How to Run a Quick Design Studio Workshop Remotely

A design studio workshop is a great way of generating many possible solutions for a given design problem. If you are not familiar with design studios, here is a good place to start. A lot has been written about it and the purpose of this article is simply to demonstrate a way to make it work when your team is remote. This piece is most useful for teams already comfortable with design studios and have a shared understanding of both users and business problems.

At Pivotal Labs, we advocate for co-located teams and communication shorthand. However, on a recent project, our team was faced with a tricky design problem while we were split between Singapore, Tokyo and Sydney.

Since our design had already reached a certain level of maturity and had a restrictive interaction model, there were no obvious ways to extend it. This uncertainty made us feel a design studio would be best to solve for that particular issue.

The fact that our team was separated made us doubt our ability to complete the exercise in the same manner we had in the past when we were all in the same room. Our only option was to do it remotely, and despite uncertainties about whether it would be successful, it went particularly well. We achieved what we wanted out of the exercise — to come up with as many ideas as we could for the design problem we were faced with.

Outlined below are the steps you can take to reproduce our experiment.

You will need the following:

  • A facilitator
  • A balanced team (e.g. a developer, a designer and a product manager)
  • A good internet connection
  • A free video group chat tool with cameras turned on (we used appear.in)
  • An image editor on one machine (we used Photoshop)
  • A4 paper and sharpies
  • A device to keep track of time

Step 1: Set the stage

The facilitator should make sure the goals of the workshop are clear. You should have a clearly defined problem to solve, a diverse team (multiple roles and perspectives) and the objective to generate as many options as possible. The design team should walk out of the workshop with many sketched options to choose from in order to move forward with wireframes.

Setting up appear.in in Tokyo, Sydney and Singapore

Step 2: Make sure the design problem is clearly communicated

A way our team likes to approach design problems is to define scope through a validated user scenario. Scenarios are a great way to gain empathy for your user and isolate the data and business logic without committing to a particular technical or interface solution. This makes it a fantastic starting point for a design studio especially if you have been able to validate the scenario through various means (we really like user interviews!).

To avoid switching context, we wrote the scenario collaboratively in appear.in’s IM thread.

Writing a scenario in the chat to align on the design problem

Step 3 : Draw as many ideas as possible and timebox it

Next, each participant draws as many solutions as possible to solve the design problem. Give your participants a limited amount of time to complete the drawing process and tell them to aim at drawing a defined number of ideas. Highlight the fact that it’s not about drawing visually appealing elements but to solve for a particular issue. Add one more constraint compared to a regular design studio, to orient the paper horizontally. It will come in handy in the next step!

We normally timebox design studios to 8–15 minutes. Timeboxing the exercise and specifying a minimum amount of ideas to draw helps people avoid censoring themselves by trying to come up with the perfect idea. At some point in the process, your creative brain should be able to take over and find a different approach.

We’ve found that reinforcing process discipline helps when facing a new environment. Since it was our first experience attempting such a workshop remotely we decided to timebox the experiment to 5 minutes. That way if something goes horribly wrong, we can quickly analyze it and change the parameters.

Draw as many options as possible on a piece of paper

Step 4 : Screenshot the sketches in one place and fix the mirrored one in Photoshop/ Sketch

Next, each participant holds their drawings in front of their webcam while the courageous facilitator attempts to take a screenshot of the screen (hint: Cmd+Shift+3 on a Mac) to capture everyone’s work. It took us a minute to get it right but it worked very well eventually. If some of the participants have oriented their sheet vertically at the time of drawing, you will get sub-optimized results as the camera on a computer favors a horizontal ratio.

A fun discovery we made during the experiment is that each member would see their own image flipped horizontally while seeing everybody else’s oriented correctly. After a little bit of research it turns out our webcams are set up to behave like mirrors for ourselves and like windows to others. The screenshot-taker therefore needs to flip the inverted drawing in an image editing tool like Photoshop. Finally, the facilitator shares his/her screen through appear.in so the team can start reviewing it.

The screenshot fixed in Photoshop

Step 5: Silent reading & quick presentation

Each participant then reviews all the drawings silently for 2 minutes. Once completed, each participant take turns to explain how they came up with their ideas and how the different components work.

Step 6: Likes and Questions

After each participant explains their work, the other participants are invited to comment. We like to use a strict framework: “Likes and questions”. The goal of a design studios is not to criticize an idea but to surface many ideas. Expressing what you like and asking questions about the design is a good way to ensure we all feel safe to come up with as many ideas as possible and not necessarily to come up with the best one.

Once the facilitator hears a consensus from the team, he/she encircles the components that were “liked”. This highlights ideas that were favored and provides inspiration for designers once they begin turning those sketches into wireframes.

Circle the most interesting components in each solution

Limitations

This method needs tweaking to accommodate a larger number of participants. We think it can support up to four at the moment. Similarly, each participant is limited to one sheet of paper. We might need several screenshots to make it work with more time and more ideas to sketch. You may want to look at an alternate method using Slack for larger groups.

This article was co-written by Erika Buenaventura & Hadrien Raffalli. A big thank you to Lloyd Marshall, Canyon Boak and Heewon Choi for helping out.