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Scaling Design Globally @ the Stanford

Written by 
Mariano Suarez-Battan
February 25, 2015

During the last few weeks I had the pleasure of joining Sam Yep, Chief Design Officer of SAP and a fellow at the Stanford, and his crew, together with Baba Shiv, a great marketing professor from Stanford GSB, in a popup class at the Stanford about Scaling Design Thinking.

It was nice of Sam to invite me I was invited as an “extreme user” given I’m part of a remote team. It’s also safe to say that I’m thinking day and night about the subject so I could share a bit of that obsession. :)

Getting started

Ward Bullard and Alex Scully were in charge of facilitation and running the class. Their energy and humor were always high, and also very aware of timing, a pattern that I always see in great facilitators.

Introductions were very warm, and somewhat funny. After someone said their name (“Hi, I’m Mariano”), everyone replied with a “Hi Mariano” in choir-like coordination.

Warm up exercises

Alex was brilliant in designing and leading warm ups before each session to break the ice and get us ready to go. We even warmed up remotely, without video, which made me think of the need of that time every time we engage in a creative, generative meeting, wherever we might be.

The first one related to being aware of the other person. We set up in a circle and Alex called “you” and made eye contact with another team member. When that person received the message, she had to make eye contact and pass it along to another person until everyone had passed the message. We sucked at the first pass, but got better in the second one, even with some additional speed.

Things got more challenging where in addition to passing along the “you” message, we had to include another pass of including the name of the recipient of the message. Simultaneously with the “you”.

Hard get right, but the ice breaking was successful.

It taught us the need to be aware of the other person and the importance of eye contact when listening to make the other person feel comfortable.

Observation & Empathy

It was great to see the students split up into teams and go to different stations for the interviews. Some where done live (mine), but there were two other ones being conducted online via Google Hangouts… The last one was the one with the most novel style: the interviewers recorded video questions that the person in Germany would reply to, in video, the next day and send them back.

Most students had some experience working remotely, especially Tim Singer from Health Pact, who had done work in Africa where broadband is not that broad. His frustrations with bad connectivity resonated to everyone and it was clear that making remote collaboration “more human” was a key insight that was going to keep coming back.

That being said, they were able to also go deep in the interviews and get the nuggets of the issues that people in big companies deal with daily.

Time zone issues, different energy levels, difficulty in grabbing non-verbal expressions, lag in communications, the complication of being able to have side conversations that lead to new ideas when working live… as well as the lack of serendipitous creativity that just happens at the watercooler or a whiteboard in a cool office space.

Remote Ideation

As part of being really immersed in the problems of remote collaboration, we had a great brainstorming session via high resolution video in SAP’s Telepresence units.

Each team had a whiteboard with Post its that one team member was in charge of documenting. It was hard to get them in synch, but they managed… although the rhythm was not as fast as it could have been.

I tried to document the session in MURAL as the guys were adding stickies on each side of the call and can say that I would have needed someone else to help me out because the rhythm of idea generation was great. MURAL for iPhone would have been handy for some of the folks there.

When I was observing as well as capturing, I realize that a setting like that one, together with a screen with a Mural would be an almost perfect setting. Add a touch screen and folks contributing through their mobile devices and we can say that we can teleport an ideation session.


The team synthesis experience sucked.

Each side of the video call basically engaged with the ideas and started clustering as they thought best. Every few minutes, someone would call out a pattern or cluster that they would have found and tried to describe the combination of ideas, in addition to reading the ideas out again to make sure the guys on the other end would know what they were moving around.

I think that if someone on only one end of the session would have taken the lead, the session would have been better.

It was evident that in addition to the technology, there is a big need to define how the team should work, who the facilitator should be and so on. It’s a people first issue, supported by tech.

I like, I wish, I wonder

After each class, students huddled to provide feedback on the class. They reflected on what they had liked in the session, what they wish that would have happened to make it better (generally related) and ideate a little bit by adding some wonder, also related.

The most interesting session happened after the remote brainstorming class, because it happened on the road. Yes, each car logged into a dial up and each member got to provide their feedback. It was challenging to understand and identify who was talking, really getting deep into one of the main remote collaboration problems.

Prototyping & testing

Most prototypes where low definition and included a lot of acting out the session. It’s really hard to prototype a collaboration software but the teams did really well to combine the props with some storytelling to get people involved in the to-be experience and they got good feedback.

Final presentations

The storytelling component happened in the last class, just after the teams made the final tweaks to the prototypes.

The three groups had interesting ideas. One invented a “t-shirt” aka “wearable device” that could provide touch feedback (read poking, hugging) for non-verbal communication. It would also measure heart rate to monitor engagement and excitement of participants.

The second one was a generative meeting space that would allow folks in different locations to have breakout sessions to build on an idea, without interrupting the rest of the folks in the main session. Really liked Tim and Andrea Carafa's thoughts here.

The third one was an extension to video conferencing too, where you could get anonymous feedback and questions from the audience to tune up your presentation.

My thoughts on the class and the ideas

In general, I personally liked how the teachers and students were involved as peers, how they made a nice blend with business folks from SAP (and myself), and how they included multiple real world devices/software and hardcore scenarios into the design process. I wish we can use MURAL for the next class in September and I wonder if we could sponsor a Microsoft Surface Hub so that students can experience using MURAL in a big touchscreen too.

I definitely liked some elements from the second project related to MURAL:

  1. the possibility to easily split teams and get them their own space to do a quick collaboration in a smaller group (or individual too)
  2. the boost energy button to help the facilitator get feedback that he needs to energize the team before keeping on going
  3. a meeting setup where the organizer/facilitator could invite folks only after she would set the goals and agenda for the meeting. Each person would get the agenda and be asked to introduce themselves in a 30 second video in case someone didn’t know them and also allow others to see it in advance.

Some other ideas that were not used from brainstorming that I liked were the possibility to get stats from a collaboration session, even a short video recap of the best moments of a meeting.

Looking forward

I hope that Sam & team have a full class in September. Remote design collaboration is a problem that I see day to day in distributed teams, mostly in big companies.

Our current mission is to enable remote design collaboration. Glad to learn that smart folks from Stanford will be working on this too. Thank you Sam and Ward! :)

About the author

About the authors

Mariano Suarez-Battan

I run MURAL, where we are making creative teams become better design thinkers through our collaboration software. We started MURAL because of a game we were designing. Ask me about that.