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Remote Discovery: How to run a smooth client discovery remotely

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Few things are more meaningful and exciting than making a vision for something, and creating it. Designing a product with purpose begins with the discovery phase where you and your client closely collaborate to create a vision for the product. Usually, discovery workshops are done in-person but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you will need to host a remote discovery. 

In this article, I’m going to share some insights we discovered (pun intended) on the specific challenges of hosting remote discovery workshops. It won’t cover all the steps in a  discovery session but you can read about that in this previous article.

First and foremost, whether or not you implement any of our recommendations, make sure to test out your remote discovery sessions with your team before putting it into practice.

Also, we strongly recommend using a collaboration whiteboard tool. It’s the most effective way to make sure all stakeholders are fully heard and that your team members can share their perspectives. In fact, you might find it so useful that you end up incorporating it into your in-person discovery sessions. Either way, there is a lot to consider when choosing the right tool for you.

Picking the right virtual whiteboard tool for your remote discovery session

One challenge of running a remote discovery session relates to the limitations associated with online communication. Video conferencing tools like Zoom or Google Hangouts should be used in conjunction with a collaborative whiteboard tool if it doesn’t have built-in video chatting. Seeing each other face-to-face makes the process more efficient and builds a stronger client relationship.

As for the collaboration whiteboard tools, there are many out there including Miro (what we chose), InVision, MURAL, Stormboard, Conceptboard and Microsoft Whiteboard. Each of them have their pros and cons, and it’s best to compare them to see which tool fits the best with your needs. Here are a number of factors to consider when selecting the right tool for you.

The tool should:

  • allow for live collaboration.
  • have templates to save time.
  • have built-in video conferencing.
  • have the ability to lock assets so they won’t get deleted by accident.
  • have thorough management of access so clients get the right level of access and can’t accidentally access it before the session.
  • have the ability to record the session. 
  • include statistics about participation in the session.
  • have the ability to zoom in and zoom out (flexible sizing) on an infinite plane. Be careful, though, zooming in and out excessively can be overwhelming and make it hard to navigate the board.
  • have the ability to export the final results.
In-person discovery sessions aren’t possible given COVID-19. Thankfully, there are many virtual whiteboard tools available. Pick the one that has the features you need. If there isn’t built-in video conferencing, you can always use Zoom.

Before the remote discovery session

The whole purpose of discovery is to start a project off on the right foot. As such, it’s extremely important to make sure the discovery session itself is well-prepared in advance.

Make sure to create an on-boarding document to send to prospective clients before the session. It should detail everything they need to know, including instructions for downloading the virtual whiteboard app and the expectations of the meeting. 

Before your session, follow up with the client to make sure they read the document and are ready to go. If you want to go above and beyond for your prospective client, offer a 10-minute on-call introduction to the whiteboard tool instead of directing them to a tutorial. 

Plan an agenda

Plan out an agenda for your session in advance. It’s difficult to keep focused online for extended periods of time so consider limiting it to a half day of online discovery. Plan to have frequent breaks of 20 minutes or more to allow the stakeholders to check their emails, go to the bathroom and discuss amongst themselves to come back with a clearer head. 

Set up a whiteboard template

The team should set up the whiteboard template in advance and test it with the team. Although the template might follow the same format as an in-person discovery, the structure and layout will need to be adjusted. Since the environment is an infinite plane, it’s easy to lose a sense of direction. To address this, you could lay out the steps from left-to-right (or up-and-down, but stick to one) and have clear indicators of the sections kept at similar sizes. Having to zoom in or zoom out too much can make things hard to follow, so that’s best avoided.

Now that everything is set up, you’re almost ready to start!

During the remote discovery session

While good preparation can help your team to get a handle on the many challenges of remote discovery, there’s more to consider during the session.

Facilitating

It takes a lot of brain-power and a strong holistic understanding of the project to facilitate a remote discovery. Consider having two facilitators to better manage the complexities. How they coordinate should be clearly laid out and they should split the usual responsibilities of the coordinator. For example, one could handle all the note-taking while the other keeps everyone engaged or works on affinity mapping (more on that later).

At the beginning of the session, have the facilitator(s) reiterate the agenda of the workshop. The clearer everyone is on the timing and expectations of the workshop, the smoother it will go.  Make it clear to the prospective clients that they need to be active participants. Tell them that they are responsible for their audio and screen. If they can’t see something at any point, they will need to let the facilitator know right away so that they can help to fix the issues.

Ice breakers

It’s important to have a human element when online, so it would be good to start with a game or ice breaker. “Two Truths, One Lie” works well but make sure to give the clients a heads up on the activity. Ideally, the ice breaker would also function as an activity for the client to get used to the software.

You can use your pointers to draw people’s attention to things but make sure to also have big indicators to situate people in the different sections of the board (Like a big “1” by Ice Breaker, a big “2” by Personas, etc).

Break times must be respected, even if you’re in-the-zone at an important step of the workshop. The client may have emails to attend to and you want to respect the schedule. 

Affinity mapping

During in-person discovery workshops, each person would put their thoughts on sticky notes. We would then review all of them as a group and see if there are any emerging patterns or themes. This process is called “affinity mapping.” 

In remote discovery sessions, affinity mapping is easier for several reasons. With an online whiteboarding tool, everything is digital so it saves a lot of time not having to organize physical sticky notes and typing everything out afterwards. Not to mention, going digital saves trees! There are two steps to affinity mapping in a virtual whiteboard.

First, have the facilitator(s) read through all the sticky notes. This is time-consuming but can stop important points from slipping through the cracks. 

Second, group the sticky notes together. It’s too easy to go on autopilot and organize the sticky notes without talking. However, it’s important for the person doing the clustering to think out loud so other participants understand their thinking. Over-communication is key when working remotely. Also, going through each note on a more granular level as they are organized allows you to refine them as you proceed. 

Once you’ve completed the process of affinity mapping, make sure to back up all the content that was created. Export it, and prepare a discovery report for the client. The discovery report should document what was learned and what the next steps are.

Final thoughts

The above strategies really are just the tip of the iceberg for what it takes to run a successful remote discovery workshop. Most important of all is to test out your process internally, if you can, and update your own best practices as you host more remote discoveries. At the end of the day, a remote discovery session will still take more time than an in-person discovery workshop, but having these processes in place will help minimize confusion at the start of the session and make things more efficient.

I hope this insight is a good starting point for you to design and run a truly smooth remote discovery experience for your clients. Good luck!

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