What I Learned Running a Remote Product Discovery

Oli Gibson
Oli Gibson
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The world has changed dramatically over the last few months. The spread of COVID-19 has led to a third of the world’s population living in self-quarantine, causing us all to reconsider how we live and work in order to cope with our newfound reality.

As with all changes, the move to remote working poses some challenges but also creates the opportunity for great benefits. Over the last two years at ThoughtWorks, I’ve seen some of these benefits and challenges as much of our internal work was remote-first. However, COVID-19 has meant that now our client-facing work must also be conducted remotely leading to a new set of challenges and opportunities.

Last week I led my first fully remote product discovery. This was a step into the unknown as I took our co-located workshop techniques and tried to translate them into a remote-first world. Through this article, I’ll share this experience and what I learned in the process. I’m sure many of you are going through the same adjustment at the moment, so I hope by sharing my experiences it will help you avoid some of my mistakes and make your discovery sessions even better!

Before the Discovery

Select the right tools: Before you start, it’s essential to ensure you have the right tools to facilitate your communication and collaboration. There are many available, but here’s what we used:

  • Team Communication: We use Zoom for video conferencing, which has been great, and Google Chat to create a team space.
  • Shared Workspace: You need a single place where all the assets for the discovery can be stored; for us, it’s Google Drive.
  • Collaboration Space: If you are running workshops, you’ll need a virtual whiteboard or similar space where everyone can collaboratively contribute. We use Mural, which provides excellent facilitator tools like timers and voting, but I’ve also found the free tools in Gsuite can work, albeit in less creative ways.

Book time in advance: It’s even more important to have a clear plan for your discovery when you are remote. Everyone needs to understand the expectations of their time and when they need to be available since we can’t just find them in the office!

  • Book sessions individually in everyone’s calendar, try not to book anything longer than 1:30, because people start to get restless.
  • Plan more breaks than you think you’ll need. Be conscious that some participants might also be looking after children or family. We found 15-30mins every 1:30 was about right.
  • Send people the session details in advance so they can sign up for the tools and be in the right place to start the session.
  • Ensure everyone knows the goal of the session in advance by putting this in the calendar invite – people are more comfortable when they know what to expect.

Create and protect team social time: Working remotely made me realise how often breakthrough ideas happen in the casual conversations that happen over lunch, coffee or between sessions. During a remote discovery, you need to be more intentional about creating space for these conversations. I recommend scheduling virtual team lunches and coffee breaks. Attendance should be optional, and there shouldn’t be a plan, simply use the time to hang out together.

Organise a pre-discovery tech check: There’s a lot that needs to work to ensure your remote discovery runs smoothly. Everyone needs to be able to join the video calls, access the collaboration tools and work out where the best internet connection is in their house! The last thing you want is someone to be unable to contribute or to spend half your session troubleshooting technical issues. Avoid all this by having a quick team call before the discovery to ensure everyone’s tech works in advance.

During the Discovery

Start every session with introductions: When working remotely, it’s a lot harder for people to build a connection to those in the room. It’s likely that throughout your discovery you will have different participants in every session so take the time at the start to introduce everyone. I like to get each person to introduce themselves and then pick the next person to avoid any awkward silences!

Teach people to use collaboration tools: For a lot of people who participated in our discovery sessions, it was the first time they had used some of the collaboration tools. It’s worth spending a few minutes at the start of sessions reminding people of the basics they will need to be able to contribute effectively. Trust me it will save you time later on!

Facilitate in pairs: I’m a big proponent of pairing, but it’s even more useful when facilitating remotely. We found it best to separate responsibilities, with one person running the session verbally and the other organising the collaboration space, taking notes and consolidating on the fly. I’d also recommend having a third person available who understands the plan for the session as a backup facilitator who can step in if someone’s internet goes down!

Capture everything: As with co-located discoveries, it’s vital to capture as much as possible, you never know what you will need later! I would recommend you record all your calls and also take screenshots of people on the call to bring sessions to life in playbacks. The great thing about collaborating remotely is a lot of the work is captured automatically using tools like MURAL, just remember to consolidate, add notes and share after the session!

After the Discovery

Summarise, summarise, summarise: The amount of information that people need to consume through a discovery is vast, and it can be hard for people to remember everything. We usually get around this problem by displaying session outputs on the walls, but you can’t do that remotely. Instead, you can send round-up emails that link people to key assets in a structured way. I recommend sending a daily round-up that highlights daily learnings and an end of discovery email with all the captured assets.

Remember the retrospective: Being remote means retrospectives are even more important because it can be harder for people to raise issues than in person. I recommend using Fun Retro to collaborate and conducting mini retros regularly through the discovery as well as at the end.

There are undoubtedly challenges in running remote discoveries but not as many as you might think. I was also presently surprised by a few great benefits, including:

  • It’s more efficient: Generally, the sessions were more focused, and people stick to time limits better. 
  • There is less work to consolidate: Everything is already digitised so you don’t have to spend hours making physical outputs, digitally sharable.
  • We can work globally: In our discovery, we had people in five cities across three countries. If everyone is remote, everyone is equal no matter where in the world they are. It makes it much easier to collaborate across regions.
  • It’s better for the environment: There’s no travel, we use way less paper and hardly any post-it notes!

I’ve been surprised at how easy it has been to transition to fully-remote working. If you would like help with your own remote product discovery send me a message!

I’m also still learning and improving my methods so if you have some great techniques you’ve used, I’d love to incorporate them. I’m currently planning my first remote inception so tips and tricks are gratefully received!