Digital Facilitation Techniques for Research and Insights

The year 2020 will become a historical dividing line for many companies defining the shift from “how we used to do something” to “how we’ve adapted”. Sometimes forced change drives innovation and embracing the experience can lead to meaningful conversations and transformation. Here at Conifer, that is exactly what happened.

In our world, most of our time is spent exploring forces of change from the consumer’s perspective - it is those whom we study who are the ones experiencing change. But in this moment, we as researchers and brand leaders were also thrown into the shifting tides. Finding ourselves not exempt from adaptation, we had to look at the way we work with each other, the way we work with research participants, and the way we work with clients. While our previous day-to-day was shepherding clients through change, we were there with them, facing our own tough challenges to rethink how we work, how we connect, and how we deliver for clients as we faced some of our own wicked challenges.

Through this process, we have had some epiphanies about work and workflows which have resulted in serious improvements to our systems. We have pushed into new ways of digital facilitation of ethnographic research. Here we’ll share our top takeaways about how we honed our skills and sharpened our techniques to face this challenge head on and come away with quality data for meaningful outcomes.

The Background Noise of Facilitation

Once upon a time “facilitation” was just another part of the job. When you have in-person meetings, big workshops, milestone reveals or the final delivery of results, these events need to be facilitated. The stakes are always high when you are asking leaders from different parts of a company to be in a room together, to set their work aside, and to contribute to the learning and discovery process of research. When a meeting is called with stakeholders, the pressure is on to make the best use of executives’ time. At Conifer, these in-person events required a lot of invisible orchestration. We would plan for weeks - everything from the travel, the hospitality details, venue set up, detailed agendas, time keeping, group dynamics, to the pivots, prompts and provocations we would use if people felt tired, stuck or needed some course correction.

All of this took a tremendous amount of mental effort and coordination. Our team had to develop signals that were almost telepathic: these invisible logistics were done through body language and other nuanced non-verbal communication. In many ways, our teams have been freed from having to manage all of these details, allowing us to spend more time on the things that matter: the strategy and activation parts of our work.

The Realities of Digital Facilitation

Enter digital facilitation. While we were once able to control the background noise and manage attention spans, we now have much less control over what is happening in our clients’ homes, screens and living rooms. This requires us to take on facilitation with new considerations about providing clarity of roles, pacing, making dedicated time for thinking and individual work vs. group discussion - all without being in the same room. 

The Limitations of Zoom

“Just move it to Zoom,” (... or Teams… or Hangouts… or Webex… or…) became the rally cry of researchers around the world. The ease and accessibility of this technology is indeed a lifesaver, but it has its limits. No one, and we truly mean no one, really loves a Zoom meeting that goes past 90 minutes. We are convinced whoever builds the 90-minute video conference self-destruct button into their platform will have a winner. Inevitably, as soon as someone needs a snack or a bio break the meeting is basically over.  Gone are the days when we’d have half- or even full-day workshops to bring people together  in a physical room and move mountains. We all seem to have that 90-minute timer in our heads, requiring us to rethink pacing work and collaboration engagements while yielding comparable accomplishments.


Approach remote ethnographic studies like planning a party. Great hosts consider their guests’ experience from beginning to end. 

InvitationThe Invitation: Be clear about more than the where and when of the event. The invitation should drum up excitement and deliver clear expectations to get ahead of questions like, “What should I wear?” and “How will I contribute?” and “What do I need to bring or prepare?”  


VibeThe Vibe: A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes on to plan a good party. Quoting one of our favorite client partners: “You don’t want to invite people to a party that sucks!” The vibe sets the tone for all of the interaction to come. We asked ourselves: “How do we make the environment fun and playful?” “How do we set the tone for creativity and openness?” “What will people need to keep them fueled physically and mentally?”

SizeThe Size: When it comes to facilitating in-person group sessions with research participants, we found it easy to work with larger groups even up to 10 people at a time. With a really great agenda, you can have a nice mix of individual and group activities. The flow worked since people tended to come a bit early, start chatting and rapport building was rather effortless. Online, you lose a lot of the social cues that make discussion effortless, requiring a new social dance of getting to know the group and feeling comfortable sharing what could be deeply personal feelings. Keeping the size much smaller helps to still allow for that unscripted interaction necessary while still not robbing the team of too much of the precious 90 minutes. Same goes with internal work session sizes: at some point, smaller break out groups become essential. And unlike a conference room where a facilitator can track discussions happening in multiple groups at the same time and know where to move, break out rooms require many facilitators instead of just one. 

FrequencyThe Frequency: Of course the full scope of moving a company forward cannot be done in just one or two 90-minute sessions. This requires more intentional planning of the frequency of sessions to engage both internal teams and research respondents. In places where we would need three hours to cover a session we break those up over the course of a month, doing three sessions with the same small group at different intervals in order to manage the cognitive load and pace the knowledge and learning, as to ensure nothing important is lost or left behind just because of meeting fatigue.

Facilitating The Visual Progress of a Project

“War rooms” -- we all know them. Just as important as in political dramas, true crime TV shows, and… the walls of the Conifer office pre-pandemic. The tactile and visual nature of how we worked with data was something that our clients often marveled at. And more importantly, it was a tool to bring them into our thinking, the data, and our work processes. We could quickly look up on an oversized whiteboard to see the visual progress of a calendar, or consider a change or discuss a framework.  

Different projects took over full rooms, and made use, floor to ceilings, of our walls with a rainbow of post-it notes. Project spaces started as a blank canvas, and as the team got deeper into the project you could measure the trajectory of a project easily just from walking by. A quick glance from the hallway and the degree to which the walls were filling up with data, drawings, timetables, respondent drawings, sticky notes, grids and more was an intentional unspoken visual indication of project status. Our walls were living, breathing artifacts that helped us all quickly look up from our computers and get unstuck at a moment's notice. 

We found this need for the tactile and visual one of the most challenging shifts to remote work. The war room could not be easily replicated at home. Not only does it not share effectively with the team, there is also the issue of setting some boundaries from your work and home life that need to be considered. Our living spaces at home are filled with objects that matter to us as individuals, and work content is an unwelcome interruption on the wall of family artwork and portraits. For those without extra rooms in the home to turn into a project bay, decisions had to be made about whether or not you wanted to have dinner in the middle of a “Beautiful Mind” at-home scenario. 


Now all must be queried digitally. So adapt, we did -- going first to some of the many tools we had already used before, but far less often or in different ways. If you asked us a year ago, we would have unanimously told you that digitizing a room blanketed in notes would be our greatest nightmare. What we discovered was that we could easily master this shift to visual collaboration through Miro, a visual collaboration tool. Everything including strategy sessions, planning meetings and workshops, managing ideation and brainstorming sessions, co-creation whiteboards for research and design, workflow planning including sprints and milestones can all be done in a virtual single location. 

Free yourself from bad templates: What we liked the most about tools like Miro is how it lets you create the space and canvas yourself. For us, starting with a fresh stark white wall is refreshing, and something that was already a part of our project rituals. There’s nothing worse than starting with a template, investing time only to find that it is too prescriptive and can’t be flexed in exactly the way you want it. Unlike detailed project management tools that can be overly structured, our digital collaboration tools have provided us with a freedom from structures and templates that don’t work for our niche and custom project needs.  

digital facilitation

Live Visual facilitation: Choosing an app is nothing without the essential skill of facilitation. Not everyone will have the patience to use technology in the way research moderators and facilitators do as equal collaborators or contributors. This led us to find new ways of incorporating live visual facilitation during interviews and client engagements, using Miro in the same way as if it were a blank canvas of a wall during an in-person session. As meeting participants talk and share, we become facilitators and scribes: sharing our screen while documenting and catching what is being said and discussed, and sharing it back in a way that makes participants feel energized, included and heard. 

If we are asking users to explain their journey or process, these tools enable us to map their words out as they speak them. In a sense, we are co-creating their journey maps with them through diagrams and charting tools. Better yet, if we get something wrong as we capture their story, they tell us! With a shared visual in front of us, users can actively correct us or even clarify their own thoughts. In these moments of live graphic facilitation, we are able to help participants bring their story to life beyond words. 

The biggest takeaway is that our team quickly thought through the human realities and took the absolute best of what we were doing in person and found ways to translate those into digital methods without making tradeoffs or concessions. What we found is that some of our adaptations were actually game changers. 

In the end, clients continue to choose deep ethnographic work because they need the quality insights that emerge from peoples’ lived experiences and not forced or canned responses. Next time you attend a meeting as a participant, give a little subtle nod to those facilitators at the helm: adaptation and running meetings in this new world is still hard work to deliver carefully designed collaboration moments that allow others to meaningfully contribute and engage rather than just listen.

Let us facilitate your digital ethnography.


Deprivation Research

Deprivation Research

Curious about how to think outside the box and uncover perspective-shifting insights? Deprivation research might be exactly what your team needs to get to the next level.

What happens when you take away something deemed “essential”? And what happens when you replace that necessity with something else entirely? Deprivation Research unearths raw, organic reactions to products and services and ultimately helps get teams beyond incremental innovation to explore future alternatives and what-ifs. Click below to dive deeper into deprivation!

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