At Chess, we have always tried to take a creative approach to requirements gathering. Rather than sit passively across a table from ‘stakeholders’ with laptops open and an expectant cursor blinking at a cell within DevOps, we’ve found that the best results and understanding are gained when clients are actively engaged in an environment that encourages open conversation, debate and structured consideration.

Innovation and improvements are much more likely to occur as a result of creative collaboration with colleagues and partners than in isolation. Where the conditions are in place to support this, through planned, outcome-driven activity, customers are more likely to feel part of the creative process and as a result, assume a higher degree of investment in both the project and the relationship.

Until March this year, the assumption was that we could meet in person with a client or project partner several times to move through the requirements definition process, from establishing success criteria and business requirements, defining user personas and mood boards through to the development of an initial product backlog. To migrate this process and ‘established practice’, the success of which seemed entirely reliant on working in a shared physical space, to an online environment would have seemed inconceivable four months ago.

As it turns out, the process of developing a new approach which utilises a combination of existing and emerging tools has evolved like a project in itself. It had an uncertain and undefined beginning and through time has developed to become something close to ‘best practice’, albeit very much at ‘Version 1’.

Our tools of choice during this time have been a combination of Miro, the intuitive, feature-rich online whiteboarding platform, and Teams, Microsoft’s unified communication and collaboration platform which a large percentage of the population must feel they’ve been living in for months. Having designed and facilitated workshops involving many participants, what we think are the key learnings and suggested methods are listed below:

1. Preparation
It’s important to circulate as much information as possible in advance as this type of material and content can be difficult to communicate and digest at the beginning of an online workshop. Miro has an excellent (and underused) ‘notes’ feature where an agenda circulated via email can be replicated and referred to during the session.

2. Establishing roles and responsibilities
From a facilitation perspective, as is the case with a ‘real world’ sessions, it can be challenging for one person to both guide a session and respond to dialogue. We tend to run workshops as a double act - with someone responsible for ‘owning’ the session and guiding the group through various tasks, and someone else ‘riding shotgun’, whose role it is to listen to the discussion and record key points or ideas. This is particularly important during the early stages of a session when participants may be more apprehensive with respect to working in a digital environment.

3. Orientation
Over the last few months, we devised a number of ‘icebreaker’ tasks in Miro that allow users to explore some of the basic features and UI they will be using later in the session. A favourite so far has involved participants adding their name to a map indicating where they are from, or where they are living. In addition to this being a fun activity, the task encourages conversation and discussion across the group.

4. Encourage Engagement
One of the advantages of hosting a digital session is that it provides those individuals who in a physical space might feel intimidated and shy, with the opportunity to express themselves. Once it becomes clear that every statement or contribution is not subject to the scrutiny sometimes associated with normal social settings, participants often move from a place of uncertainty and unfamiliarity to one where they enjoy influencing the discussion and decision making.

5. Communication
One of the soundbites that lockdown will undoubtedly be associated with is the group proclamation of; ‘you’re on mute!’. In order to avoid these issues, which can be jarring and impact the flow of a session, it’s important to establish how and where communication between participants will take place. Although both systems, Miro and Teams, offer messaging functionality and video chat, because our meetings and workshops are generally arranged in Teams, we have tended to use the Microsoft environment to communicate with attendees before and during the session. That said, the messaging function in Miro is often used during a workshop by members of the host team to discuss a potential amendment to a board or change in the proposed running order.

6. Closing the Gap
A common frustration associated the typical ‘Post-it parties’ can be that while these types of sessions can be useful as a way of gaining insight and an understanding of user requirements, they often don’t go far enough in terms of actually defining requirements and functional success criteria. Tools like Jira, which can be used within Miro, allows for virtual ‘stickies’ to be converted to cards that contain the type of detailed information required by a development team.

7. Play to the strengths
Miro offers some handy and intuitive functions such as a voting feature and a timer which can help instil a sense of gamification, softening the digital working environment. There are also a series of very useful and provocative templates which can inspire ideas and save a lot of time.

8. Asynchronous benefits
Often good ideas come following an intense collaborative session when you’re undertaking a repetitive, routine task like driving or taking a shower. Unlike a physical space, a huge benefit to working on a virtual board is that it allows users to return and add comments having had time to digest and synthesise discussion and outputs. Clients and partners can be granted permissions to export all or part of the board as an image to include in presentations.

What recent months have proven is that it is possible to undertake a requirements elicitation process in an entirely digital context. Is it ideal? Probably not, as many of the instinctive, social communication signals we take for granted are impossible to read. However, as these senses are obstructed, others become heightened, and we’ve found that using the right blend of digital tools results in outputs being less ambiguous and more defined. As such, in some ways, the time/benefit payoff is better. Once the tide rolls back out on the ways we have all had to work I suspect what will remain is a hybrid model that blends a physical environment where stories can be told (the best was of capturing requirements) and empathy achieved, with robust, efficient digital tools and techniques.

About Don McIntyre
Don is a designer, technologist and educator who has spent more than 20 years working at the junction of design and technology with companies and organisations across commercial, public and applied research sectors such as Oyster Partners (now DigitasLBi), The Fraunhofer Institute, MIT and Giugiaro. He speaks regularly at public forums on the transformative capability of design innovation and divides his time between the Innovation School at Glasgow School of Art, where he is Design Director, The Digital Health and Care Institute, and Chess Digital where he is Creative Lead.