User experience training: helping staff to research, design & collaborate

It’s just over a year since we trialled our first user experience training package. We’ve run the sessions 4 times now, receiving excellent feedback from attendees and refining the provision each time to better meet staff needs.

In this post I’ll cover what the training consists of, and why I believe it’s a critical element of the University delivering better, more user-centric services and software. I’ll also provide a flavour of what participants have been saying and how we’ve improved things over the year.

  • Why we need UX training
  • About the course and its sessions
    • Usability testing
    • Collaborative reviews
    • Workshopping
    • Personas
    • Experience maps
    • Prototyping
  • Feedback to date
    • Session ratings
    • Participant quotes

Why we need UX training

I believe that our users’ experience is everybody’s responsibility. Having a UX professional is a great addition to a project team, but it will not necessarily guarantee the project will deliver a useful, usable and desirable product or service.

Expertise on the project team is obviously a huge benefit, but it’s also about a mindset across the team and stakeholders; it’s about ways of working together.

This training exposes the project team to key techniques used by a UX research and design practitioner, and gives them the knowledge and experience to undertake them themselves.

When project managers, business analysts, designers, developers and subject matter experts better understand what the UX professional is doing, they can better contribute to user-centered research and design work and take on responsibilities themselves when their project doesn’t have a designated UX lead.


Rows of typists working in an office (probably) in the 1960s

UX in an immature organisation today is similar to how we dealt with word processing 25+ years ago. Image source: Flickr

I liken UX today to how businesses dealt with (what we now call) word processing in the pre-personal computer days. Back in the 1980s and earlier, there were different professional disciplines working together in businesses but when they wanted a letter they would take their requirements to the typing pool or the specialist in their team. And the specialist task of typing would get done. Imagine that today. Typing is so ubiquitous that it doesn’t even appear on your job description even though it’s fundamental to almost every office job.

The same needs to happen for user experience research and design. It needs to be ubiquitous too. That doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t have UX professionals. There will always be new and different challenges; complicated edge cases of research and design. There will always be the projects that are too big, too expensive, too important to risk errors occurring. We will always need the UX equivalent of the 300 words per minute, super-efficient, super-accurate, super-reliable secretary.

It’s like Jakob Nielsen said in his 2009 article, ‘Anybody can do usability’:

Usability is like cooking: everybody needs the results, anybody can do it reasonably well with a bit of training, and yet it takes a master to produce a gourmet outcome.

Jakob Nielsen

About the course

Our UX and Design Thinking training is 3 days, made up of six 3-hour modules.

All sessions can be run as stand-alone half day courses, but have been designed to run in sequence with each technique and practical exercise contributing to the next.

  • Usability testing
  • Collaborative usability testing review
  • Workshop collaboration essentials
  • Persona development
  • Experience mapping
  • Prototyping concepts

Usability testing

This session covers how to organise and execute research sessions that involve observing target users interacting with a system, service or website to identify where their biggest issues lie.

Observing and interviewing people as they use your product is a great way to get an immediate feel for how easy it is to complete their most important tasks.

Regular, direct exposure to representative users has been shown to be the single, best way to improve the usability of a product and the user focus of the team managing it.

How the session is delivered:

  • Seminar covering everything a beginner needs to know
  • Live demo of facilitated usability testing
  • Practical activity in pairs, with coaching

By the end of the session, attendees will have:

  • A sound understanding of the basics of usability testing and where to turn to learn more
  • Practical experience of usability testing both as a facilitator and participant
  • Insight into a website or application of their choice through facilitating usability tests with 2 other attendees

Collaborative usability testing review and prioritisation

This session covers how to prioritise the results of usability testing research collaboratively, using techniques that integrate easily into an agile development methodology.

Usability testing insight has been likened to drinking from a water hydrant. Identifying as a team the most important issues to address, seeing these fixes through and confirming that they’ve had the desired effect is critical to the ongoing improvement of a system or service.

This technique demonstrates a great way to get all stakeholders on board with improving a system or product for users, and developing shared user empathy and focus.

How the session is delivered:

  • Introduction to the process, including a mini case study
  • Active participation in a review session using pre-recorded usability testing videos for a real online service
  • Collaborative prioritisation of the usability issues observed in the videos

By the end of the session, attendees will have:

  • The experience of participating in a collaborative review session
  • All supporting materials needed to run sessions themselves
  • An appreciation of the value of this approach as a means to identify and prioritise improvements more quickly, cheaply and inclusively

Workshopping and collaboration essentials

This session introduces the core principles of running a design thinking workshop, and emphasises the value of taking a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to planning, prioritisation and problem solving.

How the session is delivered:

  • Seminar on why collaboration between disciplines, with stakeholders and with users is valuable, and the return it brings
  • Practical session in small groups running through core activities I use in the majority of my workshops
  • Practical workshop activities to begin collaboratively exploring a hypothetical design challenge

By the end of the session, attendees will have:

  • An appreciation of the basic principles that underpin any collaborative workshop, and where to turn for inspiration to develop activities that support particular project requirements
  • Experience of participating in a demo workshop that illustrates the key points, and provides a solid basis for the kick off of a project in terms of target users, their needs and business requirements

Introduction to persona development

Personas can serve a number of purposes in a user-centred project; supporting research summarisation, stakeholder communication and project planning. In this session we explore the core principles and develop proto-personas building on the concepts and scenario introduced in the workshop essentials session.

How the session is delivered:

  • Seminar introduction to the purpose and value of persona generation – a means to synthesize user insight and externalise stakeholder assumptions, producing user archetypes (personas) that can inform development decisions and bring greater focus to a project or service
  • Practical activity in small groups to develop proto-personas for a design scenario. The personas developed are prioritised by the group and used in subsequent sessions

By the end of the session, attendees will have:

  • An appreciation of the value of personas in the context of user experience
  • Understanding of when and how to apply the technique to support stakeholder alignment and team communication
  • Practical experience of developing personas in a collaborative workshop environment to support the exploration of a design problem
  • All resources and support materials needed to integrate these techniques into their own projects

Experience mapping essentials

In this session we look at how exposure to end users and collaborative stakeholder exercises can be synthesized into summary representations of user experiences, and utilised as a basis for solution ideas generation that can subsequently be tried out prior to significant development effort.

Mapping is a highly collaborative process, providing a means to summarise user research into ‘as-is’ scenarios, and to outline ‘to-be’ scenarios both from the perspective of the end user and of a potential service. Maps may be worked up into high-fidelity communications tools, as well as providing an ongoing work-in-progress collaboration space as a project progresses.

How the session is delivered:

  • Seminar introduction to the value and practice of experience mapping
  • Practical activity in small groups, continuing the scenario introduced in earlier sessions to explore a design problem through the lens of priority users

By the end of the session, attendees will have:

  • An understanding of how mapping exercises can be used to communicate current experiences, to explore design problems and generate ideas for potential solutions
  • An appreciation of how and when to use the technique using interaction with end users, stakeholders and/or other sources of insight
  • All resources and support materials needed to integrate these techniques into their own projects

Prototyping essentials

This session introduces prototyping in the context of user experience. We approach it as the process of exploring a design concept with users  to establish as quickly and cheaply as possible whether there is value in progressing it towards a working solution. We also look at how prototyping can be a productive means to research user needs through co-creation activities.

How the session is delivered:

  • Seminar introduction to the value and practice of prototyping in a UX context – a quick and cheap means to validate and communicate ideas
  • Experience of participating in a demo workshop that illustrates a collaborative approach to generate design ideas quickly and build consensus for an approach
  • Practical activity in small groups to iteratively solve a design problem on paper and test concepts with users

By the end of the session, attendees will have:

  • An appreciation of the value of UX prototyping, when and how to apply it in the development of products and services
  • Practical experience of applying prototyping skills to a design problem as a team
  • All resources and support materials needed to integrate these techniques into their own projects

Feedback to date

Some parts of this training are very mature; I’ve been delivering them for over 10 years. But it was only last year that I pulled them together with some new elements to create a coherent package.

We ran our first pilot of the training for staff at the University of Aberdeen in autumn 2016. Following on from this our first run through with Edinburgh staff took place just before Christmas, and the latest in-house group participated over summer and winter 2017. Most recently, I visited the University of Essex to deliver the sessions.

Aberdeen UX training write up: Helping Aberdeen University become more user focused

Essex UX training write up: The only way is user centred

In total, almost 70 staff have taken part with 45 completing feedback forms.

Average feedback scores have been excellent. For each session we ask participants to rate the following from 1 (most positive) to 5 (least positive):

  • Usefulness of the session overall
  • Quality of the presentations
  • Usefulness of the activities
  • Expertise of the trainer

In all categories, for all sessions, the lowest average score was 1.69 and the median was 1.15.

What attendees said

The following quotes are from staff who attended sessions at the University of Edinburgh.


“I’ve been pinching ideas from your blog for ages and running workshops on that basis, so fantastic to get practical teaching to learn how to do this in depth”

“The workshop techniques were excellent. I spent time engaging in my group, but at the same time thinking how I could implement them in my business area.”

Usability testing

“I will hopefully be reinvigorating my project board with these techniques. They are behind the process but could be even more involved.”

“Simple, relevant exercises which make sense of how to put the methodology into practice in the workplace.”


“I will definitely be putting this into practice to focus colleagues on the needs of users…”

“The practical elements [of prototype-persona creation] were fun and informative…”


“Nice mixture of seminar and solo/group work”

“I found it useful to interview people on their experiences and can see how useful this would be for finding goals, pain points etc”

“Great activities; really enjoyable as well as useful for learning…”


“The iterative collaborative sketching technique was really useful.”

“The session gave me loads of useful information and resources”

What we’ve improved

Over the course of delivering the sessions, we’ve listened to feedback both during and after the sessions, and refined things to make the programme of sessions even more relevant and useful.

These are the key things we’ve evolved based on feedback and observation:

  • Made more time for hands-on practice of usability testing, by shortening seminar segments and refining the collaborative review session.
  • Developed a new scenario for the practical activities that continues through the second and third days. Now our workshopping activities lead directly into persona creation, we use these to support experience mapping exercises and finally pick an identified pain point from the mapping to focus on in the prototyping exercises.
  • Provided a better overview of the whole user-centered design process and where the techniques we practice fit in, as well as aligning with complimentary online materials available to Edinburgh staff on

Read more about the UX training resources available on

Interested in our UX and Design Thinking training?

Sessions are run regularly for Edinburgh staff. Join the UX mailing list to receive notifications of available dates.

Join the University of Edinburgh UX mailing list (EASE login required)

If you’re interested in all or parts of the training just for your team or business unit, get in touch.

All sessions can be amended to focus on your specific requirements.

Contact details for Neil Allison, User Experience Manager

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