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How to Run Successful Remote Discovery Workshops


The only feeling more exhilarating than scoring an amazing new project is seeing the satisfaction of clients when they see the finished product. Getting from the point A to the point B is a process which usually begins with a discovery workshop.

Once project details are arranged and the deal is sealed, the first step is to assemble a core project team in charge of preparing and conducting strategic discovery workshops.

When face-to-face becomes Facetime

These workshops usually happen on-site or at our offices, with the majority of stakeholders present and focusing on the project. Over the years, we have delivered hundreds of projects and facilitated just as many workshops, most of them face-to-face.

Narrow budgets, overlapping schedules, tight deadlines, or even global pandemics can get in the way of in-person workshops.

When that happens, technology comes to the rescue and workshops go online. There are fewer breaks, less snacks, and participants really have to take turns speaking.

Are discovery workshops essential?

Absolutely! We’ve been creating software long enough to confirm that our know-how in software design and development is best utilized when the entire team understands what they’re building, and for whom.

A lack of technical knowledge, misunderstanding of the complexities of software development, and underestimating critical details can turn into expensive problems for the client at a later stage if they are overlooked at the beginning.

Hence the discovery workshop. Here, we establish a high-level understanding of the client’s business and market, learn about end users and their needs, and flesh out possible solutions to the expected or existing problems.

Additionally, we use that time to sketch early concepts, define a preliminary tech stack, and discuss details such as roadmaps, priorities, and potential bottlenecks.

How to carry out a successful remote workshop?

Remote workshops are a totally different ball game from the on-site ones, but they can work just as well at times when there’s no alternative. Stick to our list of 7 steps to successful discovery workshops and you’ll be delivering remote workshops in no time.

1. Break down the workshop into smaller chunks

Remote workshops require more focus and discipline from all participants. It’s simply not as interactive as meeting in-person, and sitting long hours in front of a computer makes it easier for our brains to wander off.

To make remote workshops effective, the agenda should be tighter and things are packed into a shorter time period – max 4 to 5 hours a day, down from 7,5 hours for in-person workshops. In one of our remote workshops, we decided to break down what would have been a one-day workshop into four 2-hour remote sessions throughout the week.

There's a lot to discussThere's a lot to discuss

2. Have a well-defined agenda and workflow

Make sure to communicate the agenda at least one week in advance. This is a no-brainer for any meeting, but it's crucial for workshops because the goal is to have a bunch of data and information to work with by the end of each session.

Our teams have two agendas; one for participants and one for the facilitator. The former is a general one which we share with the calendar invite. The latter is much more detailed and plans out every ten to twenty minutes of the workshop. This way, the materials and resources are all in one place, and this also helps keep up the pace of the workshop.

The agenda should account for details like introduction, lunch, snack and bathroom breaks. A rule of thumb is to secure two 2-hour slots for high-focused work in one day, and have everything else planned in between.

3. Limit the number of participants

Workshops are most efficient with five to six participants. From our side, there’s usually a business development representative, technical director, and a lead designer. From the client's side, it really depends on what the project is about.

It’s important to define who’s going to be the project owner and have them present. Other stakeholders that will have direct oversight of the project are also crucial in this phase.

Keep in mind that people aren’t engaged when they have nothing to contribute on the topic, so tailor the workshop in a way to get most of each participant.

4. Assign homework and make sure everybody comes prepared

Giving out homework helps keep remote workshops more structured and goal-oriented. Questions you would typically ask during in-person meetings can instead be handed out via email in a form of a questionnaire.

The premise here is that the client knows their business better than anyone, so make sure to ask things like who your target audiences are, who the competitors are, how they are performing, where they draw inspiration from etc. These questions will help you set the narrative and focus on what’s important.

5. Use video conferencing that supports screen sharing

For maximum efficiency, every participant should join the call from their own computer. Our teams use Zoom for remote calls (as the rest of the world, apparently) and sometimes Google Meet.

Smile for the cameraSmile for the camera

Encourage everyone to turn on their cameras, since it makes the entire experience more personal. Having said that, it’s useful to have participants check their internet connection to prevent major disruptions during the call.

It also pays to remind participants of the expected code of conduct, whether it’s muting the microphone unless speaking, using the raise hand option, etc.

6. Avoid video conferencing chats

Don’t rely on the chat function within the videoconferencing app because the transcript tends to disappear the second after you hang up, plus there is no option to upload files.

Also, you'll want to have the entire correspondence from the workshop available at later times, and Slack has proven fantastic for that. You can dedicate a specific channel to the workshop, and keep all the resources and links there. It is also useful note taking, sharing sketches or any form of written feedback.

7. Use a digital whiteboard or a document

Unlike using sharpies, post-its, and physical timers, remote workshops require a different set of tools. To replicate the meeting room setting as best you can, try using digital tools such as Figma or Miro.

Workshops gone virtualWorkshops gone virtual

During workshop preparation, it’s best to pre-fill certain boards and just add the content provided from participants. There’s a bunch of pre-made templates for drafting out mood boards, user journeys, and prototyping. Our teams use a custom branded set of boards.

The bonus step - be prepared to improvise

While our list of steps for carrying out a successful remote workshop is quite comprehensive, the world will always be more unpredictable. Sometimes it’s the machine that will freeze; other times it will be the human.

We found that having good improvisation skills are just as important as coming prepared. If you feel you are not getting the expected results, don’t be afraid to make on-the-spot tweaks.

Remote is the new on-the-spot

We hope these tips help your team conduct better remote workshops in the future. It's a framework that has helped us run successful remote workshops and one that we keep perfecting with each new remote workshop our team runs.

You're probably looking forward to the moment when your meeting rooms will be booked for in-person discovery workshops. Until then, keep in mind that being on the same page about the vision, anticipated outcomes, and the steps necessary to achieve them is more important than all participants being in the same place.

If you've ever done a videoconference in your sleeping equipment, here's a portrait of you hand-painted by Marijana Šimag.