How to Preserve Design Thinking Best Practices In a Remote Work World

In-person meetings are central to the design thinking process. But nobody’s doing anything in person these days. So what exactly does that mean for teams that rely on the vigorous exchange of ideas and contributions from others, when we’re all doing work separately in our homes?


By Mike Storey

Design thinking best practices flow naturally out of in-person workshops where every team member contributes. Thanks to technology, we can still connect and engage virtually, even when we can’t all sit in a room together. But the process isn’t quite as organic online as it is face to face.

The good news, however, is that it’s still possible. It’s going to take a little bit of adaptation, but after all, that’s what design thinking is all about.

At Worthwhile, we have been conducting remote meetings and design thinking workshops with clients and team members in other locations for several years now, and we’ve ramped up those discussion sessions over the past couple of months.

We’ve found that by transitioning the underlying principles of design thinking to an online environment and using tools like Mural and Zoom, we can still maintain collaborative contribution and engagement. Here’s what we’ve learned about using these and other tools to preserve the essence of design thinking in an online context.

Design Thinking at a Distance

Central to the philosophy of design thinking is the idea that contributions from all team members are the best way to drive innovation and a robust exchange of ideas. The vehicle for accomplishing this goal traditionally is an in-person workshop, a standard process, and tools to keep everything concise and on track.

When we can’t meet together physically, we have to adapt that underlying philosophy to a remote environment. Team members will need to be fluent in design thinking concepts, and we will need to facilitate contribution and interaction with tools that provide the same benefits as an in-person workshop.

Practically, that means no matter what tools you use, you will need to modify some of your practices to optimize workshops and contributions.

Let’s take a look at how this plays out in a standard design thinking workshop.

Design Thinking in a Digital Workspace

Online design thinking workshop using Mural

At Worthwhile, we use a digital workspace tool called Mural to facilitate our design thinking workshops. Mural transfers the 3M sticky note idea online to help teams collaborate and innovate in a visual context. We love it because we can maintain the standard design thinking loop, even though we’re working at a distance.

While Mural offers some excellent workspace tools and options, moving collaboration online still presents some challenges. For example, it can be difficult to stick to the timeline or operate within the same space constraints. Here are a few things we’ve found helpful:

  • Remember the Loop – Conduct meetings just as you would an in-person design thinking workshop, following the Observe-Reflect-Make loop. Don’t allow yourself to fall out of the loop as you transition to online processes. For example, follow a strict timeline and be sure to make a decision before closing out the session.
  • Replicate your environment – As closely as possible, replicate your physical environment within the mural. Use an agenda, parking lot, voting, playback, etc. based on the type of workshop you are conducting. For example, for a Needs Workshop, you might set up space for playback, personas, vocabulary, needs statements, questions/assumptions, research, parking lot, and feedback.

  • Keep ideas concise with small sticky notes – In an in-person meeting you get a sticky note and a sharpie. The limited space forces you to keep contributions short and to the point. In Mural, however, you don’t have those space limitations and it’s very tempting to write too much. In that context, you will need to reinforce the goal of boiling ideas down to their core and keeping them concise with small stickies. Tip: When moving from one exercise to the next, leave stickies where they are and duplicate them for the next step rather than moving them. This allows you to rewrite the duplicates while preserving your history in the original.

  • Use a timer – Use Mural’s timer tool to lay out your timeline and keep meetings on track. In a remote context, it’s much more tempting to deviate from the process, so you’ll need to be intentional about planning time limits for each phase of the loop.

  • Stay on schedule with a Parking Lot – Use the parking lot concept to table ideas not related to the discussion. You can create parking lots within Mural to collect questions and assumptions that need more research and make a list of follow-up action items.

  • Incorporate scribing – At the beginning of the workshop, identify three volunteers for scribing:

  1. Parking Lot – When discussions veer off topic this person calls time and places a sticky in the parking lot for follow-up after the workshop.

  2. Questions & Assumptions – This person listens for things that you need to research and captures it in the form of a Question or Assumption. Leaders and facilitators will build their research work plans based on this information.

  3. Hills – This person listens for new big ideas and identifies the meaningful outcomes that will become a new Hill in the Roadmap. The goal is to keep innovation continuous but not disruptive, so seek to capture the idea and move on.

  • Use pseudo-anonymity to encourage contribution – With pseudo-anonymity, contributors can post ideas with no identifying details attached. This makes it easier to contribute by creating a level playing field for ideas.

  • Close by collecting feedback – Close the session with feedback from contributors. This exercise will only include the Observe activity. Leaders and facilitators can reflect on the feedback and make adjustments to processes afterward.

Make the Most of Video Meetings

Remote worker on video call at home

Many of us are feeling burned out on Zoom these days. While video conferencing is a great tool for conducting meetings and keeping everyone connected, it can also be challenging due to the technology barrier. Still, a study by Dr. Margaret Neale of Stanford Business School showed that virtual meetings are just as effective as meetings where everyone is physically present. That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that there are some pitfalls to Zoom meetings – problems like not being able to effectively read non-verbal communication, unequal contribution, and the fact that time creep is easier in a virtual environment.  

So what can you do to work around these issues? Here are a few tips:

  • Set an expectation for contribution – When you’re conducting the meeting online, it might be easy for one person to take the lead and do all the talking. If you set expectations ahead of time, however, it encourages everyone to contribute. You can also do this in a round table format where everyone has a set amount of time to offer input.
  • Use online tools to encourage collaboration – For example, use a digital white board to collect ideas or a brainstorming tool to organize facts, manage lists, and structure concepts.
  • Plan for time lags – Things take longer online, so plan for more time to facilitate everyone’s contributions, deal with comments and “raised hands,” and incorporate transitions.
  • Use the breakout feature – Zoom has a breakout feature that allows the host to break the call into multiple groups, but still access and participate with each group. Breaking into smaller groups reduces time lags, gives people more time to share ideas, and encourages multiple contributions.
  • Use a collaborative document – Collecting ideas on a collaborative document is a great way to give everyone the opportunity to provide input. This can be done anonymously and facilitates more feedback in a short time.

Forging New Paths for Remote Work

We don’t know what the future holds in terms of shelter-in-place timelines. What we do know is that remote work is quickly becoming a staple of today’s workforce. Even when our offices and corporate buildings open up again, we’ll still be interacting with remote team members and we’ll need to make sure those meetings are as productive and collaborative as possible.

Both today and in the future, we will still need to accomplish the same goals. We’re just doing it in a new environment. Tools like Mural and Zoom will help teams bridge that gap, but we will also need to establish new cultural norms that help us work together productively, no matter where we happen to be.

Mike Storey
Mike is the Senior Solutions Architect at Worthwhile and is an advocate for Worthwhile’s Design Thinking practice. With over 30 years in software engineering and IT operations, he has a passion for helping our customers innovate.
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