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Getting into Remote Design Thinking with MURAL

Written by 
Laïla von Alvensleben
December 15, 2015

We’ve already talked about how we started to get into design thinking and how we went from understanding and defining problems to designing prototypes and testing them. But a few weeks ago, the biggest challenge was yet to come.

We didn’t go all the way to Buenos Aires just to have a great team retreat and get to know each other better. We also went because we wanted push ourselves into a new territory that has rarely been explored before: how to do design thinking remotely.

The first two days of our 4-day workshop were essential to give us the fundamental structure and tools for what was yet to come. Since Hanno’s team is usually distributed between Malaysia, Indonesia, Spain, Hungary, England and Russia, the next step was to figure out how to use those tools when we would be geographically apart once again.

Pushing the Limits of Visual Collaboration

When teams apply design thinking to solve a problem, they commonly work in the same room and make the most of the space that surrounds them because almost all surfaces are ideal for generating ideas, especially on sticky notes.

Post-Its on a wall

Design thinking requires a lot of visual thinking to share and clarify ideas but sometimes sticky notes are not enough, so whiteboards and flip-charts are also used to develop ideas in more detail. The question is:

How can a team that is geographically distributed collaborate visually if they’re not in the same space?

Since remote teams work and communicate on computers, their shared space is limited to their screens. To collaborate visually, some teams share their screens on video chat applications like Skype and Google Hangouts. The problem with this is that a viewer can only look at the shared screen but can’t interact with it and it only shows one person’s screen at a time.

Some remote workers I spoke to prefer using real post-its and flip charts when they work (wherever that may be) and share their work with the team by taking pictures which they send by email or chat, or sometimes they even film themselves with a webcam as they do their visual thinking on paper or on a wall. However, a photo of sticky notes is too static to collaborate on as a team therefore defeating the purpose of using sticky notes, and a webcam has to be constantly adjusted in order to capture everything that is posted on a wall.

What remote teams actually need are large-scale virtual spaces to use visual thinking together. Currently, there are very few online tools that replicate the experience that’s similar to what a real space would offer, like MURAL.

Virtual sticky notes on Murally
Virtual sticky notes on MURAL

One of these that does get close to what you’d get from a real space is MURAL, a cloud-based platform that runs on desktop browsers. It acts as a huge, zoomable wall on which users can use virtual sticky notes as well as add images, videos, arrows, labels, and text. All of these elements can be dragged, dropped and clustered, just like they would on a real wall. It allows multiple users to collaborate simultaneously and it includes templates for many typical design thinking exercises.

Luckily for us, MURAL is based in Buenos Aires, so we got to meet their incredible team and even had the option of working from their office space during our workshop.

Putting It All Into Action

When our design thinking coach gave us a new task to work on remotely for two days, we split into two teams and set ourselves up to try and replicate a remote environment. We were staying in a 3-storey house, so each team member found a space away from the other members of his team. I decided I would work with a different team each day so that I could get insights from observing everyone at work, while also going through the remote design thinking experience myself.

Our brief was to “Redesign the remote working experience for teams in a world where people feel isolated and/or disconnected from each other.”

This was a topic we could somehow relate to since we have either experienced it ourselves, or know other remote workers who have felt isolated. To solve the brief, we were going to go through the 6-step design process that we had learnt the same week: Understand, Observe, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.

To start with, once we were all connected online, each team created a channel to communicate on Slack and also started a Skype call to talk through their design process. None of us had ever used MURAL before so we didn’t really know what to expect.

A Bumpy Start

The first hours were far from being perfectly smooth. Everyone was experimenting with MURAL and trying to figure out how to start applying the 6-steps of the design thinking process but due to the novelty of it, especially in a virtual context, progress was very slow.

Laptop with Murally on the screen, moving post-it notes
Starting to understand the problem by listing knowns, unknowns and assumptions.

Prior to our workshop, we’d been told to each set up a Skype call with a remote worker for day 1 of the challenge. Now we found out why: this was going to be part of our research to understand the brief. Each team member took some time to interview someone and ask them how they felt when they worked remotely, and then share their feedback with the rest of the team online.

Marcel conducts a Skype video call on his laptop
Marcel and Sergei doing an interview with a remote worker.

We were struggling with technical problems due to a bad internet connection which affected our Skype calls, so eventually the teams had to meet face-to-face to figure out how to proceed. We decided to improvise, and agreed that some members from each team should work from MURAL's office, which was in the same neighborhood.

Team meeting at a table outside
One of the teams was forced to meet face-to-face.

This move improved our process, but by the end of the day there was a general frustration from the experience of doing design thinking online. Personally, I thought it was much more difficult than I had expected it to be, and I felt a little discouraged. I knew from previous experiences at Hyper Island that the design thinking approach can give you a lot of momentum towards solving a problem, when it’s done by a team who are in the same physical space. But I hadn’t felt any of that momentum when we’d been doing it remotely.

Both teams had struggled to transition from doing design thinking on a physical wall to doing it on an online platform, especially because we didn’t have the time to get to grips with MURAL and we lacked a general structure to follow as a team. Besides, we had only been using the tools that our coach had given us since two days so we still need to learn how to master them in the design process.

Then, Things Started to Look Up

That all changed the next morning, when Hanno received an exceptional introduction on how to use MURAL from Emilia on the MURAL team. She facilitates MURAL's onboarding sessions for designers, consultants, facilitators and agencies. She took the time to show us all of MURAL's awesome features, like adding links to a mural or using the voting feature to synthesize our ideas. We also discovered we could capture content with the MURAL app and send it directly to a shared mural. This was definitely a turning point for all of us because we suddenly had a better understanding of all the functions that MURAL could perform to replicate the design process on a virtual wall.

The team in a conference room with laptops
Getting ready for the webinar at MURAL

With these new learnings in mind, we continued to work on solving the brief and gradually made progress as we moved on to ideating, prototyping and testing. Since design thinking is a non-linear process, we were constantly moving from ideation to testing to further ideation using the brainstorming and rapid prototyping methods we had learnt from Hiong. Our ideas were displayed visually on MURAL while we switched between Slack and Skype to communicate. Although all the teams were physically in the same office, they were strict about only communicating to each other online, in order to authentically imitate a ‘remote’ environment. Due to tight time restrictions, the process sometimes felt like a rushed experiment with many trials and errors. Here’s a quick glimpse of Hanno’s team working on MURAL.

Getting Down to Testing

The ideating part was relatively easy to do on MURAL with the help of virtual sticky notes, but each team then had to figure out how to test their prototypes remotely. The options were:

  • Create a prototype that could be shareable online and find a user to test it with on Skype
  • Create a tangible prototype that could be tested with someone that was sharing the same space as a team member

One team decided they would go for the first option, so they contacted a remote worker to test it on Skype by showing them their idea online and asking them questions for feedback.

Meanwhile the other team tested their idea with Emilia, who often uses MURAL to work remotely with her own team. Since she was in the same space as Arnas, his team decided he should test their product with her. Their concept was an app to help remote workers meet up when they arrive in a new city. Rather than building a digital prototype, they tested the concept by using role-playing.

As a result, both teams managed to obtain valuable feedback, despite the fact that they were only collaborating with their teammates remotely.

Emilia playing the role of a remote worker meeting Arnas for the first time.
Emilia playing the role of a remote worker meeting Arnas for the first time.

The Challenges of Remote Design Thinking

Using the design thinking process remotely took longer than expected so there wasn’t enough time for each team to iterate on their ideas much further. At the end of the project, we discussed some of the major problems we had struggled with:

  • It’s difficult to feel like you’re equally contributing to the process when two members of a team are paired up in the same space and one member is remote.
  • We needed Hiong (our coach) to facilitate the process because we didn’t feel comfortable enough to do it ourselves, given our limited experience.
  • Making space for others to share their thoughts and ideas was complicated because we didn’t know whether silence meant that the others had nothing to say or whether they disagreed with something.
  • We didn’t know which tools to use and when to experiment with each of them.
  • Sometimes we lacked the confidence to pitch ideas to the rest of the team while the process was in motion.
  • Without a clear timetable for what came next, it was hard to see the road ahead.
  • Communicating by text on Slack felt frustratingly slow.
  • When somebody said something on a Skype call that required an answer, there was no verbal affirmation from others, which teammates found disconcerting.
  • Body language is hard to interpret online.
  • Committing to time restrictions was tough.
  • Being punctual is important: if you’re going to be late it should be communicated to the rest of the team.
  • Having spent a few days working in physical space, switching to using a mouse on a screen instead of a pen on a wall was hard.
  • Many of the team felt uncomfortable about talking too loudly in a co-working space, if there were other people close by. This made it harder to communicate than when they were together in the same room.
  • Loud noise from other people talking nearby often interfered with the quality of the Skype calls.
  • Many teammates felt the need to have a proper workspace that they felt comfortable  about working in.

Key learnings

Here are some of their main takeaways we came up with after our trying to do design thinking remotely:

  • Use video and audio applications to communicate throughout the process and revert to text chat when calls are not working properly.
  • Use Slack to share links and files with the rest of the team.
  • Always explain what you’re doing on MURAL so that others can understand your thinking process.
  • Give a verbal sign when someone on the team asks for consent: say “yes” or “no” because others might not see if you’re nodding or shaking your head.
  • Work from a quiet environment to ensure that people on a call can hear you.
  • Encourage everyone to contribute their opinions and ideas verbally.
  • Embrace time pressure to come up with creative ideas.
  • Split up to work individually and then come  together online to discuss insights based on research and user testing.
  • Make the most of online tools during user testing: guide them through the process visually and interactively.

After this first attempt at doing design thinking remotely, it will be very interesting to see how we can improve the process in future.

This post originally appeared on the Hanno Logbook. Hanno is a completely distributed design team dedicated to radically transparent remote design.

A special thanks goes to Laïla von Alvensleben for contributing this guest post.

About the author

About the authors

Laïla von Alvensleben

Head of Culture & Collaboration
Laïla is Head of Culture & Collaboration at MURAL. She is also a remote work coach with a background in UX Design, helping distributed teams improve their collaboration practices and cultivate a remote working culture that will enable them to work from anywhere.