User-centered approaches, and in particular Design Thinking, put great emphasis on ideation workshops. These workshops generally bring together a varied selection of profiles under the same roof to picture and propose innovative solutions to a problem.
The spread of Covid-19, lockdown, and travel and meeting restrictions make it impossible to hold physical workshops. However, this type of workshop can be successfully carried out remotely, provided that it is properly adapted. Therefore, many questions arise:
- How to keep participants focused and engaged?
- How to select and make the best out of collaborative tools while preserving the “Low-Tech/High-Touch” principle of agile methods?
- How to manage the risk of interruption, which is omnipresent, when everything is based on the use of technical tools?
- How to keep timing under control when each intervention and exercise tends to last more remotely?
We were able to test the Design Thinking method remotely and drew several lessons for conducting workshops. We have identified 4 action categories that can be applied in order to create an ideal workshop:
Plan and prepare
Similarly to a physical workshop, preparation is key to the success of a remote workshop. All aspects must be thought out beforehand and meticulously prepared: exercises, timing, technical tools, participant follow-ups, and breaks. For this, we recommend a few best practices:
- Organize several short workshops: in Design Thinking, it is customary to conduct workshops over a half day or even a full day. Remotely, we recommend to favor a series of small workshops of an hour to an hour and a half over the course of several days.
- Write the workshop timeline: write and time all the steps of the workshop (welcoming of participants, exercises including reflection and restitution time, break ...). We recommend adding 1/3 of the time as a margin to avoid overflow.
- Conduct a dry run: organize an inhouse dry run by inviting collaborators to test your exercises and observe whether they lead to the desired deliverables, whether questions arise from it, whether they are conducive to discussion and whether they allow for exchange.
- Share elements in advance: we recommend sending the agenda and key elements which understanding is essential to the success of the workshop – ahead of the session. This allows participants to have the material that will be used in the workshop.
- Prepare the technical tools: technical tools (app, video, and website) sometimes require registration or prior installation. So it is best to focus on tools that don't require registration or download, or the dreaded plugin installation! If necessary, you should share these elements beforehand so that participants can anticipate and avoid wasting time on the day of the workshop.
In a physical setting, as in a remote setting, it is beneficial for the flow of the workshop and of each exercise to recall the context beforehand. In a physical setting, all ideas remain posted on the walls of the room during the session (as an “information radiator” in the agility practice) and participants can come back to them at any time. In contrast, participants do not have this option remotely. It is beneficial to remind participants of the objectives, context and problems to be solved throughout the workshop.
- Share the agenda: begin the workshop by sharing the agenda (this should also be done in advance for better understanding).
- Define the objectives and scope: in the beginning of the workshop, it is essential to recall the objective and the scope of the session
- Contextualize each exercise: before each exercise, recall its purpose, objective and scope. Besides, invest time in explaining every exercise, illustrating it with examples and clarifying the concepts and terms that not all participants are familiar with (e.g. pain points, customer journey, personae, prototyping, business model, etc.)
Simplify and aerate
Since interactions are more difficult remotely, workshop exercises should be kept as simple as possible. This makes them easier to grasp and encourages participants to contribute.
- Stick to the essentials: there is a great temptation to cover every topic, every scenario, every persona, every customer journey, and to explore every idea that will emerge during a workshop. The risk is to get lost in details, to move away from the main goal of the brainstorming session and especially to lose participants’ attention. Thus, it is beneficial to limit the overall discussion to key points of the ideation workshop's objective, even if it means revisiting certain aspects afterwards.
- Vary the exercises: ideation exercises in Design Thinking can be repetitive. In a physical setting, moving around, physically interacting with postits and boards allow participants to stay involved. Remotely, it is useful to vary the types of exercises (e.g. business canva, empathy map, product box, personae), the types of contributions (e.g. sticking post-it notes, drawing, reacting orally, etc.) and the types of brainstormings (e.g. individual or in groups).
- Summarize the important points: it is important that key points that have emerged during discussions be summarized at the end of the exercise. In addition to providing structure, this will allow participants to take a breath and will air out the entire workshop proceedings.
- Take a break: workshops can be long, especially remotely: plan a short recess or a coffee break to lighten the session!
Remotely, motivation and commitment of participants can drastically decrease. For the workshop to be successful, it is necessary to involve all participants as much as possible throughout the session.
- Start with an icebreaker: the first few words are always difficult to initiate in a remote workshop. An icebreaker at the beginning of the workshop helps to get participants started and to encourage contributions from everyone (e.g., introducing yourself, talking about a passion, making a game)
- Choose your online tools adequately: two kinds of tools are necessary for a workshop to run smoothly: a video conference communication system and an online collaboration space. To guarantee everyone's participation, it is important to ensure that participants master them. For video conferencing, choose a tool that allows you to display the camera of all participants and share your screen at the same time. For collaboration, choose a simple tool, with the least possible installation and registration requirements.
- Involve everyone: remotely, participants can quickly withdraw. Yet the value of an ideation workshop lies in the multiplicity of viewpoints, the diversity of participants and their contributions. Do not hesitate to use the private chat to check that each stakeholder is comfortable with the exercise. Take the time to ask everyone for their opinion. This can take the form of a vote. It is also possible to take advantage of individual debriefing moments to gather everyone's opinion.
- Turn on the camera: The main reason for lack of engagement in a remote workshop is lack of eye contact. As a moderator, turning on the camera helps to capture the attention of participants. If participants turn on their camera it allows the moderator to detect signs of disengagement.
- Moderate in pairs: It can be tiring to moderate a remote workshop alone and to juggle the presentation, followups and note-taking. It is recommended to moderate with several people (at least 2) and to clearly define their roles for each exercise.
To sum up, organizing a remote ideation workshop requires careful adaptation to ensure that it appeals to participants and produces the desired outcomes. In addition to the usual challenges of moderating a workshop, distance introduces new issues: time-consuming exercises, disengagement of participants, risks of interruption, as well as difficult access to and control of online collaboration tools. However, there are some simple actions that can be taken to address these issues: prepare and plan the session, contextualize the workshop and each of its activities, simplify and aerate the reflections and exercises, and, of course, engage all participants throughout the session.