Collaborating in an Empty Room

I am a strong believer in embodied cognition, the psychological theory that our minds consist not only of the mental faculty in our skulls, but also in the physical states and movement of our whole persons. And, if you can believe it, in the environment and objects we manipulate with our bodies when thinking things through.

Talk with any grade-school teacher and they will emphasize the importance of manipulatives. “Tablets and apps are great,” a teacher told me last year in an interview regarding a K-6 learning app, “but I intentionally limit the time my students use those tools. I want them in their small groups, learning from each other, materials in hand.”

For years Highland has held firm to the principle that getting everyone in the room together, from all levels of business or makery, is important to create shared understanding. Working with physical materials is a critical part of how we perform collaborative research and design at Highland. Though it’s almost a cliche in business stock photography these days — stickies covering the walls while people with coffee cups look at them thoughtfully — putting smart people of different backgrounds & talents in a room together with some basic material constraints and an intentional process can lead to powerful outcomes.

What happens when these physical mediums are taken away? In the last few months we, like many others, have had to adapt to a new reality: we simply can’t work together in the ways we would ideally. It’s normal to feel disempowered, isolated, anxious, constrained, and ineffective. It’s also tempting to default to individual, serial, asynchronous practices, instead of the shared work-in-parallel that is so much more effective — and, helps us stay connected as humans, and find joy in working with and creating together.

I reached out to other design and product leaders and colleagues in the community and asked for their thoughts, based on the experience they’ve had directing and facilitating the teams they work with. Their perspectives are incorporated along with mine below.

Principles & Best Practices for Remote Collaboration

Fortunately today, the means for remote collaboration are numerous, and increasingly more capable; there are many ways to keep teams and stakeholders engaged, included, and actively contributing. Putting them all together is still challenging though. If you’re working through this as well, here are some key things to consider when doing research, synthesis, and conceptual design remotely:

  1. Re-center on the core principles of why we do collaborative research and design in the first place.
  2. Find or create alternatives to the means & practices we would normally depend on.
  3. Appreciate how these means give us capabilities we would otherwise not have—while also recognizing their (and our) limitations.
  4. Establish ground rules, processes, and activities that help us best leverage these means, while preserving the mental & emotional energy of the team.

1. Recenter on Core Principles

Emphasizing and reaffirming some core principles will help ground the group in why we’re Doing It This Way®

  • Prioritize the democratization of research and design. Distributing the effort—and the input—to those who are outside of formal roles uplifts diverse voices. Human-centered design depends on the participation of those from different perspectives.
  • Many minds, one canvas — distributed cognition! When we document, evaluate, and manipulate ideas in a common workspace in real-time, we magnify our efforts using a “shared mind.”
  • Progress is more important than perfection. Use time constraints and encourage keeping forward momentum over accuracy, helping the design process to move more quickly and reach testing or build outcomes.

When planning & inviting participants to sessions, be sure to emphasize the value of this collaborative time, referring to some of the principles and benefits above.

2. Alternatives to Being in the Room

Thankfully in 2020, we have access to numerous tools that foster connection even when we can’t be in the same place. And these tools are becoming more commonplace. Open, shared, virtual rooms allow people to “work alone together,” helping to maintain focus and accountability.

  • Zoom. You may have heard of it.
  • Google Sheets or Airtable are essential tools for pulling together and codifying research data. They are very helpful for creating artifacts to mine for insights and can be updated on the fly to reflect new learnings and themes.
  • Google Docs or Confluence, used on a shared screen, can also nurture communication. I advise that you designate a facilitator and a scribe — which don’t have to be the same person — rather than relying on the entire group to plot and record. This approach invites the group to focus less on progress in favor of deeper conversation and dialectic.
  • Whimsical is a visual workspace & UX toolkit that provides collaborative flowcharts, wireframes, sticky notes, and mind maps. In addition to design sprints, you can use it to get started on journey maps, develop project plans, mood boards, even lo-fi prototypes. Whimsical is feature-limited by design, and that’s a good thing. Team management is a weak point, so it’s best to use it internally or with existing clients.
  • MURALand Miro are digital whiteboards that help teams design together. Similar to Whimsical, they can be used for remote discoveries to set up Business Model Canvases, and run workshops where you need to invite a lot of people to the table quickly. They are more mature than Whimsical, but can also be overwhelming for new users, so take care to create a well-prepared workspace, and build in onboarding time.
  • InVision Freehandis another digital whiteboard that allows design teams and stakeholders to capture feedback throughout the product design process, as well as spin up mood boards and storyboards.
  • Google Slides, Keynote, or PowerPoint can be helpful tools to make it easier for non-designers to participate in creating early-stage (low- to medium-fidelity) prototypes, particularly because they are fast and accessible.
  • Figma brings real-time collaboration to high-fidelity design, making it possible for stakeholders and others often considered “downstream” (read: developers) into the process and participate. YMMV as it concerns collaborating on later-stage design, so use it thoughtfully and have clear asks for feedback or contributions.

Make sure that when you employ these helpful virtual tools, you consider the group’s familiarity and pace. Consider using a combination of means if it will help everyone participate more effectively.

For a recent workshop, I ended up using a combination of Miro and Powerpoint so that people could submit ideas through software they knew well, and had a co-facilitator post the ideas submitted that way so that we could collect everything in one place.

Shelby Bower, Product Design Leader at DocuSign

3. Recognize Our Limits, and Maintain a Focus on our Newfound Capabilities

Limitations to remote work—and how to overcome them Digital whiteboards have come a long way, but aren’t without their quirks. Acknowledge for your group what the tools can and can’t do to avoid unnecessary frustration.

Also, The digital divide is real. Not everyone is comfortable with these new tools; remember to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Introduce tools to the group and, if appropriate, build in a warm-up exercise to start the session.

Don't force people to use tools they've never seen; it creates a learning curve that embarrasses people in the same way that "not knowing how to draw" holds people back in a session. If you're using a tool no one else has yet, have a co-facilitator add or group post-its while you solicit ideas and input.

Shelby Bower, Product Design Leader at DocuSign

YMMV when it comes to screen size and ability to see the big picture. Some people may have 38" monitors, others 13" laptops. Wifi can be strained for some. Evaluate your group’s capabilities, and adjust accordingly.

When you’re remote, assuming everyone is sharing their video, you have to look at all of those things on one/two small screens all at the same time and it’s really tough!

Libby Van Why, Director of Program UX at McGraw-Hill

Without body language and high-fidelity visual cues, it’s easy to not yield the conversation to others wishing to speak. Pause often to check in and see if anyone has something to say or ask. Use hand-raising signals (virtually or literally) to help keep people from talking over each other.

It can be difficult to orient to the same place; stare at a screen all day. Be mindful about scheduling in time to break, and encourage teammates to use that time away from a screen if possible.

“It’s best to think about scheduling with the goal of maximizing the team’s energy, as opposed to maximizing the time you have.”

Florence McCafferty, UX Researcher & Designer at Highland

Benefits to remote work—and how to center the gains Everyone can participate “from anywhere,” even your kitchen. Find ways to celebrate this! Maybe incorporate the quirky element of at-home offices into an icebreaker, like Zoom did when the whole team showed off their pets.

Having said that, encourage folks to leave their cameras on! Mute yourself unless you’re speaking. It’s important to have access to each other in as many dimensions as possible.

For some, an entirely digital process can allow us to get our thoughts down even more rapidly. (Who else has poor penmanship? 👋). In virtual workspaces, we can move things around, organize, search, draw connections, and change attributes with ease. Embrace this freedom; saving time + process improvement = enhanced ROI.

Build in generation exercises (for example, groups of 2 or 3 filling stickies) and sorting exercises where everyone touches a digital surface together. You get people touching and working and out of the listen-until-my-name’s-called mode, which lets you get deeper input and buy in.

Jonathan Eyler-Werve, Product Designer at Pivotal Labs

One potential benefit of remote collaboration is increased inclusivity. Learning curve aside, the virtual room can level the playing field for all present.

“Using digital tools allows introverts or those who are less confident speaking up to share their ideas.”

Rusty Cook, Art Director at Sprout Social

And, while more than 6–8 people in the room for a typical synthesis session or Design Sprint might be pushing it, it’s not that big a deal to invite a few more folks to a digitally-moderated session.

We have found that more people are able to participate in our remote sessions. No budget considerations aside from what we would normally cover for time; we aren’t paying for airfare, hotel, meals, etc. No one has to be away from their family for 2–3 days!

Libby Van Why, Director of Program UX at McGraw-Hill

4. Rules and Best Practices for Making the Most of What We Have


  • Keep your gatherings to two, 90-min sessions per day max (with a 30-min break in between). These shouldn’t be painfully long—45-minute stretches with 15-minute breaks is a good place to start.
  • Make the agenda loud and clear. Defining explicit goals and desired outcomes for workshops are more important than ever. Reiterate the value of doing this work together.
  • If possible, show an example of what a completed workshop will look like; paint a picture of where everyone is going together.
  • Define quadrants of activity beforehand, so you can “summon” participants to those areas at the appropriate time. Orient your group to the virtual space just as you would in a physical space.

Remember that not everything has to be done as a group; it can be advantageous to “divide and conquer.” Figure out what is best to do together, and can be done well-enough asynchronously — “work together” time vs “work alone” time.

For one workshop, I gave people “homework” for the next day, which worked out way better than trying to force people to come up with their best ideas in five minutes while the pressure was on. It gave participants time to reflect on what they had learned that day. The ideas they gave the next morning were more thought-through than what I typically see.

Shelby Bower, Product Design Leader at DocuSign

  • Once underway, make it a point to reorient people often. It may be helpful for them to look at their own window when entering or manipulating information, then look at the facilitator’s screen share when reviewing information.
  • When possible, visually highlight each item being read back aloud to the group, to help maintain shared focus on ideas.
  • Card sorts or affinity modeling can be done effectively with no talking at all. Enjoy the moment of quiet.

“Breaking up deep thinking time and discussion time seems to decrease the cognitive load and fatigue that tends to be part of long interactions on a screen. … Giving people agency as much as possible to take care of their immediate needs helps people maintain their energy throughout the day.”

— Florence McCafferty, UX Researcher & Designer at Highland

Research Survey tools, video and screen sharing tools for interviews, and diary study platforms are rapidly becoming more sophisticated. However, there are some risks, such as not reaching enough of a diverse audience because of access to technology (see: digital divide). It can also be more difficult to communicate wholly through the screen, with body language obscured.

  • Take extra care to ensure you’re getting a diverse panel, as you screen for participants using digitally mediated sourcing.
  • Make sure participants are comfortable being recorded and take time to establish a rapport, something that is made more difficult in 2D.
  • Take additional time to explain what the research is about, and why you value their input. Lay out how the interview, survey, or study will go.
  • If possible, have a researcher code interviews in real-time, as they are happening (confirming with the participant they are good with another person listening in). This saves time, and provides the “freshest” data.

Analysis & Synthesis

  • Pre-plumb some assumed themes as headers for participants to group their findings under. Invite new themes to emerge.
  • Plot out rough Journey Map or JTBD timelines based on themes the team has observed so far, then revise and furnish them with details culled from the data.
  • While group editing can happen in shared spreadsheets, it’s still very helpful to print out of packets of the data. The thinking happens with the packet in hand, and the insights get typed into the shared sheet. Combine the physical with the digital!
  • Break up analysis into 30-minute chunks, and focus on specific areas of the data, then reconvene. For example, choose a portion of a customer journey packet (coded interviews from 1–2 dozen people) to focus on. Everyone mines that portion of the journey for the next 30 minutes on their own, then come back together to discuss findings and process it as a team.

“We have found it incredibly effective to combine elements of working alone with working together. It’s a mix of variety, accountability, and biting off just the right amount to get through at a time to maximize everyone’s best ability to focus and think.”

— Mike Nowak, Product Strategist at Highland

Design Sprints A general rule of thumb for Design Sprints is: use the tools in the toolbox that make the most sense. A classic, 5-day Sprint just isn’t feasible in a digital context. Evaluate the design challenge, the team and time constraints, and adapt with a posture towards making progress, not doing it by the book.

We emphasize that the steps in the Design Sprint are more important than the amount of time. We’ve encouraged our teams to think about a Design Sprint taking 2 weeks at minimum. … In the future I could see us experimenting with smaller targets, which might allow for shorter timelines.

Libby Van Why, Director of Program UX at McGraw-Hill

There are a number of ways to repackage the essence of a Sprint depending on the learning goals and timeline available. At Highland, we’ve come up with a variety of recipes to make the best use of the time we have.

(Note that the timeframes above are “nominal,” i.e., they reflect how we would plan for in-person workshops. Add 50% or more time if following these agendas virtually, and with healthy boundaries on screen time.)

  • It’s ok to pre-plumb some of the artifacts with assumptions, rather than create them from scratch together (which would be ideal). Objectives, high-level journey maps, and How Might We themes can all be sketched out in minimal form ahead of time, then reviewed and revised with the larger group.
  • Low-fidelity is already a concept embraced in design sprints; really lean into that. Don’t even try to make beautiful screens with these tools. Done is better than perfect.
  • Also, let people participate how they can when it comes to sketching ideas. For example, some people may want to make a paper sketch, photograph it with their phone, and paste it onto the workspace; that’s totally fine!
  • Be clear when in “divergence mode” vs “convergence mode.” Create inflection points so the cadences of design thinking are well understood by everyone present.
  • Use consistent visual patterns and prepare virtual materials that mimic those established in the physical realm. For example, if you use 3x5" canary sticky notes for a How Might We exercise IRL, create renditions of these in your virtual whiteboard of choice.

It’s important to document the process and make it visible. Starting with a mutual understanding of expectations for the day can save a lot of time and frustration. My biggest take away in the past few months has been to over communicate.

Theresa Berg, Product Designer at Highland

Embracing the new normal

The ability to work from anywhere at any time is the future of collaborative research and design. To return to the theory of embodied cognition, environment and physical states shape perception and thinking, which is particularly important when communication is part of the equation.

“How well a given person’s conversational style works depends on the environment in which they find themselves. If you’re interested in changing someone’s communication behavior, the implication is that you don’t necessarily need to change anything about them; you might instead focus on changing the environment.”

- Jeff Thompson Ph.D., Psychology Today, “Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s Important”

The work environment for many of us means being in our homes, but that environment also includes the virtual spaces we inhabit—spaces that have the ability to foster mindful collaboration and provide us with tools that expand the way we think about research and design. We may be collaborating at a distance, but with the right perspective, you’ll find the “room” is far from empty.

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