Composition by me :)! See more at:

Some months ago, I walked out happy after a multi-disciplinary . There were three of us — an interaction designer, a domain expert and yours truly, the usability engineer. The best part is the workshop was productive because we were working in a multi-disciplinary team and not despite it — pure  ;).

Good design, especially for complex systems, demands that different disciplines bring their point of view to the matter. But different disciplines coming together without a clear structure can also lead the session into the ‘Black Hole of Unresolved Opinions’.

Here are some pointers, especially when detailing out or reviewing the interaction design concepts in a design workshop.

1) Set-up and communicate the agenda of the design session upfront

State the agenda for the design session upfront so that the team can stay focused on the topic and the activity. Some examples could be:

a) Use Scenario writing and discussion session for topic ABC

High level overview of what Topic ABC means, user goals around this topic, the current workflow especially to find redundancies, missing features, difficulties for users etc.

b) Detail out the design concept for topic XYZ

High level walkthrough of the scenario , Brainstroming & sketching the design concepts

c) Design review for topic M2C

Review draft concepts using scenarios with a like the Cognitive Walkthrough and/or using heuristics, e.g., these 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design or Tenets and Traps by Michael Medlock and Steve Herbst.

2) Design around the use scenarios

Use Scenarios work really well for guiding a design discussion as they focus on the needs and goals of end user. This also prevent the discussion from going around dreams of the design or development team a.k.a. ‘features and functions’.

If it is a small topic, then the design scenario can even be created in the first half an hour of the meeting. If it is a large topic, then, the first session could be all about creating this scenario based on the user interviews, user observations and domain expert’s knowledge and the follow-up session on coming together and discussing the design. Here is an approach for Writing key use scenarios to help design beyond the ‘Happy Flow’ that I use in projects* — planning to write a post on the same soon.

* (Co-authored with Jon Pluyter and presented at HFES Healthcare 2018, Boston)

3) Keep it cosy

From experience, team sessions with 3–4 members** seem to be the most productive and anything bigger than 5 team members usually makes it difficult to keep the discussion central. The set-up should enable open discussions and the environment has to be such that the team members feel comfortable with saying ‘Why’ or ‘I don’t know’. Depending on what the ‘I don’t know’ is the response to, we relegate it to the to-do list after the session. Minimize the internal or external distractions during the sessions, think about phones, email, ego, etc.

** If multiple stakeholders (e.g. 12 people group) definitely need to be involved, then break down the larger group into working groups of 3–4 people and provide them with clear assignments with time bound chunks. Ask different groups to share every 45 mins or so to help in inspire others with the good ideas as well as to converge.

4) Get the right roles in

On a high level, there seem to be 3 major things happening in the discussion: a) asking questions,

b) providing answers or adding to the list of questions for the next user interview,

c) designing user interface solutions or identifying what needs more thought for design.

Usually I work in teams of interaction/product designer(s), usability engineer(s) (and ergonomists) and domain specialists. For some projects or activities (e.g., usability expert reviews,design reviews), the team may also include system designers, software engineers, product owners and so on.

Typically asking questions about user goals, workflow, design intent etc. is my role. The domain expert usually provides or points us to the answers or we add to the list of questions for the next user interview, and the designer provides high level design ideas/rough sketches on the white board. However, often the three of us switched roles as if in a game of musical chairs where at one stage we could be asking the question and in another proposing a solution. A typical conversation could go like:

Domain Expert: They would use this in order to do ABC….. (explaining system + user workflow)

Me: Okay, and why are they trying to do task ABC (trying to get at user goals)?

Domain Expert: Because….

Me/Designer: Ah so, this is just another way of ….

Designer: So how about something like [a rough design idea] …

(Discussion continues)

Given that we can only have limited number of people in the session, one or more of the roles can be charged with getting the answers after the session.

5) Avoid the ‘Pit of the Unknown & Unresolved’

Sometimes questions might come up or the discussion might get ‘stuck’ on a particular issue a.k.a. ‘the gloomy ditch of the unknown and unresolved’. Instead of dwelling in the ditch, identify the unknown and the way to make it knowable, i.e., articulate the question or the gap and move on. At the end of the session, determine clear follow-up steps for these questions or issues along with owners assigned to them so as to keep moving forward in the next design session, e.g., Ram will find out about… or Noor will check with …etc. Some of these could be addressed by further user research or user testing, and others could be addressed after discussion with the R & D team, the domain experts, etc.

Composition by author. More at:

In conclusion, the following points would greatly contribute to a successful (multi-disciplinary) design workshop or session:

  1. Set-up and communicate the agenda upfront
  2. Design around the use scenarios
  3. Keep it small and cosy
  4. Get the right roles in the design workshop
  5. If getting stuck, articulate the gap and move on, and conclude the session with clear action items/tasks with owners for each such item.

What are your tips for ‘magical’ multi-disciplinary design detailing or review session?

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