There's a palpable sense of anxiety in the recent global shift to home working. Both managers and workers are feeling the loss of the benefits of in-person gatherings, such as meetings, workshops, and casual chats. In the user experience (UX) industry, the loss seems all the more urgent. Some have argued that design and research workshops are irreparably hobbled by the requirement to conduct them remotely. Workshop facilitators are forced to use "whiteboarding" tools such as Miro or Figma, which provide online collaboration with real-time edits.
Participants who may be shy about drawing may find that the constraints imposed by the tools are beneficial.
As a UX practitioner who runs weekly workshops, this is what I've been doing. Miro has replaced both the space and materials within my workshops. But replaced isn't quite the right word. What I've noticed happening is different from the phased, turn-taking workshops that require a great deal of thought and preparation of tangible materials. Instead, a new form of collaborative activity is taking place. This different activity sees new dimensions in how participants relate to one another, as well as to workshop materials. These new dimensions are brought about fully because workshops are now conducted via computers, which intrinsically bring with them computer-mediated benefits.
It is true, however, that online workshops have lost out on much of the paralanguage from participants—the emotive and gestural communication we take for granted in person. I have found that the benefits brought about by computer-mediated workshops do not fill in for paralanguage; rather, they enhance remote workshops in ways that are lacking in in-person workshops. They also correct for challenges that appear endemic to how we have traditionally run workshops.
|Miro is one of several collaborative whiteboarding tools used in online workshops.|
So how exactly does the structure of online, computer-mediated workshops allow for a newly beneficial experience?
First, online workshops have very low barriers to entry. Donald Schon argued that design is a conversation with materials . In design workshops, facilitators will often enact this idea by getting users to sketch, group Post-its, or play with a fungible material such as LEGO or clay. The tangibility of these materials can be very effective at embodying thought and catalyzing new ideas, yet it can be difficult for nondesigners—or those who are anxious or shy—to participate. The relationship of the participant to the materials of a workshop is a challenging one; there is very little one can do to increase the ability of an in-person workshop participant.
But with collaborative whiteboarding tools such as Miro, Figma, or even Google Draw, users can copy and paste text, group items, and even sketch out wireframes using very basic point, click, and drag interactions. The barrier to entry of these tools is extremely low for anyone with basic computer literacy. Applied creativity can quickly become enhanced. While these online interactions lack the haptics of in-person workshops, they have the advantage of simplicity and extreme flexibility and scalability for anyone with basic computer knowledge. Copying, resizing, and modifying are all mere clicks away. What's more, participants who may be shy about drawing may find that the constraints imposed by the tools (e.g., all boxes look the same for every user) are beneficial, as they iron out differences in the various skill levels of participants—at least for basic sketches.
A second point is that online tools allow participants to be embodied in the design practice in an immediate way that is not possible with in-person workshops. Design researcher Nigel Cross discusses  three different phases of design—gathering information, sketching, and reflecting—as part of Schon's "conversation with materials." In in-person workshops, this can be a relatively laborious activity. Thinking and doing phases are sharply distinguished. Indeed, there are often precise note-taking, sketching, grouping, and analyzing phases, meaning it can be challenging for participants to immediately act on collective feedback or new, emergent thoughts the participants themselves may have.
But this conversation with materials becomes highly sharpened in online tools, as participants can switch between these phases extremely quickly. Participants group, annotate, and sketch while allowing everyone else to see what they are doing, and immediately reflect on completed activities. Their actions are embodied within the tools in a way in which it is little effort to engage and disengage in different activities. I recently ran a persona workshop where each participant was able to place notes against each persona, then immediately openly reflect with the group on what they were doing, without mandated turn-taking or phases. In this way, it's not just the relationship to the materials that is enhanced, but also the relationship participants have to one another.
A third point is related to the above—the tools themselves are structured with a high degree of freedom. In other words, the structure of the tools does not enforce or imply a workflow or conceptual structure for organizing information. In his book The Stuff of Bits, Paul Dourish describes how the properties of software constrain, enable, limit, and shape the way those representations can be created, transmitted, stored, and manipulated . He discusses how Excel (which, in my experience, is extensively used for research and design tasks) defines what workers are committing to, how the information must be structured, and the level of granularity of the information. However, with new tools such as Miro and Figma, there is no structure—the workspaces constitute an infinite, empty canvas on which users can add anything: screenshots, text, shapes, and so on. While constraints can be helpful for creativity, here they need not be mandated by the software's materiality, as happened so commonly in older tools, but rather can be imposed by a facilitator to induce creativity. As such, workshops that use these tools can oftentimes have as much creative freedom as in-person workshops.
Finally, the sensemaking attributes of remote workshops are much higher than in-person workshops. Sensemaking, loosely defined here as finding conceptual frameworks for information, is expedited in online tools by allowing participants to perform any number of actions on workshop artifacts to increase their understanding. A participant may zoom in and out on communal sketches or diagrams, or may even copy artifacts elsewhere for them to play around with. In other words, the sensemaking is highly personalized and subjective. While the objective of workshops is to form a consensus around information, facilitating individualized sensemaking can help users contribute to a group-level sensemaking consensus. In this way, workshop participants are able to make sense of the workshop materials in their own way, but also convey that "sense" to other participants.
In addition to these benefits, it's interesting to investigate new social practices that emerge through the necessity to conduct workshops online. I have noticed, for example, that workshops don't necessarily need to "finish." Because an online canvas stays visible and usable to all participants, workshop artifacts can act more as living documents rather than defined outputs. This may result in changes of expectations of what a workshop's outputs are, and, indeed, what workshops themselves are.
Roles in workshops can change too. For example, participants can be tasked with doing other helpful exercises that involve a computer. Quickly finding inspirational material on the Web and pasting relevant information on a communal canvas is an activity that could easily be assigned to a participant during the workshop. These activities need not necessarily be done prior to the workshop.
In some ways, it can be argued that we are trapped by Covid-19. And in many ways we are. We simply can't be physically next to each other, and it is impossible to compensate for the interpersonal benefits that are intrinsic to in-person workshops. Any attempt to replicate the feeling of sitting next to someone in a workshop is bound to be a poor imitation. But intellectually and creatively, it's important to examine how the digital tools we have developed for design and research open new avenues for creation and analysis, and don't just act as a lesser replacement for being able to sit next to another person.
Vikram Singh is the head of UX at Lightful in London. He has an M.Sc. in human-centered systems from City, University of London and regularly writes about technology and how we interact with it. firstname.lastname@example.org
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