Four things we learned about visual collaboration tools when we switched to a remote-first creative process
by Stephan Thiemt, Senior Designer, PHOENIX Stuttgart;
Illustration by Lea Buchfink, Designer, PHOENIX Stuttgart
Note: These Learnings can be applied to various visual remote collaboration tools such as the Google Suite, Figma, and others. Our means of choice, though, is Miro.
The beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak had some unexpected effects on PHOENIX. Not primarily the global economic downturn, but the changing paradigms to how we were used to working. Like many others, remote work and distributed teams became our new reality overnight. This caused challenges in our creative process. We heavily depend on the power of physical collaboration in the form of big walls full of sketches and inspirational material, physical prototypes, and intense face-to-face collaboration.
At PHOENIX, we design products and services for smarter living. The core of our creative work is to come up with outstanding new ideas and then - as our creative superpower - visualizing it and bringing it to the market. But with everyone working from home, it felt like our superpowers became teeth-less overnight.
Quickly we had to find a substitution for a critical and unfortunately also deeply analog step in our creative process. When it comes to distilling design opportunities from the various research activities, we usually depend on substantial wall space, sticky notes, analog sketches, and, ultimately, being in one room to make sense of all the collected material.
When you're in one room and have all your research and analysis printed, ideation questions formulated, and your team briefed, you would classicly start to note your ideas with scribbles on post-it notes or paper. As a next step, you would pin them to the wall where you discuss and cluster them into promising meta-ideas that ultimately form the design of a future product or service. This proven process has worked for quite a while, but it's almost impossible to follow if parts of the team work remotely. To succeed in this challenge, we had to regain our teeth.
At that moment, we remembered a tool that always felt like its time was not there yet - Miro. In the meanwhile, we have worked with that visual remote collaboration tool for more than three months. It feels like the right moment to share our learnings and thoughts regarding the process of switching to remote-only work and now, as the pandemic is slowing down, to a blend of remote and on-site work:
Unleash your team's collective creative potential in a digital ideation session
With our visual remote collaboration tool, it comes closest to the process of being in the same room but with some delicious extras! Here's why: With one unified, universally available digital canvas, it is easy to merge the different media types of the various practices within a team. It's inclusive, it brings together people that would usually be separated by tools and space - Think of text and images by researchers in Shanghai, spreadsheets by business experts in Schiltach, code samples by engineers in Munich, sketches by designers in Stuttgart. Its sounds like oversimplification, but you get the point. Finally, we can efficiently blend Research insights, moods, inspirations, ideas, experiments, and implementations. We can quickly draw conclusions, combine ideas, and enable everyone to understand the bigger picture. Everything is in the same place in the same medium that is accessible from anywhere, anytime.
Intensify remote ideation sessions
We can present remotely - and there is really no need for the moderator of the call to add notes with feedback to the presentation, as you may do when only screen-sharing a presentation deck. Everyone in the team contributes in real-time, and it appears on the shared screen. Additionally, the 'rough feeling' of the tools format styles, e.g., sticky notes, facilitate discussion. It's the same effect as the level of debate when presenting hand-drawn sketches compared to sophisticated ways of visualization that already feel 'too perfect'. Nobody will question the fundamental idea anymore. And remember, if you are remote-first, you save travel time, and ultimately, in many cases, feel like you get more tasks done.
Collaborate inclusively from anywhere and any device
This, for us, was quite a prominent finding. But now, as we are back in the studio from time to time, it allows us to maintain the needed 1,5m distance, as we can use our personal devices and view information on our individual screens while still being mentally on the same page. Reiterating again how inclusive the tool is, as one's physical location does not matter to allow them to contribute meaningfully. The core of our conversation, remote or on-site, becomes the cloud-based board, while everyone has the same chances to participate. No 'unfair advantage' for the ones being on-site in the studio. Features like following your contributors' cursors or enabling others to monitor one's viewport support this way of working even more.
Keep things hyper-transparent
All the Miro boards in the organization are 'stalkable' so you can learn how others work and what their status is - in real-time. You can see updates in the process, such as what happened recently, and how things are connected. This allows you to use the dimensions of your project map to make your process more transparent to partners, collaborators, and new team members - creating process transparency and empathy. This fundamentally grows the ability to learn from others, making the complete project process available in one tool for the first time.
To sum it all up, we managed to save our creative process and regain our teeth. As because of our cloud-based canvas, our creative process became more inclusive, collaborative, transparent, accurate, and ultimately more independent from our office space and location. It now supports us in our day to day work to unleash our team's collective creative potential no matter where we are and encourages us to get the most out of the collaborations with our clients and friends.