We are software developers, and that means we get to work with lots of amazing product designers, project managers, and startup founders to help define the values & goals of many great companies and products. And being part of a product or design team means that you spend a lot of time collaborating, trying to create better products in order to deliver more value to customers.
When conceptualizing or designing a new product, every founder, manager, designer and developer should know when and how to plan a product workshop, why it is an important part of product development, and how to run one. In this article, we’ll discuss how to think about workshops, and when you should (or should not) run a product development workshop.
Understanding the Online Workshop - Part 2
This article is part 2 in a five-part series about online discovery, product, and design workshops. Click the links below to go back or skip ahead to the next article.
A product workshop is narrowed by definition to the development of a single product or service. Discovery workshops can be focused on an entire company or even a broad range of products, but product development workshops are far more targeted. All those wonderful value-driven, big-picture ideas you came up with during the discovery phase can now be carried over and mapped onto a specific product.
Depending on what stage of product development you are in, these workshops could even be a continuation of the discovery phase. They can be quick, taking just a few sessions, or go on for weeks, such as with the Google Venture Design Sprint, one of many alternative design processes which, according to GV, is: “a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers.”
Whatever form they take, workshops or design sprints should be planned to last as long as necessary to achieve a minimum viable product (MVP).
The online shoes and clothing retailer Zappos.com is well known for being an amazing place to work (only 13% of employees leave Zappos voluntarily each year, according to Forbes), and having a level of customer retention (over 75%) that any business would envy. In fact, its customers are known for coming back after their first purchase and making even larger purchases the next time!
This is no accident. Former CEO Tony Hsieh, in his book “Delivering Happiness”, explains how the company spent an entire year workshopping their values and discovering how to apply them to their e-commerce services. This culminated in the overarching ethos of “Delivering Wow” which the company applies to every customer interaction.
Zappos was started in 1999 and earned approximately $1.6 million in sales revenue in its first year (Footwear News). By 2015, Zappos was logging over $2 billion in revenues annually, and the company has since been bought out by Amazon. Using workshops to understand your internal values and customers’ emotional needs can pay off big time.
There are lots of great reasons to run product workshops. In the early stages of product or UX design, it can be exciting to see the first wireframes, mockups, and prototypes start to emerge. The whole product team is engaged with the process and motivated to help bring the new product to market. But there are also situations in which conditions within the team make additional workshops necessary.
For example, if your team is stuck on a decision, holding a workshop could help clear any blockers due to available time and resources, or conflicting opinions. Similarly, team members such as developers or project managers often have differing priorities for products at different stages, so product workshops can help clear the way if the path forward is unclear.
Unaligned stakeholders can pull the team’s focus in different directions and away from the original purpose or problem being solved. And more forceful personalities with louder voices can prevent quieter or less confident team members from contributing valuable insights. Use a product workshop to get everyone on the same page, and make sure the product is tracking agreed-upon stakeholder and customer values.
Under Agile software development and other modern, fast-paced project management philosophies, it can be tempting to try and solve every problem with a workshop and a flurry of colourful post-it notes. However, there are times when a workshop might do more harm than good. As a project manager, those are times to sit back, assess the situation, and decide how best to move forward. Here are a few examples:
Sometimes the most productive use of your team’s time is just sitting down to talk over a key point, issue or obstacle. You might not need a full workshop if the point in question is better served by using a simple moderated discussion, with an agenda and time limit.
During workshops, all stakeholders need to be active, vocal, and open-minded in order to make good forward progress. If a participant can’t or won’t make a decision about something, that can derail the entire process. Make sure key stakeholders are ready and willing to contribute.
We’ve all been in meetings where the leader asks everyone in the room to read a complex document, piece of data or research which takes time to absorb and react to. Distribute information like this ahead of time so team members can come to workshops prepared.
While the supplies you need for a workshop are pretty basic (post-it notes, pens, notebooks, water and/or snacks for longer sessions), the goals, participants and activities require careful thought on the part of the organizer. Here are the basic steps you should follow as a workshop lead to prepare for a successful session:
Define a goal and output for the workshop. Be clear about what you want to achieve, and what the tangible artefacts produced during the session will be. This might be to explain the production process to stakeholders, to better understand the business needs, risks and dependencies of the product, or to create user journeys and map product functions onto different pain points or user stories.which reflects stakeholder and customer values, condensed into one readable pyramid. This will be the primary source for writing your competitive advantage.
Decide on workshop participants. You might be leading the workshop, or you might want to assign a dedicated session lead who is good at organizing & leading meetings, and keeping attendees on task. Then you need to invite participants, who will be determined by the specific goals of the product workshop. This can be product managers, engineers or UX designers, stakeholders from other departments like sales or customer service, and even customers themselves. Limit sessions to 4-8 participants.
Gather needed materials. This includes all the physical materials like pens, post-its, notebooks or loose sheets of paper, as well as the physical space with adequate room to accommodate everyone and all the activities you have planned. There should be a large whiteboard for sticky notes and dry erase markers, and a computer with or without a projector, if someone will be typing notes or displaying media.
Run the workshop! This part might seem obvious, but making sure that key stakeholders and the workshop lead are present and following the stated goals & agenda of the workshop are critical. Without careful adherence to protocol, your product workshop can easily go off the rails without accomplishing what you set out to achieve.
We will give you a step-by-step guide to running a discovery or product design workshop in the next article in this series, How to Run Product Development Workshops. But before we get there, it’s helpful for planning your workshop to think about the kinds of activities which will be the most useful. These include activities that help you understand and decide, activities that help you empathize, and those that help you diverge and explore new ideas.
At DO OK, we have developed a custom activity set which helps you address all of the above focus areas. For example, the Value-driven Pyramid helps empathize by visualizing stakeholder and customer values, and the Value-driven Backlog helps map those values onto actual product functions. Event Storming helps you understand user persona and pain points, and create user stories in order to make decisions about product features. Mapping assumptions and pre-supposed risks allow stakeholders to explore each other’s opinions and ideas that they may never have considered.
There is no fixed set of activities which apply to all workshops because every product workshop and session will have different goals and desired outcomes. But by adhering to methodologies discussed in our previous article (What is a Discovery Workshop), such as the Value-driven Workshop Method, Lean Consulting, Event Storming, and the Story Points method, you can design all kinds of productive activities which encourage participation and lead to positive, informative results.
Check out soon the next article in our series, How to Run Product Design Workshops, for a step-by-step guide to running a successful product workshop.