How virtual debates make building context more fun

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An illustration showing a timeline of a debate in a Google Meet screen with an outline sketch of a person showing: speaking at a lecturn, reviewing some notes, and speaking again.
Illustration by Pavi Logeswaran.

Plus a Figma virtual debate kit to run your own.

At a fast-growing company like Shopify, sharing context across teams becomes increasingly challenging.

In my first few months at Shopify, I identified a problem area that impacted two teams across two product workflows: mobile and web. The problem area raised the question: should the web and mobile workflows be the same or different?

Instead of keeping the conversation siloed in a typical meeting or workshop between a few people, I decided to experiment with a virtual debate to engage both teams and build context.

The power of a virtual debate

Virtual debates are used to have engaging discussions with your team and for exchanging ideas. They aren’t used to make product, design, and engineering decisions though. Instead, they’re best used to develop a shared understanding of the subtle nuances underlying your discussed topic.

I planned and implemented our virtual debate with support from product designer Sai Nihas and UX manager Farai Madzima, resulting in tremendous value and learnings. It required us to dig deep, research, and converse with different teammates, and showed how virtual debates can be effective in remote conversations, bringing more value and shared context across teams.

What we learned

Using a virtual debate format, we were able to more fully explore the problem-area topic across the two teams and workflows. We realized that neither team fully understood how our workflows impacted one another.

Several team members originally had a fixed mindset on both product workflows remaining different. The debate helped us appreciate that the terminology used across teams was different, too, which encouraged us to work on using a shared language across both.

The debate also helped unpack the overlapping and “grey” areas in the problem space. It resulted in us all gaining new perspectives and swaying towards an approach with shared workflows across both teams. The format also provided a space for friendly banter, to ask contextual questions, and to share their thoughts.

Overall, we all found the format engaging, which amounted to a better learning experience. And we walked away with shared context and understanding, and language, which we can now all apply to our day-to-day thinking and product design.

Here’s how to run your own:

Before the debate 🤔

  1. Decide how to share context. Ask yourself and the team if there needs to be an open discussion around a particular concept or problem area.
  2. Gather context. Understanding both sides of the debate is vital to help surface critical insights.
  3. Frame the discussion. Think about the opening arguments for each side of the debate and the rebuttals. Try summarizing the debate as a question.
  4. Simplify the context. Focus on concise debate points and gather examples that the audience will understand.
A presentation slide with a black background with the question in white text: Should the web and mobile workflows be the same or different?
Summarizing a problem area as a question helps to frame and focus the debate discussion.

Running the debate 🗓

  1. Schedule in advance. Set up an event if you’d like other teams to join. Plan out the agenda for the debate and stick to it!
  2. Assign roles. Figure out who the moderator will be and the representatives for each side of the debate.
  3. Practice the debate delivery. Spontaneous debates can get messy and complicated for attendees to follow. Ensure to have a dry run with representatives and the moderator. Do a trial with a fake audience (bonus) to get feedback before the live event.
  4. Use polls. Conduct a pre-poll and post-poll either on Slack, Google Meet, or other tools with the debate question to gauge the debate’s effectiveness.
  5. Slide deck with examples. Use slides to walk through the points and examples for each side, and deliver it in an ‘argument then rebuttal’ format.
  6. Record the debate. In case there are teammates who can’t attend, record the debate so they can watch back later.
  7. Use closed captions. In order to make sure the debate is accessible to everyone who attends live and watches the recording afterwards, turn on the CC.
  8. Documentation after the debate. Document the debate discussion to ensure there’s an accessible reference for the team.
  9. Share out. Share the output and next steps with your team.
A presentation slide with a black background with two white boxes. One box shows #teamweb and the other, #teammobile. Under each header are sub-headers: opening argument, rebuttal, and closing argument.
It’s useful to represent each side of the debate in an ‘argument and rebuttal’ format.

Debate top tips ✏️

  • Select participants. Find a representative for both sides and a moderator to mediate the discussion and ask questions.
  • Gather attendees from other teams. Share the event link and a brief description of the topic in relevant channels for other teams to join, too.
  • Find space for attendee communication. Create a space for your debate and moderate attendee discussions.
  • Ask for a notetaker. This way you can summarize the debate, document comments and questions raised by attendees, so everyone’s able to reflect and return to it at any point in time.
  • Make time for attendees’ questions. Make time for attendees to have the opportunity to ask questions, share thoughts and opinions.
  • Gather team feedback. After the debate, gather feedback from your team about takeaways and learnings.
  • Have fun! Don’t forget to have fun and keep your attendees engaged.

If planned well, debates can be an effective way to collaborate and share context across teams. Here’s a Figma presentation kit to use as a guide.

Figma – Virtual Debate template | This is a virtual debate presentation template to help facilitate and share context across teams….

Thank you Farai Madzima and Sai Nihas for helping me bring virtual debates to life in our teams.

How virtual debates make building context more fun was originally published in Shopify UX on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.