Design

How ACS Technologies cracked the hybrid-remote brainstorming code

4 min read
Mike Kuechenmeister  •  Jan 7, 2020
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We’ve found that a handful of activities in our design process here at ACS Technologies are much richer if they are done with a group of people. Somewhere at the beginning of most projects, we do some version of a design workshop and complete a collaborative journey map exercise. However, as our team consists of individual remote workers and co-located teams, this isn’t a simple feat.

Remote collaboration is hard

Previously, our best idea was to try to have the workshop facilitator travel to the largest, closest team of co-located participants. Everyone got a meeting invite, project summary (requirements, scenarios, research), and agenda. The facilitator and co-located team gathered in a large room with a whiteboard, markers, and stacks of sticky notes. Then remote participants joined via Hangout.

This created two major problems:

  • Remote employees felt the distance. Remote employees would have to request that someone in the co-located group write their ideas on the (physical) whiteboard. Typically, they also could not clearly see what was already written on the board. Remote participants strained to stay present in the conversation and felt their contributions were marginalized.
  • Co-located participants were uncomfortable and apathetic. You could assume that those in the room together were highly engaged, but sessions typically didn’t go that way. Most participants weren’t used to this source of group work, and we saw many retreat rather than engage. Though writing an idea on a sticky note and putting it on a whiteboard might not seem like a big deal, it can be if it is your first time doing this in front of other people. It is easy to be self-conscious about your idea, your handwriting, your appearance—many things created small barriers to engagement. We noticed there was an unnecessary strain on our facilitator, too, who was desperate to engage the team.
Typical journey map swirl of stickies and sketches.

Defining a good solution

It became clear that we needed a new approach. We searched for a digital brainstorming tool that would allow us to collaborate in real-time and even the playing field for employees everywhere.

For us, the perfect product would:

  • Provide employees everywhere with the same experience. We wanted to ensure that every teammate got the same meeting invite, summary, and agenda no matter where they were located. This fully-remote approach would allow the whole team to work together at the same time on the same platform, via their laptops.
  • Give everyone a chance to connect. Humans rely on non-verbal cues to enrich communication and build trust and empathy. We needed a tool that facilitated remote collaboration while still allowing us to see each other.
  • Maintain a perfect balance of structure and flexibility. We wanted to maintain a similar structure that we had with physical sticky notes, but did not want to feel limited by physical whiteboards. Our perfect product would have the right degree of structure and openness, that would help guide our process while letting us drive.
  • Introduce an element of play. Personally, I also wanted a way to make great product design feel more like play. I consider it a rich and untapped resource.

Testing

We tried using online several collaborative tools with varying degrees of success. Some were more structured, having you create and arrange sticky notes. Some were free-form with a sparse collection of symbols and drawing tools. We muddled through a few sessions, each of which eventually fell into the old style of everyone watching the facilitator tap dance. A handful of engaged individuals would try to pull it all together, creating all the structure on the fly.

After many less-than-ideal sessions, we finally found the perfect combination:

The same meeting invite, summary, and agenda are sent to everyone, but now all participants—both those who were co-located and those calling in—work from a personal computer. In the room, we use a camera and a large screen so everyone can see each other via Google Hangout. (It’s not perfect, but connecting via video at least allows for some degree of personal connection.)

Then, to cap it all off, we use a simple solution that revolutionizes our sessions, as recommended by one of our talented designers: Prepare key screens within an InVision Freehand document before the session to structure our conversation.

Let’s dive into a few examples of how this set-up looks and works for our company:

Example: Empathy map

One activity in our design process is to help the team build empathy for the user. It’s challenging but important that participants disconnect a little from the hurried and focused nature of their daily work. It allows us to approach the journey map activity from the customer’s perspective as much as possible.

We use XPLANE’s excellent empathy map template. The activity is not scientific; however, we use some existing persona work. Hopefully, at this point, the team has had the opportunity to visit customers, too.

The team contributes by writing directly on the board.

Isn’t the breadth and degree of engagement clear? (It makes my heart happy!) The best thing is we didn’t have to do the painful dance of drawing people out to participate. It was more like play.

Example: Journey map

Our journey map is based on the process outlined by Harry Brignul. It is critical to approach the project as a journey (rather than just pages) and find an actionable amount of detail early on. And doing it collaboratively also helps captures a greater breadth of ideas and aligns the team going forward.

Here, I think we see again the degree to which participants freely engage and interact is amazingly clear. It’s actually fun to collaborate this way—seeing activity in the form of each other’s butterfly-ish cursors flutter across the screen and put down ideas has the effect of creating a sort of contagious creative energy.

Check out the beautiful collaboration happening in real-time:

An unexpected benefit

Great design is more than the aggregate of everyone’s ideas.

Collecting lots of ideas and input is important; however, it is equally important to curate those ideas and focus on constructive exploration. In using InVision Freehand, we also create a design artifact to refer back to throughout the next steps of the process. The same board also handles our team brainstorming and other activities, like idea review and dot voting. We also use it as a place to store thumbnails and uploaded photos. Whereas before we would have to spend time documenting all these activities—now, it’s all on the working document.

Edited from a post originally published on UX Collective.