JournalOct 2016

Remote Design Thinking with Veronica Fossa, WeFactory

At Hanno, we use remote design thinking to collaborate, ideate and strategize especially when working on remote product design sprints. It’s used not just internally amongst ourselves but also with clients whom we’re working with on projects.

We’re big advocates of remote design thinking, and so it was only natural that we begin getting curious about how other remote teams and individuals use this method in their creative process and what it’s taught them about collaborating in a virtual space.

Which brings us to our very first interview with a remote design thinker. Meet Veronica Fossa, food strategist and founder of WE Factory.

Veronica and her nomadic team help businesses design whimsical food services and experiences that empower people and strive to improve well-being and happiness.

We chat with Veronica, a wearer of many hats related to design, food and well-being, to learn how she integrates remote design thinking within her team to help conceptualise winning food projects for clients.

What made you decide to try using design thinking remotely?

Actually, it came kind of naturally and out of necessity. I decided to practice design thinking internally with the ever changing team members and associates at WE Factory (while it’s mainly myself, extra team members join on a project basis), and teach others how to use it during my lectures at university and my workshops around the food and creative industries.

By the time I decided that WE Factory didn’t need to have an office in a fixed location where all the team members would gather physically, I started experimenting with how design thinking could work remotely. At the time, I wasn’t really calling it “remote design thinking”, but that was what we were basically doing, with a constant exploration and integration of new tools, which still continues today.

We learned more over time when new collaborators joined, including interns who weren’t familiar with the concept at all.

Visual Moodboard for MELT dinner conference concept (June 2016)

Which parts of the process were most difficult or easier to perform than what you imagined?

Research is the easiest part to perform remotely. However, there is a risk of getting all this information lost amongst all the contributions that come from the different team members involved. The process needs to be well organised and a dedicated place for collecting information needs to be allocated to prevent this from happening.

The most difficult part so far has been conceptualising. We recently worked on a competition proposal with another remote team. One of their key team members joined later when the process had already begun. Although we made the research available for everybody, she was keen on executing based on instructions and by providing final versions–which didn’t give us the space to provide feedback during the on-going process. Therefore, the design thinking process sort of failed because there was no space for the exchange of ideas and too much time was allocated towards figuring out how and where to share feedback with this person.

This experience made me think a lot, not only about tools but also cultures and attitudes–and that design thinking requires a big investment in terms of education and culture development in order to be performed successfully.

What lessons did you learn in the process?

The first big difficulty is to make remote work appealing and convenient to people. As a matter of fact, not everybody I’ve known since starting WE Factory is comfortable working with teams who are not in the same physical place. This is due to their fear of being left out, working in solitary at home and not being involved with the team and the company network.

How can I blame them? I had plenty of freelance experience before starting WE Factory but I saw no benefit to remote work at that time because it wasn’t thought through properly by the employer.

As a founder of a team that works remotely sometimes, I now employ these two tactics:

  1. Interns and collaborators: I spend time explaining what remote design thinking is and how we practice it. I describe the platforms we use, their purposes and how we engage with one another. I’ve even compiled a guidebook with a detailed a description on methods and tools on remote working.
  2. Clients: The challenge is much bigger with clients as they usually have their own management tools and cultures. And if the project is short-term, it’s much harder to get them to adopt a new method of collaborating. So I make it a priority to reserve time for feedback, where I provide comments on how we handled the design thinking process and how we can improve on it moving forward.

Remote design thinking works perfectly for conceptualising and developing digital services, but the big challenge arises when you have to develop a concept for a physical event, exhibition, or dinner.

For instance, when we develop a menu for an event, we can conceptualise it visually by compiling a list of ingredients and designing the dishes. However, there is no virtual test kitchen that would allow a team spread in different locations to taste the same food.

Therefore, I still can’t claim that we employ remote design thinking practices entirely in our process because the prototyping still needs to take place in a space where at least a few team members are physically together.

MELT event dinner conference concept (June 2016)

There is also a bunch of research which applies design thinking in the food industry, called food design thinking. In my workshops at the WE Factory Academy, I teach food entrepreneurs, marketing consultants and changemakers on what it means to practice the “cooking thinking” process. After all, cooking is a trial and error process that’s very similar to design thinking. During these workshops, I share my learnings and contextualise them for the food industry.

What tips would you give a team that is about to start practising remote design thinking for the first time?

If you want to practice remote design thinking, building trust is essential. It prevents issues linked to not knowing and not having faith in the other person, which are all described in books like Remote by 37 Signals. Also, start early and build a culture that is shared across the team.

Switching your collaboration process to remote design thinking all of a sudden requires a big investment in terms of time and energy, and becoming familiar with existing platforms that facilitate remote work.

I recently interviewed a potential intern for WE Factory. I explained to him how we work remotely and I described a couple of previous internship experiences, which well represent two extremes: travelling to work in the same location with the team full-time and working remotely but with very little face-to-face time with the team.

Whilst I think these two situations are not optimal for internships, where independence and self-initiative needs to be fostered and quite a bit of guidance is expected; a middle-ground solution would be perfect, with a good balance of remote work and face-to-face meetings. Each situation should be taken carefully into consideration in order to benefit both sides.

The best advice I could give for an individual or team starting to practice remote design thinking for the first time is learning to trust the process and being flexible about adjusting it when something clearly isn’t working for everyone involved.

A big thank you to Veronica for taking her time to share her experience on remote design thinking with us! Stay tuned for more interviews like this coming up in the Logbook.

Posted by
Laïla von Alvensleben

Laïla was a designer at Hanno from 2015-2018, helping us implement ways to work more effectively as a distributed team.