10 things I learned about running a UX Workshop by watching the World Cup

A 5 minute read written by Phil July 22, 2014

vector artwork green soccer field with mobile device outline in center

Like many offices around the world, the Yellow Pencil office got pretty excited about the World Cup. We streamed all the games, ran our own office pool, and enjoyed the occasional celebratory beverage.

But as I was watching, I noticed a number of parallels between running a UX workshop and winning the world cup. Even though they don’t hand out little golden statues for UX workshops (yet. I’m still waiting for mine).

We love UX workshops – they're a great way to draw out requirements and start ideating right away. If you've never tried one, check out Google Ventures’ series on design sprints.

I looked at how we run our UX workshops, and compared them to the formula that helped Germany pull off the big win. And so, here are my thoughts.

The 10 parallels

1. Get a wide range of skills at the table

Successful teams have a wide range of different players with a range of skill sets. You need a wide range of skills and perspectives at your UX workshop, both leaders and participants.

It can be tempting to only involve direct stakeholders (often that's the IT, communications or marketing teams) but you'll have more success with a broader perspective and a balance of skills in your workshops. Finance, operations, customer service and many other teams and departments might have some compelling insights. 

2. Teams trump individuals

Inviting the smartest person or the CEO is no guarantee of success. You need a team who can leave their egos at the door, collaborate and be open to sharing ideas. In a perfect world you have smart people in the sessions that are also great team players.

When you’re putting together the workshop participant list, get some background on each person, and try to identify the more difficult personalities. Be clear with your clients that there are risks in having very strong participants in these sessions. Make sure they’re bringing enough knowledge to make it worth it.

3. Pass the ball 

Good ideas are like footballs: you need to pass them around to get them to the net. It’s rare that someone will have a perfect idea without passing it around a little first. When you’re leading a workshop, try to involve all participants and encourage people to build off each other’s ideas.

4. Bring in your subs

As we saw in the World Cup finals, you need good subs. If you’re running multiple workshops, don’t be afraid to switch out participants as the workshops dive deeper. What you lose in knowledge of past discussions you make up for in new ideas and perspectives.

This helps avoid groupthink and allows people to question the assumptions and approaches from previous sessions. If decisions can’t stand up to the questioning of new participants, it might be time to rethink things.

5. Make mistakes

You read that right. UX workshops are a time for focusing on the process rather than the outcomes. We try to create an atmosphere that is engaging and encourages participants to make mistakes, learn something and keep going.

6. Play to win, rather than not to lose

It’s hard to do really great work in a risk-averse client environment. UX workshops should encourage clients to take calculated risks and go outside of their comfort zone.

This sets the foundation for creating groundbreaking tools and systems. You can always reign things in as you refine your UX sketches to reduce risk later. It’s much more work to take a safe, conservative approach and make it exceptional.

7. Move around the field

Soccer players aren’t glued to a spot on the field – they’re constantly shifting positions and covering for each other. If you have a role you usually take on, try a different position. Are you usually the note-taker, or permanently positioned at the whiteboard? Leave that to someone else and try something new, especially if it’s outside of your comfort zone.

You should also encourage participants to take on different roles or try different hats. This can be as simple as encouraging quiet participants to speak up, sketch their ideas, or take on a different perspective or persona.

8. If your initial strategy isn’t working, switch it up 

We go into our workshop sessions with a game plan, a script, and a set of exercises that will help us understand our clients’ needs. But not all situations or clients teams are the same and you will eventually encounter something you haven’t anticipated.

If you sense that things aren’t going well (negative language and body language are good cues), take a break and adjust your approach. Don’t be afraid to break off an exercise if it isn’t working. Try coming at the problem from a different angle. The key to being able to switch mid-stream is having a broad set of tools you can draw from, which is why we are always looking for new techniques and workshop ideas to add to our repertoire.

9. Practice 

The best way to learn how to run workshops is to run workshops. All the theory in the world won’t help as much as practicing. Every time we run a workshop we learn something new about our process.

We encourage each other to try different exercises to see how well they work in the wild and report back. After our workshop sessions, we debrief internally to share successes and failures amongst our team and look for ways to improve our process.

10. Create a long term plan to build your team

Ideally, most people at your organization should be able to run a workshop. But chances are that’s not the case. Start putting together a plan to let people participate in workshops, learn the skills they need, and develop strategies to be successful.

Encourage less experienced practitioners to lead workshops. This can be done in partnership with a more experienced colleague as a mentor. It’s a great opportunity for both people to learn about the process, gain experience and build out your capabilities in the long term.


Actually, I just thought of one more parallel to share with you:

11. Never bet against the Germans

You need at least one German on every project team. But not necessarily this one. Well, maybe this one.

When all is said and done

It’s the best teams that deliver the best results. It requires a little more work and planning up front, but collaborative, team-focused work always delivers better results over the life of a tournament or UX project. It takes time to build teams and understand each others’ styles and personalities, but it’s always worth it.

Check out our portfolio to find out what a great UX workshop can help build.