Remote design still has big problems. Here’s how we fix them.

IxDA Berlin—with the help of five experts and 500+ designers—hosts an event to tackle remote design’s “tough nuts”

Carl Alviani
May 7, 2020 · 14 min read
Is this what remote collaboration looks like in the future? A screenshot from Jim Kalbach’s session on the subject, from IxDA Berlin’s “Tough Nuts in Remote Design” event in April of 2020.

Nearly all of our collaboration has moved online at this point, and so far most of it — whether we’re talking about meetings, workshops, lessons, or conferences — is failing.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but shouldn’t be surprising. These are still early days for digital collaboration after all, and even in person it’s hard to get right. For many of us, the quarantine has been a masterclass in all the ways a digital gathering can go wrong: sessions that spend 80% of their time on technical issues; awkward videochat grids where nobody wants to speak; the lack of visual cues that suck the meaning out of discussion. It’s clear that you can’t just swap a project room for a computer terminal and expect the same output. But what other option do we have?

Yet I’m optimistic, because it’s clear we’ve only begun leveraging the potential of digital collaboration. Early film directors often emulated stage plays, because that’s what they were familiar with — then some adventurous auteurs recognized the flexibility offered by multiple cameras, location shooting, and editing, and used them to evolve film into its own art form. The same goes for music videos in the early 80s, which were often just short films of bands performing songs — it took time to realize the medium could also tell visually arresting three-minute stories.

What Will it Take to Evolve Remote Collaboration?

If history is any guide, moving past the current state of affairs will take time, and more importantly, it will take boldness, flexibility, and deep familiarity with a new set of tools.

This helps explain why I was so interested in one particular recent event, a digital-only gathering called “The Tough Nuts in Remote Design,” put on last week by the Berlin chapter of the IxDA. The topic could not be more timely, and the event itself was audacious, with four volunteer organizers attempting to bring five speakers and three sponsors together with a global audience of over 500. There’s also the fact that both audience and organizers do interaction design for a living, so they’re likely to be comfortable with platforms beyond just Zoom, Hangouts, or MS Teams.

This was one of the few events I’ve seen since quarantine truly attempting to do things you could only do in digital. Plenty of ink’s been spilled urging us to do more than just craft a lame approximation of IRL, but there’ve been few concrete steps in that direction. Yet here was a regional chapter of a professional association, recognizing that nothing stands in the way of opening up their local event to a global audience, or inviting hundreds of people who’d otherwise never meet to have productive conversations.

Dealing with Remoteness, Remotely

Reviewing an event like this is pretty meta, by definition. You can’t summarize a remote conference about remote collaboration without talking about how it deals with remoteness. In the case of “Tough Nuts”, an early clue was their choice of platform: a brand new event-specific service called HopIn, whose differences from a typical webinar setup are immediately apparent.

Upon entering the event, you’re presented with a series of options: to watch an introductory video, check the presentation and workshop schedule, or start “networking” with other attendees. The networking function is something like a members-only ChatRoulette, but with the ability to exchange contact information, and a three minute time limit on all interactions. Using it is incredibly weird at first, but after a couple of tries starts to feel both fun and low-risk. The time limit means no awkwardly excusing yourself, and the event-specific population means the conversations are reliably interesting. My first random contact was with Ana Domb, one of the five speakers; my second with the head of an IxDA chapter in Nigeria.

There’s also an Expo area, where participants can visit virtual booths set up by the event’s sponsors. This was probably a better experience than the in-person equivalent. Each booth was simply a video chat space, with links to special conference-specific deals, and a representative of the company ready to answer questions and give demos. Without the noise of a typical conference hall, conversation was casual, unrushed, and informative, with several onlookers quietly watching while the representative chatted with one or two visitors. I spent a good five minutes, for example, listening as Lou Rosenfeld explained how Rosenfeld Media picks and supports writers, and learned that the margins and paper of their print books are specifically designed to support note-taking.

Andy Pearson of SessionLab, demonstrating their workshop planning platform in the Expo section.

Every event lives and dies by its content, though, and this is one area where virtual events have a unique advantage: they can recruit from anywhere. Five speakers—from Germany, Canada, the US, and Costa Rica—each led off with a short lightning talk to introduce the specific “tough nut” they’d address in a subsequent breakout session. In practice, this turns each talk into a kind of pitch, since attendees are free to drop into or out of any of the sessions, which run in parallel over the course of an hour.

The technology imposes structure here, turning each session into a “fishbowl” conversation, where up to 500 viewers observe a video chat conversation limited to 20 participants, on a first-come-first-serve basis. In practice, 20 was plenty, especially since those within the fishbowl did a great job of keeping discussion going without talking over each other. Beyond the content presented by the speakers, it was also fascinating to see how each tackled the challenge of keeping such a large, shifting, silent audience engaged.

Marie Gosal , Design Director at MetaLab

Tough nut: Design Critique at a Distance (session video)
Collaborative platform: Miro board

Marie introduced her session with a caveat: critique is already an interpersonal minefield, and taking it remote can amplify that. MetaLab, a Canada-based studio that’s developed interfaces for heavy hitters like Google, Slack, and Uber, already has designers working in 12 different countries, spanning 10 time zones. So Gosal was able to kick off her talk with a list of remote crit formats they’ve used extensively:

  • Formal monthly gatherings
  • Weekly team crit sessions
  • “Shuffle Crits” that let teams share work in progress with randomly selected colleagues
  • End-of-day sharing sessions, that let individual designers present current sketches, prototypes, Miro boards, etc. to the team
  • Office hours, allowing designers to request feedback from specific experts in the organization

All this variety stems from a “one size fits none” hypothesis that Gosal strongly advocates. When you’re working with a team that spans different cultures and working contexts, she explains, they’re likely to have different ways of offering critique that they’re comfortable with. Under these circumstances, “it’s unlikely that simply replacing it with a video call is going to do the trick.”

The session Miro board in action. See the completed version here.

Gosal’s session centered on a shared Miro board that she’d prepared with prompts, asking about people’s experience with design crits, obstacles they’ve encountered, and ways of overcoming them. After an awkward start, a flow emerged that many designers would recognize: jotting ideas on Post-its, sticking them up, discussing, and dot-voting for their favorites — albeit virtually.

It’s remarkable how quickly communication difficulties melt away when attendees are faced with a familiar medium of expression. The prepared Miro board works particularly well in this context, where 50 or more people all need to contribute simultaneously, under tight time constraints. Verbal conversation may come naturally when interacting in person, but big groups online do better visually.

The session’s conclusions, about what makes for a good remote crit session, were very much in line with this:

  • “Pre-work really matters” was a unanimous conclusion, especially efforts to set ground rules, get participants up to date on the project being presented, and offer non-verbal ways of providing feedback.
  • The issue of “niceness” also came up a lot, and not in a good way. Critiques are notoriously hampered by participants’ desire to not upset each other, and going online exacerbates the problem, especially in the current climate of heightened anxiety. Without visual cues and body language to soften the edges, criticism can come across as especially harsh, even when intended to be mild.
  • The most fundamental recommendation to come out of the session, though, was to provide psychological safety as much as possible. Critiques can be stressful, and distributed teams often bring different cultural assumptions to the table. So creating a safe space for open discussion, even online, can make the difference between getting a bunch of vague approval and getting real, honest critique. This can include doing warm up exercises, using small group breakout sessions, and allowing for anonymous and non-verbal feedback.

Jim Kalbach, Head of Customer Experience, MURAL

Tough nut: Engagement in Remote Collaboration (session video)
Collaborative platform: Mural board

Jim Kalbach’s Remote Collaboration session, brainstorming ideas via Mural board.

Jim heads up customer experience for one of the better-known digital collaboration platforms — Mural — which makes it inevitable that a) he’s deeply familiar with the challenges of remote design work, and b) he’s going to use a Mural board to explore them :-). He’s also co-authored a book on remote workshops, and another on mapping user experiences.

With such a deep background in doing remote work, Jim’s discussion + Mural session was perhaps the most forward-looking, asking less about how to solve the problems of digital collaboration, and more about the unique advantages it affords.

A few key ideas that emerged:

  • When working digitally, the temptation to multi-task is overwhelming, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s to be encouraged. Skillful multi-taskers can actually start executing or expanding on issues raised in the group session before the session’s even over.
  • More experimental collaboration formats have a lot to teach us. A favorite example was BarCamp, an established series of “unconferences” where participants themselves set the agenda dynamically at the outset.
  • One of the big challenges of verbal interaction (whether video, audio, or in-person) is that you have to take turns. But in digital collaboration, it’s entirely possible to contribute simultaneously — and this ability should be built into the process whenever possible.
  • Echoing Marie Gosal’s session, the group agreed that prep work is crucial, especially the kind that builds communal trust and reduces barriers to communication. Icebreaker games, get-to-know-you activities, and coffee breaks came up, and there’s more on the Mural board (see the lower left for a summary).

Ashley Lukasik — Founder at Murmur Ring

Tough nut: Rethinking Immersive Experiences (session video)
Collaborative platform: Moderated discussion

Unique among the presenters, Ashley is an experience designer who already performs much of her research remotely (“it’s easier than hopping on an airplane”), and her talk kicked off with some firsthand observations about what makes remote interviewing work. Once again, pre-work is a big part of it — asking interviewees to record their environment ahead of time, for example, can add context to a video chat.

This was the most conversational session of the five, eschewing visual collaboration tools in favor of an hour-long discussion about human behavior, the role of technology in human society, and our new responsibilities as designers. In a purely verbal conversation, only one person can contribute at a time, so less information gets volunteered and fewer people are involved. But at the same time it’s easier to maintain a consistent thread, especially with a facilitator as competent as Ashley.

Insights tended towards the philosophical, and centered on a few recurring themes:

  • Humans have been around a lot longer than the technology we’re using, and our fundamental needs for connection and expression aren’t going anywhere. As one contributor put it, “I want to sit next to somebody, and feel their body heat and share food with them.”
  • The above realization poses a real challenge to designers, to shape communication technologies that support more than just productivity and information exchange.
  • More broadly, people are realizing that, while our tools have always shaped us, the current pandemic is accelerating that process by forcing technology into almost every human interaction. These technologies are evolving rapidly, out of necessity, and designers are playing a key role in how they evolve. All this presents a huge responsibility, to consider not just how effective the things we design are, but how they’re going to impact human behavior in the long term.
  • The notion of designer responsibility also came up in terms of capitalism. Any crisis is also an opportunity to make money for some, and many companies are going to pursue that. This will undoubtedly force designers to make decisions about who to work for and what to do, and ultimately who to empower.

Ana Domb — Consultant in UX Research and Strategy, IxDA Board of Directors

Tough nut: Participatory Design From Afar (session video)
Collaborative platform: AWW digital whiteboard

The digital whiteboard, part way through Ana Domb’s session on participatory design.

In the opening of her lightning talk, UX consultant Ana Domb showed images from a play-based workshop she ran with children in Guatemala, and asked a pointed question: how on earth do you replicate this level of interactivity and play remotely? And how do you do it with collaborators who might not have as much digital access as you do?

Fittingly, the session was notable for its sense of optimism and play. The collaborative space was a digital whiteboard, where participants could join in and start sketching or writing — which many did, almost immediately.

Much of the discussion centered on the problem of keeping people from disappearing in the new digital reality. Just as in the real world, some of us are better able to participate, and some less so — and this may not correlate with how valuable our contribution may be.

Ana led with a few proposals from her own experience, which then prompted stories from others in the fishbowl, about their efforts to make design and research more participatory. Several ideas stood out by the end:

  • Generate a sense of place as much as possible. “Zoom is an unfamiliar mansion, where many people aren’t comfortable,” Ana points out, so it often makes more sense to meet them where they are, in terms of technology. In Central America, this might mean holding discussions through WhatsApp or Facebook rather than professional video conferencing software.
  • Don’t be afraid to change the “rules of the game” in order to protect the essence of the game. This often means looking closely at a frequently used in-person activity, and asking how you could reach a similar outcome remotely — which is different from asking how to replicate it online.
  • Working on an unfamiliar platform can be exhausting, so it makes sense to break sessions up into smaller chunks than you would when working in-person.
  • Recognize that participants who don’t spend their whole lives online may have real concerns about privacy. It’s important to be completely transparent about recording, and give them control over how that happens, and what happens to the output.

Hany Rizk, Founder and Design Sprint Facilitator, No BS Innovation Studio

Tough nut: HMW keep remote workshops engaging? (session video)
Collaborative platform: Google Doc

Note the large, endearing analog timer in front of Hany (center).

The first thing I saw when dropping in Hany Rizk’s session was a grid of faces, silently ignoring each other. It turns out that they were all furiously typing in a shared Google doc that Hany had prepared. After a few moments, the analog timer on his desk rang, and they all paused to discuss what they’d posted, and set up the next step.

A 20+ person collaborative Google doc in action.

The idea of soliciting ideas from multiple contributors with a shared document is nothing new, but I’d never seen one used in real time with so many people, who had so little prior connection. In many ways, it’s a brilliant solution to some recurring problems of remote collaboration. A shared text document feels psychologically safer than audio or video, and doesn’t get hung up by bandwidth limitations. But it still allows a big group to contribute simultaneously, and react in real time.

Fortunately, the ideas raised in the session went a lot further than text interaction, focusing broadly on ways that facilitators can ensure participants stay engaged.

Preparing for a session:

  • Create templates for any group activity with a desired outcome: design sprints, brainstorms, critique sessions, etc.
  • Let participants know ahead of time if video may be necessary — not everyone is accustomed to being seen while speaking.
  • Make sure everyone is in a work-friendly environment where they’re comfortable speaking at any moment — not a cafe, for example.
  • Make the digital workspace available to participants ahead of time so everyone can test their setup.
  • Make sure your internet is stable, and consider setting a backup, perhaps via tethered phone.
  • Create an agenda for the session, and go over it at the outset.

During the session:

  • Include physical movement when possible: lead groups in stretching, walking around, even jumping up and down. It may sound silly, but it’s surprisingly effective at keeping people engaged.
  • Encourage participants to use physical tools like pen and paper, if that’s an easier way of getting ideas out or processing information.
  • Consider providing time to go offline to work, then regrouping with results.
  • Run regular polls with participants to ensure everyone feels involved.

The Takeaway

Beyond the insights generated in the sessions, one of the most valuable parts of the event was the one-on-one knowledge sharing. This was actually easier than it would be in-person, since every video chat included a text channel too, making links as easy to share as handshakes. I managed to add two books and an article to my must-read list.

Unexpectedly, the event felt very human despite its size and remoteness, because of a sense of shared bewilderment. It’s a strange new world we’re in, and recognizing that everyone else is confused too makes it a little more bearable, and hopeful.

Technically, there’s still plenty to work out. It’s easy to forget how many things happen during an in-person event, because most of them are intuitive: we don’t have to think about how to have a conversation, or how to find a seat to watch a presentation. But in a digital gathering, all of that depends on technology, so more can go wrong. We’re also still struggling to figure out the digital versions of established in-person social norms.

But we’ve got the benefit of tremendous goodwill. We all know that remote collaboration is weird and confusing, whether we’re doing design work or research, or attending an event. And we know that a lot of people are working very hard to make it less weird and more effective. So regardless of specific outcomes, an event like this is welcome confirmation that we’re getting better at this stuff, every day.

Full video of the main event (including lightning talks and post-session summaries) is here:

All videos for past IxDA Berlin events are here.

Special thanks to the IxDA Berlin crew for organizing: Andre Jay Meissner, Audrey Liehn, Thomas Küber and Kathryn Hing.

If you’re interested in learning more about IxDA Berlin, they have a newsletter and a Twitter feed; for folks looking to connect with IxDA in their area, there’s a global directory here.

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