Superhero activity example
Design, Tips

The value of workshop superheroes

This is a cross-post from the Indigenous Digital Excellence “backstage” blog.

Some time ago I came across an idea/method from Adaptive Path that the authors dubbed Design a superhero. In that blog post, Leah Buley outlines the method and how she’d had some success using the method in the context of user interviews as a fun and engaging way to gather user requirements.

I really liked the idea and felt that the method may also have utility in a workshop context as an introductory activity. I’ve since had the opportunity to test that theory in a number of workshops (with some minor variation from Leah’s original description) and have found it very effective in this context.

So what have we learnt about using the method in a workshop context?

The basic setup of the activity is to set aside sufficient time for 3–5 mins up front (I’ve found that 3 mins is usually sufficient—sometimes 5 mins can actually be too long) and 1 minute per participant for reporting back to the group. Outline the instructions (mostly as per Leah’s description) and encourage people to represent their ideas however they’d like—draw, write down, etc. and that “stick figures are fine”. Encourage participants to give their hero a name. Once the the 3 mins is up, each participant individual introduces their superhero to the group.

Providing a template to fill out is also important—a blank piece of paper is simply too daunting for most participants. Leah’s post provides a template—we came up with our own cartoon figure “nudie” pictured above. That’s part of the fun/personalisation of the activity IMO! I’d recommend that the template not be too polished, lest you run the risk of intimidating participants (as they’ll think their representation has to be polished to).

Some of the tips we’ve come up with when adapting the exercise:

  • Sometimes the topic under discussion doesn’t immediately lend itself to the framing Leah outlines in her original post. For example, if you are doing a social marketing campaign, or designing a social innovation, the “superhero of … that overcomes things that frustrate …” positioning of the exercise needs a little adjustment. For example, we used this method in a recent workshop on the topic of Indigenous Digital Excellence (IndigenousDX). Our framing was: “You are designing a superhero that has secret weapons and super-powers that make it possible for them to cause IndigenousDX flourish across the nation.” The difference is subtle, but necessary for the instruction to make sense in this context.
  • I’ve found it’s important to emphasise that you are designing “weapons and superpowers”. Not doing so can result in losing a lot of the creative spark of the exercise (i.e. you end up with just a list of attributes or values—which is still useful, but not as entertaining nor insightful).

So what have we found works well?

  • It’s fun! People really get into it.
  • It’s (relatively) fast. Allowing about 3–5 mins up-front, and 1 min per person means you can do a reasonable size group (e.g. 12 participants) within 15–20 mins.
  • It works equally well with people who know each other as it does with a group that doesn’t.
  • It gets people out of their heads and into the session. Like all good startup/introduction activities it creates a positive energy, sets the scene for other activities throughout the session (i.e. this is NOT your average meeting), creates a safe space for exploration, and encourages a more creative mindset.
  • It can be a great way to get people to introduce themselves. At a basic level, you can ask that participants say their name and position before they introduce their superhero to the group. But more creatively, you can ask them to further engage by either describing which one of their superhero’s powers would they love to have. Or to describe what “superpower” they bring to the project etc.
  • It’s topically relevant. I’m not a fan of introductory activities that have little or no contribution to the core purpose/intent of the session. At its best, this exercise can provide useful insights into what people value in relation to the project/topic of the workshop.
  • Depending on the circumstance, it can also provide hints about potential biases and “agendas”—i.e. how participants perceive the problem space and what points of view they bring to the session. This can be really invaluable for both facilitation and in follow-up workshop analysis.
  • It can provide valuable insights for a facilitator about individual and group dynamics. You learn who’s visual, who’s verbal, who’s text leaning. You learn who feels they’re “uncreative” and who has confidence in their creative abilities. etc.

As an example of this last point—in one workshop I was facilitating (some time ago now) I was forewarned by the project champion that a few of the participants were a bit conservative and may not respond well to some of the creative activities we had planned. When those participants did this exercise, however, they proved to be the most visual and creative in the participant group. Conversely, some of the folks that were expected to be more creative were actually somewhat subdued and staid in their responses. This helped tremendously in channeling the different energies and strengths of participants to shape a successful workshop outcome.

Anyways—I hope that you might find value in using this method in your own workshop sessions. Let us know if you use the method and how it goes/what you learned…