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How We Run Our "User-Driven Innovation" Rapid Prototyping Offsites

March 14, 2024
How We Run Our "User-Driven Innovation" Rapid Prototyping Offsites

One of our core Values is that Market Signal is our North Star. We live this value by always inviting users to our company offsites. In fact, learning from and building with our users is a top-level objective of our company offsites. Here's what our users have to say about it:

"Insanely productive. I have never seen anything like this.” - Glo (Product Manager)

"Incredible openness to user input, all suggestions allowed and honored." - Pierre (Group PM @ Fortune 500 company)

"Remarkable to have been in an environment where everyone was so open about what the product could be. I didn’t feel a grain of resistance from anyone. It was refreshing to feel that we could really go everywhere." - Flavio (Chief Innovation Officer)

See it in Action:

Here's Our Playbook:

  • Use ARCI. It's really important that there's clarity about who's Accountable, Responsible, Consulted & Informed for the various elements of the offsite. Use it liberally.
  • Prioritize the facilitators: We've learned that it's really important for the facilitators (in our case, the Founders) to have 15-minute daily morning + lunch check-ins in a private space during the offsite to ensure everything is running smoothly. Ask us how we know!
  • Ensure a psychologically safe space to innovate: Innovation requires vulnerability, authenticity, and brainstorming. This means you need to ensure there's no defensiveness (especially from your own team) and an abundance of curiosity (again, especially from your own team). The facilitators must be able to hold the room to ensure nobody will derail this kind of environment. We recommend they be trained in Clean Communication and know how to define a set of shared agreements at the start of the offsite as well as teach techniques like "paraphrasing" and "checking things out" to the room (these skills sound simple but are hard).
  • Create a pre-event survey: Ask your participants about their preferences, including sleeping, travel, eating, and accommodation needs & wants. Here's a survey we created for our San Diego offsite for reference.
  • Create an exciting agenda filled with both work and play: We thanked our users for their time by wrapping our event with a "Future of AI" thought leadership session, as well as an evening bonfire by the beach. We had a professional guitarist play for us, and I composed a song for to thank everyone for joining. We've found the optimal mix is to do an 8 am-2 pm "work" session and a 3 pm-7 pm bonding "play" activity.
  • Create connection time: We learned the importance of giving participants dedicated time to eat breakfast & lunch (vs trying to make it a working lunch) as it's social time for them to get to know each other, and creating new relationships was one of their favorite parts of the weekend.
  • Enable the "silent sharers": Some people love to share verbally. But it's often the quietest people who have the most unexpected ideas. We've learned to use tools like Using Miro for “silent sharing” to enable those who aren’t going to speak as much.
  • Make calendar items with Zoom links, and have at least one device "log in" to the meeting to capture the session. (This is an especially good way to generate Storytell reports after the fact!). Make sure the people doing the rapid prototyping are also logged into the meeting while sharing their screens with the room so you can capture their work.
  • Wrap "workshops" that interest users around the core content if you have time: They typically love to learn from you and from each other. Ideally, you're looking for them to walk away having learned a lot as well -- this isn't just time meant to benefit you.
  • Create a great landing page to excite prospective users about coming: Here's the landing page we made for our San Diego Rapid Prototyping Offsite. Make sure to give your users enough notice (at least a month) so they can get your event onto their calendars.
  • Ensure your Rapid Prototypers can really rapidly prototype: Once the Facilitators get your users going, they'll start sharing a tornado of ideas. We found that having 2 Rapid Prototyping engineers (one focusing more on UX and the other more on UI) worked well for a group of 15 people. They'll need to be fast to keep up with the room.

The Rapid Prototyping Process:

Our goal was a "continuous innovation loop" of rapid prototyping. Here's how we did it:

  • Erika, our Chief Customer Officer, focused on getting ideas out of users' heads -- think of this as the "expansive thinking" element where no idea is a bad idea and even the most off-the-wall or crazy ideas are welcomed.
  • DROdio, our CEO, focused on scoping & sequencing ideas into an MVP: What small piece of the expansive thinking version could we build first? DROdio mocked the MVP up on a whiteboard.
  • Ryan, our Rapid Prototyping Engineer, focused on creating the wireframe UX in real-time from the whiteboard drawing.
  • Asa, our engineering advisor, focused on creating the UI mockup to share back with users.

We iterated on this process multiple times until users felt ready to "ship the mock" to the engineering team, which was building next to us. Ryan and Asa walked the mocks over to engineering and sat down with them to start coding.

Engineering gives the user group an update every 90 minutes (the goal here is a rolling progress update every 90 minutes vs. engineering feeling like they have to have met a certain deliverable before updating).

From Whiteboard to UX Wireframe to UI Mockup

The results were magical. Here's Bola, a user, jumping up to provide real-time feedback on the mockup:

Users got so much satisfaction from seeing their ideas come to life in real-time.

Putting It All Together: "Ship It!"

Here's the output from our Rapid Prototyping session: and here's a screenshot of us sharing it with the Storytell Crew. You're also welcome to try using it yourself!

Retrospective: What Users Loved, Learned & Longed For

We did a deep "3Ls" retro after this offsite and culled a valuable list of items from it, including:

What users Loved:

  • Attendees were diverse and high quality. This created psychological safety for being vulnerable and sharing innovative ideas (16 points)
  • The Rapid Prototyping Innovation Day was really innovative and different from anything else users + crew have experienced (12 points)
  • I learned from the other Crew & users at the event (6 points)
  • Bonding with the Crew was really meaningful (6 points)
  • The facilitation of the offsite (and esp the Rapid Prototyping group and the day) was done very well (6 points)
  • Erika’s Clean Communication structure was very insightful and effective (3 points)
  • Users really appreciated having deep access to the Storytell Crew (3 points)
  • Storytell really lived its Shared Values at the Offsite (3 points)
  • The updates to how Storytell works and looks are very exciting (2 points)
  • Storytell helped make AI feel safer & less scary (1 point)

What users Learned:

  • Gained more knowledge about how to use AI technologies like ChatGPT in my day-to-day work (8 points)
  • Learned more about other users (8 points)
  • Learned more about how to build a great product (6 points)
  • Learned how to rapid-prototype and the importance of in-person time (5 points)
  • Learned more about how to build a great company (4 points)
  • How to improve our planning for our offsites (3 points)
  • Learned more about our Crew (2 points)
  • User events need to happen on the weekends (1 point)

What users Longed for:

  • More space in the schedule (8 points)
  • Better situation with lodging (6 points)
  • More clarity about Storytell’s approach to AI / deeper fireside chat (4 points)
  • More blue sky thinking (4 points)
  • More context for the engineering team (4 points)
  • Restructuring the schedule (3 points)
  • Getting to know each other better (2 points)
  • Better organization for greater effectiveness (2 points)
  • Less build time pressure for engineering (2 points)
  • Discuss all possible use cases (1 point)
  • Use other tools besides Figma (1 point)
  • Improve how we conduct a discussion (1 point)
  • Output on social media (1 point)

Learnings We're Applying to Future Offsites:

We've learned so much doing this -- even though our users said they'd never experienced anything like this before, we feel like we're just getting started. We're already looking forward to the next innovation session and planning on applying a number of learnings, including:

  • Experimenting with a "Figma weekend" paired with a "Sprint week" that follows: We really wanted to have the engineering team in the room iterating with us. Instead of trying to both mock + build in one day, we're going to focus just on mocking in Figma over the weekend with our users and then have a one-week engineering sprint the week afterward to build & ship what we mocked up.
  • More fun & bonding time: We really tried to pack a lot of learning in, including working lunches. We learned it's better to give participants time to have a relaxed lunch where they can get to know each other and to end mid-afternoon and go do a fun bonding activity vs. trying to go until 6 pm.

We hope our process doc writeup is valuable as you focus on innovation in your company!

And a special thank-you to our Crew: On the Friday morning before our offsite began, we were alerted that Silicon Valley Bank had been shut down by the FDIC. SVB had been a longtime partner of FounderCulture and a personal supporter to DROdio across multiple startups including Storytell. It was a very hard day and combined with the uncertainty of funds availability, it would have been very easy for our Crew to have been completely distracted from the work to be done with our users. But our Crew really banded together and lived our "Everyone is Crew" value to focus on supporting each other and stay focused on our users -- and we all had a magical time building together. 🙏


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