Hackernoon logoHow To Run Digital Workshops on Figma by@metamick

How To Run Digital Workshops on Figma

Mick Morucci Hacker Noon profile picture

@metamickMick Morucci

In the space between people & tech. User researcher, anthropologist, economist creative, etc.

How I used Figma to run a comprehensive workshop with my team. Here are my thoughts on what works, what doesn’t, and how to go about building the remote workshop tools of the future.

The lockdown isn’t challenging roles and professions in themselves. It’s challenging their flexibility and resiliency. This is also true for us UX Designers and Researchers, for whom collaborative face-to-face exercises such as workshops are an important part of work life. 

There is this myth going around about how workshops are a ‘real-world’ activity that cannot be replicated virtually. Having successfully run a digital workshop myself, I’d like to debunk this myth.

Here I show how I ran it using Figma, a free collaborative design tool used primarily for creating and prototyping interfaces, such as websites or mobile apps. Although Figma is not a fit-for-purpose tool for running digital workshops (such as Google’s Jamboard, for example), it is versatile enough to enable them and, in my experience, provides an even better experience.

Setting the scene

A few weeks ago, when my side of the world was already well into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, a start-up reached out to me in its discovery phase. The startup had a product idea. What it did not have was a clear idea of who their primary users would be, in order to choose which specific market to target, and what the requirements should be for its minimum viable product (MVP). 

To fill in those gaps, we started by following the double diamond process to first expand the problem space and then narrow it down. This helped us to identify all the possible user segments for their product, before selecting the most relevant segments that we chose to prioritise and keep in mind when developing the product further.

This expand-than-narrow thinking exercise is a great opportunity to get team members to share their ideas and visions for a product, which can bring a lot of value for all involved when done in a workshop environment. Workshops allow each member of the team to share their personal ideas and beliefs, and enable the whole team to converge on prioritised areas.

This gives teams the platform for constructive discussions and to reach an agreed direction on what their next steps should be. (For more on the value of workshops, the book Sprint by @Jake Knapp is a must read.)

To enable all this, virtually, some preparation work was needed. To set the scene, I began by creating the essential ‘virtual assets’ which included: whiteboards for each participant, post-it-like coloured boxes with text inside of them, prioritisation stickers (yellow and red), 2x2 graphs, table for the final priority areas. 

On the following day, we were ready to go and all participants joined a Zoom call and logged in to Figma to get started.

The digital workshop involved the following:

  • A brief explanation of how to operate Figma and what our workshop would work.
  • Running Crazy eight-like exercises to brainstorm all the possible user segments (A).
  • Synthesising and organising the different user segments (B).
  • Building 2x2 graphs with key identified variables to prioritise user segments (C).
  • Prioritising which user segments to focus on–first individually, and then collectively (B and D).

What worked well on Figma

  • Doing individual design exercises: each user was able to jot down their ideas effectively in their own whiteboards.
  • Coming together to brainstorm: coming together as a team to discuss similarities and differences in our individual answers worked great. I ended up copy-pasting the relevant ideas which enabled us to synthesise the material more effectively for future reference.
  • Prioritisation exercises: the red and yellow stickers worked as well digitally as they do in the real world. 
  • Creating 2x2 graphs: making 2x2 graphs was very easy and perhaps more effective than it is in real-world workshops because of our ability to mould geometric shapes at our will (e.g. we made them big and small to represent the user segments’ relative market sizes).
  • It was totally free: unlike the physical world, which requires post-its, markers, stickers, and a room, joining in this digital workshop cost us nothing on top of our usual internet bills.

What didn’t work so well

  • Initial struggle in modifying shapes: Despite my quick intro, some people who were unfamiliar with Figma did struggle to create new post-its and change text fonts. This highlights a requirement for a less complex tool at the cost of having less plasticity.
  • People’s presence in the virtual space is missing:  a valuable part of being in a workshop is the opportunity to be amongst the participants, and I think we can all agree that the feeling of being in a room with a group of participants is unique and un-replicable digitally. However, I think we can do better than what we have now , which is being represented by an arrow with our names (see below) - note that I’d rather be a potato than an arrow. I don’t have the answer to the problem of digital presence, but it’s worth noting some interesting experiments that are emerging: 2D avatars solutions by Remo and The Online Town, and 3D/virtual reality tools such as Cryptovoxels.
  • Creating virtual graphs for analysis could be greatly enhanced: we were able to draw 2x2 graphs, but imagine how impressive it would be if we could integrate an editable table linked to a range of possible graphs?
  • Splitting in teams was not possible: splitting in smaller groups is a great way to divide and conquer information, which means you can get a lot more done within the time of a workshop. We were unable to do this exercise in Figma (although we could have done this by using the paid version of Zoom).
  • The view of the workshop felt slightly clunky: this may be due to the large sidebars (on left and right) which got in the way of seeing the whiteboards.
  • No clear division between different workspaces: In several cases, some participants were looking over (i.e. copying) each other's work by simply moving to each others’ whiteboards. Cheeky cheeky. 
  • https://media.giphy.com/media/d1E1msx7Yw5Ne1Fe/giphy.gif

What else is available today

As Jesse Powel put it, “knowledge work is becoming increasingly remote as online collaboration tools improve.” So why shouldn’t we also put workshops on digital platforms? It turns out that some companies are trying to enable that by developing the appropriate technology to support dynamic workshops online.

Google (@Gsuite) is one of them. As part of their strategy to create the work software of the future, it recently launched Jamboard, a free collaboration tool designed for virtual workshops, which can also be used in conjunction to their Jamboard digital whiteboard, worth $4,999.

To be fair, this tool provides everything you can think of, when it comes to real-life workshops: post-its, drawing boards, ability to put and take out images, different white boards, you name it.

With this tool, Google brought the physical workshop into the digital realm. But, it must be said, that is not the same as making workshop digital. By ‘bringing’ it to the screen exactly as they are in the analogue world, Google also carried over the limitations of physical workshops to the digital realm, which is arguably the land of ‘everything is possible’ (or should be).

In other words: Google did not fully consider how digital can add to the physical workshop experience, instead of simply replicating it. 

To provide just three examples of the Jamboard experience: 

  • It’s a highly messy environment much like real world workshops: but using magnetic grids, we could make digital workshops organised and clean instead. Figma enables that.
  • There is a lack of objects and a limited ability to modify them. What about the infinite array of shapes we could use in a digital environment? Figma enables that too.
  • There is a lack of tools and functionalities that are commonplace in digital applications, such as tables, graphs and functions.

After using Figma I felt constricted with Jamboard, which is ironic considering that the latter is the fit-for-purpose tool. 

Looking forward

What this exercise has revealed to me is that workshops can go digital, no doubt about it.

Most of the limitations I’ve encountered so far when running digital workshops are related to the tools I used, rather than to a generic incompatibility between workshops and online experiences.

So far, I’ll stick with the impression that versatile tools like Figma can go a long way for enabling excellent digital workshops, while fit-for-purpose tools still have a long way to go to do the same.

Importantly, when building the collaborative tools of the future, we should not simply ‘bring’ physical activities into the digital realm exactly as they are. Instead, we should explore the limitless possibilities of the digital realm to expand our experiences and enable us to do things that would be impossible elsewhere. 

When building the future, let’s empower our users with the malleability of the digital world. 

In the meantime, those of us working from home can start by digitising activities that we used to believe were tied to their physical conditions, be that with a costly fit-for-purpose software or just an extra dose of imagination.


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