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How Digital Whiteboards Became the Design Tool of 2021

Finishing out 2020 gave our industrial design team the opportunity to review the most significant changes brought about by the COVID pandemic and how we work together.

Face-to-face collaboration with clients and spontaneous interactions with colleagues continue to be a rarity as we enter our tenth month of travel and gathering restrictions. Like most designers we’re constantly on the lookout for processes and tools that can help offset the loss of shared studio space and collaborative workshops.

The ID team, separate but together.

One tool that’s enabling our research and innovation teams to collaborate effectively with colleagues and clients is the Miro digital whiteboard platform. This tool is also likely to fundamentally change how we work and interact longer term with each other and with our clients.

More than just compensating for the loss of in-person collaboration, digital whiteboards provide clear benefits, namely reducing barriers between disciplines and fostering more open, dynamic relationships with clients.

What Is Miro?

Miro is an online collaborative whiteboard where project documents, ideas, workspaces, and progress can be shared securely between consultant and client.

Just one year ago the digital whiteboards market was dominated by Miro and Mural, but the range of options has expanded significantly during the lockdowns (including an app and accompanying basic Web version from Microsoft). Our industrial design team started using Mural more than five years ago when it was called RealtimeBoard. We used it primarily to exchange design inspiration and early ideas with an internal industrial design team at one of our larger corporate clients.

A year ago the digital whiteboards market was dominated by Miro and Mural, but the range of options has expanded significantly during the lockdowns.

With its simple interface, colored stickies, and compatibility with images and video, it’s easy to view Miro as just a tool for initial stages of a project. But the pandemic has accelerated both Miro’s capabilities and its adoption across multiple disciplines and distributed teams at Bresslergroup. Miro is now a full suite of tools, extensions, and integrated apps that’s also being leveraged as a collaboration hub by our researchers, strategists, interaction designers, and engineers.

While this post focuses on how the industrial design team uses Miro, our colleagues in other disciplines are also using it to conduct research synthesis; create empathy and journey maps; build Agile workflows, UX sprints, and wireframes; and brainstorm technical problems. Cross-platform integration is now a common feature on digital whiteboards and Miro works with an increasing list of integrated apps including Adobe Creative Suite, Asana and Jira, Google, Sketch, Slack, and Teams.

We selected Miro over competitors because of its security features, but I’d encourage you to evaluate multiple options before deciding on the best match for your collaboration needs.

digital whiteboard options for designers

Miro, Mural, and Lucidspark are three digital whiteboard options.

How We Use Miro

Of course not everything about the way we collaborate has changed. Our formal project folders remain the main repository for our regular project assets and documents. We use digital whiteboards to complement those materials and to share project progress with fellow designers and clients.

When we create a secure Miro board for a specific project, we create a single-destination “virtual scrapbook” as home base for the project’s background, objectives, and inspiration, ideas, and outcomes. Our clients don’t need a license to view their whiteboard and can be granted different levels of viewing and editing rights. They can review their whiteboard together with us during a team project meeting, and they can review it individually at their convenience.

When we create a secure Miro board for a specific project, we create a single-destination “virtual scrapbook” as home base for the project’s background, objectives, and inspiration, ideas, and outcomes.

Design teams and clients can view and edit in real time a wide range of file types for a whole project in one infinite digital whiteboard. Files that might normally be viewed separately become neighbors: project plans, meeting minutes and action items alongside competitive landscapes, heuristic reviews and key product needs. As we post product concepts and mockup/prototype photos to the whiteboard, they quickly become annotated with our client’s immediate feedback and idea builds of their own.

And the whiteboard is more than just a document recording platform. In workshops it becomes a resource for our remote designers. It enables them to actively brainstorm while accessing the cross-fertilization of ideas that would naturally occur when we’re in a shared physical space.

Two Whiteboard Layouts for Design Projects

Since the early days of using RealtimeBoard the industrial design team has experimented with several project-layout templates for digital whiteboards. The freedom of Miro allows your whiteboard layout to be scrappy or tightly organized.

The Swim Lanes Layout

So far, we’ve found that a horizontal swim lanes layout is effective for most industrial design projects. The swim lanes mirror our core industrial design project phases (e.g. definition, concept generation, development, and refinement). And other project assets (e.g. timing plans, background, action items, competitors, engineering factors) can easily be integrated.

Swim lanes layout for a digital whiteboard

Ex. Horizontal swim lanes layout

When we want to tighten up our presentation of a Miro board to a client, we can use the Frames function within the platform to create and run a more curated presentation.

The Creative Matrix Layout

For brainstorms and workshops, we’re strong advocates of LUMA Institute‘s creative matrix tool. The creative matrix layout pairs well with a digital whiteboard, enabling both real time and asynchronous idea contributions from colleagues and clients.

We’ll assign workshop collaborators a specific sticky note color and watch as their names magically dance across the screen, and our matrix fills with ideas. Miro also has an integrated timer and voting tool if you need to filter and down-select ideas.

Creative matrix layout for a digital whiteboard

Ex. Creative matrix layout

For an idea of how Creative Matrix works, read our post on how we used it to brainstorm ideas for improving pizza delivery. If we were using this Miro template for that workshop, the top row would be populated with these “how might we?” questions:

  • How might we get pizza to the consumer faster?
  • How might we improve the ordering process using phones?
  • How might we decrease quality reductions during the delivery process?
  • How might we handle rush and down times better?

And the catalysts/enablers populating the left side would be New Materials, Green Technology, Infrastructure, and Partnerships.

How Miro Changes Consultant-Client Interactions

Clients have responded very positively to the interaction and collaboration provided by Miro (especially clients who are new to digital whiteboards). Despite pandemic-induced separation, our relationships with clients are becoming increasingly more open.

Despite pandemic-induced separation, our relationships with clients are becoming increasingly more open.

Weekly team meetings are more likely to be focused on a Miro board review than on a formal PowerPoint or PDF. Clients are able to review more of our “behind the scenes” design process including early low-fidelity concepts that might have previously been buried in a presentation appendix. There’s the downside of major milestone presentations being less of a surprise for clients, but the upside is that they often contribute more in terms of concept feedback and build suggestions.

In every new Miro board we include a short instructional section so clients unfamiliar with the interface can quickly get up to speed. Unprompted, one client recently created a technical terminology section on a board when they saw how important a shared vocabulary was to efficient project collaboration.

a short instructional section for clients unfamiliar with using a digital whiteboard

A short Miro instructional for clients.

The End of PowerPoint?

The pandemic has accelerated our adoption of digital platforms like Miro as we’ve looked for ways to ensure continued, effective collaboration. As we continue to rely on Miro, this temporary solution could become long-lasting. While clients may still require some formal documents at major industrial design project milestones to help communicate our work within their organizations, Miro could be the tool that frees us from de facto PowerPoint and InDesign presentation formats.

Is this the end?

Miro’s benefits become clearer the more we use it. Because the digital platform is more universal and being leveraged by our colleagues in research, strategy, IxD, and engineering, it reduces the barriers between disciplines. And since we’re now sharing more raw ideas with clients, our relationship with them is more open and dynamic.

Moving forward, we may have 2020 to thank for more seamless collaboration between disciplines and a truer collaboration between design consultant and client.