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Re-thinking remote ideation in 2020

Designing products in a post-pandemic world without sticky notes and whiteboards is tough! Design problems call for energetic collaboration, open thinking, and above all, physical presence. Nothing compares, but tools like Miro and a good imagination come close.

Starting a job during a pandemic

Side-note — I’m not the only one who started a job during a pandemic.
Read about how another designer, Patric, joined us at the same time as becoming a father, cutting his thumb ligament, and working from home.

I began a new job at @buildingtray in March 2020. I had stickies on the wall in front of my desk with names and sketches of all of my new colleagues, to try and simulate the feeling of proximity. Despite my best efforts, it was an eerie first two weeks, where I found myself often doubting if I had really started a new job or not.

Designing my first design kickoff

When I organised my first kickoff, I wanted to quickly ideate around where our problems were, and very loosely fire off some initial ideas from those problems.

Some brief research identified our connector documentation as the most frequently visited, making up approximately 70% of the visits over a given time period.

I wanted to get the most out of a group of internal stakeholders, namely product managers, and solutions architects. The task was somewhat new to me, as I had never done something like this remotely, I didn’t know my colleagues very well yet and in some cases, at all.

Step 1 — Warm up the brain

The first step of the process is really just to warm up the brain. To remind people of what they are looking at if they’ve seen it before, or to contextualise them if they haven’t seen it before.

Left: a page showing all of our service connectors; Right: an individual connector page

I showed the group what our connector docs currently look like and then distilled the information into the content sections that typically exist in a connector page.

Distilling the information into sections

I asked participants to drag stickies into each section, indicating their general feeling towards them. It might not sound very useful, but its purpose is not to collate reliable data, instead its to get people thinking about what they like and don’t like. Forcing them to make this decision fires off a bunch of side neurons about why they feel that way and what could be improved, which is perfect preparation for step 2.

Step 2 —Virtually place yourselves in a circle

Obviously prepare this beforehand, but time to virtually sit in a circle. I recommend Miro for doing this, it’s by far and away the best tool in the game.

Participants sat around a virtual table looking outwards

p.s. these illustrations are made in Figma but I’ll share our Miro board at the end

Step 3— Generate user stories

Having warmed up the brain with the context of the current product, we now want to get participants focussed on the right things. What better thing to focus on than user stories?

Everyone is directed to the table where they will each write one or two user stories which they’ll place at the table, and any repeated ones will be grouped. These will form the basis for the feature ideas that will come in the next step.

Step 4— Firing the first neuron

Time to generate ideas. Or rather one idea — you have to start somewhere right? At this point the team has just had some fun dragging sticky notes around a collaborative whiteboard and finding their place at the table.

They are now ready to write down their first idea — that’s all it takes, just one idea. They will probably have more than one having just analysed the product and written user stories.

Step 5— Rotate and collide neurons

Next step, everyone leaves their (virtual) seat and rotates around the table anti-clockwise (it doesn’t work otherwise) to view the idea of the next participant. Having read this idea, they will create a new card and respond to that idea with another idea based on this one.

Step 6— Keep rotating

Keep going round the table until every participant comes back to their seat. Having only had to come up with one original idea each, you will now have a number of ideas equal to the number of participants multiplied by itself.

e.g. if you had 6 participants you would have generated 6 original ideas + 30 more inspired by those original ideas, which brings you to 36 in total

How did it go?

Here’s how our Miro board looked at the end of a 20 minute session as described above.

Yeh it’s messy but so is life :D

Why does it work?

The reason it works so well is that if you ask someone to come up with 6 ideas by themselves, they’ll often struggle. However start telling someone your idea, and they’ll probably latch on to part of your idea and think of one of their own. This method allows everyone to feed off every other participant’s ideas, and therefore generate many ideas effortlessly.



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