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Running a Successful Remote Workshop

April 20, 2020

People work better together. If there is one thing we have learned as the technology industry has advanced, it is that collaboration between cross-functional teams is the most effective way of solving problems. Collaboration has always been important, but it is especially important to organizations today. This is where design workshops come into play.

As a workshop facilitator, you should strive to boost participants’ creative confidence and empower them to feel safe within a group environment. Ultimately, design workshops can result in multiple innovative solutions. Whether these workshops occur in a physical or a remote environment, there are certain things you can do to become a better facilitator. I’ll discuss some of them in this article.

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Before the Workshop

The difference between an amateurish facilitator and a truly confident one is preparation. Readiness is the first step to running a successful workshop. Let’s look at five things you can do to prepare for a design workshop.

1. Understand the Context

Be sure that you understand the people who are participating in your workshop. At what level do they work in the organization? What are their motivations and expectations? This type of understanding can help you plan your activities better and separate participants into effective working teams later on.

Pro tip: Send out email messages in advance of your workshop, asking questions of the participants or conducting surveys to get all the information you need to prepare for the workshop.

Questions you should ask yourself: How many people will participate? What time zones are they in? Who can help me with facilitation, as a back-up facilitator? What are participants expecting to get out of the workshop?

2. Set an Agenda

Prepare an agenda and send it to all participants. Be sure to outline the expected outcomes for each of the workshop methods and provide links explaining the activities, so participants can read about them in advance. Depending on the type of workshop you’re conducting, these methods and information sources could vary, but some of my go-to methods are user interviews, empathy mapping, as-is journey mapping, problem framing, brainstorming, and sketching.

Pro tip: Don’t forget to schedule breaks in the agenda! A one-hour lunch break around noon and five-to-ten-minute bathroom breaks in between the activities would be sufficient.

3. Share Prior Research

Depending on the project in which you’re involved, it’s possible that information from prior research is available on key issues. If there is previous knowledge on a topic, be sure to send out those materials by email. This can help everyone get on the same page and ensures that all participants have the same understanding of the project at the beginning of ideation.

4. Familiarize Participants with Software Tools

Share a list of the software tools you’ll be using throughout the workshop, so participants can educate themselves on how the software operates. There are lots of options out there, but some of the most popular choices for online meetings are Zoom, BlueJeans, WebEx, and GoToMeeting. Freehand by InVision, miro, and Mural are the usual picks for whiteboarding sessions.

Pro tip: Provide step-by-step setup instructions for any workshop tools that require setup and offer to walk participants through the process, if necessary.

5. Test Your Technology in Advance

It’s crucial that you test everything before the date of the workshop. A workshop session can easily get derailed if participants need to use a tool that no one can access.

Pro tip: Quickly test your audio and camera. It’s surprising how many people who engage in meetings on a daily basis have bad microphones. Use an online connection-checking service to do this. Be sure to record yourself and playback the video so you know how well others can hear you.

Questions you should answer at this stage: Is the workshop’s meeting link working? Is the whiteboarding tool link working? Is my audio quality good? Is my connection stable enough to facilitate? Do I have a back-up facilitator? Is he or she prepared to take notes? Do I have participants’ permission to record the workshop? Can every participant join the workshop from both their desktop computer and their mobile phone? Do participants have permission to access the tools?

During the Workshop

Once you’ve finished your preparations, set up the tools, and are ready for the workshop, you’ll take on your role as facilitator. Facilitating a workshop is the process of providing guidance and context to the participants, while staying within time limits. Getting everyone involved at this stage is key. Here are some things you can do to engage participants.

6. Introduce the Workshop

Kick off the workshop by thanking everyone for their participation and making sure that they’re comfortable with your recording the workshop session for future reference. Review the workshop plan and provide an overview of the activities. Don’t forget to book time in the agenda for this introduction, as well as some ice-breaker games.

Pro tip: Consider breaking down the activities into different recordings, so their output is not in just one massive file.

7. Lead Some Ice Breakers

There are multiple ways of doing this. Depending on the group you’re facilitating, the ice breakers might vary from simple introductions going around the table to each participant’s telling two truths and a lie, which most people enjoy.

Pro tip: Atlassian’s playbook offers a how-to guide for a nice selection of ice breakers that you can use.

8. Build Teams

Depending on the workshop methods you use, you might need to separate people into working teams. For example, if there were twelve participants, you might create three groups of four people. If you were creating personas, that would mean they’d create three personas overall—one per team. You could change group sizes depending on the number of targeted users for which you’re designing a solution and how big your audience is.

Pro tip: Try not to involve yourself or your back-up facilitator in the teams. You’ll be fully occupied with notetaking and managing the workshop. Make each group as diverse as possible by mixing different roles in the company.

9. Lead Activities

For activities, it is always a good idea to set a time limit and use a timer. Having a sense of urgency usually encourages the best results. If participants don’t finish a task within the allotted time, they might be able to use their break to finish. Make sure everyone feels comfortable with the activities and encourage self-expression.

Pro tip: Help teams by putting up examples of the methods on the whiteboarding tool. For example, if you’re creating personas, provide participants with both a blank persona template, as well as a filled-out template from an exemplary project.

10. Ask Questions and Provide Reminders

While the groups are working, take a look at their whiteboards to see their progress. Stop at the whiteboards of each teams and let them know you’re there to answer any questions. Watch the clock and give participants reminders at the halfway point and fifteen and five minutes before the end of an activity.

11. Reflect on Learnings

If possible, devote some time for the groups to present their findings to each other. This broadens their understanding of what other teams are doing and builds up their creative confidence. Reward a successful presentation with a round of applause, which motivates participants.

After the Workshop

Offer some closing words and evaluate the process the participants have experienced.

12. Do a Q&A

Asking participants whether they have questions at the end of a workshop is sometimes not as easy as it might sound. Be prepared mentally to answer tough questions such as: “How did this workshop help us solve our issue?” “Where do we go from here?” “How did this workshop help us toward creating a final solution?” Prepare the answers you’ll give in response to such questions in advance. The most important thing is to be brief, get straight to the point, and be confident in your answers.

13. Summarize the Workshop

At the end of the workshop, thank everyone for participating and summarize what they’ve achieved during the course of the workshop. Outline all of their activities and the insights they’ve uncovered. Be descriptive, but don’t take too much time for this. Participants are usually pretty tired at this point.

14. Ask Participants to Review the Workshop

There is no one rule for doing this. Each workshop is unique because of the variety of people who are participants. So you might take a different approach depending on the situation. If you send out a review form at the conclusion of the workshop, you’ll be able to assess the participants’ experience, which could help you fine tune your workshop process for the future.

Pro Tip: Use a tool such as Google Forms to get answers to your questions, which can provide you with extensive data from which you can derive a report.

Summary

Running a remote workshop is a difficult, but also an incredibly rewarding experience—for both your participants and the project team for which you’re conducting the workshop. Follow these guidelines to bootstrap your workshop approach and make sure you include all the necessary components to achieve success. You are now ready to kick-start your next remote workshop! Good luck! 

Experience Design Lead at SoftServe

Austin, Texas, USA

Miro KirovMiro is a passionate UX designer with more than ten years of industry experience. Currently, at SoftServe, he runs design thinking workshops for clients across the US. Miro developed his diverse skillset working in various environments—as a freelancer, a partner in a startup, and a digital producer at an agency. He is currently focusing on enterprise companies.  Read More

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