HCD Without Humans?

Common Thread
9 min readJun 17, 2020

How we designed a virtual human centred design workshop: Four things we learned.

Like everyone on the planet, we were left reeling at how quickly the world changed. For Common Thread it really hit us in mid-March. We were a week away from a meticulously planned four-day Human Centred Design Workshop on ‘motivating health workers’ for new members of the PATH Living Labs team in Zambia, when non-essential travel was cancelled.

By Mike Coleman and Amaya Gillespie, Common Thread: Putting people at the centre of public health.

Was this to be the only use of our stacks of Post-Its? (Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash)

If nothing else, HCD is about connecting with people in their element, understanding their context to co-design solutions that work. But what now? HCD without humans? No context. No-one in the same room. And… no time.

After weeks of planning, research and design, we had one week to re-imagine and create a workshop with participants from Living Labs Kenya and Zambia, and facilitators and speakers logging in from the US, Austria, Romania, the UK, Ireland and Australia.

In just a few weeks this has become an old story. We all have an embarrassing Zoom anecdote at the ready: maybe it’s screaming children and an important presentation, or a stray wine bottle left from the night before in the background of a ‘home office’, or cringe-worthy audio from that person in your last meeting who clearly did not know they were off-mute. Yawn. Ho Hum.

We seem to have seamlessly gone from virtual virgins to digital demons in a matter of weeks.

But like many of you at the time, we didn’t have all the answers. We dismantled the agenda and adjusted our mindset, our technology, our approach and even our ambition. We took some key HCD principles to heart: experimentation, iteration and a bias to make something.

This is what we learned.

1- Double the prep

You need more time. Prepare for everything. You simply don’t have the option of dashing out to get coloured pens during the lunch break, or deciding to take a flagging group outside to work under the trees for a session, or even stepping across the room to change the mood with a different ice breaker.

We asked ourselves a lot more “What if” questions than we normally would — not only to make sure that Plan A went well, but to also have Plan B, C, and D available, just in case.

Preparation is everything. Embrace the format — work through more scenarios than you think will happen, and work out what really needs video interaction, and what could be shifted to just audio, self-directed or off-line learning.

Prototypes displayed after a full design cycle on Day-1.

2- Hone the Methodology

Switching to an online format is as much about mindset as actual methodology. Everyone involved was encouraged to embrace a spirit of experimentation. That meant expecting surprises, delays, changes to the agenda and format. Maybe it’s the COVID-19 context, maybe this group was just amazing, but they were open, and trusted us enough to join us for the ride.

Develop new norms: When you are working online, many of the usual ice breakers won’t work as well. You won’t have as much non-verbal communication and the usual banter of face to face interaction which helps to create psychological safety and a healthy dynamic.

We had to find more ways to say, “We see you and we hear you.”

Normally you wouldn’t want participants talking to each other during a presentation or panel, but we encouraged it with the video chat function and using WhatsApp in parallel. In effect, this doubled the check-ins and feedback to create more empathy and connection and to replace in-room verbal and non-verbal cures and interaction we were missing.

Having your own sign language can also help to compensate for the limitations of video conferencing. Asking participants to show how they feel with a thumbs up or down signal, or something in between is an easy way to assess whether the instructions are clear or the team is ready to start, or finish. Though you can use emojis and other digital options, we felt that any physical action that linked participants to us and within the room was critical and an emoji is a poor substitute.

Whatever it is, the key is that everyone agrees on the same system of gestures or triggers, whatever you choose to use.

Variety and Learning Styles: Keeping people energised for eight hours in a face to face workshop is hard enough, but it’s not worth staying glued to a screen for that long — and probably isn’t necessary either. We shortened the screen time for sessions, gave assignments in between, ensured lots of change and movement, and changed speaker regularly.

Instead of 4.5 normal workshop days, the online version was converted to five 3.5 hour sessions, plus a half-day field research visit, all over the course of a 10-day period.

While we included a variety of “inhale moments” (brief presentations, new experts or guests) we were careful to balance these with longer “exhale moments” (group work, hands-on) for online format.

Cycling through divergent (e.g. going wide, generating lots of ideas) and convergent methods (going deep with a few ideas) also engaged a wide range of learning styles and helped to keep things interesting.

Investing in an offline Playbook brought us into the room, promoted design thinking in tone and approach, and ensured instructions were clearly understood covering us for technical and some connection issues.

Offline to support online: One invaluable adjustment that we made soon after the switch to a virtual workshop was to develop a ‘Playbook’ for participants.

The Playbook included all of our planned activities, plus additional reference and resource materials. Participants arrived on the first day with Part 1 (the first 3 sessions) printed and waiting for them. Part 2 was modified as we went and finalized before the final sessions. The Playbook anchored the participant experience during the workshop, provided key signposts and highlighted what was important at each stage of the process. Critically, it also provided a valuable offline resource in case of any technical blackout or glitch.

The Playbook facilitated additional self-paced learning outside the workshop — a take home reference which participants could annotate themselves and return to over time. We also thought it looked kinda cool and sent a message: this isn’t a regular workshop.

Overall, the approach meant that while technology was critical, it was not the only mode of delivery.

The spacing between sessions, sometimes as much as three days, also gave groups the flexibility to catch up or complete activities and assigned homework while juggling normal work demands, and gave the facilitators flexibility to adapt content and methodology along the way.

3- Make the Technology Work for You

Remote delivery requires early decisions about what platforms will be used. We needed to consider not only how to facilitate the actual online workshop, but also the communication, planning and information sharing before, during and after the workshop. We focussed on free (or already in use) and easy to use platforms and applications that would be accessible and effective for our participants.

Though connection issues meant we couldn’t use Miro for virtual workshop exercises, it was an excellent way to gather insights, summarize progress and build team through photos, input and evaluation.

We used Zoom, using the chat and breakout rooms constantly.. The breakout function was particularly useful, not only for focussed group assignments (just like a ‘normal’ workshop), but also for allowing fairly seamless toggling by the facilitator between the smaller working groups.

The main workshop space in a conference room in Lusaka, Zambia had a microphone and a single video camera. The quality and positioning of the camera and audio was an issue especially for those joining remotely.

As such, more effort (and time) is required to build the rapport that normally develops in face to face workshops.

For general documentation, Google Docs worked well, but to share outputs easily and in real time, Miro boards were a great way to summarize the day’s events, capture images of the work in the room, and to build a sense of a coherent whole to the workshop. Most participants were able to use the Zoom video format throughout, but working with Miro strained some internet connections in Zambia during online sessions.

WhatsApp was useful for group discussion and team building between screen sessions, and for sharing comments and photos throughout the workshop. During the field trip to a local hospital, it also helped the Facilitation Team to connect with the participants as they did their field work.

We also used WhatsApp to communicate between facilitators and avoid broadcasting to the entire workshop.

In short, choose complementary technologies. We didn’t find a single solution. Think carefully about what’s done best online with video, and what’s best on other channels. Build in the time to practice, or create team-building, energizing exercises to help people practice in a low-stress environment.

4- Rethink Roles

Be ready to define key roles more fully for the online format. For example, where facilitators and some participants are together and some dispersed, you will need to be particularly clear on who is doing what both in the room and online, as there isn’t much wiggle room for negotiating things on the run without interrupting the whole process.

Lead and Support Facilitators: Consider having lead and support roles when you try the online format. The support facilitator can take more responsibility for time keeping, taking notes, monitoring online chats and feedback, uploading to the Miro board or preparing for the next session. This set-up also provides a much-needed second voice to spark people’s attention again.

IT & Technology: If you can, splurge for a dedicated IT support person (not a participant doing double duty) during any online experience, and particularly using multiple platforms across multiple continents, with participants with different technology capacity and bandwidth.

There will always be lines dropping out, video pixelation, interrupted audio feeds, and formats that don’t speak to each other, no matter how many times you trial the system. In these moments, there is nothing like having an IT guru to minimise that awkward dead spot with a work around. Even when not in the same room, they can be a neutral voice to interrupt the flow to advocate for better sound, video, or use of a particular technology.

Admin & Coordination — In any process the unsung hero is usually the admin person who coordinates all those details like invitations, passwords and accreditation, transport for field visits, timing and connection for guest presenters and participants, and most important of all — coffee breaks and lunch — even if those who join remotely will miss out!

You might say all of this is obvious for any event, but when things go wrong during an online workshop, there is nowhere to hide — no unplanned coffee break while the microphone is replaced, no sudden energizer ‘onstage’ while the next speaker is located ‘offstage.’

The future is an empty chair?: From a workshop participant’s WhatsApp post.

What now?

While a degree of spontaneity and pace can be sacrificed online, at the same time a motivated group ready to embrace an experimentation mindset, and keen to learn something new can be surprisingly forgiving.

The nature of the COVID-19 crisis itself has stimulated a new level of interdependence and understanding that we are ‘all in this together’ and need to collaborate to make it work. This changes the dynamic in ways that the usual workshop interaction might not achieve.

So what would we do differently now? Hard to say. The world was different just a few months ago. Common Thread’s plans to increasingly explore virtual opportunities and methods to reduce our climate impact, to reduce costs, and to embrace technology are now on the fast-track. Virtual collaboration is at the centre of our work with clients, our company planning and team building, and even our research is rapidly shifting to virtual channels.

With our Zambia colleagues we are working on a refined HCD process mixing virtual, in-person and self-guided user research. Already we’re seeing the benefit of looking at the world from the user’s eyes directly.

We expect to continue innovating, and developing new HCD field tools in this post-COVID world. But we are also keeping a half-packed bag ready in the closet for that day when we can finally get back to Lusaka.

If you’re interested in insights from the fields of global health, behavioural science and designing for change, check out Common Thread’s Newsletter, The Stitch, or find out more about what we do at: gocommonthread.com



Common Thread

Behavioural design for public health. Find out more about us at gocommonthread.com