Co-Design, Online: Tips for Adapting to Our New, Virtual Reality

As offices shift to remote work, organizations around the world are getting a crash course in virtual collaboration. This adaptation hasn’t been seamless, but it has happened quickly and out of necessity. And as these habits become refined, there is another process that will be critical to take online: co-design. Creating policies, programs, and services directly with those who will deliver or use them is as important now as ever—and in many ways, doing it online can make it better. So, beyond ensuring strong internet connection and keeping your video turned on, here are a few important (but far less discussed) co-design principles to make the most of the medium.

1. Plan Beyond a Single Touchpoint

Co-design is commonly attempted over a single, multi-day workshop. But this is not a great way to design together: networking can overshadow the main objectives; time pressures push participants to think quickly rather than deeply; and the emphasis on in-person ideation leaves the less-glamorous work of testing and refining solutions underfunded. Lucky for us, a three-day-long Zoom workshop is out of the question, and there is no choice but to plan beyond a single convening. Here are a few ideas for how to do that:

Spread the process out over time.

Divide your co-design process into a dozen one- or two-hour meetings, and spread those out over time. Decide on pacing at the beginning, and don’t default to a weekly format. There are advantages to meeting more frequently (which maintains the momentum and enthusiasm of building something together) and meeting less frequently (which gives facilitators more room to synthesize in between sessions and attendees time to manage their competing responsibilities), so the pace should change over the course of a project. Meeting every day or two at the start helps participants quickly align on challenges and opportunities to define initial solutions together. Once everyone is on the same page, organize less frequent gatherings with more time in the interim for independent homework.

Use the time in between.

This new rhythm requires more attention—albeit at a slower pace—from the facilitator, who must synthesize emerging ideas and assign participants follow-up tasks every meeting to make the most of the next touchpoint. Convening virtually means that attendees will have more opportunities to test ideas or assumptions with colleagues in the natural flow of their work days. Getting participants to do a bit of research against the Open Questions Wall Doc saves time in-session for them to share back the progress they’ve made. Keep this concise by giving participants a formula they can fill in ahead of meetings.

Embrace an ambiguous end-point.

Distributed in this way, the “end” of co-design becomes as much about momentum as milestones. Let ideation conversations grow into planning for prototyping or implementation. This bridge is one of the most difficult to make at in-person convenings, but one of the most important for maintaining the intention of co-design.

2. Lean into the Medium

Digital and in-person gatherings have different limits, possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages. If you try to follow the same rulebook online as you would for in-person co-design, you’re risking a loss of connection with your collaborators and missing an opportunity to do what isn’t possible in person. For example, half-hour presentations may work well in a room together, where there are fewer things competing for attention, but online, non-interactive presentations can lose people quickly. People are less prepared to actively participate, and with online distractions a click away there is ample opportunity to zone out. Instead of simply converting your agenda to its virtual version, change it up and lean into the strengths of the medium.

Pick a platform—or platforms—that let you do more than talk.

One way to hold engaging sessions is to look for tools to make discussions more interactive. This might mean training up on how to host Zoom breakout groups, or investing in a more dynamic video hosting platform like Maestro or QiQo. Still, the video interface is only half the cocktail: be intentional about how participants can share their opinions asynchronously and nonverbally. Use an online program that lets people upvote, propose ideas, or organize data together. We repurpose Google Sheets and Docs all the time—for everything from ice-breakers to collaborative implementation planning. Simple tools like Tricider are not expensive and easy to use; complex software like Mural lets you do more but takes time to set-up. There are many great options out there, and more every day (for a detailed list of engagement tech ideas, check out this compilation from Civic Hall). Prioritize something that matches your technical comfort and is easy for attendees to use.

Allow for offline work, but ask participants to share updates digitally.

Making the most of the digital format means getting explicitly clear about what should happen offline, before and after a meeting. Give participants homework, and let them know it’s coming ahead of time. Provide a template for participants to succinctly capture new ideas or questions they might have in between sessions into a format that is easy for others to review. This could be as simple as asking participants to write three sentences of reflection in a shared document; or it could be more dynamic—asking people to film a walking tour or record an audio segment, for example. If you can, make room to do some of this work entirely offline, and give people a little time to recover from inevitable screentime fatigue.

3. Participant Experience Matters (Even More than Usual)

Despite the power of technology to bring together voices from around the world, our lives are not in lock-step: participants are dialing in from different time-zones, from different moments in their days, different hours since their last meal. This misalignment can seem peripheral, but being attuned to participant experience can make or break a successful collaboration.

Use your own experience as a starting point.

We all know the experience of interacting with others through a screen is dramatically different than the experience in-person, in ways both obvious and subtle. Be attuned to these realities and design for them. Use your own experience as a starting point: what is the longest you can stay engaged and productive in a virtual meeting? How many participants yield the greatest level of participation? How do you share agendas? Notes? Action items? What sorts of recurring technical issues will you need to troubleshoot?

Incorporate participant experience into logistical decisions.

One of the best ways to improve participant experience is—I’ll say it again!—planning for shorter, more frequent sessions. Getting creative with full plenary sessions, small group breakouts, and partner conversations is even more important over digital platforms. Consider how to divide teams by topic, but also by logistics: Who is in the same time-zone? Which participants are more tech-savvy? Who seems more comfortable speaking on-camera and who needs more space to formulate their thoughts? Planning for interpersonal realities like these is a basic rule of good facilitation, whether in-person or online.

Set expectations from the beginning.

Facilitators are constantly reacting to emerging group dynamics, shifting agendas and encouraging participation in different ways. Online, they lack the same ability to read the room. Set ground rules as a group upfront to enable good facilitation—agreeing to keep cameras on and mute microphones unless speaking is a good start—and set expectations about participation and prep-time to help attendees plan their work and come prepared. Acknowledge the new dynamics a virtual platform introduces, be clear about how you want people to engage in-session, and ask for feedback so you can adapt.

In these times of uncertainty, people are doing the hard work that needs to get done, remaining inventive in the face of uncommon constraints. This is an opportunity for organizations to invest in deeper, more thoughtful co-design processes, not to defer them until the world recovers. In our virtual co-design series, we share from our experience—as co-design organizers, and as an agile, distributed team—general principles for doing this work, and a model for how you might structure a virtual co-design process in the shadow of quarantine.

Image: Adapted illustration from Pablo Stanley. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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