It's been a year of drastic change in ways of working. In the past, some of us have been fortunate enough to be able to choose to work from home from time to time, but only a few have made the leap into full-time remote working. While it's sometimes preferable to be able to leave the hustle and bustle off the office behind and find a comfortable place for deep concentration, this isolation also has a downside which becomes even more apparent when it's enforced and permanent. Communication is more regimented, chance encounters don't happen like they used to, and if we're not careful, work bleeds into free time and becomes impossible to get away from.
And as good as remote working tools have become, when it comes to design workshops, there's no substitute for being in the same room and bashing it out together.
Or is there?
At Narrandum, we know that design is a necessarily collaborative process. The more different points of view are collected, understood, and incorporated into your product, the better the result will be. So from the beginning, we built our service around teamworking. Customer journey maps, personas and insights can be shared among all team members, and worked on simultaneously.
But although it has always been possible to collaborate from anywhere, our focus was on creating a tool to turbocharge journey mapping workshops. Our vision was of the whole team in the same room, sharing the output on big screens, working on their own laptops and tablets to edit the service blueprint. Everyone would see the updates live, as they happened, and we didn't have to worry too much about being able to tell who was editing what, because everybody would see what everybody else was doing.
Then along came COVID-19, and it became obvious that this wasn't going to be enough. Design workshops weren't going to be happening for the foreseeable future. But the work must go on. So we had to improve our service to meet the new requirements of our users. We had to find a way to enable co-creation without co-location.
After a lot of head-scratching, we did just that.
Narrandum now shows everyone in a team when someone else is editing any part of a story, scene or character. So you and your team can work together as effectively as before. Well, almost.
If you're interested in how we did this, read on.
The key problem to be solved was: how do we handle it when multiple users are editing the same thing? We didn't want to lock out everyone except the person currently editing something – one of the key design principles of Narrandum is that it is here to facilitate you, not get in your way. Instead, we needed some way to show that something is being edited.
No doubt you're already familiar with the many services out there which signal that someone at the other end is typing – it's a common feature in instant messaging services like Whatsapp, and tools such as Google Docs or Miro also show who's doing what. So we knew it could be done. But as we started to look into it, we found that to show that it was quite straightforward to show that, for example, an entire story is being edited, but that wasn't good enough for us. We wanted to get down to individual fields, so that several users could edit the same scene at the same time. This, as it turned out, was rather more complicated.
But after a good week of chewing pencils and long, contemplative dog walks, we came up with a neat way of passing signals between users to show what the others are up to. So now if you're editing any part of a shared story or character, all the other users in your team will see a little pencil icon alongside the field you're working on. As soon as you're finished, this pencil will disappear again. It's completely unobtrusive, and not as distracting as seeing someone actually type things out live*.
We're quite proud of it. And the dog has forgiven us for tiring him out.
Pretty soon we're going to make a detailed tech blog post on how this works, so watch out for that if that's your thing.