Alternatives to In-Person UX Workshops for Remote Working

Designers have embraced UX workshops as a way of fostering collaboration and creative thinking. But in a world of self-isolation and remote working, we will need to adapt.

From customer journey mapping to design sprints, designers have found UX workshops invaluable. They have proved instrumental in stakeholder engagement, collaborative working, and raising the profile of design, not to mention producing outstanding solutions.

However, the Coronavirus has changed things, probably permanently. For many of us, I suspect, remote working will come to play a much more significant role and so our working practices will need to adapt.

Unfortunately, one of the big mistakes I see people making with remote working (and UX workshops in particular) is trying to replicate the in-person experience remotely. For example, I recently came across this article trying to replicate design sprints remotely.

Although I can understand the desire to replicate in-person UX workshops remotely, in my experience, it leads to frustration. The remote version is never as good as the in-person experience.

Why Do Remote UX Workshops Tend to Fail

Perhaps it is just me, but communication via video conferencing tools generally sucks, but particularly so in the context of a UX workshop.

Conference calls rarely go smoothly

Every call seems to kick off with two minutes of people asking whether everybody can hear them. After that, there is inevitable lag, dropouts and audio that occasionally turns everybody into Daleks.

On top of that, you will get an echo from that person who is not wearing headphones, and background noise from that other person who has toddlers running around the house.

The result is that it is often hard to hear people and the whole experience is plagued with communication problems.

Quieter people tend to sit on mute most of the call, leaving one or two individuals to dominate the conversion.

Then there is the learning curve that often goes with UX workshop collaboration tools. Anybody can pick up a sharpie and sketch an idea. However, many of the virtual whiteboarding tools and alike, are much harder for the less tech-savvy colleagues to pick up.

Miro is often used for UX workshops
Online collaboration tools like Miro are impressive, but they come with a learning curve.

So instead of just replicating a UX workshop online, let’s step back and ask what makes an in-person UX workshop valuable in the first place.

Why Are UX Workshops Are So Helpful?

If we are to find alternatives to in-person workshops, we need to understand what value they provide.

As I see it, UX workshops help in three ways.

  • They encourage collaboration.
  • They educate and engage stakeholders.
  • They allow for the fast iteration towards a possible solution.

So our aim should not necessarily be to replicate UX workshops remotely, but instead to achieve these benefits, even if that means adopting a different approach.

An Alternative Approach to Remote UX Workshops

If I am honest, I am not convinced any of us have worked out how to extract the same value from online as we do from face to face UX workshops. However, there are some things I have been trying that seem to go some way to help.

For a start, at the beginning of a project, I find polls and surveys can be a useful way of gathering feedback from stakeholders and end-users.

Heavier Use of Polls and Surveys

Polls and surveys have the advantage of being asynchronous. In other words, you don’t have to find the time when everybody can meet.

Second, you can control the type of feedback you get, ensuring you don’t waste time debating what shade of blue you adopt.

Finally, you can consult far wider than perhaps you would otherwise do, ensuring that you have as much buy-in as possible.

One area where I make particular use of polls and surveys is around the identification and prioritisation of critical factors in a project. For example, what are our business objectives or audiences? Which of those objectives or audiences are most important to us?

I usually achieve this using a tool like Tricider that allows people to submit an idea and others to vote that idea up if they agree with it and think it is a priority.

Tricider is useful for voting
Tricider allows users to make suggestions and vote on the suggestions of others.

That said, a survey is never going to make people feel as engaged as a UX workshop, which is why it might be worth scheduling some interviews with key stakeholders.

Interviews Over Workshops

Although video conferencing tools begin to fail when working with groups of people, they are still excellent on a one-to-one basis, and so I tend to use them for stakeholder interviews.

I find that speaking to stakeholders individually is an excellent way of exploring specific issues, keeping them engaged and getting their buy-in.

It is better than most workshops because it makes each stakeholder feel valued, enables you to tailor the conversation to their viewpoint and helps you keep control of the project’s direction as you are the only person with all the feedback.

I also use one-to-one interviews for carrying out qualitative research, that often provides far more in-depth insights than a UX workshop.

In short, for engaging stakeholders and doing user research, I would favour interviews over workshops anyway. Also, scheduling these calls has become so much more straightforward with tools like Calendly.

Calendly
Calendly makes scheduling stakeholder interviews painless.

That said, once the work begins, you will need to switch approach to ensure stakeholders continue to feel engaged.

An Open and Collaborative Working Environment

One of the downsides of your typical UX workshop is that although they do a great job at engaging and collaborating with stakeholders in the short term, they then end and contact is lost.

Ideally, we want to keep stakeholders engaged throughout the project. Not only does this enable us to flush out any problems early, but it also means that the stakeholder doesn’t experience long periods when they don’t see you making progress.

With that in mind, I would recommend creating an environment where stakeholders can see work as you develop it.

What exactly this looks like will depend on the status of the project. However, it might involve access to wireframes using a tool like Balsamiq or Invision. Equally, it could mean us hosting mood boards and branding work on something like Frontify or user research on Aurelius Labs.

Invision
Tools like Invision are great for keeping stakeholders informed about progress.

Whatever tools we use matters less than the ability of stakeholders to see work as you are producing it.

However, showing stakeholders work in progress is dangerous if we are not always communicating well with them.

An Emphasis on Communication

One of the reasons stakeholders love UX workshops is because they know what is going on. They feel involved. However, that feeling quickly passes.

A better approach is to bake ongoing communication into every stage of a project. That is particularly important when stakeholders are not “in the room” for whatever reason.

Again, there is no shortage of tools for this from Slack to Jira. However, I often find that a weekly or fortnightly email update is often the best way of keeping stakeholders in the loop.

Whatever mechanism you use, you must explain where work is at, the thinking behind the direction you are adopting and the kind of feedback you require at that stage.

That last factor is particularly important and is often when I come back to surveys. Surveys allow you to ask for structured feedback and avoid stakeholders expressing their personal opinions on design aesthetic!

We Are Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Look, I don’t have all of the answers in regards to carrying out UX workshops remotely. However, what I am sure of is that merely trying to replicate an in-person UX workshop online is not the right approach.

When we try to transpose the workshop online, we are focusing on the wrong thing. We are focusing on the workshop, not what it delivers.

I am coming across this problem a lot recently. I am seeing a lot of UX designers becoming obsessed with the tool, rather than the deliverable. Not every project needs a design sprint; not every project needs a workshop.

As remote working becomes the default for many teams, we need to accept that we will need to let go of what worked in the past and start exploring alternatives that deliver similar outcomes.

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