Remote collaboration pain? Try a dash of Google Drawings!

July 12, 2017

Let’s face it. We’ve all been there.

Trapped in a meeting that seems to be going nowhere, while the team on the other end of the call dominates the entire conversation. And, isn’t this the fourth time this month you’ve discussed this very issue?

Meetings are a necessary part of working on a team. It is important to work together to generate ideas, create consensus, share progress, and plan work. This is difficult enough when the team is together in one room, with the ability to read body language and use whiteboards to visualize ideas. Add video conferencing to the mix, and collaboration can become downright frustrating.

Our team has been iterating on using Google® Drawings to bring some of the ideas from Gamestorming into practical use. We’ve found them helpful in facilitating remote collaboration, and general enough to apply to many situations.

In January, the UX team wanted to gather feedback on changes to job descriptions and expectations. We used the "Wall Critique" framework (described below) to gather a large amount of feedback in a 30-minute meeting.

How drawings help solve remote meeting pain

Why are we here? Drawings help frame the problem, scope, and objectives of the meeting. It takes very little time before the meeting to throw them together. They don’t feel as “corporate” as an agenda and are flexible enough to follow discussions into uncharted waters.

The talking stick dilemma. In a conversation, only one person can speak at a time. In a video conference situation, this effect is even more dramatic with lag and the always awkward “you go” ... “no, you go.”

If you are the only remote person on a call with a room full of people in the same location, it can be almost impossible to interject your opinion without interrupting. In a drawing, everyone can add their comments at the same time, and then those can be used to organize the discussion after.

Build shared understanding. It is easy to talk around a problem or share some documentation and think that everyone is on the same page. Most of the time they aren’t. By getting more visual, Google Drawings helps reveal where there may be differing assumptions and help teams build shared understanding together.

A whiteboard that everyone can see. Drawings are like whiteboards, but instead of trying to awkwardly align a webcam or read out what was written on sticky notes, everyone can control what they are looking at.

No more of the loudest opinion wins. Drawings are by default democratic. Everyone has an equal opportunity to add their two cents. You can avoid ideas gaining traction for no other reason than the bandwagon effect or having been the last item discussed. The team can all vote for topics that are most worth discussing. They can even be permissioned to provide anonymous feedback—if you want to avoid the highest seniority opinion winning.

Record of the discussion. Taking notes is an important way to encourage meeting follow-up and prevent continually revisiting the same topic. Collaboratively building on drawings in a meeting gives a tangible artifact that can be referred to later. Everyone can still add their own notes, but it’s less disorienting than a constantly shifting Google document.

How to use drawings in your next meeting

Before the meeting:

  • Determine what the meeting’s objective is and what input you want from the people invited.

  • Create drawings in Drive under the More flyout on the New button. You could also copy from one of your prior drawings or one of the templates I’ve started.

  • Build out the framework for your discussion. Need some framework ideas? I’ve detailed a few common frameworks that work in a lot of situations like the ones outlined below, but you can certainly be creative and make your own. The bulk of the work when creating a drawing framework is choosing which of the following attributes best represent what you’re discussing:

    • Rectangle/sticky note color: Color can be a great high-level way to distinguish different notes, e.g., good vs. bad, high-level vs. details, person, category, etc.

    • Rectangle/sticky note size: A good use of this feature is to resize the rectangles based on content types, e.g., headings vs. sub-notes.

    • Rectangle/sticky note position: Where someone puts his or her sticky note matters. Common position rules are grouping around common questions or themes, lining up horizontally and/or vertically, position over pasted content.

    • Stickers: Stickers aren’t intended to have text added, but help call attention to key points.

    • Pasted content: Add screenshots, gifs, diagrams, code blocks, or anything else that might help the conversation. (Read the lessons learned for a few pro tips.)

    • Give permission to invitees, and add a link to the drawing to the calendar invite or a chat room.

During the meeting:

  • Even if you didn’t have time to prepare, you can quickly create or copy one of the templates and share it out in the moment if you hear the conversation going off the rails.

  • Meeting attendees need their computers and a link to the drawing. They should be prepared to participate.

  • The meeting organizer should take a few minutes to frame the agenda and the activity.

  • Think of the drawing as your whiteboard. Use sticky notes (colored rectangle shapes) and stickers off to the left by copying and pasting (or ALT-dragging) them into the main canvas area. Paste relevant screenshots, gifs, diagrams, code blocks, or whatever might help the conversation, onto the canvas. Type out your ideas, thoughts, concerns, and comments.

  • Give a set amount of time for free-for-all commenting (5–10 minutes). We haven’t found it to be as successful if you expect people to add comments as another discussion is happening. It can work to have people add notes before the meeting, but most times people get busy and forget.

  • Depending on how you structure your meeting, it is often useful to spend some time discussing the notes on the drawing, asking follow up questions, distilling themes, and having broader discussion. Try to capture these conversations using a different colored sticky note.

MissionImpossibleTasking.png

The Tasking team combined the Gamestorming activity "Mission Impossible" with the "Affinity Map" framework (described below) to generate ideas around bulk task creation.

Lessons learned

  • Teach people how to zoom in and out. Click the zoom tool. Click to zoom in. CTRL+click to zoom out. It isn’t intuitive and is often people’s biggest challenge.

  • Set the background by right clicking the canvas. I find the checkerboard canvas distracting and prefer a solid color.

  • Set the canvas size via File > Page Setup to at least 25” wide. It forces more zooming but you run into fewer font-size constraints and awkward sizing. Plus, you need room for all those ideas!

  • Use keyboard shortcuts to copy screenshots to the clipboard. On a Mac, CMD+CTRL+SHIFT+4 lets you select a range and copies that part of your screen to the clipboard (CMD+SHIFT+4 saves the screenshot to the desktop if you want that). You can also use a screen-grabbing tool like Skitch.

  • When pasting code from any JetBrains® IDE or VS Code, choosing a monospace font and changing the background color works well and keeps syntax highlighting intact! (See the Wall Critique example.)

  • Keep the instructions simple and focused. Too many rules make it confusing for people to follow along and often harder to interpret after the fact. See the example frameworks.

  • Avoid using Google’s comments feature. The comments disappear to the right, and it becomes difficult to identify what the comment refers to.

  • Turn sticky notes into a list via copy paste. Drag around a group of sticky notes to select, copy, and then paste it into a text document—each card will come out as its own line.

  • Don’t use them as a living document. It is hard to keep your drawings up to date if you’re not constantly looking at them. Documents, tickets, and other tools work better for live documentation.

Common drawing frameworks

Retro

ExRetroTopics.png

ExRetroAuthors.png

Continuously evolve processes by identifying what went well, what didn’t go well and what could be done to improve. The first retro template focuses on a narrow set of topics, while this alternate template opens up to more general discussion and focuses on the author.

Affinity Map

ExAffinityMap.png

Generate and organize ideas into natural themes and groupings.

Coordinate Plot

ExCoordinateMap.png

Quantify ideas, problems, and opportunities by mapping them on a 2 or 4 axis spectrum.

Story Map

ExStoryMap.png

Break down a process or customer journey into concrete components that can be prioritized and understood.

Journey Map

ExJourneyMap (1).png

Identify opportunities by charting a story or process, focusing mainly on the main character’s emotions throughout.

Customer Call Canvas

ExCustomerCall.png

Build shared takeaways and engagement with a large group while a feedback call is taking place.

Wall Critique

ExWallCrit.png

Quickly gather feedback on an idea or solution

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