How to prep an effective kick-off workshop
We look at projects holistically. As designers and engineers, we aim not to simply be contractors who execute somebody else’s blueprints, but to help our clients build their tech cathedrals. This means understanding the product we are building down to its very roots and details. To achieve this, we kick projects off with a (preferably) face-to-face client workshop.
Firstly, they help everyone get on the same page, quickly. As a designer, project manager or engineer, you might’ve gotten a description or summary of the project, or maybe you got a 60-page-long description of why it is amazing. That’s great, and you will need all those things (more on that later). But all materials are useless if you understand them differently than your client. This is why understanding goals and vision is crucial in order not to waste valuable development time.
Secondly, a workshop is a great tool to coax ALL information out of a client. Maybe they know stuff they’re not sure enough about to write down, or they didn’t deem important. Thanks to a couple of tricks described below we can make sure that we have everything we need to start working.
Finally, it’s a fantastic kick-off. Ideally, everyone meets face-to-face. For us, this includes all the stakeholders client-side and both designers and developers on our side. It’s a lot more fun to work on a team you know and to collaborate with people you can put a face on. By gathering everyone you also make sure you get everyone on board with your project. It’s a lot harder to be a naysayer when you co-create something.
Client workshops are not science. We don’t have rigorous procedures or must-have exercises. But we do have a framework we use to determine how to setup and run a workshop which I will present to you in 3 simple steps.
We use a list of four bases to check how much information we have about a new project. They are:
What problem are we solving? Why are we doing this project? What are its goals? These are key questions for a product’s success. You can, of course, build one without knowing any of the answers, but you wouldn’t walk into a dark basement without a flashlight, hoping there were stairs, would you?
Finding out as much as you can about future users of the product can be very helpful for prioritising work and ensuring you are building an app that people will want to use. If you are building a product for an existing brand or platform, you should be able to obtain real data about current users. If you are starting from square 1, it might help to think about existing products the target audience would be using right now, e.g. if you are targeting runners, maybe there is data about Nike+ users you can use.
A hot topic in IT projects. How big is this thing gonna be? Is there a feature list, or a description of what the product is going to contain? Gather data as specific as possible, as scope will help you build a realistic timeline and estimate well, which in turn is going to help you avoid heated discussions with the client.
Whether you work with a big corporation or a budding startup, the product you’re building will have a brand. If you are just building software, it’s probably not your responsibility to think about the actual branding, but it helps to know as much as possible, as it might influence priorities, e.g. is it more important that the interface has fancy custom animations or that the data fetching is as performant as possible? For designers, this is key to designing the UI.
After you have determined what information you can get upfront, you will need to get the rest. Sometimes you will have a lot of time to prepare, sometimes it’s all last minute. We have some tried and tested ways for both scenarios.
If you have one week and the client has no clue about story, ask them to fill out a Lean Canvas. It is a tool designed to cover all of the key questions of a project. You can find out details about the reasoning behind it here.
If you only have a day, it might be too big of a task. Instead, we use a short exercise we call Fill The Gaps invented by our Head of Design, Karolina:
Try out [product]! You will never [user problem] again. Thanks to [most important feature] you will be able to [goals to achieve]. Feel like [user’s emotions].
By writing a corny advertising slogan, the client will be forced to think about the bigger picture and the end user.
A lack of data about users is almost exclusively a problem with new brands, where there is no existing user base. If you are working with a bigger company, they will probably already have personas or actual statistics you can ask to see.
If you have a week and no data about potential users, you can ask your client to do a simple survey with people who match their dream user profile. These will include some universal questions (how familiar are they with technology, what are their favourite apps, what are their favourite brands, their typical day) and some questions pertaining to the subject matter. For a shopping app this could be how often they shop for new clothes and where, for a job board this could be how they got their last jobs. Make sure questions are simple and easy to interpret.
If you only have a day, give your client a list of key user characteristics to think about: age, lifestyle, job type/level, where they live and what brands they would currently be loyal to and other things important for your area.
If your client has no idea about scope, do nothing. You should work out a smart feature set and divide it into milestones together after you have finished the workshop.
If the brand doesn’t exist, do one thing regardless of how much time you have: ask the client for 5 adjectives that they would describe the product with – the brand personality. An example brand could be youthful, energetic, happy, positive, simple.
If you have more than a day: most clients are not designers, so they might have a hard time naming what they want. This is why we work with examples: in the workshop we show them various app screens and they say like or dislike. We also prepare examples of visual trends (e.g. flat and colourful, gloomy gradients, white and light) and show them as directions we can go in, based on the 5 words they provided. Prepare them before the workshop.
Now is the time to plan. We share our favourite tools in part two of this post – read it here!