In 2018, Erik Skogsberg attended the Facilitation Summit, previously known as Control the Room. He learned of Voltage Control through our mutual friends Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, whom he had assisted in their pursuit to improve the learning design of their in-person Design Sprint workshops. This is something Erik, as a Learning Experience Design expert, was familiar with, often consulting with other authors and creatives. He would observe them in their educational and facilitated sessions and would provide feedback and guidance on how to apply learning science and learning Experience Design principles to elevate what they were delivering.
At that time, Erik was also leading a group of facilitators at Michigan State University, called the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology After meeting at the conference and getting to spend another half-day with Erik and his colleagues exploring how Voltage Control and MSU might collaborate, Erik and I both knew we wanted to collaborate on something together and began sharing ideas and observations from the field. We even had an opportunity to bring Erik and Jake Knapp along on a project we were doing with Nike.
Then came the pandemic, which was the final motivation for Erik and me to sit down and create something. Inspired by Learning Experience Design, it perfectly combines my years of facilitation practitioner experience and Erik’s many years of teaching, facilitation, research and study in the Learning Experience Design space. The Workshop Design Canvas distills down what has become second nature for many of learning experience designers and leaders across fields into an approachable, easy-to-use template that helps you design facilitated experiences more deliberately.
At the core of the Workshop Design Canvas is the concept of backward design, a curriculum creation framework in which the designer will start with the end in mind, considering how learners will leave the experience. We’ve heard from many alumni and Facilitation Lab community members how the Workshop Design Canvas had a meaningful impact on how they think about designing their session, and backward design is integral to the shift they all experience. Perhaps the most amazing moment is when we see them internalize backward design, focusing on the learner after, the learner before, and the gaps between. That’s key to being a facilitative leader thinking about where you hope people will be by the end of a gathering without even necessarily filling out the canvas. While it’s always best to return to the canvas for more high-stakes gatherings, these skills will serve you well as you facilitate all of your other sessions.
The framing of looking at how people are exiting and how we want them to leave a session can help us think about outcomes and objectives that are more human-focused. Then, if we think about and be honest with ourselves about how workshop participants are showing up and their motivations and needs, we can consider the gaps that need to be addressed. If we’re not doing those two things, creating an ideal workshop is impossible. We’re just guessing. Use this backward design approach as a key launching point for more deliberately designed sessions.
The Workshop Design Canvas is a visual tool for designing workshops, meetings, training courses, summits, or any time we want to gather people and drive toward shared outcomes. Ultimately, when bringing people together and seeking a shared outcome, it’s essential to account for how our brains work and for the real human beings taking part in the experience.
The canvas is broken into Open, Experience, and Close stages. The Open represents how learners/participants will enter the experience, the Experience depicts a journey you’re planning to take the learner on and where workshop activities and assessments will be placed, and the Close represents how the learner will ideally leave the experience. You’ll also notice a checklist to help you navigate the canvas in a recommended order and reflect on key learning science principles to ensure they are top of mind as you design. Along the top, there are icons to help inspire ideas for how you might engage participants along the journey, encouraging you to stretch out of your comfort zone, and mix in new approaches. Finally, you’ll see a notes and feedback section, which is helpful as you share the initial version of your experience prototype with peers and stakeholders and note opportunities for improvement.
If you take a closer look at the checklist, you’ll notice that it contains 10 items displayed in a recommended order to complete the canvas.
We’ll go through each step below to give you more context on why and how to approach each on
On the right side of the Canvas, you’ll see the Close of the experience. This section gets you thinking as a designer about where you’re hoping people are going to be after the experience is over, what they now notice value, do, say, or feel by the end of the session. This section asks you to clearly articulate what is new as a result of the experience and anchors you in a backward design approach. After your picture of the Learner After is clearer, you should choose the top five Learner After qualities that are most important to you. With these top qualities, you can then define your learner outcomes (what learners will know and/or be able to do after the experience) and the connected objectives (what you will do as a facilitator to help get them to the outcomes). Ask yourself, “What do you hope learners notice, value, do, say, and/or feel by the end of your facilitated experience?
After the close, you’ll move to the left side of the canvas, where you’ll see Open. Here, you’ll think about how folks are entering this overall experience. Like Close, you are thinking about what they notice, value, do, say, or feel as they enter the experience. You’ll also consider the learner’s needs and motivations. It’s important to consider that you may have a few different types of learners with different needs and motivations. If that’s the case, you can map out multiple types, but always pick your primary design target so that when you are forced to make tough decisions, you know who to prioritize. This may also help you decide who should and shouldn’t be invited to the experience and if you need to design multiple types of experiences. Finally, keep in mind that your learners may enter your experience before the start of your workshops, meetings, conferences, so it’s crucial to think about what they might need when they get that first invitation and/or email and how to prepare them before they even enter the space.
Next, you’ll move to the center of the canvas in the Experience section. Here, you’ll begin to identify assessment points. Assessment points are where you gather evidence of learning and how participants are moving toward your hoped-for outcomes. Start with your final assessment. What must you measure or confirm with your participants to be sure you’ve achieved the defined outcomes? Another useful frame is to ask yourself, “If I’m halfway through, what must be true, and how can I verify that we are there?” It is always helpful to use assessment points across sessions to confirm participants are starting where you expected them to. If they’ve changed, you’ll want to know so you can adapt to their emerging needs.
And these assessments don’t have to be big productions. This can be as simple as listening closely to what is coming up in a group conversation.
What are these little ways we might better understand if we’re on target to hit our outcomes and have people exit in those ways we’re hoping them to exit? If there are specific ways we want them to think or feel at the end, how do we know that they’re starting to shift in that direction? Assessment points are little indicators, little signals that we are headed toward the right point.
Now that we have assessment points created, it’s time to start deciding on your activities and methods. The assessment points act as mile markers for your journey and can be a helpful inspiration to guide your activity selection. If you are stuck in your favorite activities, the assessment points can also break you out of that. It’s essential to think about the activities that will best prepare learners for the next assessment point. Along the top of the experience section, you’ll notice t activity icons that help you distinguish between types of activities. These can serve as a source of inspiration as well as help you visualize the activity balance across your session.
Motivation is key. If you’re not thinking about the motivations behind their needs and what’s driving them, then you may find that they aren’t in a growth mind space and that it’s really difficult for them to pay attention and engage in ways we want them to. This is why it’s important to consider motivation as learners enter the experience and revisit motivation after selecting initial activities.
The number one question we hear from students and the community is, “How do I create more engagement?” Well, first of all, you have to understand what motivates people and lean into those things.
Moving on to metacognition, we take a moment to zoom out and consider at which points we need to allow participants to really stop and think about what they’ve just learned or witnessed. Metacognition has important benefits not only for the immediate workshop experience but also for work that your learners might do well after the experience is over. What concepts require us to not only do but to think about what it means to work in this way or what the broader implications of an action or decision might be? These metacognition moments can really be the key to unlocking more integration and deeper understanding.
Next, we have mixed practice and modes for learning. As I touched on previously, the activity icons are an extremely helpful visual add to point out if we are overloading participants with a specific style or type of activity and/or missing out on providing another way to access the learning experience and better meet the needs of our learners. By providing multiple access points, we can improve the accessibility and richness of the learning experience. We should also consider how we might provide opportunities to stimulate and engage different modes and approaches for learning and provide a diversity of access points for the learning experience.
Also, the iconification helps you realize things like, “Oh wow, am I presenting too much?” “Am I giving enough opportunity to practice or debrief?” These are great reminders and to help people who might be stuck on what to do or add further. We have a solo, small group, whole group, asynchronous, energizer, icebreaker, reflection, discussion, breaks, and even a timer here.
Feedback is essential for quality learning experiences. By providing regular feedback opportunities, you can greatly improve the quality of the experience and better set up learners to deepen their competency as they provide feedback to one another. Don’t just slap feedback at the end, take an intentional approach to your feedback across the experience. What moments might you use to check in with participants?
Next, we’ll consider what we need to remove because we are overloading the brains of our participants.
Too often, we’ll see folks focus primarily on how much content they can pack into a session or what cool activity they hope to do. That doesn’t always match up with what ultimately will get you to where you’re hoping to be by the end. This is even a good check for seasoned folks there. I think it’s the curse of mastery there when it comes to our knowledge base. We forget that we, at one point, were just starting out and may not be as excited about the things that we spend all our time dedicate our time to. The cognitive load check really helps keep you honest about the needs of your learners.
Finally, treat the canvas like a prototype. Share it with friends and trusted colleagues. Gather their feedback and revise your canvas once you’ve had a chance to reflect on various sources of feedback. We recommend talking to five people before making any sweeping changes.. Make sure the feedback is consistent and identify bigger trends This will help avoid iteration fatigue and ensure you are making substantive changes that truly propel you forward.
Even though deeply rooted in research and proven science, the Workshop Design Canvas is not merely an intellectual pursuit, It’s an effective practical tool. It’s the ideal tool to perfect your conceptual model before you get into something like a SessionLab where you’ll get specific on timing and describe how you’ll prompt and instruct people. The Workshop Design Canvas can help you develop a clear view of the map for the experience you want to deliver. It helps you keep that strategic view in sight and ensure you’ve got the right pieces and orientation before you get into the nitty-gritty of a detailed agenda design. Also, it helps keep you honest about what will be best for the real human beings you’ll be working with.
From online to in-person, from large to small, we use it to map out all of our offerings, including our yearly Facilitation Lab Summit. Recently, we worked with Casandra Worthy, a well-known author and founder of Change Enthusiasm Global, seeking to develop a number of workshops based on the content and principles in her book. We also worked with an innovator in sustainable product solutions in personal and home care to help them roll out a new org-wide design thinking curriculum. We based our initial workshops with them largely on the Workshop Design Canvas. The clarity that emerged in the workshop not only helped them articulate their workshop needs and sequence the learner experience to drive the identified outcomes, but they also were able to make some key distinctions to best serve their focal audiences.
We, along with our alumni and many of our Facilitiation Lab community members, have had such great success with the Workshop Design Canvas. So, if you want to easily step into the shoes of the professionals who have studied this stuff for years and design your next session with these key principles in mind, download the Workshop Design Canvas now. Once you’ve completed a canvas or a few, we’d love to hear your story! In fact, we are collecting and sharing stories about all the amazing workshops that folks in the Facilitation Lab community are creating. Share yours today on LinkedIn or email us.
Use this canvas to design your workshop, meeting, training, or course like a learning experience pro.