The Pros and Cons of Remote Design Thinking

Digital Advisory

The Pros and Cons of Remote Design Thinking

Beatrice Costantino | Sep 09, 2020

With the current need for social distancing, we have had the opportunity to set up some remote design thinking sessions with some of our clients. Here in this blog post we'll share with you how it went and what we learnt along the way.

We've already talked about design thinking as a unique feature of how Techedge helps businesses get to grips with digital transformation projects in a way that is both well-structured and caters to their needs, and places people at the centre of the process (the other unique feature being technology onboarding, as previously discussed in this post).

Firstly though, a quick recap: design thinking is an approach to problem solving used to create everything from new apps to entire complex systems by engaging creative energy with lateral thinking to drive participants to find innovative solutions in a safe and stimulating environment. Design thinking sessions usually involve meeting face to face and using big sheets of A3 paper and copious amounts of post-it notes to keep up with the flow of ideas and be able to structure and restructure them easily throughout the session. 

So, can the same results be achieved remotely? We tried it and got some really positive results.

 

The recipe for a good design thinking session

Whether it's face to face or remotely, a design thinking session is set up in exactly the same way. 

Start out by analysing information about the client and, using this and the client's goals as a guideline, pick out some exercises to present to the participants. The session should follow a convergence and divergence approach.

This means first asking participants to diverge - to get creative, to come up with as many ideas as possible about the process that needs analysing. One great technique we can use to facilitate the diverging ideas phase - one we use a lot in these sessions - is Crazy 8's. Fold a blank sheet of paper into eight sections and set a time limit (less than 10 minutes) for the participants to fill each one in with a different variant of their solution or idea.

 

How to do the Crazy8's remotely

Image: How to do Crazy 8’s remotely, UX Collective

 

Next, we can move into the convergence phase by using clustering techniques and finding a common thread to link the ideas together. One simple and effective technique to converge ideas is to ask participants to vote for the most interesting ideas; this helps us to group ideas together and quickly get a clearer idea of what our priorities and most crucial points are.

 

Design Thinking: Voting session on Mural

Image: Run a voting session, Mural

 

By now, we should be ready to analyse the clusters in detail and come together on common solutions.

So, it should be clear by this point which elements are necessary for a design thinking session:

  • Open conversation between participants
  • Open spaces where ideas can be presented, restructured, grouped together, and organised fluidly.
  • Diverging the conversation at the beginning, and converging on the results obtained at the end.

 

So, what about doing it remotely? All you need is the right tool

Plenty of tools on the market will let you set up and fully customise a whiteboard where participants can create, write, edit, and drag and drop their own digital post-it notes. This virtual space represents the room where the design session would normally be held and has the same tools that can be used in a face-to-face session.

Mural, Sprintbase, InVision, and Miro are just some examples of the tools available. All these tools let you create remote sessions in an efficient way and are all adequate substitutes. The main difference between them is how complete each tool is: Mural is one of our personal favourites as it provides all the tools needed for a design session.

Once you have chosen a tool and set up a conference call - whether through third-party apps like Microsoft Teams or Google Meet, or using the tool's own built-in video call function (as is possible with Mural, for example) - setting up remote design thinking sessions will be as easy as riding a bike as long as you keep the following steps in mind: prepare exercises and goals for the session, brainstorm, have the participants reflect on and develop ideas, find the common thread, and reach a solution.

 

Remote Design Thinking: strengths and weaknesses

A question arises at this point: is it better in person or remotely? 

When it comes to results, we see both approaches to be equally effective: if the session is well organised and conducted, you are guaranteed to achieve your goals regardless of whether it is in person or behind a computer screen.

However, each approach comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few points we have drawn up about the most important aspects of our experiment:

Body language is an irreplaceable element of communication. 

During face-to-face sessions, a lot of the most fundamental information is conveyed through body language; this is extremely important as it tells us whether participants are receptive, whether they agree or disagree with us, are focussed, tired, or even bored. 

In remote sessions, these signals become harder to read, even when participants are kept stimulated with exercises and questions and keep their webcams on throughout the session (as is recommended).

Having fewer participants leads to more dedication and focus during sessions.

Remote sessions usually have fewer participants than face-to-face sessions, as this reduces connection problems and the likelihood of people talking over each other, among other things.

As they are working in smaller groups, participants have a better chance to express themselves and be heard. What's more, by using the tool's colours and identifiers, the facilitator can always keep track of who is participating, whether in the session itself, or in the phase in which the information is analysed.

The revenge of the shy!

During these sessions, being able to stimulate conversation is essential. In remote sessions, participants often feel protected by their screens, and even the shyest will be more willing to share their experiences without feeling judged by others. 

In person, however, you will have to work harder to stimulate conversation by reading participants' signals and talking to each person individually (which can be quite embarrassing for the less talkative in the group).

It is unbeatably easy to organise...

The remote approach favours stronger participation and gives users who are otherwise not able to attend in person a better chance to contribute. It will be much easier to find a time that fits int everyone's schedules, especially when bringing together people from different offices, or even different countries.

...but distraction is right around the corner.

During a remote session it is more difficult to avoid interference. If you are using your own computer, make sure to mute your notifications and client emails, and to close the other tabs you have open on your browser: it's not an impossible task, but we all know how easy it is to get distracted.

Face-to-face sessions, however, are deliberately organised in environments where outside distractions won't be a problem, making it easier to focus on the task at hand.

Last but not least, digitalisation.

Remote sessions have one really great advantage: when using a digital platform, you will no longer have to painstakingly write up the same, endless volumes of post-it notes, or struggle to decipher participants' handwriting - nor archive and manage paper, cardboard, markers, pencils, erasers and various other stationery. 

It is all there already, in digital form, and is a great relief to our planet (and to the designers, whose lives become much simpler).

 

So: Design thinking: remotely, or face to face?

The goal of design thinking sessions is to foster an environment that facilitates new thoughts and ideas and coming together on solutions by placing people at the centre of the process.

Our experience tells us that whether remotely or in person, the results will be just as interesting and useful for achieving a greater level of awareness about your company and the way you work. 

Whichever way you conduct the session, the results will be just as good. Designers who can understand their participants, an environment that is stimulating and non-judgemental, and sessions that are well-planned and cater to your client's needs: these are the key elements to focus on. Whether on the sofa, at the office or at the beach, as long as you've got their attention... who really cares?

 

Further readings:

 


Other articles of this series on Digital Advisory:

 

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