Remote workshops are awesome for collaboration too

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Bringing people together to collaborate, ideate, and make decisions, has long been a central part of how we work and build products at Potato. With remote working and distributed teams taking the central stage in our ways of working, it became quickly apparent we had to learn how to deliver successful remote workshops.

In a way, holding a remote workshop can be quite similar to having it face-to-face: people will come together to achieve a common goal (alignment, decision-making, co-creating), and go through a carefully designed and facilitated process that helps them reach it.

The key difference is, of course, the space in which the workshop takes place. Moving from a physical to a digital space can seem quite daunting, and it’s easy to focus on the difficulties it brings and the things we feel are lost - but digital remote workshops bring mountains of new opportunities.

Image Image: A shared space to create and collaborate - this is an example of how we structure our Miro boards to bring people together

The value remote workshops can bring

During these months we’ve discovered that remote workshops are not only as impactful as face-to-face ones, but that they can bring a world of different advantages. When well planned and delivered, we’ve discovered several benefits to running remote workshops:

Combining real time & asynchronous collaboration

With a well defined process, we can combine asynchronous work (where participants complete assignments at their own time and pace) with real time collaboration (coming together to share ideas and co-create). This gives the team more flexibility, creates new dynamics of collaboration, and allows your workshop design to include a wider range of exercises.

Longer reflection times

With the fast pace nature of face-to-face workshops, there can be little time to reflect on the decisions we are making. The introduction of asynchronous collaboration allows participants to work at their own pace and in their own style, providing time to reflect and process ideas.

Increased iteration and collaboration

With more time to work individually and asynchronously, team members can spend more time researching and connecting with each other’s thoughts and ideas, leading to better idea generation.

Better idea capture

As thoughts and ideas are captured digitally, there is no need to spend time transcribing and digitising, allowing team members to access their process instantly, whenever they want. The shared collaborative whiteboard becomes a constant companion for the team.

A process for remote collaborative workshops

We have organised some of our best practices and key learnings around the steps and activities we take when designing and delivering remote workshops. We hope this process will help you when thinking of your own workshops.

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Plan

  • Define workshop goals: Ensure a good balance between your goals and the timeframes defined. Remember there’s only so much you can do in 4 hours or a week - make sure you are setting the right limits and expectations on goals.
  • Identify participants: Calculate the time you need for participants to come together to collaborate, and add it to everyone's diaries.
  • Bring the team together: Define the team that will deliver the workshop and ensure they are aligned on process, roles and responsibilities. Consider co-facilitation - we’ve found it keeps the energy of the team and the room moving.

Create

  • Choose your toolset: Consider the different tools you will need for the workshop, and choose the ones that will work best for you. We currently use a mix of digital whiteboard (Miro), and videoconference (Hangouts), but are considering other communication spaces like slack for longer workshop projects (that span a week or more).
  • Create your environment: Include all of the exercises on the same canvas to ensure everything is easy to find and captured in one place. Clearly label exercises as ‘Pre Workshop’ and ‘During Workshop’, making it clear what should be completed at what times.
  • Design a balanced agenda: bring the right mix of activities together, considering pre-work and workshop work, as well as individual and team work. Think about the flow of the session(s) and how they come together to create a balanced experience that helps people work together to accomplish the goals. Think about energy flows, and how activities create or break energy.
  • Define timings: We’ve found that 3 hours is usually the limit on workshops - anything further and the energy and attention of the room will start to go down, and you’ll lose focus and motivation. Still, three hours is a long time for people to work together through their screens, so we usually add one or two breaks (of 10-15 mins) for 3 hour workshops. When defining the timing for activities, we discovered pretty early on that nothing really takes 5 minutes - and our activities always account for run over time - giving teams and exercises some breathing space.

Inform

  • Set participants up for success: equip your participants with the tools and frameworks they’ll need for the day - this is as much about helping them understand how to use the toolset you chose, as it is about connecting, sharing content & instructions, driving conversations, and creating open channels of communication. We hold a short 30 minute walkthrough session a few days before the event, during which we show participants how to use the tool (focusing on key functionalities, not everything will be relevant for the day) and talk through the exercises and expectations.

Image Image: An example of the workshop guide we use for walkthrough session

Asynchronous collaboration

  • Build engagement through pre-work: adding short and simple ‘Pre Workshop’ exercises drives engagement and reflection even before the workshop starts. We use simple exercises (adding post-it notes of thoughts/ideas, or sharing inspiration spaces) as a way to give participants the space to explore and learn how to use the digital tool, while also creating additional inputs that allow us to cover more ground.

Real time collaboration

  • Create space around pre-work: Always assign time to review and have a conversation around pre-work, giving space for participants to share the work completed asynchronously. You can also use this as the initial ground from where to iterate and continue idea generation.
  • Build a safe space: Always consider how your actions and communication are affecting this space. We build this by listening with care, our attention and energy fully channeled into this shared moment. This can be difficult to convey in the digital space, but staying present, keeping cameras on and distractions off (such as keeping your phone away and other tabs closed) are key.
  • Be clear with instructions: communicate activity instructions clearly and give space for questions. Keep written instructions on the screen so they’re always accessible for participants. Remind participants of times - ideally you can use Miro/Mural functionality to show the timer.
  • Stay connected to the “room”: actively listen to what your participants tell you, stay in touch with the energy of the room, and facilitate with empathy. Guide participants through a clear process, but feel free to adapt your plan if needed - add breaks in, change timings, re-focus.

Image Image: visible instructions and time frames help participants stay connected and informed

The process we have shared here is the one we follow when we create and deliver remote workshops at Potato. Our workshops are not “adaptations” of face-to-face events, but are instead carefully designed to be remote and collaborative events. It’s important to note that they’re designed with a focus on all team members joining remotely from their individual locations. While we’ve tried a combination of face-to-face and remote participants in one same event, we’ve found these to have mixed results - we believe this is because participants are essentially taking different journeys, where the tasks, processes and tools are considerably different.

Collaborative workshops are an integral part of the projects we deliver at Potato - they’re key in bringing teams together to collaborate and co-create throughout product development, and working together to build ideas and make decisions. Delivering remote workshops demanded some adaptation and learning, but we’ve discovered that with the right tools, process and preparation they can deliver outstanding results, and have opened a world of new possibilities for our teams and projects.

Building purposeful digital experiences in uncertain times

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The world we find ourselves in today is suddenly much different than what we imagined some months ago. Together, we are learning what it means to continuously adapt - finding new ways of working remotely, collaborating, accessing content, shopping.

Businesses of every size have been quickly moved into unknown territories, and their ability to shift and adapt is being tested to the limits. As we walk into a changed world, it is clear that the businesses that thrive will be the ones that continuously face uncertainty, adapt quickly, and invest in designing and building meaningful digital experiences.

It is now more important than ever for organisations to create engaging digital experiences

Even before COVID-19, businesses were aware of the importance of crafting engaging digital products that would allow them to connect with their users in easier, smarter, and ever-present ways in a multitude of spaces (learning on the go, shopping from your phone, working from home, gaming remotely).

Today, the expectation for outstanding digital experiences permeates every industry, and we hold a high bar for the products that enter our lives. Perhaps it was Apple that turned customers into the value of well designed products - or maybe it was Mint, the company that managed to turn the painful job of managing finances into a positive experience (1). Whomever it was, the truth is that today your users expect engaging and well designed digital products.

Image Digital products are playing an important role in connecting us remotely from our homes. Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

In this new COVID-19 landscape, it is perhaps even more critical than before for organisations to embrace an innovation and product driven approach, using design to rapidly change and adapt to the markets they operate in and the new expectations and realities of their customers.

Drive business success with an innovation and product mindset

With a product lens driving innovation, organisations are able to focus on solving real problems that have a substantial impact in the lives of their users. Through a lean and agile approach businesses can discover new opportunities, test hypotheses early and quickly, and build purposeful and effective products.

At Potato, we work with organisations to deliver better products - creating enriching and authentic digital experiences that bring real value to their users. While there is no “one size fits all” approach, these are some of the most important ways in which you can look at where your organisation is today, how you can grow in uncertain times like these, and move forwards with intent:

1. Make sure you are solving a real user problem

We have seen multiple times how people and organisations skip forwards and go directly to product development, without a clear value proposition and understanding of the problem they are looking to solve. With a solution built up in their minds, and their hearts committed to their beautiful ideas, they power through - without knowing if what they are creating solves a real problem users have. As you can imagine, those stories do not end well.

Instead, make sure you are working on a problem that your users actually face and building products that make their lives better. Every design process must start with empathy, and be rooted in an understanding of the diverse views, ideas, experiences, and problems that your users have.

Image The stories we hear help us connect with our users, understand them, and build with empathy. Photo by Mark Neal from Pexels

Be conscious of the new reality we are living in, and the changes that permeate our lives. Society today is more vulnerable than before, norms and regulations are continuously shifting, and user needs are in flux.

2. Know who your users are

What value does your product bring to whom? Knowing who your users are will inform the product you build, and ensure you are designing a solution that caters to them - to their needs, desires, problems, environment. Understanding where your users live/work/are will also help mark the boundaries of what is possible (what are the geographical and legal limitations, what is the access to technology).

Sometimes products want to define themselves as “for everyone”. This is never the case, and the confusion seems to come from wanting to place the product in a space that is open to all. However, there is a specific “job to be done” that your digital product will be catering for, a specific “pain point” it will be looking to solve, and a clear space in which it will be considered of value. It is also defined by demographic limits (age and location being some of the easiest places to start). Making sure you have clarity on who your users are will ensure you are building a product that works for them and their needs.

As much as it is important to narrow down your user profile, it’s also critical to make sure that your definitions are not adding bias. When diversity is not considered from the start, bias will be built into your product, and has the potential to replicate (or even increase) structural inequality and discrimination (Cathy O’Neil has written an amazing book and how algorithms play a role in this (2)). Always stop to consider who you might be leaving out of your profile, and when a general user profile might need to be split in order to capture critical differences.

Image Understanding our users, their experiences, problems, and spaces they inhabit provide invaluable direction to how we design digital products. Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

3. Build with data, not with assumptions

Bringing in the voice of your users throughout product development will ensure you are equipped with real knowledge and actual user data, allowing the team to make well-informed decisions at the right time. Working with real evidence, instead of un-tested working assumptions, will help the business de-risk solutions, and ensure your digital products are moving in a clear direction.

While it can seem like a difficult and time-consuming endeavour to conduct constant research, in reality there are multiple ways of connecting with users and collecting relevant data, and you can do so in lean and efficient ways. We have found that the value of this is quickly evident in how our teams make decisions and move product development forwards.

Image Designing solutions with real data helps us build with confidence Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

4. Create a strong foundation to build from. Use design systems to create product consistency

Laying a strong design system for your product will allow for efficiency, scalability, and consistency. Design systems bring order to the chaos that can emerge from the design process, ensuring we are building a consistent user experience in the most efficient way, and are able to quickly scale up the product.

Without a clear vision, structure and guidelines for the design of your product, your team might fall victim to the unstructured requirements that come from different users and areas of the business. As different design font sizes, colours add up, your team might be facing considerable design debt. Instead, build a strong foundation that allows you to eliminate inconsistencies, keep your teams aligned, and speed up your product design process.

During these times, a design system will prove an invaluable asset in ensuring teams remain aligned while working at a distance, and making it easier to onboard new designers and teams into a system that is already in place and working in the cloud.

As businesses find themselves needing to pivot quickly in order to respond to new user priorities and environment changes, a design system will make delivery more efficient, helping teams build and validate ideas faster.

Building products with intent

We believe in building products that matter, that make things better and solve relevant problems for real people. As businesses look to develop new digital products, they must consider the questions in front of them, think through the decisions they take, and make conscious design decisions that enable them to build with intent.

References:

(1) Rhodes, M. (2015), Take it from and expert: design is more important than ever. Retrieved May 14th 2020, from: https://www.wired.com/2015/03/take-expert-design-important-ever/

(2) O’Neill, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction - How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York: Crown Publishers.

Creating purposeful digital products is more important than ever – and design is the key

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Our lives are surrounded by digital products. With 50% to 98% (depending on the country) of households now being able to access the web (1), and 5.1 billion mobile phone owners worldwide (2), digital has become one of the most important ways in which we interact with the world.

As COVID-19 turned the world upside down, people and organisations discovered the wealth of possibilities waiting for them in the digital world. By now, most businesses have shifted at least partially in order to provide their services to customers and support their employees. Restaurants and grocery stores have shifted to online delivery services, schools have quickly pivoted to 100% remote learning and virtual classrooms, banks have moved into remote sales and support and doctors transitioned into telemedicine. Many of us find ourselves discovering what it means to work from home.

While perhaps now more relevant than ever before, digital products have long played an important role in our personal lives, and provide a world of opportunities for organisations to grow - to connect with their customers, create better employee experiences, optimise their processes.

At Potato, we are driven by the desire to create purposefully designed products that bring real value to users. Through lean and agile practices, and driven by an innovation and product mindset, our teams of designers, developers and product leads create outstanding digital experiences.

Neon sign

This is the (de)sign you’ve been looking for. Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Designers are key to making meaningful user experiences, bringing their unique voice to the table

Design has the potential to add significant value to businesses. Businesses where design is integral to operations are twice as likely to have developed new products and services (3), and shares in design-led businesses have outperformed key stock market indices by 228% over the past 10 years (4).

Designers bring a unique voice in digital product development, helping teams move swiftly and rapidly through complex problems, translating the needs of users, business and technology into tangible and actionable ideas. They are ambassadors of outstanding user experiences, build iteratively, and leverage user research and rapid validation to inform product design decisions.

It is arguably today more important than ever that teams ensure designers are part of product development teams, helping them make informed decisions and build meaningful user experiences as they develop digital solutions.

At Potato, our designers help us move faster and smarter - their unique views critical in informing the way forwards, de-risking solutions and ensuring we build for our users first. Here, they share their best practice tips for how to create leading digital products

Printed wireframes linked together by threads

Building experiences, prototyping, testing and iterating - designers bring a unique voice. Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

1. Avoid personal biases and design through a diverse lens

At the centre of the product design process is empathy - that ability to look beyond ourselves, to step out of our own biases and points of view, and embrace the diverse world we live in. Designers know that in order to build purposeful and useful products they need to be made with the users at the centre, driven by research insights.

As designers, we build with our blinders off, and create products that reflect not only ourselves but a diverse group of people. We look beyond the mainstream, and learn from those unusual cases - the extreme fans, the haters, the non-digital. It means we consider demographic diversity as a key factor for ensuring different needs and dreams are driving the decisions we make for our designs.

Responsible designers create for others and not for themselves, and know that the world is a diverse place that requires smart and empathetic design.

User navigating airbnb on phone

Seeing how people use products in context helps us understand their views. Photo by ready made from Pexels

2. Consider how you are designing for non-digital users

With technology permeating more and more of our everyday lives, it has become increasingly important to ensure the usability of products is designed not only for digital natives, but also for older generations and non-digital users - those who have historically not been in contact (ever or consistently) with digital technologies. This is probably particularly relevant today as more non-digital users start exploring and space this space in the face of the physical limitations posed by COVID-19.

Digital product teams must work together to build experiences that respond to a variety of expectations, knowledge, and capabilities. As teams discover that non-digital users view technology through a different lens, it is perhaps obvious that many of the insights we use to build current interfaces might not be valid when looking at them through the eyes of non-digital users.

Designing for non-digital users means that we must design for learning, creating a clear and safe space for users to access and learn, and providing critical information and feedback at the right points in time.

As digital products entered our lives, we slowly built shared mental models that drive our understanding of how digital experiences work. Given that non-digital users did not participate in the collective learning of these, their approach to digital experiences will differ.

Consider for example how users interpret symbols and visual cues: this is the case for the “hamburger” button, without text to accompany it the expectation of functionality is clear to digital users (yes, it will open up a menu), but it will not be so for those who have not been in contact with digital platforms for some time.

3. Test assumptions early and often using design artifacts

Through diverse design artifacts (such as user journeys, wireframes, or prototypes), designers bring digital products to life, allowing teams to test ideas early on, and iterate quickly. At Potato, designers stay close to users, work collaboratively with development teams, and constantly test assumptions and validate hypotheses, providing critical direction throughout the development process.

This allows teams to move through product development confidently, pivoting when required and transforming design into code at the right time. In practical terms this means that we are able to de-risk and build products confidently, moving nimbly at the right time, before digital products are heavily built and harder to change.

Paper drawn prototypes

Prototyping allows us to develop and test ideas early on (Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash)

4. Create a strong team, bringing designers and developers together

When designers and developers are in sync, decisions are made at the right time and designs turn to code smoothly. At Potato, we have vast experience in building teams that bring designers and developers together to bring ideas to life - and the increased value it brings in the product you build.

Work closely with your developers, keeping open communication channels and building trust continuously. Our designs must be informed by what is technically feasible, and so it is critical to ensure this relationship is built from the start.

5. The voice of designers will be key for building the products of the future

The role of designers will continue to grow and expand, while staying true to what it stands for - working through complex problems, with users at its heart, to create purposeful and effective solutions.

Designers will play a pivotal role in building the experiences of the future, and in creating products that are meaningful, inclusive, ethical. Products that understand the complex environment they live in, and the impact they have in the lives of the people that use them (or don’t use them).

We will create products that are truly inclusive, and create positive experiences for the world we all live in.

References

  1. Kinsella, B. (2019). U.S. Smart Speaker Ownership Rises 40% in 2018 to 66.4 Million and Amazon Echo Maintains Market Share Lead Says New Report from Voicebot. Retrieved from: https://voicebot.ai/2019/03/07/u-s-smart-speaker-ownership-rises-40-in-2018-to-66-4-million-and-amazon-echo-maintains-market-share-lead-says-new-report-from-voicebot/
  2. Perez, S. (2019). Report: voice assistants in use to triple to 8 billion by 2023. Techcrunch. Retrieved April 6th 2020 from: https://techcrunch.com/2019/02/12/report-voice-assistants-in-use-to-triple-to-8-billion-by-2023/
  3. Design Council (2007). The value of design factfinder. Retrieved 14th May from: https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/asset/document/TheValueOfDesignFactfinder_Design_Council.pdf
  4. DMI (2014). Design driven companies outperform S&P by 228% over ten years. Retrieved April 6th 2020 https://www.dmi.org/blogpost/1093220/182956/Design-Driven-Companies-Outperform-S-P-by-228-Over-Ten-Years--The-DMI-Design-Value-Index