How To Prepare For A Problem-solving Workshop

December 31, 2021

Neil Webb, Design Producer and problem-solving workshop facilitator at MOHARA shed light on the process and how it works.

What is a Problem-Solving Workshop – and how to prepare for it?

Imagine sitting in a room with a firm of doctors. Each specialist diligently considers every aspect of a patient's case. Everyone with their knowledge at play – everyone geared to provide viable solutions to address the challenges they face. Design is an entirely different world to the medical industry but, in the very same way, design is essentially problem-solving. As designers, we use multiple practices to validate and authenticate solutions with our partners.

To align everyone, we set up Problem-Solving Workshops (PSWs). These are workshops where we dissect every aspect of the problem – and identify potential challenges and find the best solutions and ways to navigate them. Finally, we validate the process through testing.

Neil Webb, Design Producer and problem-solving workshop facilitator at MOHARA shed light on how this process works by answering a few of our probing questions.

What are problem-solving workshops?

In essence, PSWs is our take on a Google design sprint. It is a time-constrained, rapid five-stage process used to answer essential product questions. It speeds up the design process and allows you to test and iterate your ideas quickly. As a result, you can shortcut the endless debate cycle and compress months of thinking and iteration into a single idea. Therefore, you are reducing risk at a basic level and saving a founder time and money.

What are the fundamentals of setting up a workshop?

You’ll need to have the founder on board. It’s their idea, and they have done a lot of research in the past. Ensure the founder understands what they will get as a result; deliverables are a big part of it; you want to be very transparent. Next, you need between five and seven people in the workshop team. If you’re working with a large organisation, you should preferably have more than one stakeholder from the company; these would be the subject matter experts. We would include a Facilitator, a Lead Designer, a Lead Engineer and potentially introduce an Engagement Lead too.

How do you facilitate a problem-solving workshop?

The process should begin with a week of research, onboarding and setup. To start with, one has to understand the problem. That means ensuring that the client and other key stakeholders have been interviewed and have filled out a pre-workshop questionnaire, which helps the team to understand the founder’s vision and long-term goals.

In the past, teams conducted PSWs in person. Everyone came together to create an effective way of solving problems that brought out the best contributions of everyone on the team. However, working remotely has changed the way we do PSWs. And, whilst at MOHARA, we’re used to working remotely, not being able to do sessions in person does present a few challenges.

The hardware setup is critical to ensuring that the process is smooth. The templates that are built for the different sessions need to be prepared in advance as they help guide all participants through multiple activities and checkpoints and revisit relevant information at any point. Interactive whiteboard products support this by adding a space for collaboration and review. Timelines, key deliverables, and communication are other major factors in ensuring that the process is smooth and that the client feels comfortable and understands where we are going.

How do PSWs help reduce risks?

PSWs make it easier to plan for the design and development cycle. We include engineers and designers in the workshop to uncover anything that might lead to uncertainty. Of course, some risks will be more significant than others, but it helps us think about, prepare and develop solutions ahead of time.

A traditional in-person workshop happens over four to five days. The activities on the first day are all about aligning ourselves, as a team, to understand the users, their needs and the different challenges they may face during the product development cycle. Several problem-solving techniques can be used to get the best outcome. The idea is to choose the most suitable and effective technique for your specific product.

What are the next steps?

Participants envision the solution by sketching the idea and concepts. Then, they look for and examine examples they have found elsewhere. The team will then consider how certain features could resolve critical challenges. There may be many ideas on how to solve the challenges faced, so the next decision-making stage is very valuable. The team and stakeholders decide which solution and critical features they would like to test and then turn that solution into a high-fidelity prototype.

The last part of the PSWs focuses on qualitative testing. We want to gain valuable feedback from actual users, so it’s imperative to select them carefully. We ask participants to perform tasks, usually using specific user interfaces. While the participant completes each task, we observe the participant’s behaviour and listen for feedback.

How long does it take to integrate a problem-solving workshop fully?

PSWs are mainly about speed and reducing risk. Pragmatic and efficient, the PSWs transform the way teams work and collaborate. The return on investment is substantial because PSWs condense months of work into just a few days or weeks.

How does conducting remote problem-solving workshops impact the process?

Usually, we can go through the different phases within a week. But, remotely, it's slightly different: you can't have someone in a workshop call all day long; the sessions are intense and require a lot of focus. We have to slow things down for everyone taking part because these sessions help us understand whether users will receive a feature or product well.

We split the PSWs into one or two workshops a week. We then build the prototype, providing feedback every day, ensuring the founder understand what we're doing and why.

What role does prototyping have in a workshop process?

Much of this process is about speed. We do not want to start building anything in code at this stage. Instead, using Figma, our prototyping tool of choice, the designer will lay out various screens and connect them with the specific steps we want users to take. Based on some of the critical questions that we have defined in our sessions, we will share a link with the users and then give them particular tasks that we want them to carry out. We can then test which, if any of our assumptions were correct, start to think about some of the primary user journeys, the user experience, and some of the other core features.

What are the most overlooked aspects of a problem-solving workshop?

It’s important to understand that the entire process is not just about design. There needs to be some technical expertise as well. That is why we don’t call these Design Sprints, but rather PSWs. It’s about using design and engineering to help solve a problem.

One of the significant challenges regarding remote workshops is how much energy is required. If you're in a room full of people like we used to be, you'd be able to generate solutions, get everyone together and build up the excitement. However, doing it over a screen is tricky. It’s challenging to keep things energised and avoid going over the same points and using valuable time.

Inclusion is also essential. The idea, especially with remote PSWs, is to ensure everyone has a voice. Not everyone will speak up in a session. Naturally, some people are more vocal than others, and these people will generally lead the conversation. If someone gives the slightest bit of insight, it could potentially change the whole direction of the team’s solutions. It only has to be one comment somewhere or a note. For this reason, everyone must have a voice.

Are there any pitfalls?

There's potential for hardware to go wrong. For example, you might lose someone on a call, interrupting the whole process and the flow.

From a facilitation point of view, having a plan for each product-solving workshop and a clear outline of what will take place is also essential. That means mapping out the different activities and making sure that people know how long each activity will take.

The user testing has to be qualitative rather than quantitative because, at this point, you're asking for detailed information and feedback on the exercises they've had to do, particularly to establish where there might be any problems. You wouldn't get that kind of data from quantitative research.

Do you have to check in with various stakeholders after the workshop?

If we've just sold design services only and nothing else, we would undoubtedly want to check in with the client afterwards. Client feedback is always useful. It’s important to get an update on how they are getting on from a product perspective and their insights and feedback on the PSWs process itself!

Suppose we already have an agreement with the client to do further design work post-prototyping, or engineering (or both). We've already started to discuss those phases in more detail during some of the later sessions. Another reason why having an engineering representative during the sessions is valuable.

During the PSWs, we compile a list of challenges to write up as questions which we aim to answer with our solution by the end of the workshops. After the PSWs have concluded, we provide a report with user testing results, including data, a breakdown, and evidence of all the conducted activities.

What do you enjoy most about setting up problem-solving workshops?

I enjoy engaging with founders and experiencing their passion for their products. It’s also great to work with the engineers, watch how they engage in the sessions, and identify solutions; having those different viewpoints is essential.

Setting up the workshop is enjoyable too because it involves using design tools that are constantly evolving; I am a designer at heart, after all.

Now that you have the lowdown on Problem Solving Workshops, we suggest calling in the relevant troops to get started. It takes a team of experts to navigate challenges and produce a product that makes one proud. Effective planning is the way to foresee risks and aim for success. So get your tools packed; with Neil’s guidance and tips in hand, you’re certainly off to a good start.