Oct 01, 2015 08:50 Designer as facilitator: A new role

There has been discussion recently about the changing roles of designers. One of these new roles is the designer (or design researcher) as facilitator. With the increased interest in bringing various stakeholders into the co-designing process comes the need to support those who are not trained in design during group sessions that require collaboration, ideation and decision-making.


What do facilitators do?

Sometimes designers serve as facilitators for a group of like-minded people. This is the situation for focus groups or co-design workshops with future users.  But with the rise in interest in co-designing, designers are increasingly being asked to facilitate group sessions where diverse people have been gathered to address complex challenges. It is often the case that the people are from different backgrounds and have different goals for their organizations. This is a most challenging type of facilitation and requires a high degree of expertise in a facilitator.


The facilitator must understand the objectives of the group session. Is it to share information and resources? Or is it to collaborate? To resolve issues? To solve problems? Or to generate new ideas?  Each of these objectives will take a different facilitation plan and most group sessions will have multiple objectives. The experienced moderator must come up with a plan to address the key objective(s) but also have other plans in their "back pocket" just in case they are needed.


Who can be a facilitator?

Anyone in the organization can be a facilitator but it takes a lot of practice to be a good facilitator. The match between the facilitator and the people in the group session is also important. For example, age and gender should be carefully considered.


What are the abilities and skills needed to be a good facilitator?

The most important skill is that the facilitator is a good listener.  This means that they listen attentively but also with empathy toward the participants. The facilitator must be able to listen and think at the same time. Their role is to get the participants talking and working together. Sometimes there is silence; for example, when someone is thinking about what they want to say or when several people are creating something together. It is not necessary to fill the silences with talking.


A good facilitator is organized and can follow the agreed upon agenda within the time frame that has been set aside for the group session. A good facilitator does not lead the discussion and does not share their own opinions.  They are there to bring out and to visualize the viewpoints of the others. A good facilitator gets the conversation going, keeps it going and under control.

The facilitator must truly believe that all the participants have something important and unique to add the session. In addition, a good facilitator must be able to manage the group dynamics so that everyone has a chance to say what they think or feel. Sometimes the facilitator will need to draw people out in order to ensure that the quiet participants can be heard.

Learning to facilitate is not something that you can learn from a book or from listening to lectures or youtube videos. It is something that you learn by doing. It can take many years for this skill to build.  Confidence in facilitation comes with practice. If you do not have confidence the participants can tell and the session may not go well. One way to get practice is to start by serving as an assistant to an experienced facilitator.


What are the other conditions for good facilitation?

The facilitator needs an assistant who can take care of certain activities so that the facilitator can focus on supporting the needs of the group. The assistant takes notes and audio-records so that the session is well-documented. The assistant makes sure that the facilitator has whatever they need to keep the session on track and on schedule.


The space that has been set up for the group session must be designed to ensure that the participants are welcomed, feel comfortable and have plenty of room to move around. Good food is also important. It is not only the physical qualities of a space that make it welcoming. It's also the way that the facilitator welcomes the participants to the session and makes them feel comfortable with each other.


Is there a good resource for learning about facilitation?

The best resource that I have seen for facilitators is the Group Works Card Deck. It contains 100 cards that describe what skilled facilitators have learned and what they practice. The cards were created by more than fifty volunteers (the Group Pattern Language Project) from a wide variety of organizational backgrounds who worked together over three years to express the core wisdom at the heart of successful group sessions.  


A few of the cards, some that mirror the points made in this short paper, can be seen below.

The entire card deck can be purchased or downloaded here:


Liz SandersMakeTools 代表



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