User Experience Fishbowl

Share Know-How Gained from Experience with a Larger Community

User Experience Fishbowl cover image
Agile Coaching
Make People Awesome
Organizational Culture

The User Experience Fishbowl helps a large group of people to benefit from the experience of a few individuals by creating a comfortable environment where those with experience can have a "water cooler" conversation while having an audience participate. This creates an immediate "anything is possible" feeling to the session.

  • Time Needed: 35-70 minutes
  • Number of Participants: 7 to unlimited
  • Inclusion: Inner circle members all have an equal opportunity to share and contribute, while all members of the outer circle have an equal opportunity to ask questions.

What is made possible?

A subset of people with direct field experience can quickly foster understanding, spark creativity, and facilitate adoption of new practices among members of a larger community. Fishbowl sessions have a small inside circle of people surrounded by a larger outside circle of participants. The inside group is formed with people who made concrete progress on a challenge of interest to those in the outside circle. The fishbowl design makes it easy for people in the inside circle to illuminate what they have done by sharing experiences while in conversation with each other. The informality breaks down the barriers with direct communication between the two groups of people and facilitates questions and answers flowing back and forth. This creates the best conditions for people to learn from each other by discovering answers to their concerns themselves within the context of their working groups. You can stop imposing someone else’s practices!


  • Place 3 to 7 chairs in a circle in the middle of a room forming an inner conversation circle. These should be arranged so that inner-circle members can carry a conversation between them, while the outside participants watch and listen.
  • Place chairs in multiple small satellite groups of 3-4 people forming an outer circle around the 3-7 inner circle chairs. Provide as many chair as necessary for all participants.
  • Provide microphones for inner circle if whole group is larger than 30 to 40 (depending on room acoustics).
  • Make the inner circle participants visible either by raising the floor (a low stage) or providing bar stools (high seats).
  • In large groups, have additional microphones ready for outside circle questions. Have assistants carry the microphones from one person to another as questions are requested.
  • One facilitator to keep explain the process, keep the timing, clarify tasks to be done and manage the Q&A at the end.



Once everyone has has a chance to settle, explain the fishbowl configuration and steps in about 2 minutes. 


Ask those in the fishbowl to describe their experience - the good, the bad, and the ugly - informally, concretely, and openly. Invite them to do it in conversation with each other as if the audience wasn’t there and they were sharing stories around a watering hole or stuck in a van on the way to the airport. Firmly, ask them to avoid presenting to the audience. Allow the inner circle conversation goes on until it ends on its own, it usually takes about 10-25 minutes.

It usually works best if those in the inner circle share their personal experience as if they were telling it to a friend. This format works best if those in the circle worked together, and can each share their perspective on the events. This can be very light and personal, and is even more powerful if the mistakes are also shared - illustrating the learning process is not a straight path.


Before asking questions directly to those in the inner circle, outer participants turn to their satellite group to formulate observations and questions. Each satellite group should select one or two key questions to ask, to make sure we are focusing on the most important issues. Allow 4-5 minutes for this session. Participants are encouraged to use the 1-2-4-All Liberating Structure configuration for the debrief.

Once questions are prepared they are submitted to a queue. This is often done visually having the session facilitator keep track of raised hands. The questions submitted to the inner circle are answered, and back-and-forth interaction between inner and outer circles goes on as needed until all the questions are answered. This usually takes 10-25 minutes.

Every fishbowl session is different, and you can tailor to your needs. When the audience has more subject knowledge the questions are deeper, and thus take more time to answer. With a more novice audience there should be a greater focus on the inner conversation. Another aspect to consider is the comfort level between outer participants. Unfamiliarity with their peers usually makes people shy, and there is less courage to ask direct questions. Resist the urge to have people come up to a microphone, as usually those in the line are so focused on their question they are not able to pay much attention to the answers given.


In order to solidify the new acquired knowledge, debrief using the W3 (What? So What? Now What?) Liberating Structure configuration and ask, "What seems possible now?" This should take 10-15 minutes.


  • Get down-to-earth field experience and all the questions and answers about new endeavors out on the table for everyone to understand at the same time
  • Create conditions for new ideas to emerge
  • Make space for every participant’s imagination and experience to show up
  • Build skills in listening, storytelling, pattern-finding, questioning, and observing
  • Celebrate early adopters and innovators who have gained field experience (often failing forward and vetting the prototype)

Tips and Traps

  • For inner circle, pick only people with direct personal experience (without regard to rank)
  • Pick people for the fishbowl (inner circle) who are representative of the distinct roles and functions that require coordination for success
  • Encourage inner-circle people to share concrete, very descriptive examples rather than opinions
  • Advise inner-circle people to imagine being in a car or a bar sharing stories and having a conversation
  • Encourage everyone to share both successes and failures, “the good, the bad, the ugly”
  • Enforce the “no speeches” and “talk to each other, not to the outer circle” rules!
  • Collect ALL the questions from the outside circle before the "fish" restart their conversation
  • Based on the overall pattern of questions, give the "fish" a choice of which questions to address 
  • Have fun and encourage animated storytelling

Riffs and Variations

  • Leave an open chair in the inner circle for someone with experience to unexpectedly jump in
  • With virtual groups, people in the outside circle use the chat function to share questions “to all” or in “pairs” as the conversation unfolds among “the fishes of the inner circle.”
  • Mash-up or string together User Experience Fishbowl with Improv Prototyping, 25/10 Crowd Sourcing, Ecocycle Planning, Simple Ethnography, and/or Shift & Share.


  • For transferring on-the-ground knowledge from officers returning from Afghanistan to those replacing them (see “Transforming After-Action Reviews in the Army” in Part Three: Stories from the Field).
  • During a Liberating Structures workshop, a few experienced practitioners share stories to deepen the understanding of new users about how to get started and how to get practical results
  • During a doctors’ meeting, an inner circle of specialists discussed a challenging case in the middle of a group of primary-care physicians, sparking a discussion of the case from specialist and primary-care perspectives
  • A pilot group of salespeople shared with the rest of the sales force their experience with a new handheld reporting device. The User Experience Fishbowl helped everybody become comfortable that they knew all they needed to know to adopt the innovation.
  • For a public-sector organization trying to expand beyond “hidden” pockets of uplifting service
  • Members of an executive management team conducted their meeting in a fishbowl surrounded by all their managers.
Liberating Structure developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless and inspired by immersing themselves in many different kinds of fishbowls over the years.
Created on May 04, 2020 11:41,
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