How to make the most of online workshops?
Studio Notes | Long Reads
Studio Notes | Long Reads
by Sean Casey, Service Designer
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were changing the way we hold workshops, in particular for design research. Workshops are a key part of our design process, providing opportunity for learning which is powerfully informative not just for us, but also for clients teams, and for their customers or users who take part.
In the past, workshops were held in person, but with new technology and as part of international projects we began to experiment with online engagement.
While it has been impossible to recreate the in-person workshop experience online, we’ve developed techniques for online workshops which have their own benefits and advantages and offer new and powerful possibilities in the design process.
1. Use the Right Tools, Don’t Let the Tools Use You!
We typically use three key tools for our workshops… Zoom, for video conferencing, screen sharing, chat, and recording, and MIRO for visual notetaking. Finally, we use Keynote or Powerpoint for slides to accompany our presentations. We don’t, however, use many of the more advanced features of these tools, preferring to keep it simple, and we do not ask any participants to have knowledge of these tools (more on that later).
2. Ease People In
When joining an online workshop participants lack an opportunity to settle in, make casual introductions, and get to know others before things kick off. To combat this we always designate some ice-breaker time or consider lighter, introductory questions or exercises in the beginning of the workshop. This allows people to get comfortable. If participants feel comfortable with each other they will be more likely to contribute and more open to sharing their experiences.
3. Always be Facilitating
The role of the facilitator in online workshops is perhaps even more important than in person. During our online workshops all participants need to do is “think, and speak”. Facilitators share the screen, lead the conversation, and rapidly take notes on the virtual whiteboard as people speak. The facilitator does all the work – we don’t ask people to use the technology.
“all participants need to do is ‘think, and speak'”
Important questions are displayed on the virtual whiteboard to help keep people focused. This way everybody sees their contribution is valued, and they get a clear record of what has been discussed, allowing people to build on each others contributions.
4. Make sure everyone gets to speak
It is also the job of the facilitator to make sure everybody gets to speak. This is vital because people can be more apprehensive about jumping with a point during an online discussion. We miss the cues of body language which tell us when it’s ok to speak.
Because we timebox our exercises, we like to remind people that if they’ve been speaking for more than two or three minutes during an exercise, it’s probably time to let someone else get their turn. Our facilitators help with this, every breakout group gets a facilitator.
5. Recording helps to capture detail
Recording workshop sessions is a useful way to ensure no detail is lost and it takes pressure off facilitators to capture everything on the whiteboard in real time. The facilitator/scribe focuses on capturing key points in a way that aids discussion, and the recording can be used for more detailed understanding later. Of course, we always make participants aware that they are being recorded, and that those recordings will be deleted once notes are taken.
Enhancing Inclusion & Collaboration
We have found that a fundamental benefit of holding workshops online is their enhanced accessibility. Online meetings allow people to join from anywhere. People’s tight schedules can be better accommodated travel is eliminated and it’s easier to convince participants to join a workshop session from the comfort of their own desk.
In recent experience, disabled persons wishing to join a project much preferred the online option – where we could design the workshop to maximise inclusion and participation.
This easier access to the workshop means we can achieve a key goal – enabling people to work together who might not ordinarily meet in their day-to-day roles. For service design, this collaboration is essential, as “it takes a village” – many people working together to deliver a service.
There’s still a strong case for in-person
While holding workshops digitally has certainly revealed unforeseen benefits, there is still a strong case to be made for holding in-person workshops. This is especially the case when it comes to ideation sessions, as it is hard to recreate the energy and spontaneity of a good face-to-face brainstorm in an online setting. Getting everybody standing up and moving around a room is in itself a great way to encourage idea generation, and this isn’t really possible when everyone is logged on online.
Just like the old days…
Above all, good practice for online workshops similar to what’s required for great in-person workshops. You need a well thought through agenda, with exercises timed so that facilitators know when to close discussions. Always leave some time to spare too!
Where necessary, the use of breakout rooms will help to allow for closer discussion between participants, but we always make sure there is opportunity to share what was discussed in the main room. This means participants don’t miss out on potentially valuable points from other groups.
Lastly, we have learned that when conducting workshops like this, many participants appreciate a follow-up with updates of outcomes or developments, so that they can understand how their input impacted the project.
If your organisation is facing a tricky challenge, or the need to understand how a service works across it’s many delivery teams, get in touch!