We recently had to pivot the Discovery phase for a new project, with a newly formed team to be completely remote. Our original plan included many collaborative sessions, some with potentially up to 15 people involved, but COVID-19 has made that impossible.
This blog shares our insights as we designed and implemented a remote Discovery phase. This is not a fixed recipe or a checklist for starting projects remotely, it’s just a guide with some ideas that I hope you find helpful.
In the Discovery phase we want to get a clear view of what we are aiming to achieve by understanding user needs and the business goals, along with any technology, legislative or regulatory factors. Ideally taking between 1 and 4 weeks, we typically produce a product vision, an emerging product backlog for the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and an early product roadmap. We also run chartering activities to inspire and galvanise the new team. This is always an intense and very collaborative period.
Firstly, it’s important to look after each other, these are not normal times and not everyone is coping equally well with remote working and isolation.
What else did we learn?
Do some research.
Look at what are others doing and sharing. There are lots of people sharing valuable experiences of adapting to working remotely, here are a just few that have really helped us:
- The definitive guide to running remote workshops by the Mural team
- How to brainstorm with your newly remote team by Jen Goertzen
- FutureGov’s Managing design research remotely
- Virtual meeting etiquette by Gaz Joyce (this is my favourite “Be patient, be kind, wear pants”)
- The new norm – distributed meetings, and not just due to Covid-19 by Wolfgang Emmerich
- Crowdsourced list of services to aid remote working
- Remote working and what it takes by Melanie Tschugmall
Mind the timings.
- In a remote session everything takes twice as long, don’t pretend it won’t. This is the most important advice I was given. (kudos to Josefin Wahlberg)
- Give people proper breaks, if you are running multiple collaborative sessions in a day ensure a minimum of 60 minutes for lunch, and a few 30-minute breaks
- Make sure no session lasts longer than 90 minutes and design in comfort breaks
- If you are running a full day of workshops, like the project lift off, don’t make it a 9am to 5pm. Give people time to sort emails beforehand and wrap up afterwards, ideally a 9:30am or 10am start, finishing about 4:30 at the latest.
Design the Discovery by collaborating remotely.
- Pair on designing the Discovery and the specific sessions, taking into account how you will run them remotely
- Seek regular feedback from trusted peers on how you are designing the sessions
- Get feedback from everyone in the team, especially on timings. We are entering a new way of working for everyone, people’s responsibilities and availability are evolving, so don’t make assumptions on this
- Not everything needs to be a meeting or a workshop (tempted to get this as a tattoo)
- Please share your artefacts beforehand, any proto-personas, user journey maps, wireframes, prototypes, user research insights etc that have been created before, don’t wait for the workshop for a big reveal
- Make sure everyone has the agenda in advance, and make sure you describe the purpose, outcomes and outputs of all exercises
Design a remote code of conduct.
- Explain challenges with remote working, especially for people who haven’t participated in a Discovery phase before
- Set out some guidance for before the remote meetings like making sure you test your internet connection, use a headset for better sound quality and the importance of being on time
- Set out guidance for during remote meetings, like describing when to be on mute, it’s better to have your video on but it’s ok not to, how to raise questions and of course making sure cats and other pets are welcome
- Set out guidance for the facilitators, like how ensure everyone understands the purpose of the session, how to engage with everyone and let everyone contribute and how to keep on time
Set up collaborative sessions for success.
One of the best tools I’ve recently discovered to clearly define a workshop is IDOARRT from the brilliant Hyper Island team. It aims to enable all participants to understand every aspect of the workshop, which creates a common ground for everyone to start from.
- Intention What is the intention, or purpose, of the meeting? In other words, why have it?
- Desired Outcome(s) What specific outcomes and outputs should be achieved by the end of the meeting?
- Agenda What activities will the group go through, in what order, to move toward the desired outcome?
- Roles What roles or responsibilities need to be in place for the meeting to run smoothly? Who is facilitating, and who is participating? Who is documenting, and who is keeping track of the time? What do you expect of the participants?
- Rules What guidelines will be in place during the meeting? These could relate to agreed group norms. They could also relate to use of laptops/mobiles, or practical rules related to a space. Let the participants add rules to ensure that they have ownership of them.
- Time What is the expected time for the meeting, including breaks, and at what time will the meeting end?
Get the tech right.
- If you have multiple organisations involved, make sure any product choices for video conferencing and online collaboration tools work for everyone and are not impacted by firewall rules, please test the tech
- If you’re using a product that not everyone is used to (like Miro), have a user guide available or include a bit of training in the build-up to the Discovery
- Have a back channel for the facilitators, set up a WhatsApp group especially if Zoom or Teams goes down.
Do a trial run under exam conditions.
- Run a pilot session in realistic conditions which proves the technology and ways of working, you don’t need to invite everyone, but make sure each organisation is represented. You don’t want to kick off a session with 20 people and realise half the people don’t have the full experience
- Don’t wing it, not matter how good your facilitation skills are face to face, it will be different fully remote
- Make sure you trial complicated techniques, for us we practised remote story mapping several times to make sure it would be an effective session for the full attendee lists, even though we have run story mapping sessions many times before, it would have been a car crash if we didn’t
Facilitating large remote sessions.
- At the start of each exercise/workshop, reiterate the purpose and the value of any outputs produced
- For complicated sessions like remote story mapping or assumption mapping, run through a generic example that everyone understands. To introduce the concept of story mapping, we got everyone to create their story map of getting out of bed and getting ready for the home office.
- Use the chat feature of your video conference tool of choice, it’s a great place to for someone to scribe so you can build up the minutes as you go along, these notes can then be distributed afterwards
- Have pairing facilitators. Running a remote session for a lot of people can be lonely, especially when everyone is on mute, have one person leading the session with one person facilitating the engagement from the rest of the team
- Especially if this is a newly forming team, start off with a fun introduction activity, get people to upload a favourite photo and allocate enough time for introductions. Get the team to answer a question like favourite holiday destination or guilty pleasure. A great resource for random breakout sessions.
- If your using a collaboration tool like Miro or Mural get people to upload a photo and bio themselves before you commence, it also has the added advantage of getting people used to the tool
- Make sure introductions are not a dull ‘creeping death’ of names and job titles. It’s important to understand what people are expecting from the session but get a fun way for people to introduce themselves
- Ensure psychological safety for everyone, don’t make people uncomfortable, never ever ambush people with a personal ice-breaker like ‘3 truths and a lie’ without any notice
- Before a lunch break give people a task for their return, and make it a competition like ‘get something green’ or give the team a question and suggest people can come back 5 or ten minutes early to discuss the topic
Please let me know if any of these ideas work for you, what you adapted and what you’re doing differently? If you have any feedback or further questions, please connect at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Kev_C_Murray