By mastering the art of facilitation, designers can become integral contributors to strategic decision-making and take their careers to the next level.
Over the past few years, some huge shifts have taken place in the world of UX design. The pandemic made remote cross-cultural work more common, AI became more accessible and companies have started to prioritize leaner, more effective organizational structures (hence the recent wave of tech lay-offs).
This context, marked by uncertainty and the need for quick adaptation, brings out the question: how do we future-proof our careers as UX Design practitioners? What skills are going to be important as we move into the future?
In this article, we're looking specifically at how (and why) facilitation is one of these critical skills of the future. We'll also touch on how UX designers are especially fit to be great facilitators, and how you can utilize it to improve collaborative work starting today.
Before understanding its relevance in our careers, it's important to define what it is, what it's not and what a facilitator does.
In one of the topic’s seminal books, The Art of Facilitation by Dale Hunter, facilitation is defined as: a process of helping groups or individuals achieve their goals through effective communication, problem-solving, and decision-making techniques.
Being a facilitator means creating enabling environments for doing substantial work. When facilitating, we take on the role of the guide, steering the team through a streamlined process that makes tackling complex problems easier whilst helping collaborators be more productive.
What facilitation is not
Facilitation is not simply giving a presentation or walking a team through the rationale of a solution. Nor is it confined to activities like time-keeping in a meeting. While these activities can effectively help your team, being a facilitator goes much deeper. As a facilitator, you bring your team through a step by step process to achieve a common goal.
So let’s take a look at what that step by step process looks like, and how you can implement it throughout your design process.
What Does a Facilitator Do?
There are a couple of responsibilities a facilitator needs to take on, all of which should be done in partnership with the main stakeholders of the design project.
Before we dive into them, let’s explore a quick roundup of some of the types of workshops you can do in each stage of your design process.
As you can see, there are many different workshops that we can integrate into our work. And these are just a couple of examples! But don’t fear, although it may seem daunting, you don’t need to have years of experience or a high seniority level in order to start facilitating these dynamics.
For example, a good way to start incorporating workshops into your team’s workflow is in the definition and ideation stage. Once you collect data on your user and business, you can propose that your team includes a session where analysts and stakeholders gather to discuss the findings and define the How Might We questions that you’ll focus on during the project. If you have the time, you can also facilitate an ideation session to collect ideas from all of the members on the team.
If you’re a junior designer, I’d recommend that you work with your leader to define who should be part of the workshop and ask for feedback on how you design it. If you’re working solo, team up with the product owner.
A Brief Overview of the Design Workshop Process
While each type of workshop has its own set of questions and format, facilitators will use the same process to make sure that the workshop can be run effectively:
Before the workshop:
Define the goal of the workshop to ensure a clear success criteria.
Decide who will be present by identifying whose perspectives are necessary to achieve the goal as well as to secure sponsorship for the results within the team or organization.
Choose the exercises and design the flow of the workshop. This should be done by taking into account the goal, the team and any other contextual limitation such as time and localization.
During the workshop:
Ensure each step is followed according to plan and in a timely manner.
Listen actively and with neutrality in order to make sure that every point of view is taken into account.
Help the team move through roadblocks of communication, creativity or collaboration.
Get them behind a common goal whenever they get sidetracked and go into unproductive directions.
After the workshop:
Consolidate the results in a list of clear next steps or a defined solution.
Why Is Facilitation A Key Skill for UX Designers?
There are many reasons learning facilitation is important for UX Designers, ranging from leadership opportunities to shipping more efficient, impactful products.
But it all boils down to this:
Facilitation is a skill that becomes increasingly valuable as you grow in your career. It allows you to overcome strategic challenges that plague UX designers—and their teams.
Collaboration in the workplace (and elsewhere!) is challenging, and comes with a suite of obstacles that can undermine any attempt to create products that benefit both the users and the business.
By improving the way we gather knowledge from stakeholders, generate ideas, and evaluate our solutions, we open the door to a unified team.
As a result, you’ll spend less time working through differing opinions and frustrating meetings—and more time on substantial, uninterrupted work. All of these improvements amplify the quality of our deliverables and also streamline the process for the whole team.
Something that—in my experience—is greatly appreciated and sought-after.
Future-Proofing Your Career With Facilitation
In 2020, thhe World Economic Forum estimated that 85 million jobs will be lost to machines by 2025. But there are some skills that machines simply can’t do, which facilitation helps us develop.
Let’s focus on the top two:
1. Improving interpersonal abilities and effective communication
Facilitation makes us experts in cultivating human connections, even when done remotely.
In a Harvard Business Review article, the author advises to safeguard “analog, in-person connections,” since, generally speaking, AI is limited to the digital world. These experiences allow us to build insights in a way that we can’t do through AI.
During a workshop, a talented facilitator can help people overcome collaboration blocks and unlock their potential. Developing this skill can make you much more attuned to sensing what the group needs, and help you quickly adapt your communication style to better fit the demands of the people you’re working with. This isn’t a skill soon to be replaced by new technologies.
2. Developing leadership skills and social influence
In a workshop, your main goal will be helping the team reach an expected outcome or find a path forward. To accomplish this a good facilitator will encourage collaborative working and interdependence over individualism. Eventually, as you develop this skill, you’ll be able to influence how your team approaches challenges. Over time, this can even affect the entire culture of your team—for the better.
5 Common Design Challenges That Can Be Solved Through Facilitation
Let’s dive deeper into five common challenges UX Designers face, and how facilitation can help overcome them.
Challenge #1: Disagreement and changes in the goals and scope of the project
When working on a new project, one of the first questions we need to answer is: what are we trying to achieve and why?
This means defining the data we need to gather through preliminary research, the problem(s) we want to solve, the metrics we hope to impact and the business Key Performance Indicator (KPI) we want to contribute to. The goals of the project will influence its scope and determine its time constraints, success criteria and, sometimes, even its budget.
It’s not uncommon for different teams to have different perspectives around the purpose of a project. When the different expectations are not made explicit and agreed upon early on, there is a higher possibility that the project will change in scope after work has begun and delay progress.
Facilitation can create clarity and team alignment. Problem statement workshops or goal setting workshops open up space for different collaborators to communicate their objectives around the project as well as listen to what others hope to achieve. This can prevent future changes in scope and also increase stakeholder buy-in in the design solutions.
Challenge #2: Lack of criteria for evaluating options and ideas
One of the trickiest parts of any UX Design process is converging on one solution to work towards. Whenever a team needs to decide which problem to focus on, it’s important to get the team behind a unified set of evaluative criteria to prioritize initiatives and build roadmaps. Some examples of this criteria are:
A common consequence of lack of alignment in decision-making criteria is what’s known as feature creep. Feature creep is when a team adds too many features to a product, resulting in a loss of product vision and value for the users. The best way to avoid it is to refer back to the goals for the project to create our set of criteria.
Where does facilitation come in handy? Once we know through which variables we will evaluate our options, prioritization workshops allow us to agree on the value and feasibility of each possible project. As UX Designers, we can use this opportunity to create a backlog that serves the needs of our users.
Challenge #3: The “curse of knowledge”
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for us to imagine what it’s like not to know what we already know. We assume that other people have the background information required to understand us. Because of this, the sharing of information within a team becomes more difficult when each member is an “expert” on the topic or situation that’s being discussed.
Throughout a project, UX Designers constantly rely on other collaborators for understanding the problem we’re working on and its context. In this process, there are information imbalances that are rarely addressed. What’s more, sometimes even we can fall for this cognitive bias, assuming that the information we have on the users and their needs is widely understood and known by the rest of the stakeholders. In reality, this information only exists in the mind of the UX designer.
When leveraging facilitation skills, you can help your team avoid the curse of knowledge by creating an environment that pushes collaborators to be more concrete and explicit around their knowledge.
A good example is a journey mapping workshop. By involving multiple teams, we can gain valuable insight into how other departments understand the experience of our users, their pain points and the opportunities for our product. In my experience, getting people from different teams to work together is a great way to help common understanding.
Challenge #4: Decreased variety of ideas
Although the recommended practice for UX Designers when ideating possible solutions is “quantity over quality”, the truth is that the fast-paced nature of our industry can sometimes make exploration difficult. On top of that, because of our necessary fixation on the user’s experience, we as designers can sometimes overlook important business and technical constraints, proposing ideas that are not feasible.
We all want to work in an innovative environment that nurtures creativity. As UX Designers, we can take responsibility and foster the practices that steer the team in that direction.
Ideation techniques, such as Crazy 8s or brainwriting, help us gather ideas from other people. As designers, we can facilitate these type of dynamics in order to improve the variety of solutions and directions for a project.
Another added benefit of these types of workshops is what Tom and David Kelly mention in their book Creative Confidence. They explain that direct experience boosts the trust we have in our own inventiveness. When we ideate together we also model a more creative mindset for our teams.
Challenge #5: Too many meetings diminish deep work
Last but not least, another challenge that UX Designers face is the amount of meetings that populate our calendars during our workdays. In Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, the author states that the reason we do less deep work is the constant communication resulting from instant message and email.
In today’s increasingly remote work environments, these electronic communications are also accompanied by incessant meetings which are often the only way to “collaborate” as a team.
The problem is that unstructured meetings seldom produce solid outcomes. More often than not, they only lengthen our decision-making processes. Meaningful work rarely gets done.
UX Designers who take on the role of facilitators not only improve the chances of the project’s success but also save a lot of the team’s time. Workshops reduce the number of touch points needed to make decisions.
The Design Sprint methodology is a classic example of how facilitation can speed up our work. Its different stages present many ideas for workshops that can be done in one week or throughout a longer design process.
What Skills Make UX Designers Great Facilitators?
Facilitation is not an ability that is developed overnight. Not only does it require lots of practice, but it also calls for the courage and vulnerability to put ourselves in a position of service. To motivate you to start including it in your work, let’s take a look at how some of the skills you use every day can be easily transferred to make you a great facilitator.
1. Understanding user problems and needs
As UX Designers, we put the user at the center of our decisions to build products and services that satisfy their needs. When facilitating, our colleagues become our users. From a user-centered mindset, a workshop is a design and our team are the users.
In practice, this means we have to think about who will participate in the workshop, discover what they need, map how they relate to the other participants and decide which dynamic is more fitting.
Conversely, if a workshop doesn’t go as expected, we can learn from it by comparing what we know about our users to how the solution was presented, just like with the products we work on.
2. Thinking in flows
Products are essentially a set of flows that the user will navigate to move through the experience. Figuring out these paths is one of the key components of good human-computer interaction.
On a similar note, workshops are sequential experiences with a beginning, middle and end. Our predisposition to break actions up into smaller steps makes us great at designing their flows and increase the likelihood of producing the expected outcomes.
Pro tip: don’t forget about the peak-end rule. The way we remember our experiences is shaped by how we felt at the peak moments and at the end. Use this to your advantage by creating peaks of collaboration and reinforcing what was done and learned at the end of each session.
3. Integrating multiple points of view
Great UX Design is a result of finding a balance between what’s feasible, viable and desirable. As designers, we work on integrating multiple stakeholders’ perspectives while leveraging technical limitations and users’ needs.
As facilitators, we can use this systemic thinking to make sure that everyone’s opinion is taken into account. Helping the team reach consensus in a solution solves the tensions between multiple collaborators and improves the quality of our work.
In today's fast-paced and dynamic work environment, designers are expected to take on more strategic roles. Facilitation is a crucial skill for designers to possess. It enables us to guide teams through recurrent strategic challenges such as getting them behind a common goal, prioritizing ideas, sharing information between multiple team members and saving time for focused work.
By mastering the art of facilitation, designers can move beyond the traditional execution-focused role and become integral contributors to strategic decision-making. Furthermore, facilitation helps us develop interpersonal abilities, flexibility, effective communication, leadership and social influence, all of which are skills that will become more and more important with the evolution of current technologies.
Whether you’re already mid-way through your career or are just getting started as a junior designer or recent UX graduate, it’s never too early (or too late!) to incorporate facilitation into your work, helping your career—and your team—along the way.