Blog / Put away your fancy tools: running remote workshops for humans

May 28, 2020

During the last few months we’ve all had to make adjustments and working remotely has certainly brought with it a number of challenges. At Unboxed, we place a lot of value on participatory design, and we try to involve our clients and users of their services in everything we do. But running a workshop remotely can seem like a daunting task even for experienced facilitators.

Many good posts have already been written about how to run great remote workshops and my inbox has been flooded with emails from software companies like Miro, Mural, Invision, and others, eager to onboard more users to their remote design tools. A lot of this advice is excellent and collaborative online tools have some great features, but often adding too much into the mix can make it difficult for our participants to join in.

It’s worth keeping in mind the context that our participants might find themselves in:

  • Many of our clients don’t have access to certain remote tools due to restrictions of their corporate IT policies;
  • It’s likely that there will be participants in your workshop who aren’t using the latest Macbook Pro, so software performance might vary;
  • Tools that participants are not familiar with always come with a learning curve, taking their focus away from listening and sharing with others;
  • On top of all this, everyone will have to deal with distractions that come with working from home under less than ideal conditions.


A simple remote workshop that works for everyone

I believe it’s impossible to define a one-size-fits-all approach to workshops. Each workshop should be fit for the context and the needs of participants. In all cases, however, keeping things simple will make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable and participate equally and fully.

I recently facilitated a remote workshop for our project with Buckinghamshire Council. I knew that some participants would have restricted access to certain collaborative tools. I also wasn’t sure whether they’ve had experience participating in similar events before or not. When thinking about what technology to use, I really wanted something that would work for everyone. The council has also recently started using Microsoft Teams as their chosen video conferencing solution. While this might not be ideal for a workshop scenario, I knew that everyone would already be used to it.


Google Slide deck before and after the session Google Slide deck before and after the session – feel free to copy the example slide


I also really wanted to use a platform for visual collaboration and decided to go with Google Slides. I knew that most participants would be able to access it and have likely used it before. I prepared a deck in advance, with instructions for simple ‘sticky note’ exercises and shared the link at the start of the session. I created sticky notes (or rather yellow squares) in advance, to make it easy for participants to jump straight in and start writing. At the end of some exercises I copied a number of ‘voting dots’ on the page and asked participants to ‘vote’ by moving the dots to notes of their choosing.

All of this worked really well, as we didn’t have to spend time learning how to ‘create’ sticky notes, how to zoom in and out, or do other things that you can do with more sophisticated collaboration tools. Using visual metaphors like sticky notes or voting dots made it easy to understand what to do in each exercise. And in the end, doing all of this in Google Slides made it incredibly easy to share the outputs with participants after the session.


Google Slide deck before and after the session The output of the workshop is a slide deck that’s ‘ready to share’


Find what works for you and your participants

There are many excellent collaborative tools out there. If you and your participants feel comfortable using them, they can offer a great collaborative experience. I really like Zoom’s breakout rooms or Miro’s infinite wall space, for example. But I find that it’s often the simplest technological setups that work best.

With a bit of imagination, a lot can be achieved even just over a simple video call. And when even that fails – due to a slow internet connection, for example – talking to your participants on the phone is much better than not being able to talk to them at all.


Google Slide deck before and after the session Even sketching can be done remotely, no need to overcomplicate