Facilitating remote collaborative meetings

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When working at a large enterprise, teams are sometime dispersed across long distances. This makes running meetings a nightmare, especially if the meeting is meant to be  grounded in Design Thinking methodology, filled with divergent and convergent sticky note activities.  The video bellow nails the awkwardness of conference calls.  If you participate in this type of meeting, I am sure you will be able to relate.

Over the past year I’ve experimented with a variety of approaches to remote facilitation of collaborative design workshops, that you’d typically find in organization that do “design thinking” activities. Bellow are some of my experiences, as well as some of the products that came out of a discussion i had at a recent Lean Enterprise Unconferance.

Video Conferencing

I tend to prefer video conferencing for our work in a variety of application.  Video tends to help most individuals get past some of the conference call etiquette which creates experience much like video portrays above.  It is also great for team culture to allow remote individuals to put a face to their team members voice.

1-mt4lOfZQXhZlSpXBBFyUkQThe products that I see most useful do both video conferencing and screen sharing. I’ve used Apple FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts and WebEx.  I tend to prefer WebEx, for it’s recording, integrated polling features and allowing me to export a video file, but either option will be helpful in most circumstance.

An additional use cases that we’ve used video conferencing for are trying to have remote participants collaborate on prioritization activities using sticky notes (shown in the image provided). The experience was better than attempting to do the same activity without using the webcam, however we ran into some issue with the webcam autofocusing making the image blurry at times.  I’ve seen similar attempt using mobile phones and applications like Apple FaceTime.

Screen Sharing

The other usecase which Skype, Google Hangouts and WebEx excel is screen sharing. This feature allows for one user to broadcast their screen so others could see.  Slack, a popular messaging application also recently acquired ScreenHero, and will soon be a contender in the space.

Screen sharing apps are great for is running remote user tests.  In these activities we invite participant to go through specific task and “think-aloud” in our software, while sharing their screen.The video feature is helpful in allowing us to spot facial cues for confusion or excitement which would be lost on a purely audio medium.  Video also serves as method of making the customer development side of the interview a bit more personal and human, which allows for our interviewers to make a better connection with the participants.

Telepresence

VideoConference-1In larger organization, it is quite possible that the office has a specific conference room which is used for telepresence. Telepresence refers to a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, or to give the appearance of being present, at a place other than their true location.  I’d summarize it as a virtual extension of the conference table.

Although telepresence would probably work well in most traditional meetings, it has fallen short when trying to run design meetings which included collaborative design focused activities like affinity mapping, which require heavy use of sticky notes.  A survey of a previous meeting that i did using this medium noted that although the remote conference room had some interesting dialog in the the room itself, the facilitation of the meeting didn’t translate well, and they felt a bit like second class citizens.

Virtual workspaces

Both solutions above have their advantages, however when running collaborative brainstorming style activities, people outside of the primary location where the facilitator is located tend to feel like “second class citizens”, not getting as much attention.  We’ve used a variety of solutions with varying success.

Google Drive

Google Drive, has a sweet of collaborative application, such as Docs, Slides and Spreadsheet.  Here are the usecases that we most commonly use each of them.

Google Doc works pretty good when we are doing user interviewing and have multiple remote notetakers.  Each person taking notes could make quick annotations to make sure we get a good summary of the interview.

Google Spreadsheet has worked well for transcribing post-its in a place where remote teams could work with.  This includes things like marking a piece of insight into a predefined category like bug, proposed solution or problem.  The drawbacks are less around the collaboration, but on the rigidness of the a spreadsheet.

Google Slides has been our go to product for allow our remote teams to collaborate on presentations which are required artifacts for our “design sprint” process.  In the past one person took on this responsibility, but it goes much faster if it is a group effort.  It is also a great opportunity to make sure that everyone in the group has a shared understanding of the results.

Virtual Sticky-notes

In an effort to try to best mimic the experiences of in-person “design thinking” style activities, we’ve experimented with a couple interesting solutions.


Screen_Shot_2014-09-17_at_3-300x208Stormboard was our first attempt.  This product was extremely helpful in allowing a group that where all located in different parts of the country to participate with the physical group in NY. I was able to create virtual whiteboards which remote participants are able to log into and add in virtual stickies. As a facilitator, it was helpful to look at the boards in real time to make sure they where on the right path and understood the instruction, and to redirect them if necessary. One of issues I had with this product however was an odd cost structure which was difficult for me to budget for, and I also didn’t like how I wasn’t able to easily create my own board styles easily.  What I did like, which other options don’t have is a quick way to produce a report based on where stickies are placed.


Screen_Shot_2015-05-26_at_2-300x184Mural.ly is a similar solution, but has some additional features which proved to be quite helpful.  I really liked the ability to quickly add an image to the board. For example the color coded board i uploaded into the product on the left.  This style board is an internal prioritization strategy that we’ve used in the past.

Mural.ly also provides the user with tools like arrows and simple shapes which allows the facilitator to make do additional visualizations which would be difficult to do with purely post-it notes. An example of this is the radial diagram in the image which served the purpose of converging various themes that emerged during a divergent activity, to create a visual representation that was ingestible.

Both software packages have some interesting features. I’d suggest trying both and seeing which is a better fit.

Quick image sharing

During many of our sessions the remote team will be asked to visually portray their ideas. Some common activities would be “Crazy 8’s”/6-8-5 or rapid storyboarding.  Previously, if we are using video conferencing the team member would simply put the paper they drew on in front of the webcam, leading to a pretty clumsy explanation of the drawing as the member periodically poked his/her head from behind the paper to make sure they where pointing in the right area of the paper.

An easy solution to this was having each member take a photo of the paper and upload the image to a cloud based application like Google Drive, Dropbox or Evernote. if the member has these on their phone, it is as easy as a couple clicks to have a shareable URL for your team. My preference for this is Evernote based solely on its Document Camera and Post-it features, which works great with Sharpie drawings.

Polling

Depending on the size of your group, there may be a need to do some sort of polling. You might see this need in any decision that might need group consensus.  Many of the products above offer some sort of solution to this. For example WebEx has polling feature, but it is pretty limited on the question types.  Both Stormboard and Mural.ly also allow for virtual dot voting which is also very helpful if you are trying to replicate that activity. In the past however, I’ve had to come up with edge case situations that required additional requirements. An example of this is was being tasked with making a presentation to about 80 participants, 50 of which where remote across the country.  During the presentation I wanted to see how closely the business prioritization of problems matched the prioritization of the targeted users.  The targeted user values where calculated using a forced ranking activity from a series of in-person individual and group interviews.  To deal with 80 remote users I created a survey on SurveyGizmo, using their ranking question.  This worked really well and the responses where available immediately for discussion.

Conclusion

All of the aforementioned products are great, but your organization’s individual needs will dictate which may or may not work.  Since this post was mainly about remote collaborative meetings, and not simply remote collaboration, I’ve left out messaging application, although most of the application I use show up in other sections for their video and screen sharing capabilities. If you know of any other products that I should check out please share!

 

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Alex Britez

Alex Britez is a product designer, full stack developer and maker. Currently Alex is the Director of Digital Innovation of Macmillan Higher Education.

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