It’s easier than you think.
When your product or company grows at a rapid pace it can sometimes be difficult to keep control of the direction it is taking. Another difficulty is to have your team aligned and making sure everyone is on the same page. These problems can disappear with the help of a workshop where everyone can meet and jointly work solutions out. You can read why getting stakeholders together could be a great idea in my previous article.
However, these days many projects are realised by team members dispersed all over the world and it’s not always possible to gather everyone in the same room at the same time for a whole day or even just a few hours. Fortunately, today it is easier than ever to collaborate over long distances. Although video conferencing tools have been making our distance communication easier for quite a long time now, it is thanks to the emergence of more advanced collaboration tools, such as online text editors or shared digital whiteboards, that the remote co-action can be done with much greater efficiency.
What are the challenges?
Carrying out a workshop can be a difficult job even when all participants are gathered in one place. However, it gets even harder when trying to keep your meeting on track when multiple members are contributing from behind their screens, connected by the internet. I have listed some of the most important challenges below, to think about when making a decision about a remote workshop:
One of the biggest drawbacks of running remote meetings is the lack of face to face communication. Speaking to a microphone can make you doubtful about how well you are heard and understood by other participants (especially when you can’t see their facial expressions and body posture). If the sound is unclear and foggy it may further disrupt the flow of the conversation. Another threat related to communication is that remote workshop members are more likely to lose their focus of the topic and start doing or thinking about something unrelated to the workshop. This is less likely to happen when they are present in the same room as the others. It is usually much easier to engage with participants who are physically gathered in one place than it is when they are remote.
Technical and logistical constraints
Remote workshops rely not only on good preparation and organisation but also on a number of important technicalities. You don’t want your workshop to be constantly interrupted by a weak internet connection or poor quality of a camera’s image. Furthermore, choosing the right time for a remote meeting might be demanding when your stakeholders are dispersed globally. You shouldn’t ask anyone to participate in the meeting when it’s night-time in their country.
Whiteboard, paper, sticky notes and marker pens are great tools that let you visualise and manage the input from a group of people meeting in one room. Though, in a situation when members are separated by long distances, it is usually necessary to leverage some of the online tools available.
Although many digital collaboration tools are quite good at replacing the experience of the physical workshop environment, using their advanced features often requires extra financing and/or training (for both you and other participants).
Content organisation and processing.
Unless you go for an advanced tool offering a digital canvas for everyone to work on simultaneously, it gets quite tedious and time-consuming to collect content from workshop participants, organise it and manage it later on. Asking everyone to scan or take a picture of their sketches, for example, can be quite frustrating when you try to maintain a seamless workshop flow.
Are there any advantages then?
Despite certain limitations, remote workshops can have a few advantages over non-remote ones in some situations. To give an example, some people struggle to focus and give their best in busy, crowded environments, especially when they do not know other members. Working from their home or another work setup they are familiar with can favour productivity and creativity during the meeting.
How to prepare for remote workshops?
Good preparation is key if you want to run a successful workshop, no matter what kind of workshop it is. Given that remote workshops are usually more difficult to take care of, you might need to go the extra mile to be well-prepared for them. I have listed a few tips you might find helpful when getting ready for your own remote workshop:
Consider the workshop type.
Do your stakeholders struggle with figuring out their product’s persona and user goals? Do you need to establish the product strategy that aligns both design and business goals? Or, maybe they have a website or a mobile app already but it suffers from a low conversion rate? No matter the problem, it is your responsibility to understand your client’s problems and aim to structure the workshop in a way that will match the product development phase and address any issues.
Choose collaboration techniques and make an agenda.
Since the agenda will form a skeleton for the meeting, you need to make sure it is well-thought-out. The agenda should include a list of participants, so you need to think about who will best contribute to working on the problems you will address during the workshop.
Moreover, when working with a team dispersed across the globe, time zone differences can be a real challenge when choosing the right time for this session — you don’t want participants to be present at the workshop in the middle of the night. Next, think about the collaboration techniques you want workshop members to perform that will let you address problems defined at the set-out. While planning activities for the workshop, it is important to remember about incorporating breaks into its plan as well.
Decide on the setup.
Once you’ve decided what techniques will work best for you, it’s time to decide which tools will make them possible to execute. You should think about it in the context of previously established workshop type.
Are most stakeholders going to be present in a conference room but only some of them will connect with you via the internet? If so, it might be a good idea to set up a room as you would do for a typical workshop (with a whiteboard, pen markers, sticky notes etc.) and have a camera pointed at the whiteboard (or a wall where you will pin everything up) so the online participants can clearly see it.
It is worth remembering about sound limitations too. While putting stuff down on the whiteboard, far from your laptop, it might be a bad idea to speak to your participants at the same time — it could be troublesome to hear you well. However, if you need to do so, getting a pair of bluetooth headphones should help — these will allow you to speak to a microphone no matter how far you are from the computer.
Will everyone participate from different locations? Then use mainly online tools for this occasion. Whether running a fully or just partly remote workshop, it is no exception to use the mix of both the digital and physical tools. I describe various tools and when best to use them in the following section of this post.
Prepare and test your arrangement.
I recommend taking some time before the start of a workshop to ensure that all of your tools will be ready for you at the meeting kick-off and you won’t have to waste everyone’s time setting things up. This includes, for example, preparing all templates you want to use (e.g. persona canvas). I attached a checklist you can go through next time you prepare for a remote workshop.
Let stakeholders prepare too.
Going online with your workshop requires not only you but also other people involved in the project to be well-prepared. Remember to share the agenda beforehand so everyone can better understand the structure and goals of the meeting. Participants might want to prepare notes and research they gathered over time which they will want to share during the workshop.
Furthermore, all stakeholders should get familiar with the tools you will use during the session, especially if you’re going for more advanced ones that require at least a bit of practice before they can be used with ease. A good method might be to ask them to play with the software and explain the key operations like, for example, how to upload a picture. You can do it at the beginning of the workshop together with all members if time allows.
Which tools could be used?
When the workshop day comes it means you’ve completed the hard work of getting everyone together, thinking about problems, goals and organising the activities. Well done. Now it is time to reap the benefits of this meticulous preparation. Below, I made a list of different types of digital tools that might come handy for running your next remote workshop:
Online text editor (Google Docs or similar). Use it to:
- Collect stakeholders knowledge, requirements, business goals etc.
- Summarise any research data gathered up to this point
- Let everyone share their observations and thoughts
- Write summaries for each part of the meeting
Online spreadsheet (Google Sheets or similar). Use it to:
- Add and group user/client requirements
- Share and organise the participant’s ideas
- Vote for ideas (following a brainstorming exercise, for example)
- Outline the project scope and prioritise things
- Create a project roadmap
Online collaboration canvas. Use it to:
- Map user flows or journey
- Create personas
- Conduct empathy mapping
- Brainstorm solutions (by adding digital post-its or sketching)
- Sketch wireframes for your ideas
- Share non-digital sketches and notes (so everyone can see it)
- Define MVP scope (with the help of an MVP matrix)
- Discuss and define Information Architecture
Of course, you can mix those tools for different purposes. This is to say that if creating personas in a text editor is more natural for you, there is no need to use a digital canvas. Simply make sure you are comfortable with your tools and so are other participants.
Don’t worry if you can’t use a new, super cool collaboration tool (due to budget limitations, for example) everyone is talking about. Digital canvases are great because they promote visual thinking, allow everyone to add and edit their input easily and see what others have added. Alternatively, you can always use a simple presentation tool or a graphic editor you are comfortable working with and share your screen with others. It will likely be a somewhat less smooth experience but definitely still a worthwhile one.
When you are in the process of making a decision about running a workshop but worry about geographical constraints, keep in mind that running a remote workshop can be a great alternative. Once it’s agreed, you will have to think about what type of workshop will address the project’s problems you are facing. UX designers who facilitate the workshop should try their best to be the client’s guide in this matter (this is true for both remote and non-remote workshops).
Thorough preparation is also key to running a successful collaboration meeting — make sure you are clear on the choice of techniques and tools so everyone can easily access and use them to achieve the best results. Depending on your personal preferences and abilities of the team you will collaborate with, you can go for online- or offline-only tools but it can be a good idea to mix them up too.