What we’ve learned from running remote design workshops

Remote design workshops certainly aren’t a new thing, but they’re not something that we’ve had much experience with (most of our workshops take place in our office, or at the client’s).

Now that we’re in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, we’ve been ‘forced’ — like many other product studios — to make remote design workshops our new reality. Although ‘forced’ sounds negative and imposing, we’ve actually found that remote design workshops can be just as creative, collaborative and successful. It just requires an extra bit of preparation.

If you’re also navigating this unfamiliar world of running creative sessions online, then remember that it’s okay to use this time to experiment. The tips below are based on our experiences, but you may find that you want to use a different method for ideation or collating feedback, for example. As long as you’re confident that you’re achieving the same results as you would in a physical environment, then there’s no right or wrong method.

Here’s what we’ve learned over the past few weeks…

Before the workshop

Define your roles

Now more than ever, it’s important to make the roles of each participant clear before starting the workshop, whether it’s choosing a facilitator within your team or allocating a stakeholder to provide certain information. It may sound obvious, but activities are likely to take longer in a remote workshop, so the more that you can limit potential confusion, the better.

Create and share an agenda

It may sound like basic workshop etiquette, but creating and sharing an agenda is even more important in a remote setting. Keeping the agenda in a visible place (such as on a virtual whiteboard or in a shared Google Doc) will allow participants to easily refer back to it if needs be.

Plan in an extra 5-10 minutes for each activity

Sometimes, your internet may cut out. Other times, a client may be using a particular tool for the first time. Allowing an extra 5-10 minutes for any mishaps or inductions will ensure that you keep on schedule.

Allocate time for questions

In the office, it’s easy enough for participants to pull the facilitator to one side and ask questions without distracting others. In a digital setting, everyone can hear everything at all times. It makes casual conversation and communication a little trickier to navigate.

Setting allotted time aside for questions will allow people to focus when they need to.

Remember that online doesn’t mean ‘limited’

Crazy 8s, dot-voting, wireframing, T-bars — these are all things that can be achieved in a remote design workshop (so long as you give prior notice to the participants).

Whether you prefer to sketch online using shapes, icons and the pen tool or get the Sharpies out, we’ve found that keeping the process as similar as possible helps to achieve the best results. If you’re doing offline sketching, then making sure that everyone has stationary to hand and can easily share photos of their sketches is important.sketches is important.

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Give participants their quiet thinking time

When it comes to producing sketches or giving people time to come up with ideas, we’ve found that it’s best to ask everyone to mute their microphones. Sketching quietly together in person doesn’t tend to feel awkward, but doing this online with microphones on can feel a little unusual.

Allocating ‘quiet time’ for participants is just as important as encouraging collaboration.

Choosing your tools

Use a virtual whiteboard tool

One of the best things about design workshops is seeing everyone’s ideas and thoughts coming together on one wall and looking back at the progression at the end of the day.

It’s possible to split different workshop activities into separate documents or spreadsheets, but this takes away the creative and gratifying aspect of seeing what you’ve achieved in one space.

This is why virtual whiteboard tools are a lifesaver. Miro has been our tool of choice and comes with the added benefits of endless space and the ability to add videos and GIFs.

In an online design workshop, you can do pretty much anything in a virtual whiteboard that you could do in a physical workshop — add sticky notes, ‘dot-vote’, draw annotations or quick sketches and move things around in real-time. The difference is that you can use things like emoji reactions and see participants’ names next to their cursors.

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Save time with a virtual whiteboard template

Many virtual whiteboard tools come with templates you can use for things like design sprints, user story maps and of course, design workshops. This is a great way to save yourself time in the planning stage.

Choose Slack for calls of 15 people or less

In our opinion, Slack is the most convenient tool to use for calls whilst you’re in a remote design workshop.

Why? Even if you navigate to another window whilst in a Slack call, a sticky overlay will stay on your screen allowing you to mute yourself, hide your video or see who’s currently speaking. In other tools that we’ve used, this feature hasn’t been available, meaning that you have to keep switching back to the screen where the call is taking place (if you aren’t using multiple screens).

Consider Whereby or Microsoft Teams for larger calls

Sometimes, there may be more than 15 participants in a design workshop, which is when tools like Whereby come in handy (our current plan allows up to 50 participants in one room). Microsoft Teams isn’t our favourite tool in terms of its user interface, but it seems to be more reliable in terms of connectivity.

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During the workshop

Create the right ambience

It’s not as easy to create the right ambience in a digital space — especially when you haven’t got the aesthetics of the office or snacks to help lift the mood. Having participants listen to the same music can help make the experience feel more cohesive and also help immerse people in creative exercises.

When using Microsoft Teams, there’s an option to ‘share audio’ so that you can stream high quality music with others on the call. We’d recommend this for moments where people are sketching or coming up with ideas with their microphones on mute.

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Collect all of your notes in the same place

The great thing about using a virtual whiteboard tool is that the space you can use is almost endless. This makes it much easier to collate notes in the same place than it is when trying to do it in the office (we don’t miss taking photos of multiple parts of a whiteboard).

Keeping everything in one place will make it easily accessible for all participants in the future, and you can see any changes in real-time.

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Ask people to put their initials at the end of sticky notes

In a physical workshop, you have the benefit of being able to distinguish between different handwriting. Asking participants to add their initials or first name to their sticky notes will make it easier to facilitate (and know who to approach if you have questions later).

Ask others to mute whilst you’re facilitating

We’ve already mentioned about asking participants to mute their microphones during quiet activities, but it’s also a useful thing to ask whilst you’re facilitating. It may feel bossy to do so at first, but it’ll help to prevent background noise and maintain a sense of calm.

Remember to take breaks

When we’re physically together, it’s much more common to ask others if they’d like to take a coffee break (partly because we can enjoy it together!). In a digital setting, it naturally doesn’t feel as social, which can have an impact on the number of breaks people take.

Just a 5-minute break after each activity gives people time to stretch their legs and get motivated for the next session.

After the workshop

Share an exported version of your whiteboard

The great thing about using a virtual whiteboard is that you can easily export its entire contents as a PDF after the workshop. Sharing this with your participants afterwards is much easier than trying to take pictures throughout and collate notes. We’d also recommend moving the file into a shared Google Drive.

Get feedback afterwards

If you’re fairly new to remote design workshops like us, then you’ll probably want to know how to improve for the next one. The best time to collect feedback is right after the session, as the contents of the workshop will be fresh in everyone’s minds.

We’d suggest preparing a short online survey that collects answers anonymously and covers any differences between a remote and physical workshop (e.g. technical issues). Or, you could create another space in your virtual whiteboard to collect feedback as sticky notes (this can feel a lot more creative).

Most importantly, enjoy the process and make it fun!

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Have you tried running any remote design workshops during lockdown? We’d love to hear about your experiences on Twitter.

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