Designing Discussions: Basic Pitfalls to Avoid

Updated: Apr 28


Before starting each design research project, I fall into the habit of trying to talk myself out of it mostly out of cynicism. Why are we collecting similar data again? Will we learn anything new from this client versus the vast quantities of secondary research that already exists?


However, the team always comes out of these research activities learning something new - whether unique to the client’s culture, finding a new frame to an existing problem that cuts across the industry, or how we can improve our own process to be more successful in the future. It is always worth having conversations with users no matter how brief the effort.


Recently, NBBJ had the good fortune to facilitate similar discussion topics with two major academic medical centers back-to-back. This process gave us the opportunity to compare and contrast the two different efforts. While we can’t share the design opportunities we uncovered yet, we can share a three learnings about how we conducted these research efforts.



Learning #1: Frame the desired level of conversation.

While the objective of both of the studies were similar, one organization’s result leaned more heavily towards rudimentary opportunities than higher level improvements that an organization may tackle after getting the basics right. While hearing from users that they need the basic necessities is an important data point, precious time can be better spent with users if facilitators just spend a little bit more care up front outlining what type of discussion we desire to have. And if conversations meander back to undesired subjects, facilitators should not hesitate to remind participants of the scope of the discussion and steer the conversation back on topic.



Learning #2: Frame the desired scope of conversation.

Correctly scoping a research effort is a no-brainer. However, as a design firm known for a particular output (i.e. physical space), we need to be extra vigilant with framing the scope of the conversation. Very often we would find ourselves spending majority of the time discussing opportunities around space. This could be the desired outcome, especially under time constraints. However, I’ve seen discussions veer back into physical space even when the team has the time to tackle people, process, and technological opportunities. Whichever path the team wants to go in, make sure it is a conscious decision and utilize visual aids to ensure a balanced coverage of discussion.


A visual aid to help structure the conversation


Another way the two different medical centers differed is how often the staff experience conversation became a patient experience conversation. While both work sessions were prefaced with IHI’s Quadruple Aim framework, one of the organizations veered away from the fourth aim, Improving Provider Work Life, which is the focus of the work. As a result, the facilitators had to make an extra effort to steer the discussion back to staff wellness. Facilitators should always be conscious about the scope of discussion and not by shy about getting the conversation back on track.



Learning #3: Define who should not be in the room.

Who you have in the room can affect the discussion outcome. In one set of staff focus groups, representatives from facilities planning and construction were present but not part of the discussion group. While their presence was not an issue for the majority of the conversation, it created an environment where the participants may not have felt safe to discuss freely their concerns about the space or, conversely, they would spend too much time focused on space. In hindsight, when planning the focus group, we should have talked about who should not be in the room as much as who should be in the room.


These three learnings are by no means new to any experienced facilitator. But often a disproportionate amount of time is spent designing the content of the discussion and not on how the discussion should be facilitated. Spending just a bit more time carefully designing how a discussion could unfold will be time well spent.


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