How to teach great design workshops

4 min read
Matt Isherwood
  •  Sep 5, 2017
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I’ve been teaching workshops and courses on UX design in a variety of formats for over 4 years now. I’ve done everything from General Assembly evening sessions to multi-day corporate training. It’s been a great experience and a journey of understanding how to explain and teach things you can take for granted.

If you’ve got knowledge of a field, I thoroughly recommend the process of instructing others about it to help you clarify what you believe and how you work.

Teaching is a truly iterative process that you’re not going to get right the first time, but I’ve learned a few things through trial and error and working out what makes a useful and informative workshop.


Have a clear structure
The more I teach and write, the more I realize structure is everything. You must take your students through an overarching journey. Explain what this is at the beginning, go through the workshop in defined sections, and then summarize the structure again at the end.

For example, in my ecommerce workshops I take students through the ecommerce experience funnel on a typical user’s journey. This makes it much easier for them to understand where each piece of advice fits and how to apply it.

“With teaching, structure is everything.”

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Making something clear can take a lot of time to refine. The first time I taught a workshop I was given someone else’s presentation to adapt, and it wasn’t until I had presented it a couple of times that I realized the sequencing and jumps between topics didn’t work.

After a bit of time with the material and seeing the kind of questions I got, I ripped up the old presentation and remade it in a more logical way.

There are no right illustrations

Don’t just hit your students with a load of facts or reams of theory. Think about how you can illustrate this, either with literal visual examples or through stories. This is much more likely to stick in your students’ minds.

Don’t think there are only fixed ways of explaining things. You don’t have to use the same examples that everyone else gives. In fact, it’s better if you can explain a concept with your own angle—it’ll feel much more genuine and you’ll feel more confident answering questions on it.

For example, when seeking a way to describe what an ecommerce product page needs to do, the example of ready meal packaging struck me as ideal (visualize the product outcome despite not being able to see inside, provide lots of details about what’s in it, etc.).

Teach what you believe
Good teaching only happens if you believe what you’re telling people.Twitter Logo By all means borrow from other books, blogs, and sources but don’t present anything you don’t believe yourself.

In one of my workshops, I used to have a few slides about A/B testing that I hated teaching and it took me a long time to realize it was because I didn’t really believe in the contents—it wasn’t how I worked any more. I then figured I could just remove them and present new content that reflected my approach.

This new section warned against the dangers of A/B testing and went down much better with students, as it was more honest and they appreciated not being given a glossy sales pitch.

Be prepared to learn
Learning is part of being a teacher or instructor. You certainly won’t know everything, so every now and then there will be sections you’ll need to read up on and research.

It’s a chance to brush up your own skills and improve your knowledge on areas of your work that you might ignore day-to-day. Don’t be afraid of this—if you want to come across as an expert you’ll need a decent breadth of knowledge. As long as you believe in the subject and can illustrate the concepts (see above) you’ll be okay.

“Good teaching only happens if you believe what you tell your students.”

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You don’t have to go into great detail about everything, but you should be able to introduce key concepts and point students in the direction of more information if you aren’t the best person for that subject.

Make notes

I’m a big fan of utilizing the presenter notes field in Keynote to cover the things you want to say for each slide. This isn’t for you to read from—it’s so that you have all the important points on hand. A few times when my memory has blanked, I’ve been so glad I had notes to look at.

You can even output them with your slides when you send them around, but I’ve never made mine neat enough for external consumption.

Think aloud

Make sure you actually speak your words out loud before you deliver your presentation and can do so without reading. It’s amazing how doing this really helps you shape what you want to say. Many times I’ve found something that looked sensible on the screen, but sounded weird when spoken aloud.

Related: 9 tips to help you rock your first (or next) conference presentation

It can take 2-3 iterations to get what you want to say sounding right and and the transitions from one slide to the next sounding logical. These transitions are easy to overlook, but why you’re moving in that direction must make sense to your students.

Standalone slides

One thing you can guarantee: people will want to get your slides after the class. So it’s good if they can mostly stand on their own. Of course it’s the combination of the slides with you speaking where the real value lies, so the slides themselves can just be a reminder of each point—you don’t need to go overboard with text.

However, you’re aiming for clarity, so have words where key things need explaining. You don’t need create text-free conference presentation slides.

Come in under time

Time how long your class is going to take. You may have to practice it in bits and estimate but you should have a good idea.

Then always aim to finish 10 minutes ahead of time. Not only is this useful for Q&A time but if your students have been sitting through a few hours of content, they’ll always be happy to get away early… no matter how impressive it was. I’ve taught a lot of classes in the evening, and people appreciate being able to catch trains, go to dinner, etc.

Practical exercises are a brilliant way to get students to truly understand and internalize what you’re teaching. They help break up the monotony of you talking at them in longer sessions, too.

It can take work to know what kind of exercise to run, but if you teach a workshop and you spot areas where you lose attention, it’s a candidate for some practical work.

I always like to follow an exercise with a class discussion—the act of doing usually triggers more detailed thoughts and smart questions from the group. It offers them a chance to learn from each other, so I like to keep these parts of sessions quite rough and let the group lead.


Software update
If the class needs any software for the session, advertise this clearly and remind them to install it beforehand. It’s also worth reminding them to make sure their operating system is up to date as that can prevent them from downloading the latest version of a program.

Shouldn’t have ignored that software update popup for the last 8 months.

Check your connections
Find out what the computer setup is and the presentation system you’ll be using at the venue beforehand. Do they have the relevant adapters, or is it all setup with Airplay? I once showed up only to learn that my laptop hardware was too old to work with it. I had to scramble to borrow another laptop.

Which leads me to the next step…

Prepare a backup
Of course I was prepared and had a backup version on a memory stick. Nowadays I keep a copy on iCloud. Always, always have a backup of your presentation.

“Always have a backup of your presentation.”

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Bring water
And bring more than you think you’ll need. Most places will have water, but don’t risk there not being any.

At one of my first workshops, the very kind organizers went and bought some beer for the group. Great idea, I thought—having one of those will take the edge off and help things flow a bit easier.

I found myself suppressing burps every few words. Not appealing to anyone in the room or good for my delivery, so I now always avoid beer (well, all alcohol) and fizzy drinks!

Break time
Give your students a break. When I’m doing 3-hour workshops I like to give them a couple of breaks and tell them at the beginning when those breaks will be. This helps them know there’ll be time to visit the restroom rather than have them interrupt your talk.

Also, anticipate that you might get hungry. I teach workshops in the evening when I’d normally be eating dinner, so I have a snack in my bag to stave off any stomach rumblings.

In class

Be flexible

If the immediate feedback from the group is that they want to hear about something else, then don’t be afraid to tweak what you’re saying midway through. Even if you don’t have slides, if you can talk about something then do so—that’s just as valuable.

And be flexible with any exercises you’ve prepared. Once, after realizing I’d made a task too complex for the level of the group, I dropped that part so I could spend more time on the next section.

Awkward students
Despite awkward students being a fear, this is actually a rare occurrence. Pretty much everyone I’ve had at my sessions has wanted to learn.

Probably the most challenging have been those who ask *a lot* of questions. I invite questions whenever, but too many can disrupt the flow and often it’s a sign they want help solving their own specific issues.

Don’t be afraid to be firm with them and ask them to hold onto questions until the end of the session, when you can answer more fully—or follow up on email. The rest of the group will be on your side.

Take notes

Note any particularly smart questions the students ask. If they’re paying attention there’ll always be some and they will be very useful later.

After class

Talking for several hours straight can give you a sore throat, and I find it’s common to feel physically drained. So expect this and be prepared to rest up afterwards.

Get feedback
Your teaching is nothing without reactions from the people who were there.Twitter Logo The first few times you teach a class, you’re bound to overlook important details or present something in a confusing way.

Write down any good questions you get and also record any feedback that comes through. Later when you come to revisit your material to teach the class again, you can improve it so you don’t make the same mistakes twice.

Inspiring questions is no bad thing, but if the same questions keep coming up then it might suggest an area you can develop further.

Always be iterating

The big investment in time comes from creating the workshop for the first time. When preparing to give it again you can start from your previous version. I always like to crack open the Keynote doc a week before to check that it still makes sense and improve it.

It’s worth updating any ageing examples and tweaking things based on your last set of feedback. It keeps things interesting for you and means you never give the same talk twice. Going through it from start to finish helps you relearn the contents.

When you do this, always date stamp the start of the presentation with the correct date/month of the class you’ll be giving. This way the students know it’s current. Plus, it allows you to keep versions of your old presentations, which makes for interesting viewing.

Good luck!

If you get the opportunity—even if it’s just a lunchtime session within a company—go for it. Even when I haven’t felt up for a workshop beforehand, the buzz you get during and after always makes it worthwhile.

For more details about hiring me to teach UX design, take a look here.

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