visualization of three different types of workshop groups on grey background

Ask Marc – about service design workshops

February 18, 2021

In this session, we talked about service design workshops: how to run a successful service design workshop? What are the upsides and downsides of in-person workshops and digital workshops? And how to connect the two worlds together?

This series was initiated as a place for you to learn more about service design and journey mapping software. Our co-founder Marc Stickdorn and the Smaply team share their experience on how to embed and scale service design in organizations. The sessions usually kick off with a short introduction to the focus topic to bring everybody to the same page, followed by your questions and deep discussions of best practice examples.

On this page you find the recording as well as the transcript. Additionally this session is also available as a podcast on Spotify, iTunes and Google Podcasts.




Some general topics that I want to go through in a very quick way. It is true for both face-to-face workshops and remote workshops. I want to kick off with one very basic thing out of our book “This is Service Design Doing”: the three ways of working. This is a choice the facilitator has when running a workshop. When structuring certain exercises it helps a lot if you are aware of the different ways of working. Then you can mix and match, depending on what you need.

One pen, one page

This is the traditional way to run sessions. There's one person with one flip chart or a white board with one pen and everything that the group discusses and agrees on is filtered through this one person and added to the board. Below you see there is a continuing when you work in this way of working one pen one page you have a lot of shared understanding because everyone knows exactly what's on board and a lot of completeness however it depends on that person if that person acts as a filter and only let certain stuff on the wall or if that person really just writes down whatever people throw at that person. It also comes with a few downsides.

3 ways of working: visualizations of people working on ideation on grey background

Many pens, one page

This is often how you work when you use these online collaboration tools. Tools like Lucidspark, Mural or Miro and the like. Then everyone is working on the same board and you add loads of different stuff to it.

Many pens, many pages

This step takes it to the extreme:  everyone is working for themselves. Think of a group of 10 people. Let them create ideas for a minute. If you work many pens, many pages you will get loads of ideas in a short time. It adds to speed and diversity.

If you give the same exercise to the group and you work in a mode of one pen one page, you will get way less ideas, less diversity. You can move between these modes strategically when you structure your workshop. I'm going to come back to that today a few times when we talk about these questions.

By the way, one thing about ideation: if you run ideation sessions, every idea gets filtered through one person or written down by one person. It is similar to “one pen, one page” and it is very slow.

10 tips of facilitation

Tip 1: Set up and preparation

The first one is setup and preparation, both for face-to-face workshops and remote workshops. You need to be prepared, you need to think through how you are going to run the workshop. Have a detailed agenda, get your boards ready, get the materials ready. Being prepared is one of the most essential things.

Tip 2: Creat a safe space

The second tip is a cultural thing. Create a safe space. Often you need to invest some time in the beginning of a workshop, where you don't work on content, but where you only invest into creating a safe space so participants feel safe enough to open up and share ideas and concerns. A few things to consider: hierarchy differences in the room, cultural differences etc.

Tip 3: split in subgroups

Third one: split in subgroups. Often you have strong characters in a workshop and they can really break your workshop. But as a safety net you can split up in subgroups that strong characters only impact one part of the group, but not the entire group. Also if you split up a workshop in subgroups it allows you to triangulate results between the different groups.

Tip 4: Time-boxing

Number four: time boxing, give very clear time constraints. Think about a pressure cooking format you can always give time afterwards to iterate. Remember when we talked about the shitty first draft. Let's create the first drafts quickly and then rather invest time into developing them further, instead of standing in front of a blank paper.

Tip 5: give time to discuss

Number five: When you create your workshop agenda give time to discuss! Often what happens in front of the tools is more important than the tool itself. During a workshop it’s important to plan this time in.

Tip 6: go out for research

Number six: go out for research. If it's about a journey mapping workshop, don't only base your journey maps on assumptions, but base it on research data. Bring research data to the workshop, but also let people experience it with their own eyes. Maybe structure time to go out in to do research into your workshop. It’s also possible to just do phone calls or to schedule zoom calls with customers. There are various ways to bring customers into a workshop and how to bring research data to life.

Tip 7: be specific

Number seven: be specific. Be specific when you give tasks to people but also ask participants to be specific when they write stuff down.

Tip 8: use large templates

Number eight: use large templates. If the templates you use are too small, it often constrains people. I.e. We have this learning journey map template with only seven steps on it. It's good to learn how a journey map works, but in reality you need way more. I prefer to use very large templates, where people can fill up more stuff and often struggle with filling that up entirely.

Tip 9: sketch a storyboard

Number nine: when you do journey mapping, ask people to sketch. It often makes things clear. And often a picture or a sketch can say more than a thousand words.

Tip 10: work with real users/customers

The last one is to work with real users, with real customers. It's so different when you invite real customers, users, frontline staff to your workshop and co-create.

What are the upsides and downsides of in-person and digital workshops?

Marc: This isa big question. A year ago people often struggled with online workshops. Particularly in some areas of service design, when we talk about research. I think there are areas where I prefer to work online. For example stuff like building up a research wall, which in a face-to-face workshop you typically use a piece of a wall or cardboard that you put up. There you hang up your research data, you put up post-its and photos and stuff you collected. That is really good because people work with their hands. On the other hand, it's hard to restructure things – to share it again. And that works like a breeze if you do it remotely. You can also add videos to it, you can make a copy of the board, you can restructure things. That's just way more flexible. That's one part, where I would prefer to work online.

A downside of online workshops is that you miss the interaction between people. Of course we can mimic that, and we can create breakout rooms. We can invest into safe space and give this “coffee machine time” where typically people wait in front of the coffee machine. There they have informal chats. We can try to mimic it, but it's not the same.

The clearest upside of online is the documentation of workshops. When working online, everything is documented. It's really easy to move between tools.

I’m confident that even in the post-pandemic world we will keep on working with a mix of online and face-to-face workshops. We learned that some things work way better online and others work way better in a face-to-face setting.

What is your advice for the duration of an online workshop?

Nicole: In the real world it’s easy to say show up at 8:30 in the morning and we're going to be together until 5. Then we can energize people. It's harder to do online, in my experience.

Marc: You can't have as long workshops online as you do in the face-to-face setting. Also in a face-to-face setting you add down times, informal chats, etc. Also the breaks often take longer than you plan. At least that's what participants think, often we plan breaks way longer, because that's where serendipity happens. In an online workshop I limit it to half the time of a face-to-face workshop. This means my maximum is four hours for an online workshop, but you need to have a good break in between. I plan sessions for 90 minutes, maximum two hours. But this is a stretch I would never go beyond.

If possible I would do a two hour session, have a 30-minute break and have another 90-minute session.

Nicole: I've had success doing four 90-minute sessions through a day. I think if you do the math on that it works out to a half-hour break between each one with an hour for lunch. This does give people a lot of time, especially because we're all working from home, to just deal with their lives in between and not get too overwhelmed.

I find doing two half days where I would normally do a full day is better.

Is there an optimal size in terms of people for a workshop?

Marc: In my experience this really depends on the goal of the workshop. I think there's a minimum that you need, depending on what you do. If you work with your colleagues on a topic, you can run a workshop with three people. As soon as you involve customers or frontline staff I would say 10-12 people. If you really facilitate a workshop where you include people that you usually don't work with in your team, I just think this is the minimum size to make it successful.

The maximum you can stretch it to is several hundreds. But the thing is: the more people are involved, the more planning you need, the more structure you need and the less flexibility you have during the workshop. That's a nice thing about a group size of 12 to 20 people. You are very flexible, because even if you put them into breakout rooms, you – as a facilitator – can check into the different breakout groups to see how they are doing, where they are going in their group. You can still level out the performance between the groups. If you have more people, you don’t do it alone anymore but you do it with a team of facilitators. Or you let them work and you don't know what's going on.

I would say 12 to 20 is a good size.

Nicole: I would agree. When working with a client, they're often the ones pulling together the number of people that are participating. I always make it very clear that once we get over a certain number, for every four to five people they add we create a whole other breakout room.

I want my breakout rooms to be successful.

The same as I would in a normal room. I don't want my teams to be more than five or six people. For every five or six people they add, I add another team. That means that if we want to be productive with sharebacks and conversations I now need to rework my whole workshop plan. Therefore we can do less with the time that we have. Sometimes people who aren't used to doing these workshops think that since it's virtual they can invite everybody. But that's not the case. I'd make that really clear. At some point you need to start reworking your flow.

Digital workshops on Smaply are more difficult than on Miro. How do you make it easier?


Smaply was not designed to be used in a co-creative workshop setting. The core idea of Smaply is to standardize how you do journey mapping.

Many years ago we did a few experiments and we let people co-create a journey map. The maps we typically see from our customers in Smaply, they are often long and complex maps. They have loads of lanes, different personas many steps in it – and we saw that people were changing some details, while at the same time someone else was moving a step and changed the sequence. Very often these journey maps then broke because co-creating on very complex stuff doesn't really work. That was the core idea when we started it. However, when you start a journey map, you want to have loads of flexibility.

You want to see what others are doing, you want to co-create together.

And instead of mimicking an online collaboration tool, in a few days we're going to launch Smaply Capture – a way to easily get stuff from Miro, Mural, Lucidspark and other sources into Smaply. To make it easy to digitize it. Obviously we worked on that before the pandemic. It was a very stupid time to launch such a thing, but that's life.

And now we're going to launch the same thing for any online tool that you use. The idea is to start with a blank template, when you want to have this flexibility. And then probably any kind of online collaboration tool that your team is used to work in is a good point to start.

But at some point you want to start standardizing your maps, you want to link maps into each other.

You want to put live data into maps and that's the moment when you should transition into Smaply. But then obviously you can bring it back into the online collaboration tool and rework it, then bring it back and so on. We try to rather connect with those tools.  

Nicole: For me the big thing is giving people the space to not be structured in a workshop setting. I think when you constrain people too much, it's hard for them to produce anything.

I like using those tools that allow them to color outside of the lines a little more easily and then we can bring it into the lines later on.

Do you think the future will be to be physically in a workshop, but using a digital tool to work together?

Marc: I personally don't think so. We tried loads of things where people could write post-its on the phone, they can send them to the screen, then you have it on the screen and you can collaborate there. But it always feels fake to me. It might change, I might be wrong there. But I think it has to do with the physicality of things, of being able to touch things.

Like a post-it note. There’s this physicality of like tossing your ideas. Throwing it away. Touching things, moving it around. That really helps us think.

And I remember that there was some research on that topic by professor Simon Clatworthy six or seven years ago. He presented it at a service design global conference, where he talked about whether the research showed an impact on our thinking, that it helps us think.

I believe digital yes, but mixing it only to a certain extent. We still need this physicality in our workshops.

Nicole: I agree. I think too that when you bring participants together I love asking people to not open their computers. To keep them put away. And it keeps them much more focused on the task at hand. As soon as you bring in a digital something, it's like – oh, I have access to all of my digital things, I'm just going to check my email, I'm going to check this, I'm going to do that and it gets less focused.

How do you manage more dominant workshop attendees to make sure there is an even amount of interaction?

Marc: That’s hard to cover in just 30 minutes. I have a recommendation from good friends of mine, Adam and Renatus, who run a brilliant workshop on facilitation. You can find it on Brilliant people, brilliant stuff. My short take on that topic is that building safety nets when you plan your workshop is important.

The biggest safety net you have is splitting your group into subgroups, creating smaller groups that these strong characters and strong opinions only impact a smaller group of people.

Also think about hierarchy differences in the room. If you have a CEO in the room, it's really hard for people to speak up against it. Maybe because they know their next promotion might depend on that, these are the thoughts people have. And for good reasons depending on the culture of the organization. If you work in subgroups, people present as a group and think of the hierarchies there. As a CEO I can't point towards one person because they present it as a group. That helps in both directions.

If you really have strong characters or leading opinions in the room then at some point you need to talk with them, you need to address it.

The first step is to just talk with them directly. And you just take them aside and say: ”Hey I know you have a strong opinion on that, I got it, let's see what else comes up. I assure you that we're going to tackle that later.”

Sometimes you have this weird combination, that you have a hippo in the room, like a highest paid person in the room. And whatever their opinion is, that needs to get done. And magically their ideas will survive the entire workshop. And in the end it will get done. Often it helps if you are aware of these hierarchy differences.

You can make a shortcut for that and test the idea. Build a prototype for that, because otherwise it will pop up again and again. Get it out of the room.

Perhaps getting it out of the room is building a quick prototype. Testing it and see that it doesn't work.

If it's working, cool, it might have saved some time. If not, they see with their own eyes that it's failing and that might help you to get these people on your side. Then you can say “Look, this didn't work, but maybe we can do some research and find out why this doesn’t work. Or maybe we can test and combine it with other ideas that we see here.”

Nicole: It’s great to let people know that if it's something they are passionate about, they have the power to carry it through the workshop and continue to bring it up. The parking lot can also be your friend if it's an off-topic strong opinion. Just make sure that person feels heard.

Now, almost the flip side of that, how do you get hierarchies of people out of the room? Sometimes in a workshop we invite people that aren't usually offered a seat at the table. We want to include front line staff. They're not used to being in these boardrooms with the “higher people in the rankings” and that can be a little bit uncomfortable and create a natural imbalance.

When you invite these groups of people, make sure you invite enough that they also feel comfortable.

This really helps them to feel safe to speak their mind. Make sure that they're not holding back. Being too quiet hinders them from participating to the fullest.

Marc: That's a great point and I would like to add one thing to that because our natural tendency is that we want to have diverse groups. We always strive to have diversity. There's a nice example in our book on that from Adam. I'm not going to tell you now because of time constraints, but it's about nuns, rockstars, and doctors. I recommend that you read that.

Think about having subgroups that are homogeneous in the beginning.

If you have groups of frontline staff in your workshop, if you have groups of users in your workshop, if you have managers of different levels. Perhaps it's a good idea to start by letting them work in their own subgroups, let them reinforce themselves and find their opinion. Otherwise users might be or frontline staff might be dominated in every subgroup by management. But if you let them work in their subgroups first and form a strong opinion and then you mix them up in what's called a group puzzle.

Then there's a new group with participants from all the other groups. You will get way more diversity in the end. Because users go way more in one direction without the restriction of their other people who hold them back. Diversity is really important, but sometimes you also need homogeneity within the group before you go into diverse groups.

Can you talk a little bit about the best ways to co-create with users in a workshop setting? Do they participate just like other participants? How do you best facilitate that co-creation?

Marc: I won't give any input, any content into the workshop. I make sure that we have a good flow, I make sure that the dynamics in the different groups work. I handle stuff like strong characters. That's my role as a facilitator. I try to encourage everyone to get their voice heard.

And sometimes you will see that some people might need a different way to be able to say what they want to say.

Maybe they don't feel comfortable with verbally saying what they mean in front of a group. You can use different ways there. You can ask them to sketch.

Here, again, think about the three ways of working. Move away from putting people on the spotlight. This often discourages people from sharing the truth. First, you let them work on their own in the way of working with many pens on many pages. Then we add it to the wall and once it's there, we can talk about it. Because it's already there and then you can give it room to explore what's behind these ideas.

Nicole: We're really treating everyone the same, whether they're internal to our organization participants or external users. We want to give them lots of different ways of working and thinking to allow them to express themselves.

Marc: Obviously there are cultural boundaries. If I work in western countries I address that proactively before I start a workshop. I just say that I leave hierarchy out of the room. Sometimes I don't know who is a board member. We had the case where we ran a fairly large workshop with 200 participants of a large company and I knew there were a few board members in the room. But I didn't know who they were. Just by coincidence when there was a prototyping workshop, we walked through the rooms and we checked a few prototypes. I talked to the board member and I treated that person exactly the same as anyone else, as I didn’t know it was a board member.I made fun of him in front of everyone. He thought it was funny, it was cool but I saw the faces of the people who organized the workshop which froze in that moment. But it was fine because it was very clear.

However, be aware that this depends much on the organizational culture and of course the culture in which you work.

I would never do this in asian cultures where hierarchies are just way more important. Even if you address it and say, we leave hierarchy out of the room, it won't work. I work with folks who have a good knowledge of it. I am not an expert on that culture. But then cultures are different from organization to organization as well.

In a journey mapping team, how do you use the breakout rooms? And how do you keep an overview and a shared understanding of the journey?

Nicole: The way I interpret this is if we're splitting people out into breakout rooms but they're all contributing to a journey, how do we have them work together and keep everything cohesive?

I just have everyone do things separately. If I'm doing breakout rooms, then I'm journey mapping usually in Mural. If I've got two teams, that means I have two journeys. I have two areas of my board set up. And when they're in that breakout room, they're working on their own board. They don't have five other people contributing to their space visually, because that can get really confusing.

And then I just make sure that my teams have time to present that means afterwards!

I have to do some work in bringing the commonalities together to create that cohesive board. But I'm going to have to do that anyway because we know that workshops create mess and we need to interpret it down a little bit. Afterwards I just give them their own space to do what they need to do.

Marc: Brilliant. You tackled a really important issue there. That is if you think about journey maps there are three different use cases of journey maps. These are the workshop maps and they are the messy kind of maps Nicole just talked about.

Often the map itself is not as important, as the discussions people have in front of the map.

All you want to take away are some bits and pieces of data. Then you have project maps where you progress these maps over time, throughout the project. The last ones are the management maps which are more standardized. You use it to run several projects. In such a session it obviously depends on what your goal is, but think about the different zoom levels of a map. If you agree first as a whole group on the highest level map and then you divide it into sub-levels and make sure that people know when a sub-level journey ends and the next one starts.

What are the differences between the steps? Then you can send people in breakout rooms and let them work on the sub-level maps independently. Afterwards you can bring it all together. Think about the different zoom levels and the structure. If you want to have diversity, if you want to find out stuff I let people work on the very same journey in different rooms and then include time in my planning to compare the different journeys.

This makes it easy to see where they align and where the differences are. If everyone aligns you’re triangulating, that means probably this is true in reality. If you have loads of differences then probably you're not triangulating yet, and you need to explore what the reasons are for these different understandings. Perhaps it’s different customer segments, different personas behind it, different zoom levels of the maps… Whatever the reason might be.

And now, what's next?

Check out the other Ask Marc sessions about different topics of human-centric work, like multi-persona maps, creating CX insight repositories, and many more.