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“Do It Yourself, user” – product design and research workshops



How to create a product that hundreds of users will fall in love with? – ask all product creators. Or maybe instead we should ask ourselves how to create space that will allow to build such solutions?

How to build real empathy in the team, quickly verify the assumptions and truly engage our recipients in product design? Research workshop can be the answer to this question – what it is, and when and how to use it, you will learn from the article below.

With the growing awareness of the organizations about the importance of human-centered design and their Design Maturity [1], the popularity of the research itself is growing. Individual In-depth Interviews (IDI), Focus Group Interviews (FDI), questionnaires or surveys are some of the most popular forms. But what if we need even deeper understanding of the user within the project team or stimulation of creativity or fresh perspective? 

This is one of the reasons why more and more experimental research methods, which are based on the Participatory Design approach [2] (i.e. participatory design, which involves not only creators, designers, but also other stakeholders or end users in the creation process) – including the title research workshop – are becoming increasingly popular.



What is… and what isn’t a research workshop in the product design process?

The research workshop is a relatively young method of qualitative research using generative techniques and based mainly on empathy and observation of participants. 

However, its aim is not, as with other workshops, just to work out a solution to a problem or a project challenge, but to enable the members of the product team to participate and empathize with the end user throughout the meeting and to observe the discussion or the decision-making process that takes place during the meeting. 

In other words, from the perspective of the team, the goal is not to work out specific effects by means of a workshop (some types of workshops are often used to e.g. speed up the decision making or idea process [3]), but to participate in the workshop itself. This allows the team to understand the decision-making process, vocabulary, arguments in order to better understand the end user or e.g. confirm the hypotheses in the early stages of product design.

Apart from the participants representing the target group, the workshop should be attended by at least 2 people from the project team – workshop facilitator, i.e. the person responsible for conducting the workshop, and researcher-observer, i.e. the person whose task is to observe and collect observations, conclusions, ideas in order to later analyze them with the team.


When to use the research workshop for product development?

The research workshop is used to explore the project subject, explore the target group or verify the assumptions. This method should be used when we have at least preliminary hypotheses concerning the target group – then it can be used to identify e.g. early adopters (i.e. recipients characterized by the greatest pain that we want to manage). Another areas of application of the research workshop include:

  • deeper investigation and understanding of the target group;
  • confirmation of the target group (whether it is or is not);
  • confirmation of (major) problems;
  • verification of value proposition (UVP).

Depending on the purpose, we will place more emphasis on another aspect of our workshop. 

For example, if the goal is to understand the target group better or to verify it, elements of the workshop focusing on empathy will be the most important for us (if we rely on the Design Thinking process, these will be the initial stages of the workshop). As part of such research, we invite participants representing the target groups we hypothesized that they may be our recipients. In the course of empathizing or defining the problem we can observe to what extent our hypotheses were correct and consistent with reality.


The research workshop was one of the research methods in the Service Design process used in the DesignWays Conf w 2018 roku. in 2018. It was used to verify the target group and their problems around educational events aimed at the creative industry.

Initially, hypotheses were made about potential groups of recipients with preliminary characteristics based on the knowledge about recipients and analysis of existing data. Two target groups have been identified: Junior Designers and Regular Designers. The participants were invited to a workshop, where as part of the Design Thinking process they developed the concept of the conference and the whole experience around it.

Moreover, the aim was not to generate the concept of the event itself, but to deepen the knowledge about the needs, problems, desires and motivation of the potential participants by observing their work and discussing it during the workshop in order to confirm the validity of the assumptions towards the target group.

Picture from the presentation of the concept within the research workshop, DesignWays Conf, 21.02.2018

On the basis of the observations made, an analysis was carried out and compared with the results of the previous research, a persona was developed and a value proposition for the event. The concept was further verified. The workshop played a key role in creating the conference, so that the conference, which continues to be held today, could become unique.


What should such a workshop look like for an effective product development strategy?

The research workshop is one of the most demanding research methods, but at the same time it offers extensive knowledge and value to the project team in a very condensed form. But what does the workshop itself look like and how to proceed with the organization?

As part of the workshop, it is worth going through the following stages:

  • Empathizing – understanding the participants (potential recipients), their needs and problems – this allows, among other things, for a double verification of the people invited to make sure they are a representative group;
  • verification of the (scale) of problems – to double-check the discovered problems and their importance to our target group;
  • collecting expectations towards value propositions & generating solutions – to discover or confirm hypotheses about what is the key value users expect from solving their problem;
  • verification of concepts & decision making factors – again, double validation of the expected value proposition within the target group and more detailed observations on the decision-making process and the factors influencing it.

The above stages fit very well, for example, in the Design Thinking process [4], which we can use as a base for designing our workshops.

Design Thinking process, source: own material


The workshop, while carrying out the entire Design Thinking process, should include a variety of exercises within each stage. A good practice is to carry out a double verification within each phase (e.g. using two tools – exercises) and summarize each part of the workshop before moving on to the next.

Depending on our research needs, we should particularly focus on one of the stages that will provide us with key information. For example, if we already have a well-defined target group and want to verify our hypotheses concerning value propositions, then the stages of generating ideas and testing will be of particular interest to us, where we will be able to observe the thought process and discussions around what is most important from the users’ perspective and… if that is what the other participants think.


In 2019 we worked with one of the largest startups in Krakow on a new website targeted at potential future employees. Within the framework of internal research, data analysis and exploratory research, we characterized 3 target groups, but the problems occurring within them and the value proposition were still just the assumptions.

In order to verify them we decided to organize a research workshop. As part of the workshop, after verifying the problems of the target groups, the greatest value was the observation of the process of generating ideas, creating solutions and testing, which provided us with the necessary information about the unique value for users. The knowledge was priceless and based on the analysis of the workshop, process and argumentation, a new website was designed.


A picture from the development of a concept within the framework of a research workshop for one of the clients of the Project: People – a Krakow startup, 08.2019

Advantages and disadvantages of research workshops

Research workshops are definitely a very innovative approach in the design process. On the other hand, due to the growing market requirements, the need for innovation and the willingness to involve customers in product design, they are gaining in popularity. However, it is worth to be aware of both their advantages and disadvantages or challenges that we will have to face when we want to include them in our research.
Among the advantages of the workshops we can include, for example:

  • Very deep understanding of the recipients, empathy and verification of assumptions towards them;
  • huge potential in terms of grouping several representatives of the target group(s) in one place and multiple possibilities to verify and juxtapose their thoughts;
  • multiple validations within one workshop (each assumption should be verified in several ways);
  • the possibility of “comparing” and qualitatively verifying more than one target group (e.g. in order to identify the aforementioned early adopters, i.e. early users);
  • a lot of material and inspiration for further work and product development strategy;
  • a very educational and inspirational approach for the product team to quickly empathize with users;
  • the possibility of meeting many users at the same time within a single workshop – a more effective form of research;
  • engaging form for potential users – workshops represent also a huge branding potential for the company and in terms of building community around the brand from the early stages.

These are just some of the main pros. What are the
cons of research workshops?

  • Research workshops are very demanding when it comes to facilitation (various participants, the necessity to update the agenda during the process, energy management, group management, etc.);
  • require a lot of business knowledge and expertise in workshop tools to match the exercises to the hypotheses we want to verify (and be free to modify them if necessary during the workshop);
  • demanding recruitment of participants (selection of participants is extremely important and depends on the purpose and role of the workshop);
  • The workshop requires at least 2 people – facilitator and observer.

As you can see, most of the disadvantages are based primarily on the demanding form of research, but these areas evolve with experience. However, it is worth noticing the invaluable character and potential of research workshops, especially if we work in innovative organizations or products.


Do It Yourself – where to start once I want to do it myself?

A research workshop is definitely a form to experiment with – it is a value not only for the project, but its inspirational and educational character represents a significant value for the project team and their leader. 

“Being open to various types of research – especially qualitative and experimental research methods – allows designers to look at ideas, designs and prototypes from many different, often completely different sides.” 

Marcin Maciejewski & Katarzyna Wala, Between data, creation and project decisions. Introduction to research and design workshops [5]

However, where should we start when we would like to organize and conduct such a survey ourselves? What does the step-by-step process look like?

    1. The purpose of the workshop – What is the purpose? What is your problem you want to solve and what do you want to learn?
    2. Expected result (knowledge) – What do you want to achieve? What is the expected result (knowledge) you want to achieve? What do you want to observe during the process?
    3. Research Plan & Scenario – How to acquire the desired knowledge? Which hypotheses do we want to verify? Who should we invite?
    4. Recruitment – Who do we want to invite? Do we want to discover or verify the group?
    5. The organization of the workshop – logistics, space, materials, invitations, gifts and contact with participants, who is the facilitator and who is the observer, what are the roles of the organizers – these are just some of the essential organizational elements that should be planned in advance.
    6. Workshop & Facilitation – the actual part, which is to guide participants through the process in order to obtain the desired knowledge, for which the facilitator is responsible.
    7. Observation – the main point of the whole workshop from the perspective of the team/researcher.
    8. Observations, conclusions & analysis – the workshop is followed by juxtaposition of observations from both observers and facilitator, with the rest of the project team.
    9. Proceeding to action – conclusions are drawn from the workshop and analysis and translated into changes in the business model, project or other further actions.



In a nutshell

Although the workshop may seem challenging at first, planning it solidly will make it a much easier undertaking. And with the knowledge it brings, it can become a permanent part of our design process and a handy toolbox that the team will be happy to use, providing great value to the whole organization.



Sources & supplementary materials:

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Joanna Ostafin
Co-founder of Project: People, co-founder of the Krakow Design Initiative (KID), organizer of DesignWays Conf.

As a Lean UX Strategist, she deals with... disagreeing with her clients - she supports them in verifying ideas for new products, services or businesses. She helps them to move from "innovative idea" to "real product", validating the assumptions based on business and strategic competences, UX, UI, Service Design and Lean.

Sincerely in love with the Lean approach (Lean Startup & Lean UX & Lean UX & Lean UX Research). She believes in workshops and collective building of projects, solving problems and generating ideas.

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