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October 2019
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Involving stakeholders from the beginning of the design process will help you and your stakeholders to make important decisions together, as one team. Having them on board means that you have access to information that you otherwise wouldn’t have. It gives everyone involved a chance to express their point of view, before you start working on any concepts. It even can help you to get closer to the users and talk to them. But most importantly, early involvement will shape an atmosphere of trust, mutual respect and shared enthusiasm. Without all that, there can hardly be any success.

OK, what if stakeholders for some reason can’t explain or articulate the problems they see or ideas they have about the product? What if there’s just too many things and they don’t know where or how to start? Well, then you need to act. Yes, you have to do something! You don’t want to work on a product without knowing what the client wants or what the problems are, because you will be the one they will point their finger at. I believe that the feeling is the same for stakeholders since they spend their time (and money) for you and don’t know what to expect.

What about working with the POs? If you’re working with POs and they don’t know how to properly shape requests from stakeholders into clear design requirements, then you need to help them. Don’t be passive and say “yeah it’s not my job”. Stay constructive, show that you care, invest that extra effort and it will pay off! Stakeholders (including POs) will recognise your efforts and will respect you for taking the project seriously. You will only prove that you are the UX expert, the design professional, the problem-solver, the one that wants to understand the problems and business objectives in order to deliver a design solution that works.

There are plenty of ways for enabling stakeholders to express their ideas or problems. In the design process we use creative (design) methods and user research methods. The first is about generating and gathering ideas about a product by using creative techniques. The examples are brainstorming, sketching, storyboarding or card sorting. The output of these methods is an input for the design process. On the other hand, user research methods are used for producing quantitative and qualitative data (findings) about the users of the product.

We can say that most of the creative methods are about finding ideas, while the user research methods are for validating and evaluating them with the help of users. Some methods, like interviews or focus groups, can be used for both — ideation and evaluation. For gathering ideas from stakeholders, different creative methods can help in most cases. What about if we want to gather ideas and evaluate them with stakeholders and users through discussion that would give us some action points?

Defining design requirements, based on ideas and improvement suggestions from stakeholders and users can be done with a focus session — a session that combines focus group and brainstorming with dot voting. Three different (creative and research) methods used in a single session.

The objective of a focus session is (1) to identify as many perceived issues and ideas about a specific product or feature, as possible, (2) clarify them with participants, (3) and convert them into actionable points for designers.

How is the focus session different from brainstorming or focus group? To answer that, let’s go briefly through the combining of the three methods first.

A focus group (qualitative user research method) is based on a moderated discussion with the users through which they express their opinions, feelings, thoughts, needs, ideas, desires and overall feedback about the discussed product. During the discussion, a moderator gathers key findings that are later used as a design input. It usually involves 8–10 users that represent the relevant audience and it can take up to a few hours. The main objective of a focus group is not acquiring observations, but users’ thoughts about the product (it’s different from usability testing).

Brainstorming (creative method) is for generating different ideas as potential solutions for a pre-defined problem. It allows participants to freely suggest spontaneous ideas that are written down and discussed. It can be done individually or in a group (with a moderator). The group of participants should be mixed (by experience or profession) in order to ensure different perspectives. No idea should be criticised during the process. In the end, all ideas are evaluated and the best are chosen. Brainstorming should last between 15 and 60 minutes. The main objective of brainstorming is to find an optimal solution for the problem.

Dot voting is a creative method used to prioritise ideas by voting with stickers (dots) that serve as votes. It’s a creative method in which participants are given a limited amount of dots (some suggest five) which are placed next to preferred options. Since dot voting is a form of cumulative voting, the option with the most votes at the end of voting wins. Dot voting is a common activity in brainstorming, retrospectives or design sprints.

A focus session isn’t brainstorming since it focuses on many ideas, it might not have pre-defined problems and it allows certain level of challenging ideas. Dot voting doesn’t necessarily exclude other ideas and the designer can use them once the highest priorities are covered. A focus session also isn’t a focus group, since the output is not referred to the users only. A focus session calls for efficiency, involvement and common understanding of ideas.

Format & participants

  • A session can address a product, specific feature or a complex task that users do. The focus should be very clear. When it’s about a product or feature, ideas will be related to existing problems or missing features. When talking about a task, ideas will probably focus on improving the user journey.
  • A session should involve between 8–12 participants that are willing to contribute (ideas, improvement suggestions, frustrations etc.). In a bigger company, participants are most probably POs, developers (front- and back-end), designers, user researchers, and other stakeholders. If you can involve users, do that.
  • A single session shouldn’t take more than 3 to 3.5 hours, including short breaks. For more complex products, features or tasks, you might need to break it down to more sessions. Depends on the defined focus. If possible, book the session in the morning so that everybody can come to the session fresh and motivated. Let them have a coffee first!
  • A facilitator is required. Whenever there’s an open discussion, you need to moderate it. If you don’t want to facilitate, ask someone who can. If discussion turns into a free debate or promotion of agendas, the facilitator must step in. If you are a participant, stay objective! Don’t try to influence others or to promote your design ideas — remember, they are here to help you!
  • Open discussion is an added value of the focus session. It is an exclusive opportunity for participants to clarify things and to express “what should be done”. Allow everyone in the room to ask questions if they don’t understand something. Allow challenging! That will cause “constructive sparkles” in terms of finding optimal solutions for specific problems. Encourage using simple argumentation and strive for objectivity.
  • Sounds logical, but it isn’t always the case: book a room with enough space for everyone and with empty walls. You will need space for presenting ideas and comfort. Walls need to be ready for the stickers. Checking the room before booking it is advised.

Agenda

  1. A short introduction should explain, what the session is about. Briefly explain what’s the goal of the session, the agenda, how long will it take and what should be the outcome of it. Place an agenda on a visible place so everybody can see it at any time. ~5 mins
  2. Optional: Present user insights if they are available. This will help participants understand what are the real users problems. If no research data is available, then skip this step (and do the user research later). ~10 mins
  3. Ask (not tell) participants to write down all ideas and improvement suggestions they can think of about the product. Everything they would like to change or have in the product. Don’t worry if they write down design solutions, try to understand them instead. Take these solutions as their way of expressing their ideas. ~10 mins (max)
  4. Once the ideas/issues/suggestions are written down, it’s time to present them. This is usually the longest activity since it requires clarifying to other participants. Everyone must explain the issue or idea in a few sentences so that the majority can understand it. Participants can ask questions or challenge, but it’s important that the facilitator knows when it’s enough. Limit presentation and discussion to a few mins per person, if you think it can take too long. ~45–60 mins
  5. Optional: When all participants are done presenting, offer them a “joker card”. Ask if there’s something else that wasn’t mentioned but should be. We sometimes think of new ideas while listening to others. ~5 mins
  6. It’s time to cluster all identified suggestions and ideas. Clustering should be done together, by all, so that there is a common agreement on merged subjects, naming conventions and priorities. ~5–10 mins
  7. Prioritise clusters by voting! All participants should get an equal number of votes (dots) and post them on clusters or specific items that they believe are the most important. If the clusters are too big, suggest voting for ideas instead. Decide on the number of votes (5 should already give a clear picture what participants perceive as important). The goal of this activity is to define action points that the design process should focus on. ~5–10 mins
  8. Optional: After voting, give participants one extra vote (“the ultimate vote”) to place it on a cluster or idea/issue that they perceive as the most important one. But this time, they have to explain their vote in 1–2 sentences. We want to see if the result of the previous voting had any influence on participants and that you really understand the highest priorities. ~10 mins
  9. After summarising the outcome of the prioritisation, the session comes to an end. Reveal to participants what are the next steps. Participants sacrificed their time for you, they have a right to know what you intend to do with their input. Thank to them for their time. If you wish so, you can also ask them for the feedback about the session. After the session, don’t forget to take pictures of the gathered ideas and clusters. ~5–10mins
  10. Document the session and share the document with the participants. I usually extract all the ideas from the pictures to the table, and arrange items by clusters and votes. The outcome should be a list of clear, actionable points. This list serves as a “written contract” between a designer and stakeholders. It will serve as a reference for design decisions.

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