103 on participatory design: best practices for online, in-person, and hybrid sessions

This blog post was updated in May 2024 to reflect our hybrid model for RightsCon 2025.

The journey to RightsCon (February 2025) is on!

If you plan to submit a session proposal for consideration, but aren’t sure where to start, take a look at our Guide to a Successful Proposal, and read on for tips and guidance on session design and facilitation, with best practices adapted for online, in-person, and hybrid environments.

This blog post is a part of our series of resources on participatory session design, following previous ones on online session design and future scenarios planning. As always, we welcome ideas and input to help inform our program building, and you can reach us with comments or questions at [email protected].

Online, in-person, or hybrid: which is best?

Building on the successes and learnings from RightsCon Costa Rica (2023), our upcoming hybrid summit will follow a similar model, with a combination of in-person, online, and hybrid programming during the in-person summit hours (9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. local time) and online programming outside summit hours. Based on budgetary and team capacity constraints this year, and the reduced overlap with the Asia Pacific timezones, we have decided to reduce the amount of sessions that include hybrid elements. For the roundtable and private meeting formats only, there will be a select number of sessions that will be elevated to support a two-way exchange between online and in-person participants. Please note that unlike online sessions, hybrid sessions will only be hosted during in-person summit hours, and so may not be ideal for the timezones you intend to reach to participate.

Remember: you should pick the environment based on what you want to achieve with your session. For instance, online sessions are often more structured and inclusive than sessions held in-person, as participants can join from anywhere, shift quickly from one activity to another, and take notes and share ideas collaboratively and asynchronously. However, if your intention is to build trust around a complex or sensitive topic, the face-to-face nature of an in-person session may appeal to you more than structure.

On the surface, a hybrid session may seem like the perfect solution, combining the best qualities of online and in-person environments. However, the hybrid environment will come with special considerations and constraints, and can, in many cases, introduce much more complexity to the design and facilitation of the session in order to produce an equitable experience between in-person and online participants.

Whatever you choose, you will need to weigh the benefits and drawbacks, and identify which environment most closely aligns with and supports your session goal. There is no “right” answer – only the answer which makes the most sense for you and your session. If you’re stuck, FabRiders (who we work with in delivering facilitation training to session organizers) has a useful list of pros and cons which can point you in one direction or another.

Why does participation matter?

When we review Call for Proposals submissions, we look for proposals which explicitly consider the different dynamics at play in your chosen environment, and which explain how participants will benefit from the session. Participation is one of the core criteria we use to evaluate the promise and potential of a session proposal. At RightsCon, every person in the room is an active contributor to the session goal. Your approach to the structure and facilitation of the session should reflect that intention.

We know it takes time and effort to understand the principles of session design and develop facilitative leadership skills. You can use the information below as a starting place to explore and reflect on these concepts, but don’t worry too much about the details at this stage. Our team doesn’t look for “perfect” proposals, and we will provide resources and training in the lead-up to the summit to help you make the most of your session for each environment type.

How people learn: put theory into practice

If session design is an unfamiliar concept, ADIDS is a helpful structure which you can study and adapt to your purposes. First developed by LevelUp for digital security training, ADIDS stands for:

  • Activity – Start the session with an interactive exercise, such as a poll, roll call, or question for breakouts.
  • Discussion – Use guiding questions to prompt participants to reflect on the activity.
  • Input – Here’s where you can deliver crucial information and communicate your perspective based on personal experience.
  • Deepening – Offer an opportunity for hands-on learning. Return to breakouts to discuss, pose questions, or survey participants on whether their opinion has changed.
  • Synthesis – Take a beat at the end of the session to bring it all together, resolve unanswered questions, and provide participants with avenues to stay informed about your work.

ADIDS adds a natural cadence and progression to the session and works well as a scaffold for any format or environment. For more information, plus exercises and examples, see our blog on the basics of session design.

Guidance for online sessions

Why host a session online? Since 2020, RightsCon’s transition to an online environment has expanded the reach of our platform, tripled the number of participants, increased engagement from 122 to 174 countries, opened up new avenues to support accessibility and linguistic diversity in the program, and created space to develop targeted training and resources for our annual cohort of session organizers.

Online sessions are made for collaboration, brainstorming, and co-creation: everyone has access to the same tools and features, facilitators can hop in and out of breakouts seamlessly, and conversation can occur in multiple places, such as chat boxes and shared documents, at the same time. Sessions hosted at RightsCon 2025 will benefit from a more flexible schedule, which can cater to audiences across different regions and time zones. The technical setup for closed captions, interpretation, breakouts, polls, and other features is also relatively simple and intuitive, compared to in-person production, and recorded sessions will remain available on our custom online platform for playback.

We particularly like the productivity and accessibility associated with an online environment. If you want to reach the broadest audience possible, with the fewest number of barriers to overcome, an online session is the ideal choice for you.

Learn more:

Guidance for in-person sessions

Like plants which flourish with a small amount of water and sun, sessions where all participants are located in the same physical space don’t need much special care to bloom into natural and organic conversations. However, that light touch approach can come with certain tradeoffs, as face-to-face interaction can lend itself to spontaneous detours from the session plan, which may or may not be constructive.

Sessions hosted in-person are best served with a “less is more” style of facilitation, and a structure with plenty of flexibility and space to breathe. Compared to an online environment, facilitators may find it much easier to read the tone of the room, respond to power imbalances through interpersonal skills, and build energy with activities focused on movement and tactile processing.

At RightsCon 2025, rooms allocated for in-person sessions will come with minimal technical features, by design. That may result in more limited accessibility, especially in terms of options to record, screen share from a device, or introduce interpretation. Facilitators will need to plan around the capacity and setup in the room, whether one or more tables are available, and arrive at the venue with any extra resources – such as notepads, printouts, pens, or sticky notes – necessary for the execution of the session.

Learn more:

Guidance for hybrid sessions

As mentioned above, RightsCon 2025 will support a reduced number of two-way hybrid sessions for the roundtable and private meeting formats only. Both of these formats are highly interactive set-ups where participants collaborate and contribute to developing action plans or projects. The expanded reach offered through a two-way hybrid exchange between online and in-person participants can support organizers in achieving their session outcomes by enhancing collaboration and knowledge sharing among stakeholders from diverse regions or backgrounds.

If you are a session proposer for these formats, and are interested in being considered for hybrid elevation, we want to know why bringing both online and in-person participants together is necessary to support your session goals. We urge organizers to think carefully about what a hybrid session may entail and understand the skills and requirements to successfully pull it off. Two-way participation can be highly dynamic, but will require active, simultaneous facilitation for both online and in-person participants – essentially, running two sessions at the same time, with strategic moments of crossover and connection.

Learn more:

What’s next for the RightsCon program?

Whether you’re new to RightsCon or an experienced member of our community, there’s a space for you in our program. If you decide to submit a proposal, you can expect to hear back from us in late August. Session organizers will receive support from our team at every step, including proposal writing trainings, resources on session design and production, ticket discount codes to share with the members of your session, tailored facilitation training for in-person, online, and hybrid environments, and orientation sessions before the summit to help you prepare and network with other organizers.

Our team will also take steps to ensure our program is as inclusive and participatory as possible. As a reminder, Access Now upholds a no-tolerance policy for men-only sessions (“manels”), and we look critically at sessions that only feature perspectives from white people and/or that privilege whiteness. We ask organizers to arrange session lineups with care and consciousness of not only regional representation, but also representation of communities across regions that are traditionally excluded from global convening spaces. If you need recommendations for facilitators or speakers, we’re here to help!

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, send us an email at [email protected], and a member of our team will be in touch soon. To stay up-to-date about the RightsCon program, registration, travel and safety, community news, and other initiatives, subscribe to our newsletter. We can’t wait to hear from you!

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