after lunch.
- Individual work. Research suggests that people generate more ideas when they have time to think for themselves before discussing with a group (see Fast Company’s “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead”). Some people refer to the technique as brainwriting (a term coined by psychologist Paul Paulus). While brainstorming advocates such as Bob Sutton have questioned that research, I find that short periods of individual work help control the pace of a session and give me a chance to collect my own thoughts when things are moving quickly.
- Team breakouts. It’s usually best to avoid working with groups larger than 8 to 12, but sometimes it’s unavoidable or preferable to the alternatives, like spending additional weeks of effort on a more fragmented process. Activities that involve breaking the group into smaller teams or pairs are essential to making sure that everyone can participate and that you finish on time. Breakout activities also help you to tackle specific types of work that needs to be done, like creating content or building components of a prototype.
Knowing variations of activities and facilitation techniques will also help you to respond to unexpected challenges. I’ve had additional participants show up unexpectedly. I’ve had key participants suddenly leave — which might happen with an executive who can’t reschedule a meeting or an operations person who needs to respond to an incident. I’ve had to facilitate follow-up sessions remotely — which really meant co-facilitating or supporting the facilitator who is in the room. I’ve had to facilitate sessions in which people started dozing off after lunch. I’ve worked through a power outage that eventually forced us to seek air-conditioned refuge in another building. And, of course, I’ve had more problems with projectors and other equipment than I can keep track of.
Most of those types of challenges can be mitigated by planning and pre-session coordination, but things don’t always go as planned. The good news is there’s almost nothing you can’t manage if you’re resourceful and open enough.
Work On Actively Listening And Asking Questions
As a facilitator, you’re responsible for keeping discussions and activities on track, nurturing engagement by making participants feel genuinely appreciated and understood, and making sure key ideas are accurately remembered and captured (ideally, by a note-taker or scribe other than the lead facilitator). All three of those responsibilities require active listening. (Coincidentally, active listening helps communication in our personal lives, too.)
The foundation of active listening is empathy, with body language that shows you’re genuinely engaged and interested. Equally important is using reflective responses — “reflecting” what you’re hearing back to the speaker in order to confirm and clarify the intended message.
For example, if someone mentions a current feature, and participants start ranting about its complicated history of changes and unresolved problems, they might simply want you to understand the scope of the problem before delving into any particular solutions. You might say something like, “It sounds like this is an important feature for you. We’ll have to make sure we get it right.” In response to that, you might see a roomful of relieved and grateful nods or even smiles.
People will be more comfortable trusting you to come up with a solution when they know you appreciate the problem. Your active listening might even reveal a misunderstanding or something that wasn’t fully communicated. In the example above, participants might have responded to the facilitator’s comment by saying, “Well, no, actually we were thinking of scrapping that feature altogether, because we realized it’s not even needed.”
Develop the habit of asking questions and comments like these to practice active listening:
- “Just to make sure I understand…”
- “It sounds like you’re saying…”
- “It seems like most of you agree that…”
- “Could we summarize that as…”
And, of course, don’t forget to ask “why.”
Practice Listening As A Notetaker Or Session Scribe
You don’t need to be a facilitator to practice active listening. Most group sessions or user interviews should have a note-taker or scribe, in addition to the facilitator. Being a session scribe is a great way to develop the listening skills needed to be an effective facilitator.
My first facilitation experiences grew out of volunteering as a note-taker in a few Open Space sessions. Open Space sessions involve breaking a large group of people (often more than 100) into several smaller groups. The smaller groups may or may not have a designated or de facto facilitator, but each one must have a designated scribe. As the scribe for a self-moderated group discussion, I found myself interjecting at critical moments to clarify key points and themes that came up. As a partial aside, this is still my preferred facilitation style: Give participants a lot of freedom, while listening closely and interjecting just enough to keep things on track.
This practice of documenting ideas through active listening has the triple benefit of helping build shared understanding, moving the discussion forward, and keeping notes concise so that you don’t have to spend as much time interpreting them later. If you’re a good enough active listener, you can actually facilitate without someone else acting as note-taker, but having one is still best. Using active listening to identify and paraphrase key ideas frees you from having to try to capture every single point that’s made.
Don’t worry about capturing everything word for word. The point isn’t to transcribe, like in a court case, where a judge or juror might want to verify exactly which witness said what. The point is to capture key decisions, ideas and information for the sake of putting them into action. Too much unfiltered dialog often just makes the job of sorting through it more difficult, and won’t help you develop any useful skills (at least none that aren’t quickly being replaced by technology).
If you’re a stronger illustrator than writer, take sketchnotes of the session. As with active written note-taking, periodically review your sketchnotes with participants to make sure they accurately represent what people are thinking and trying to say.
Planning And Facilitating A Session
Define The Outcomes And Goals First
Don’t start organizing any session until you articulate the purpose of what you’re doing. The whole agenda should work toward a specific outcome, even when the agenda starts to change (more on that below).
The types of activities and methods you end up using should depend on your goals. As mentioned in the section on building an adaptable facilitation toolkit, you can use resources such as Gamestorming to plan the agenda for activities, sessions and even multi-day design sprints. Just as design patterns and development frameworks aren’t all equally suited to different applications, even great facilitation methods and activities aren’t ideal in every situation.
For example, a design sprint is a great way to decide whether to invest months of work in an innovative product or feature, especially if you’re not even sure what that product or feature is yet. But collaboratively going from ideation to testing in five days probably isn’t the best way to redesign something that already exists (because you already have something you can test) or to validate something that your client or executive team is already pushing hard for (which doesn’t require full days for ideation and decision-making).
In those cases, you might get better outcomes by diving into user research or working toward a minimum viable product instead, with a couple of shorter collaborative sessions to generate rapid input and stay aligned with stakeholders.
Design Sessions With The “Participant Experience” In Mind
"The best teams use these meeting opportunities to exercise their design skills. They think about what they intend the experience of the meeting to be in order to get the best results. – Jared Spool, ""The Redesign of the Design Process""
Empathy with participants goes a long way, both before and during facilitated sessions. I don’t go as far as developing full-blown “participant personas,” but as I work on the agenda, I put a lot of thought into who’s going to be there and what their preferences and needs are.
For example, if participants have a lot of relevant expertise, seniority or autonomy in their roles, I generally lean toward facilitating an open or semi-structured discussion (described earlier), rather than over-planning an activity that might make people feel micromanaged. On the other hand, if I’m facilitating a discovery session with customers or entry-level employees, I’ll prepare more structured, hands-on activities with a lot of specific instructions, in case participants expect to be told exactly what to do.
Also, consider the types of biases and preconceptions participants might bring with them and how you might manage those. Specifically, avoid organizing sessions in a way that allows dominant people to influence the group before listening and exploring a range of new ideas and perspectives.
Managing People’s Availability, Energy And Engagement
Be mindful of the jobs and lives that people have outside of what you’re doing. If you’re working with people from another organization (or even another department), don’t assume they work the same hours you’re used to. And if avoiding interruptions is absolutely critical, make sure you discuss any known schedule conflicts or risks before you start.
Some interruptions might need to be accommodated, and you’ll have to work the agenda around them. During my first workshop, we had planned to have a critical decision-making discussion on the first afternoon, but the key decision-maker told us on short notice that she had to step out for an important meeting. We made the mistake of trying to stick to the planned agenda, but we spent most of the afternoon saying, “We’ll have to ask Beth when she gets back.”
Once everyone’s in the room, energy levels and engagement can make or break a session. Managing energy and engagement largely comes down to paying attention to body language and other signals.
- Monitor and manage the tempo of discussion. Low energy is obviously a challenge, but too much energy can also cause problems. Ideally, people will be responsive without talking over each other or interrupting. Low energy could have a number of causes (confusion, disinterest in the topic, fatigue, even a sense of futility). Asking questions is usually the best way to diagnose the cause of low energy and to find a solution to get people more engaged. In many cases, asking these questions is enough to get things moving. If people are too energetic, I might initiate 5 to 10 minutes of breakout discussions or individual work to let people get the rough ideas out of their heads before taking up everyone else’s time.
- Keep track of everyone’s involvement. Two people doing all the talking is a bad sign. One or two dominant voices can turn off everyone else. You don’t need to give everyone equal speaking time, but be generous with eye contact and try to create opportunities to include the quietest people.
- Watch where people are looking. Ideally, people will be looking at whoever is talking. It’s often a bad sign when people are staring at their laptop or the table in front of them for long periods. Looking off into space or staring at work in progress might be OK — it might mean the person is thinking, which is good — but multiple people doing it for a prolonged period might mean there’s some confusion about what’s going on.
A whole article could be written on tactics for managing energy and engagement in a session. The “right” thing to do depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, who you’re working with and the type of facilitator you are. For example, humor can be a great way to manage energy and engagement, but not everyone can pull it off. The most important thing to do is observe, listen, communicate and ask questions.
Don’t forget to make sure participants’ basic workday needs are met: water, caffeine, food and a break every 1.5 to 2 hours. For long sessions and workshops, it’s best to have someone outside the room in an administrative role to take care of things such as catering details, but it’s up to the facilitator to work breaks into the agenda.
Narrate The Basics…
The facilitator is responsible for keeping everyone up to speed and moving in the same direction. This means clarifying and conveying information about what’s going to happen, what’s happening and what has already happened. It might sound obvious but it’s easily overlooked, especially when you know more about the process than the participants do.
The more that participants have to think about session logistics (activities, process, timing, etc.), the less they’ll be able to contribute and absorb. At the very least, periodically provide an update on what you’re working toward, what’s been done so far and what you’re doing next. Think of yourself more as a narrator in a movie — someone who jumps in at critical junctures to create a cohesive story — rather than a play-by-play announcer calling every shot.
…But Let Others Do Most Of The Talking
Encouraging other people to be talkative and open can be difficult when you’re doing all of the talking. In many cases, the less you say, the better. Once you’ve planted the seeds of discussion, back off to give participants time and space to think out loud.
As interviewers such as Steve Portigal have noted, awkward silence tends to induce people to talk. Get comfortable with silence. Sometimes, other people’s discomfort (or need to fill silence) is great enough that their comments become less guarded and more insightful. It’s not uncommon for people to correct or contradict something they said earlier if you give them enough silence to fill.
During one recent user interview I conducted, I was surprised to hear the participant say how “brilliant” a website’s search function was. While I was sitting there nodding diplomatically, trying to think of a polite way to ask if he was being honest, he spoke up again and added, “Well, actually the search does give me a lot of weird results…” From there, I was able to probe further into what he meant by “weird results” and how he handles them, which led to a deeper understanding of how he actually used the website as opposed to how he thought he used it. The silence actually energized the conversation.
There’s often a temptation for the facilitator to jump into the discussion with both feet. Some participation is good, because things go better when people trust and like you. But avoid setting a standard where people expect to sit back and let you do all of the talking. Try to answer questions by asking questions in return.
Don’t Be Afraid To Improvise
When I prepare for a workshop or session, I look at my plan as a prototype to test, rather than a script to memorize. Some problems might be obvious during a pre-session walkthrough, but you can’t possibly anticipate every issue, complication or need that might come up (unless you’ve done the same workshop many times and refined the structure to accommodate variations).
Effective facilitators, like good DJs, can sense and respond to the mood the room. Sometimes I’m surprised by which activities and discussions get people engaged (and which don’t). Rather than cut off a lively and productive discussion at the predetermined stop time, it might be better to play to that energy by changing how long you spend on different activities, or even eliminating some activities altogether — as long as the overarching goals of the session are achieved.
This is where building an adaptable toolkit and being comfortable with different degrees of openness and structure are essential. At one point in my first workshop, I started to get a sense that the discussion was losing momentum. We’d done most of our planned exercises and were hoping to come up with a short list of priorities before moving on. We didn’t have a structured exercise prepared for this step. As first-time facilitators, we had assumed (or hoped) that the priorities would have been fairly clear by then — if not to us, then to the client. What happened instead was that the bystander effect creeped in. Nobody was 100% comfortable being the decider. So, I started writing ideas on sticky notes, which I placed in a makeshift Eisenhower matrix on the whiteboard. People immediately perked up when the sense of focus and direction was restored.
Some of my favorite moments as a facilitator have been totally unplanned. But note that “unplanned” isn’t the same as being unprepared. Improvising is easier when you’re continually building and refining your toolkit, deepening your soft skills and staying disciplined about the underlying goals you want to achieve. Focus on achieving outcomes, not just following procedures and producing outputs.
As with any type of soft skills, becoming a better facilitator eventually comes down to how much experience and practice you get. There will be challenges and occasional embarrassments that make you want to run and hide. I’ve had my share of scary moments as a facilitator, but I made it out of them with a much better understanding of how people work and how to work better with them.
Facilitating collaborative sessions won’t just make you a better facilitator; it’ll make you a better collaborator in any UX role. Facilitation helps you to keep assumptions in check by staying open-minded and empathetic. It builds comfort with working through uncertainty and change. It helps you to condition the reflex of listening and asking why before jumping to solutions. Most importantly, facilitation leads to better user experiences through smoother, more collaborative and more satisfying design processes.
Tools And Resources
- Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience, Jeff Gothelf
- Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
- Gamestorming: A Toolkit for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo
- Mind Tools
- Design Kit
- Using Brainwriting For Rapid Idea Generation
- How To Moderate Effectively In Usability Research
- The Lean UX Manifesto: Principle-Driven Design
- Incorporating More Quiet Into The UX Design Process