Blog #1

10 Lessons Learned running remote workshops for program design

Last year, our team at kaikai was asked to develop a digital program in the field of agriculture in Benin. Due to travel constraints related to COVID-19, we decided with our client not to take any risks and to carry out the mission remotely. Like many other organizations, we had to adapt and develop new ways to design and manage co-creation and co-design missions remotely in order to ensure the productivity of the company.

Traditionally, program design in international development requires scoping trips with intense travel itineraries, which not only bears financial costs, generates significant CO2 amounts and thus contributes to the climate crisis. Additionally, the high costs and overhead of travel missions pushes for short stays which can negatively affect the quality of research and create missed opportunities.

One of the few benefits of the COVID pandemic is an opportunity to develop online and remote program design methods. However, the loss of face-to-face interaction and the dependence on digital tools and prerequisites - such as stable connections - brings difficulties. This article is a sharing of experience and we hope that the lessons learned can be useful for others in and outside of our sector.

Our approach

Inspiration from Design thinking and User Centered Design methodologies

Having made its way from the innovation space to many different sectors, design thinking is an established human-centered approach helping the teams of an organization to generate revolutionary, applicable and truly effective ideas.

For example, the company Upwork, having its teams spread all over the world with a coding representation in Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Europe, decided to deploy remote design thinking within the organization.

Understanding the context and gathering information from stakeholders and users is part of any strategic consulting project. To carry out the client's project in Benin without any travel from team members we needed to use a flexible online tool and opted for Miro.. Thanks to its collaborative whiteboard model, Miro allows the use of Design Thinking to gain a shared understanding and to collect and develop ideas visually.

User centered design puts the end user at the center of the design process. This is especially important as specialization in international development and the structure of funding which is approved and monitored at headquarters creates distance from the field - at least in our opinion, but this is a discussion for another post!

While we encourage to include the final user in the process, it is not always practical. If it is not possible, at the very least include a persona process which allows participants to consider the perspective of the end user.

Adapting to program design

We are pragmatic with the methodology and use it for inspiration. In summary, we can describe the following phases:

  1. Understanding the context - i.e. who are actors in the space (stakeholder analysis)? What are opportunities and challenges (SWOT)? How did previous experiences with digital technologies unfold?

  2. Ideation - Develop ideas for possible program options

  3. Prioritize ideas, for example according to complexity / feasibility / costs / timeline / impact etc.

  4. Refine and specify candidates further (budget, team, possible partners etc)

Consultation happens at every step. Testing in the classical design thinking sense is difficult to apply to program design, but it is possible to include prototyping of ideas in the ideation process and to present those to members of the program design consultations to achieve an iterative process.

Capturing collaborative creativity with Miro

Miro is a collaborative and visual remote platform and is characterized by a whiteboard that can be used for all kinds of purposes (brainstorming, SWOT analysis, prioritization and categorization, etc.). For each type of use, templates are proposed or boards can be created from scratch according to specific needs. Mural is another popular alternative. In our work, we mainly see three ways of using this tools:

Option 1 - Miro as a template for physical whiteboards

If conditions do not allow all participants to use the Miro tool (due to bad connectivity or lack of electricity, a very bright room), it is possible to use Miro as a model for on-site facilitators to recreate the exercises on-site. In this case, participants document using the traditional paper tools (cards, markers). Remote facilitators can capture information during reporting phases. On-site facilitators can also take pictures of the final results, which can be digitized if necessary.

Option 2 - Miro as documentation space

It is also possible to use Miro as a live documentation of the results of the exercises. Advisors/facilitators are connected to Miro and enter the information collected or explained orally by participants (paper might still be used for participants to organize their thoughts). This allows the participants to follow the documentation and to make clarifications, for example if a point is not correctly recorded.

Option 3 - Miro as collaborative whiteboard for all participants

It is also possible to provide access for all participants, allowing for 100% remote workshops with team members in different locations.. Of course, this is only possible if participants have adequate skills, equipment and connectivity.

10 Lessons Learned running remote workshops for program design

  1. Understand potential constraints (connectivity, equipment, skills) early

Facilitating a workshop via an online collaborative tool requires that connectivity aspects be taken into account and that participants have a stable internet connection. It should be noted that by using a collaborative tool such as Miro, it is possible to avoid screen sharing which can be difficult for sites with poor connectivity (connecting to the Miro board uses less bandwidth than screen sharing). Participant’s level of digital literacy will influence their ability to effectively participate, so be aware of the skill's limitations and the bias it may introduce!

  1. Include end users in the design process

We are often surprised that we still need to explain this in 2021. Call it human centered design, the “design with the user” principle - including end users in the design process is key to designing for impact. If it is not possible to include end users - at the very least include tools that allow consideration of their perspective, for example, by developing personas.

  1. Adapt the schedule to a remote mission

In a physical mission, it is much easier to get the team together after the workday for preparation / debrief. It is also easier to collect additional information. It is therefore important to take into account that the timeline of a virtual mission will often be longer than a face-to-face mission.

While this may be perceived as a disadvantage - this can also allow more time for review, and less participants fatigue. Keep in mind, you are not only often asking people to think creatively about new topics, but you are introducing new tools and methods - it’s a learning process, and that takes time!

  1. Use pictures and other media to immerse yourself and participants

It’s easy to lose an understanding of context in a remote work environment. In order to counter this, you can ask participants to share pictures with you ahead of a workshop. Another alternative is to ask every participant to introduce themselves with a specific video background of their typical work environment. It works great as a warm up exercise, too!

  1. Include clear exercise instructions

Exercises should be well structured to facilitate participants' understanding and orientation. Thus, we recommend that the instructions for each exercise be documented and that examples be included to guide participants. It's also important to give context to the overall mission and how an exercise relates to it - nothing worse than participants not knowing why they are being asked to do something.

  1. Focus on simple exercises

The simplicity of the exercises maximizes participation and also facilitates documentation. Especially when we first started using the tools, we tended to make the exercises too ambitious! The flexibility of tools like Miro always allows for adding information outside of the defined framework, so it is better to start simple and evolve as needed rather than start with an overly complex structure.

  1. Be realistic about time

The remote workshop requires that you map out the time for each activity and stick to it. Therefore, it is important to respect the timing to avoid running out of time or having unfinished exercises due to lack of time.

Also, ensure to include breaks and incite people to truly take them - it’s very easy to get distracted by your inbox or other urgent tasks.

  1. Have an on-site facilitator as ally

Effective remote workshop facilitation requires a focal point in the room who can communicate directly with the facilitators during the workshop. This allows a person on-site to take the temperature of the room, to know if there are concerns about understanding or if participants' attention is waning and a break is needed. Ideally your ally should be trained on the tools used. This ensures continuity and clarification in case of connectivity difficulties.

  1. Debrief after the workshops!

After the workshop, it is important to do a debriefing. On the one hand, this session allows for the collection of positive/negative points to improve the following sessions and on the other hand, this session allows for the planning of objectives for future activities and for making adjustments. Every group has different dynamics, and agility is key! It’s harder to gauge the success of a remote workshop, so make sure to include a quick evaluation.

  1. Review / document directly after the exchanges

Ever had to go back and review notes from a workshop that took place several weeks ago? It's super hard! If possible, review the workshop notes directly after the discussion. Facilitators will be able to contribute missing elements with a fresh memory of the discussions. To facilitate documentation, it is possible to take pictures of post-its or the classic whiteboards used in the room, or even to use an audio recording in workshops with a lot of discussion.

For us, using a methodology inspired from design thinking and a collaborative tool like Miro demonstrated that it is entirely possible to carry out this type of scoping and program design project remotely by taking advantage of collaborative tools.

If we have to summarize the above, the key success factors for remote workshops are good preparation and agility in the process.

Of course, some elements cannot be replaced by virtual tools and total immersion, but by ensuring close and iterative communication, we believe it will be possible to avoid many trips in the future, and thus have a positive impact on CO2 emissions and work-life balance.