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Neighbourhoods by Design Digital: The Back End – tools and practical tips for online creative workshops

Posted on 22 October 2020

Written by:

Grace Crannis

Last week, The Glass-House team delivered our first completely digital version of our Homes & Neighbourhoods by Design course for members of the Community Design Group on Broadwater Farm Estate in North London. This blog, one of a series that shares our reflections and learnings, is about the practical side of translating a very hands-on course into an online workshop.

Part of the magic of ‘normal’ Design Training is the opportunity to spend a good chunk of time exploring design concepts, applying it to real world situations, and working together to explore co-design. We were keen to make sessions as creative and interesting as possible, and fight the zoom fatigue most of us are experiencing. 

Planning and more planning 

What was clear from the delivery of these sessions was that the preparation was intensive. This process was new to us, so we saw it as an investment in a workshop model that is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Building in the creative touches that participants value from Glass-House workshops required a lot more thought and problem solving than if we’d been together in person. Small things, like offering a lunch token from the local community cafe became a logistical feat and wondering whether clipboards would fit through letterboxes in the run up to the first workshop is not something we’d usually have to consider. 

Selecting a platform

There was lots to bear in mind when it came to selecting the right platform for the workshop. We needed something that was visually appealing, easy-ish to use (more on that in the facilitation blog), and could be easily shared and managed between our team who were split between London and Manchester. 

We settled on Zoom & Miro, and provided some clear instructions, offers of extra support, and a test board for experimentation before the session. We also built extra time to walk through the tools, and as facilitators, be prepared to take over with ‘driving on screen share’ if participants were finding it tricky to navigate so they could still be involved. 

It was important to keep screen time at a manageable level and fit around everyone’s busy lives, so we split the sessions into three; with one long Saturday and two shorter weekday evenings. For most of the time, we stayed together as a group of up to 12 in the main Zoom Room, and split into small breakout rooms of 3-4 participants for the group activities.

Juggling priorities 

It quickly became clear that for most groups that despite our planning, one facilitator was not enough, especially when there were issues accessing the Miro board.

At one point, I found myself leading an activity in a breakout session when, as the Zoom host, my presence was requested to solve a problem elsewhere. Luckily I was able to hand over to a colleague, but it highlighted the need to have extra pairs of hands around, and how vital it was to split the Zoom hosting and workshop facilitation responsibilities moving forward. 

Crossing the digital divide

Translating the creative tasks into a digital format that would still be enjoyable was essential to the overall success of the workshop. We didn’t want to lose all the elements that made Design Training fun to be a part of. 

A site visit to a similar estate is a huge part of the course, and allows participants to connect design thinking to real life places and think differently about their own. We also often build in a walkabout with participants in their own local environment, which we included in the session. As we couldn’t all go out on site together, our solution was to create a walking tour pack along with printed digital instructions which we posted to participants along with a clipboard and pen. For those who were based on the estate and able to take part on the day, they could complete the walking tour in the allocated time and record their reflections using our grid to share with the group later. Participants could also complete the tour in their own time if that suited them better.

Compiling the videos for the digital walking tour
The completed observation sheet
A participant’s photo montage of their walking tour

As an alternative, I headed to Broadwater before the workshop to film the tour stops which we were then able to watch together in Zoom. This worked really well as an exercise, and although it was a very different experience to a real walking tour, it gave us more control and meant we weren’t battling the background noise of a site visit. 

I thought the walking tour worked better than anticipated… and we were able engage in stimulating dialogue about space and urban design whilst ‘walking’ through the site together.

Glass-House Enabler from Urbed

Thinking ‘user-friendly’

For the main creative task, we needed to set up the digital workspace to be as easy to navigate as possible to give participants the best opportunity we could to get going in the limited time frame. This meant clearly labelling work areas, adding extra instructions to the Miro board, and providing elements that could be copied and manipulated to save time.

As facilitators, we had to allow for different types of participation and be able to include everyone in the process. Some people with a laptop were happy to jump in and start using the tools, while  others logging in from a tablet preferred to talk about their points while someone else added them to the board.

Reading architectural drawings on the Miro board

I think next time I would run a separate workshop teaching the technical software before the actual design workshop. For those that were still struggling, one on one tutoring could be an option, or attendees could be grouped into similar technical abilities with a facilitator responding specifically to that level of familiarity with the Miro Boards

Glass-House Enabler from Urbed
The final result from my group’s creative co-design task

A new model

Despite attending and participating in many sessions which use Zoom & Miro, running them requires a very different level of knowledge, especially if sessions are being recorded as ours were (read more in our capturing and sharing blog). 

Our in-house dry run before the first session gave us some valuable insights into how the tech would integrate with the more straightforward elements like presenting, but did not apply to the dynamic of group management. We made mistakes, and with the benefit of three sessions and generous participants, were able to iterate and improve as we went. 

I felt a bit torn between tasks, although it actually seemed to work out ok, and we shared a few laughs about small technological errors so it didn’t really feel awkward.

Glass-House Enabler from Urbed

Whilst some activities were undoubtedly tricker to manage online, others translated brilliantly, and participants appreciated the flexibility of being at home, the dynamic of screen sharing and working in smaller groups. Investing time in the extra touches was definitely worth it, and we produced some fantastic outcomes which retained the essence of our usual workshops. 

Explore our reflections on digital Design Training with our three linked blogs, each of which focuses on a specific area of consideration: