Designing a discovery workshop

This is a post by Kate Saunderson, one of our user researchers.

I was part of a team that designed and delivered a discovery workshop to explore the barriers that SME’s face in raising funding. At the full day event, we explored barriers and solutions with 56 SME’s, advisors and funders. During lunch, an attendee told me that he had been attending similar events for over thirty years. “This one has a lot more dynamism but what do you plan to do next? Usually nothing happens afterwards”. The hard part, a surprise to many, is not undertaking research with your end-user, it’s continuing the dialogue. It is important to talk about what you are doing next, what you are not doing, and how stakeholders can continue to engage with you.

This post explores how to design a discovery workshop and how to build in feedback to ensure attendees can continue to see the value in the work.

Planning a discovery workshop

When planning a discovery workshop, our user research and engagement team recommend starting by asking three basic questions:

  1. What do you need to understand?
  2. Why?
  3. What will you do with your findings?

When satisfied that you are able to answer these questions then you can begin to think about who to work with, when, and how best to engage with them.

We worked through this process with the Scottish Government Business Development Bank team to developed the SME discovery day. As a user researcher some key insights that emerged were:

  • Design and undertake the engagement collaboratively – We worked together to shape the design of the day and the interactions between the SMEs, advisors, funders and Scottish Government.
  • Workshop structure – A common failing is to speak at people for an hour and then wonder why they have no questions to ask. To flip that, we develop a structure where the attendees are talking and we are listening. This is about asking the organisers ‘what do you need to understand?’, and framing the day’s activities around that. Remember to include an icebreaker – helping people feel comfortable to share their experiences is a key stage.
  • What questions to ask – Your research question is different to the questions you ask your attendees – think about the language you are using, is it accessible and consistent? Is it open and exploratory?
  • Use facilitation as an opportunity to listen directly to end users – I arranged for 8 colleagues from the Digital Directorate to act as facilitators. Having a facilitator per table helped to keep the day on track. Individuals from the teams taking the work forward were able to learn from their experience as well as being able to listen directly to what attendees were saying.
  • Check in, review plans and keep moving forward – I was the most visible facilitator, introducing activities from the stage and summing up after tables shared with the room, but it is a team effort that makes the day run smoothly; from individually welcoming people through the door (and handing out name tags), to the key speaker outlining the focus of the day, to the facilitator on the table developing each group’s dialogue. It is the spaces between these people, the flexibility and check-ins that ensure the day runs smoothly. We checked in as a group in the morning to review plans. At lunch, we had 15 minutes break, to refuel, then came back to the room to clear up and check in with the morning – what worked, what didn’t, how will we handle the afternoon. At the end of the day, we tidied up, packaged up the data, checked in with how we felt it had gone and left with the task up writing up our thoughts from the day when fresh.
  • Let them explore, but keep them focussed – It can be tricky to balance this and it’s a skill that emerges with practice. On my table, I had an individual from an SME, an experienced investor, a business advisor and an individual from Scottish Enterprise. This discussion explored different takes on the ‘financial club’, official structures (Scottish Government) and how SME’ s engage with both. The table had to be confident to share their own views, listen to others, and as a table develop a story to share with the room in 90 minutes. I acted as a scribe, but they edited the post-its, developed the story and shared it with the room.
  • Give them a reason to come back – We expected a sharp drop off at lunch time, so after we had shared the work about barriers with the room we told the attendees why we needed them to come back in the afternoon. This was an opportunity to design solutions to the issues they had identified and communicate the changes they want to see. There was a healthy return in the afternoon, I would estimate we only had a 10% drop off in terms of attendees returning.
  • Tell them what you will do next – We told the attendees that we wanted to continue this work. We will review the findings from the workshop and share a report from the day. If attendees have any further thoughts we asked them to email us or connect on Twitter.

Other considerations for discovery workshops

Supporting the engagement

  • What questions to ask and how – within the workshop activities focus on asking questions which are open and exploratory, and ensure you use consistent language between the timetable and any PowerPoint slides.
  • Listening to the room – the lead facilitator’s role is to ensure a theme running through the day, starting with the introduction. They then gather feedback from facilitators and attendees and report back to the whole room a few times across the day, – covering key points that can be actioned immediately or in the longer term. These key points can then be echoed in the closing speech.
  • Social media engagement – although social media coverage is natural at most events it is still a newcomer to Government culture. The team set up the hashtag #HowWeDoSME for the day and although not used by many attendees it will remain in place to continue the conversation – a move towards open dialogue online.
  • Supporting facilitation – The facilitators came from a mix of roles within the Scottish Government – to support their facilitation development we held a 1-hour training session in advance which had guidance, a hand-out and provided an overview of the session. On the day, I frequently checked-in with the facilitators to answer any questions. By bringing in our own facilitators, they experience first-hand discussions as well as developing experience and skills in facilitation.
  • Tech support – we brought along a laptop and projector


It is vital to feed back to attendees and to continue the conversation – this includes:

  • analysing the data from the day
  • workshop report
  • ongoing social media contact
  • blogging or emailing about the next steps taken

With the right approach, discovery workshops offer a huge opportunity for collaboration. If you are looking for more guidance on running a discovery workshop please get in touch.

Follow the team via @mygovscot on Twitter for more updates. Want to comment? Let us know below!

2 thoughts on “Designing a discovery workshop

  1. Hi Emma – thanks for getting in touch. Here’s Kate Saunderson’s reply… “For each three hour session we structure it into ice breaker, solo thinking time, group thinking and presenting back to room. This can be presented differently with different tools, depending if it is exploration or solution format. In the morning session the icebreaker usually takes the form of a drawing exercise, where people map out their hopes, fears and role. The solo thinking time is about engaging with the questions and having time to check in with yourself, this leads to group thinking stage where if possible facilitators are present to scribe and facilitate the discussions which takes place on post its and big brown sheets of paper. The presenting to the room challenges the group to review what they have been discussing and pull out a narrative that they can share. I would be interested to hear your thoughts of techniques you use to get people doing.” Kate Saunderson

  2. it’s great to hear how you approached the workshops and I’m pleased to hear they were a success. I was interested to understand what stimulus you used to support and facilitate the discussions? We typically use a variety of different techniques in workshops like this so that people aren’t only talking but also doing and thinking more creatively and often in a different way to their usual day-to-day business. Did you find certain methods worked better than others> Thanks again for sharing.

Let us know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s