‘Shoes Off Design’: Face-to-face vs remote engagement in Human Centred Design

While designing an app for parents with children between the ages of 0-2 in Liverpool, we booked a prototype testing engagement session booked with parents at a children’s centre. Personally, this was one of my first sessions working with the company and I didn’t really know what to expect. So with devices ready and a notepad in hand, I entered the room ready to give everyone a formal greeting and reel off a mental script about the app and what it does. To my surprise, sat down on the floor already were the mums and dads with their kids, playing. At this point it only seemed natural to join them, so the shoes came off and we sat down for a play and a chat about the product.

The important thing about this story is that it’s all about getting comfortable with our users. We didn’t want to come across as the ‘techy’ interviewer guys, coming in to talk in detail the ins and outs of a new app. Instead we formed a real connection with the parents (and their babies) and got some awesome engagement and feedback out of it.

Whatever field you are in, the HCD (Human Centred Design) process naturally has one common denominator: humans! Talking, interacting, laughing, creating – it is so important to be engaged with somebody in order to better understand their needs.

Digital product design involves interfaces and their specific elements which are governed by a huge variety of different users: older, younger, male, female, public and professional. With such a wide range, the success of these interfaces is hard to determine without meaningful engagement with individual users. You can find data to support any group of users but every one is unique, so real engagement is key.

Different stages of the HCD process require different sessions and approach. For example, in the discovery stage, a session may be more about asking lots broad questions and allowing for people to talk openly to gain a wide array of answers, but always pertaining to the project scope. Questions and cues can be used in tandem, such as “in an ideal world how would tech help you?” followed by “can you elaborate on this?” prompts. We should always try to dig deeper and ask ‘why’ to really gain the motivations behind the insight. Further down the line in the development stage where testing prototypes are concerned, it could require setting up tests such as A/B, or a ‘show me, tell me’ session, with certain stricter navigation for users to follow, as we have assumptions at this stage which need to be tested. Preparing the right session for the right process stage is key.

What does meaningful engagement look like normally, and does it differ during these testing times? How can we adapt to still produce products that will add significant value to a user, and one that they will love? This article will cover the importance of getting stuck in with users both face-to-face and remotely, comparing ways and techniques in which we can gain meaningful user interactions and insights.

Face-to-Face Engagement

At Damibu we are firm believers in the importance of the engagement sessions we host. As previously mentioned, each stage of the HCD process requires a slightly different approach, whether it’s 1-1 interviews, focus groups, co-creation or product testing.

It’s important to make the most of being face-to-face with users when you have this luxury, to create a more personal experience, so the user feels acknowledged and listened to. This is because there are certain things that in-person engagement allows that remote does not (and vice versa). It’s important to recognise the value of things like bringing along snacks or treats for participants, being able to involve everyone in a group and creating fun activities for people, in order to help create a relaxed atmosphere. Some of the best sessions and insights we have had have been working with parents of young children, sat on the carpet chatting and playing – leading to really open and honest insights, which we couldn’t have gathered via secondary research: shoes off design, quite literally!

The relationships formed during these sessions are as important as the insights gathered. As designers we spend a lot of our time trying to get inside a user’s head, so face-to-face engagement is the chance to really get to know who you are designing for. We think of it as a great opportunity to form lasting relationships.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Aboutability1-1-1024x768.jpg

Remote Engagement

How does this experience look remotely? Thankfully, technology allows us to keep the meaningful interactions the result from working with users. Things like video calls, online prototyping, screen sharing and session recording are all great tools which have allowed us the ability to facilitate. Yet, although the environment of a session can be replicated well, naturally there are still differences. Here are some things we’ve noticed about engaging remotely:


  • Being able to access more people than usual
  • Less crazy commutes
  • People are at home, so they’re a little less formal

Not so good:

  • Key visual cues missed that could have been used to direct the session
  • People scheduling like mad means they have back-to-back meetings, so are overworked and sessions have stricter timelines
  • Group engagement sessions are a little trickier as it’s harder to bounce off people, and again, read the rest of the group when one person is speaking

Employing the right sessions at the right stage of the process may be the same for both in-person and remote engagement, but the techniques used to gather insights now have to be adapted. Things like not being able to greet with touch, pick up visual cues as easily, or bring snacks for users mean that we have to find different ways to create the right atmosphere, which does offer food for thought about ways to overcome these remote barriers. This can be as simple as more of a chit chat to start with; finding similarities like working from home as that’s something most of us have in common right now (and how we find out how busy they are); the obvious weather questions; surveys and quizzes; or video sharing. These are all fun ways of creating the right environment for interaction remotely. It may be different but there is still a huge number of ways to get creative in your approach.


It’s easy to dissect each way of working and the specific differences, but ultimately both face-to-face and remote engagement require the same facilitator behaviours to achieve the same great outcomes. Rather than ‘specifics’, it’s key to think more about ‘generals’: putting a user at ease, showing enthusiasm and involvement, or facilitating a really well prepared session which has been tested to avoid hitches. You can have a great meeting hundreds of miles away from a user and still feel closer than in a poorly done session when you’re sat a metre away. So whatever the literal distance, don’t design from a distance!


Masters to Masterpiece – becoming a Design Lead in tech

We chat with Dan Gladman, Lead UX Designer at Damibu, about creativity, tech for good and the importance of asking questions.

What made you want to study design?

I’ve often had thoughts about why I feel as though UX design appealed to me, and the conclusion I have drawn is my ability to empathise. Through personal experience, like growing up around disability and being raised with good values, I have always had a natural gift to empathise with people, which I feel is a great base for making a good UX designer. This, mixed with great guidance from teachers when starting out in the subject. People who were genuinely passionate about spreading the word of good design.

How would you describe your current role?

My role at the moment is UX Designer at Damibu. I have to be very versatile – one day I could be designing and writing code for a website, the next creating a logo and brand for a new product.

What was the most surprising thing about it when you first joined the company?

I suppose there were two main surprising factors. We were in the midst of a busy time of year so the pace of delivery and turning work around was very fast. The next was the freedom within the role, I was encouraged from the start to work transparently and have never been pushed in a certain direction without firstly having input, which is great!

What’s the main difference between academic and real-life design?

Academic design can be very paper thin, and often the work delivered in university wouldn’t stand up in real life. Real life design is more rewarding, too. Seeing users engage positively with a real product you have designed is a nice feeling. I would say overall, in real-life design, there is less time for ‘head in the clouds’ thinking. That’s not to say it doesn’t get done (or demean its value), but deadlines are often tighter and projects have real clients, which is a step up from University.

What’s the most exciting aspect of working in UX for you?

UX can be applied to anything. People often think of the UX designer as somebody who designs app or web interfaces, however, it can be so much more and the creative side of this combined with a range of different projects which come through the door keeps me engaged. Personally, the fact I can apply beautiful design to great tech for a good cause is something I’m really proud to tell people I do.

What’s the biggest challenge?

Patience. Design is all about expression and creativity, which I believe are two things which you can be hot and cold with. The days when you are not feeling as creative are challenging, so when a great project comes in and the creative flow isn’t quite there, patience is required.

Do you have any words of advice for recent graduates?

Don’t be afraid to ask. Our office is very open and I know personally when I first started this can come across as quite intimidating. Nobody is perfect coming out of uni, and the only way to learn and grow is to communicate with people who have the right experience. People will respect this quality a lot more, and you will see progression in your work by doing so. I would say though this comes with a balance of independence, the ability to take decisions into your own hands when needed is also key.

I would also say it is vital for new starters to follow strictly a design process in projects. At Damibu we tend to follow the double diamond.

What have you learned so far, during your time at Damibu?

I could go into lots and lots of specific details about the wealth of knowledge I have gained, but the list would be too long! I would say, to sum it up – the industry is always changing, so keeping engaged and a finger on the pulse daily to always be learning within my role is vital. As the industry is always moving, so must I.


“It’s always a pleasure working with Damibu”

“It’s always a pleasure working with Damibu, they have a unique ability to integrate into internal teams to ensure delivery of technical solutions that are built upon successful engagement & co-creation. They hear a problem, create a solution and deliver professional, user friendly results.  I cannot recommend Damibu enough.”

Catherine Stuckley, 
Senior Digital Transformational Change Manager, Liverpool CCG