A UX Designer’s Guide To Facilitation

Are you in UX but curious about facilitation? Find out how facilitation skills can boost your career, plus get tips on hosting your first design workshop!

If you’re a UX designer who is interested in facilitating design workshops or learning about how facilitation skills can help boost your UX career, then this is the article for you. 

We’ll be diving into what the role of facilitation is in UX design, the key skills and attributes of great facilitators, how facilitation skills benefit the UX design process, what a design facilitator does, and a list of actionable steps you can take to help you run a successful design thinking workshop. 

What is facilitation in UX design?

The goals of facilitation are to enable others to reach their goals, solve key issues, promote cross-collaboration between team members and departments, and encourage innovative problem solving. While a facilitator seeks to bring about these positive outcomes irrespective of the project, company, or industry they are working in, within a UX design process, facilitation skills are even more necessary. This is because so many parts of the UX design methodology, such as interviewing users, conducting usability tests, hosting client meetings, or presenting results to the team, significantly benefit from facilitation best practices. 

What are key facilitation skills and attributes? 

Before we dive deeper into facilitation in UX design, let’s take a look at some of the general skills all great facilitators have in common.  

Active listening

An essential skill in facilitation is active listening, using eye-contact and body language to demonstrate your focus on the person speaking. When nonverbal cues are not just adopted, but also recognized, the facilitator is able to fully grasp what the other person is saying, the emotion behind the sentiment, and have a more rounded understanding of the reasons behind why they are saying it. 

Empathy

As is also the case in UX design, empathy is a fundamental requirement of facilitation. A facilitator seeks to create an empathetic and collaborative environment that allows respectful discussion and debate. When this is achieved, a group is more likely to come up with more innovative solutions to an issue. Leading by example, the facilitator should demonstrate empathy, authenticity, understanding, and an approachable attitude that creates an environment within which everyone feels safe to share their views. 

Enthusiasm

Keeping up the energy levels of the group is no easy task as a facilitator, but staying enthusiastic and motivating others is key to running successful workshops. A facilitator needs to keep the group excited about the task ahead, pose challenging or pointed questions in a compelling way, and explain tricky concepts in a style that is not just informative, but also inspiring and unwaveringly positive. 

Diplomacy

Managing the team’s varying opinions about the workshopping process and how to solve the challenge means that a facilitator needs finely tuned diplomatic skills and a heavy dollop of tact to bring out the best of any group. Assertiveness here is also key as effective discussion and collaboration can only come about when everyone respects the rules, which it is up to the facilitator to (gently) remind everyone of. 

Objectivity 

As an outsider to the team, the facilitator has the advantage of objectivity when seeking to solve a team’s challenge. Unaffected by team hierarchies or workplace power struggles, this unbiased approach ensures the outcomes of the workshop are informed by the design process and design thinking best practices, rather than internal agendas, opinions, or historical solutions. 

Two UX designers standing a front of a whiteboard filled with sticky notes.

Why use facilitation in the UX design process? 

Facilitation skills such as the ones we’ve outlined here are valuable for anyone hoping to future-proof their career. As this recent study regarding the future of employment proves, problem-solving, innovative thinking, and leadership skills are going to become increasingly sought-after by employers going forward in every industry. However, for UX designers in particular, facilitation skills aren’t just a “nice to have”; they bring about significant benefits to the UX design process itself, improve client outcomes, and increase the UX designer’s own market worth within the field of UX. 

Let’s take a look at the benefits to UX designers of learning facilitation techniques. 

Gather information more effectively

There are numerous ways UX designers and UX researchers can gather information about user preferences in order to inform a customer-facing process, product design, or general experience with a brand. These techniques might include usability tests, interviews, surveys, card sorting, and field studies. To implement these established UX data-collection techniques, a UX designer spends a significant amount of time with groups of users; observing their progress, understanding and empathizing with their problems, listening to their feedback and concerns, and remaining neutral in the face of varied ideas, opinions, and constraints. Such key skills are learned and honed through facilitation training, which, when adopted by UX design professionals, ensures the collection of user data is both accurate and efficiently managed. 

Unlock potential 

Facilitation skills are the key to unlocking the potential of a group of people. Without empathy, a group of users is less likely to open up about their true goals, motivations, and needs. Without leadership, a team of designers or developers is less likely to feel confident in solving the challenge ahead or adopting a specific process or methodology. A combination of all of these facilitation skills unlock the confidence in a design team, enabling them to share learnings, cross-collaborate, and innovate. Facilitation skills also unlock the potential of the UX designer, enabling them to bring a diverse range of people together to solve a problem, make a greater impact in their role, and deliver better outcomes for clients. From a career progression perspective, this is a major advantage. 

Generate more innovative solutions 

The enthusiasm and innovative thinking required of facilitators are skills UX designers can utilize during all phases of the UX design process, from research to testing, prototyping, and presentation. Although we typically think of creative thinking in relation to the designing of the final product, all of these phases are opportunities for UX designers to think creatively, with each stage benefitting from being approached from new angles. When the whole design process is looked at with fresh eyes and an experimental mindset, not only are more possible solutions found, but those solutions are more innovative, too. 

Improve client feedback rounds and discussions 

The people-managing skills learned from facilitation, in particular active listening, diplomacy, objectivity, and leadership, bring huge advantages to the UX designer during the last stages of the design process when a project is delivered to the client. These skills enable them to stand firmly behind the decisions of the team and the end product and effectively communicate how and why the outcome was delivered in the way it was. Such diplomatic and design leadership skills enable the UX designer to manage the conversation, objectively and diplomatically defend processes and outcomes, and not fall victim to numerous external opinions. 

Improved outcomes 

By prioritizing innovative thinking, creativity, and enthusiasm within the UX design process, a UX designer can create an environment within which more new solutions can be uncovered by both the client and the team. When innovation is at the top of the agenda, and a UX designer has the facilitation techniques to bring that out in the team, outcomes for the client are inevitably improved. 

Become a UX design leader 

The ability to confidently organize and manage a workshop, bring about cross-functional collaboration and guide diverse groups of people towards a singular, desired outcome are skills that are extremely valuable in the field of UX design. Learned through facilitation training and running workshops, a UX designer with these leadership qualities can confidently apply to team lead or lead UX designer positions, in doing so increasing their potential earnings and boosting their professional status.

Take your UX / UI design career to the next level with workshops and facilitation

What does a design facilitator do?

A design facilitator, also referred to as a design thinking facilitator, seeks to organize, manage, and lead workshops centered around design thinking best practices and techniques in order to solve business, design, development, or operational challenges faced by a team or company. 

The five phases of design thinking followed by a design facilitator during a workshop are: 

  • Empathize - Understanding user problems and needs
  • Define - Articulating the challenge 
  • Ideate - Brainstorming ideas and devising solutions 
  • Prototype - Building prototypes 
  • Test - Testing on users 

With an emphasis on collaboration, the user’s experience with a product, and innovative approaches to problem-solving, different techniques are introduced by the facilitator during a workshop which bring out the potential, expertise, and skills of each team member to solve the problem posed. These exercises and activities are usually focused around problem framing, problem solving, and decision making. This approach helps the team to uncover new insights, ideas, and solutions that may not be revealed through previous problem-solving attempts or more traditional strategies.  

A UX design workshop participant explaining her design concept while pointing at a graph sketched on a whiteboard

How do you facilitate a UX design workshop?

Whatever type of design workshop you’re interested in facilitating–a kick-off workshop, an alignment workshop, a co-design workshop, a rapid prototyping workshop, or even a retrospective meeting–we’ve put together a short set of best practices you can use for facilitating a design workshop

1. Define and communicate the UX design workshop goal

Your first step is to decide what you want to achieve with this workshop. Is there an urgent problem that needs solving? A recurring bottleneck? A common customer complaint, or a sticky hiring issue? Once the challenge is clear, communicate both the issue you’d like to solve and your desired outcome of a workshop with the team members you’ll be inviting to join it. This gives them the chance to turn up prepared and with the right expectations for the session. Sending the agenda around in advance will also contribute to a general feeling of preparedness for yourself and the participants. If you’re not sure how to write a great agenda, we’ve got some agenda tips and templates for you here

2. Decide on the team 

When selecting workshop participants try to focus less on job titles, and more on the diversity of skills and backgrounds. You’ll want lots of diverging opinions and viewpoints to produce the largest collection of ideas and possible solutions. The number of participants will vary from company to company, but the magic number is somewhere between 7 and 12 individuals. Core roles to consider aside from the facilitator include: 

  • A decider 
  • A customer expert 
  • A business expert 
  • A prototype

Depending on the challenge, you may also want to bring in a marketing expert, a design expert, and a financial expert.

Do you have what it takes to become a high-paid facilitator?

3. Prepare the workshop location 

To ensure everyone has the space and resources they need to fulfill the requirements of the workshop, you’ll need to put some thought into the session’s location and your workshop supplies. Aim for a room with lots of surface area, tables, moveable chairs, whiteboards, and windows so that everyone has the space to draw, write, think, discuss, and walk around. Make sure you have plenty of different colored Post-it notes, colored pieces of paper, marker pens, and pencils. A clock, stopwatch, or timer will also be helpful for keeping everyone on schedule. Coffee, water, and healthy snacks will help keep the team hydrated, fed, and happy too. Don’t forget HDMI cables!

When preparing for a remote or hybrid workshop, there are some basic rules you can follow which will ensure energy levels stay high, your participants remain engaged, and your session runs according to plan. 

  • Create a clear structure for the workshop including the timings of each activity and send it to the team before the day of the workshop (don’t forget to include regular breaks)
  • Include lots of buffer time (things always take longer when conducted remotely)
  • Communicate the tool or tools you’ll be using for the session and ask participants to practice using them ahead of time
  • Set clear expectations for the group on how the session will run
  • Ensure all participants know the benefits of keeping their cameras on throughout and their mics on mute when not speaking (and insist on this)
  • Test all the technology you’ll be using well in advance and have backup activities for the group in case any of it fails
  • Make the most of the digital tools out there for facilitating online workshops that save you time and enable better remote collaboration 

For more information about running remote or hybrid workshops, check out our posts How To Run a Hybrid Meeting and A Beginner’s Guide To Running Amazing Online Workshops.

4. Choose the workshop exercises 

There are numerous tried and tested techniques, games, and exercises to help bring about creativity, innovation, and solutions during a workshop.

Techniques to help frame the problem: 

Exercises to help make decisions: 

Activities for sharing ideas and solutions: 

Don’t be afraid to create your own games and activities too.

UX designer sketching app wireframes during a design thinking workshop.

5. Establish ground workshop rules

As the workshop facilitator, the team will look to you for guidance and clarity on the process. To instill trust and demonstrate leadership, begin the workshop with a clear set of simple ground rules so that everyone knows what is expected of them and what they can expect of you. An example of a ground rule might be: no devices allowed during the workshop. Email the ground rules around to the team before the workshop so that they have time to prepare themselves if necessary. Once you’ve explained the rules, you can also give participants key information about breaks, snacks, and how long you expect the session to last. 

6. Keep to schedule 

In order to get through the workshop and out the other side with a usable solution, you’ll need to be a strict timekeeper. Be prepared to cut off conversations or exercises in order to stick to the schedule, but use your judgment if a useful discussion is bringing about new ideas or results. If that’s the case, you may have to sacrifice a planned exercise for the greater good. Be as flexible as you can be without allowing segments to drag too long over time, and make sure everyone gets to leave the workshop at the time originally stated. 

7. Draw conclusions and wrap up! 

Taking the time to wrap up your workshop will help solidify what’s been learned and give you a chance to provide actionable next steps and follow-ups for the team. This communicates to the team that the work they put into the workshop and the outcomes achieved won’t be left hanging.  

Some simple rules of thumb for the end of your session: 

  • Summarize what’s been achieved 
  • Identify the biggest takeaway
  • Discuss and decide upon the next steps
  • Ask the team what they feel was missed or still needs to be workshopped 

We hope you’ve enjoyed our deep dive into the role of facilitation in UX design, and how facilitation skills can boost both your UX design practice and career. 

If you’d like to learn more about facilitation techniques and how to learn them to increase your market worth as a UX designer, check out the following articles:

How to design and run a successful workshop 

The ultimate facilitation training and courses guide 

Why facilitation is the skill of the future 

Rosie Allabarton