The beginning of a creative workshop is always a bit daunting. You can be extremely prepared, have years of experience, rehearse a hundred times and ask colleagues for feedback. But you never really know, what kind of group dynamic will meet you in the workshop room. It is therefore extremely important that the workshop facilitator can sense the room and feel the group dynamic, and then adjust the workshop accordingly.
A few weeks ago, I facilitated a workshop for users of EPASS.
Jayway’s main responsibility in the WATCHME-project is to create visualisations of data that will be presented to students and supervisors at participating universities.
Until recently, the focus has been mainly on the technical setup: How will different systems send data to each other and process it into a presentable and useful form? We have now reached the point, where we know approximately what data will be available. It is time to start using that data in visualisations.
In a creative digital design company, there is never a shortage of ideas. In my mind, I have already pictured many different visualisations that I believe would be cool and useful for users. Before I let my imagination guide my pen, however, it is always important to me to get inside the mind of the user and make sure that I understand what they imagine the software to act, look and feel like.
So I travelled to Utrecht in the Netherlands to extract precious wisdom from users. I wanted to encourage them to tell me and show me what they expect from the software, we are making for them.
18 participants joined the workshop. I facilitated the exercises with help from 3 colleagues on the project; they joined the groups, helped clarify questions and guided the participants throughout the day.
5 hours were reserved for the workshop and three different educational tracks were asked to participate: Veterinary, Medical and Anesthesiology Training. The group of participants was diverse and consisted of students, supervisors and teachers from the three tracks – all these user groups will be using the system once it is finished. Some participants were familiar with the Watchme project, and some had already used the e-portfolio in its current form.
The workshop was divided in three parts: Brainstorming, analysis and aketching. This structure was designed to open up for opportunities at the beginning of the day and then narrow down the scope throughout the afternoon, finishing with very concrete ideas.
First, in the brainstorming exercise, the users came up with feedback categories that are helpful to them. Then, time was allocated to a thorough analysis of these categories – why they were relevant; what kind of data they include; how it should be presented to users; and what challenges are related to the category. Finally, users were asked to sketch visualisations for each category and explain to the group their thoughts behind the drawings.
LEARNINGS AND INSIGHTS
From the get-go, I was impressed with the participants’ energy and enthusiasm. Already during the first exercise – brainstorming of feedback categories – the participants were very thorough in their ideas generating.
I learned that feedback about their progress is especially useful if students are encouraged to reflect and act on it afterwards.
I learned that users of the ePortfolio are eager to get an overview of what lies ahead of them – they want to know what goals they are working towards, what sub-goals and checkpoints they must accomplish and how close they are to reaching their goals.
I learned that teachers and supervisors are also interested in receiving feedback on their performance. They want to know if their feedback is useful to the students and they want to know whether their grading is fair and balanced compared to other teachers.
The analysis exercise brought in-depth insights about the participants’ understanding of the feedback categories. For these exercise, I divided participants into 4 groups and chose 4 feedback categories from the Brainstorming exercise. I chose categories that have not been discussed in the project before, in order to make use of the participants’ fresh perspectives.
Based on presentations of each groups Analysis, participants were then asked to sketch what they envisioned the described feedback visualisations to look like. Although sketching is a foreign concept to many people, I was impressed with the creative drawings the workshop participants came up with.
Below is an overview of the learnings for each category and sketches created by workshop participants.
Goals – Students are interested in seeing visual presentations of the goals that are set for them by the faculty as well as the goals they create for themselves. Goals ought to be divided into several levels. There are small scale achievements that contribute to larger goals; for example, mastering certain competencies contributes to achieving entrustment level within an EPA. Equally, there are yearly goals, which might consist of several monthly goals, which in turn consist of several weekly goals.
Patient feedback – Students are interested in finding out, how their patients or patients’ owners (in Veterinary Training) perceive them. They would like feedback on their interpersonal and communication skills. Students have different suggestions for such feedback – it could ask specifically about the student’s communication on arrival, during and after treatment or it could simply ask whether the patient would recommend the student.
Teacher feedback – There is an inconsistency in the way teachers grade their students. Some teachers grade their students in relation to where the student is expected to be at the end of their education, whilst others grade in relation to where the student ought to be at the present stage. Teachers would benefit from knowing within which grade span they should be grading students at certain points in their education as well as a view of how their grading standards compare other teachers’ grading standards.
Bookmark feedback – Students often want to remember their feedback, because it is positive or because it is useful and constructive, despite being difficult to hear. They wish to have the opportunity to save or bookmark certain feedback messages, so that they can later return to them. Teachers are interested in knowing whether students find their feedback useful, and would be motivated by this knowledge to give constructive feedback.
The learnings and insights outlined above are of course only a fraction of all the knowledge we got out of the workshop. It may not sound like a lot of time but 5 hours spent with future users of a system is enough to learn a lot about the mindset, perceptions, ideas and expectations of users – if the time is administered correctly, of course.
The trick with a creative workshop is to ask questions that get the users talking about relevant topics. The importance of choosing the right exercises should not be underestimated. Creative exercises must be open enough to allow the participants to use their imagination, but they should also set a firm framework for the exercise, so that discussions are relevant to the goal of the workshop.
My colleagues and I are very satisfied with the workshop. We managed to create a workshop environment, where participants were comfortable sharing their thoughts and expectations. Discussions were honest and critical but at the same time respectful and open-minded. We received participants’ input on our existing ideas and acquired many new ideas from participants.
The workshop design and extensive preparation went a really long way to achieve this – but our ability to go with the flow, feel the dynamic and channel the participants’ energy in the right direction were the real steps to success.
The next step stage in the process will see us designing visualisations based on workshop insights. Further down the road, we will include users in an iterative evaluation and adjustment process. I am already looking forward to working with users again at a later stage – a close collaboration with the people who will actually use the system in the end, is the best way to create useful and true to life software.