Design studio chaos

Last week my designer-buddy and I ran a design studio with our team.

Some things about our team.

1. They’re located in another country.
2. We have about 3 hours of working day overlap.
3. We talk a lot on Slack and via online video.

The two of us, the designers, are based in Melbourne, along with the product manager. But everyone else is in the other office.

In the past we’ve run design studios with the team. We’ve used very narrow scenarios, we’ve had all the answers lined up to all of the questions and the output has been very similar screen designs or user flows.

This time we took a design scenario to the team that we didn’t have all the answers to, we were still iterating on ourselves. When they asked us, we put it back to them. “We want to know what you think. It’s OK. We won’t implement your ideas straight away. But we want your designs to help us see what we haven’t thought through”.

It backfired.

There were 30 minutes of questions, which we couldn’t answer. You could hear, through the skype call, the session slowly derailling.

The designs the team came up with were great. The greatest stuff, and the most useful for us, that had ever been produced from a design studio. It felt, from my perspective at least, it was a proper design studio, and not just an exercise in how people would lay out different elements on the screen.

But, from the team’s perspective, it was not a good experience. There were too many unanswered questions. There was too much uncertainty. And the uncertainty has now bled into other parts of the work we’ve been working on. Too many “open questions”. “Did we do any user research?”

What makes that even tricker is, because we’re not co-located, you kind of get hints that things are going south, but you’re not 100% and then when things do end up in the South Pole it takes another day or two to get everyone in the same meeting to talk things through.

I guess it was a fail, overall, if the goal was to engage the team in the “design” process.
But it was a real success from our point of view. Their work actively contributed to the way we were thinking of the problem.

I’m still on the fence about what the next steps should be here. I’m leaning towards not running a design studio like that again. And that’s partly due to the distance. It’s too hard to explain things and guide them, after a session, so that you can help people reflect and learn from a session that wasn’t quite what they expected.

It’s a shame, because I thought it was a good step forward. But it’s been a step back really, for everyone. Perhaps it’s best if we go back to more narrow and tightly-defined design studios that are really an exercise in helping them see what we have already seen, rather than an exercise in helping us see the begins of something better than we could have come up with by ourselves.