Defining and developing your product can feel like an elusive task. But it doesn’t have to.
Collaborating remotely is hard. For designers, it may even seem impossible. The visual interaction and open environment needed for great creative work can be tricky to achieve when your team doesn’t sit in the same room. We understand.
But we have good news: remote design is possible. Just rethink your approach.
How can we shift our practices to make remote design work? This was the topic of my recent webinar with the good folks at UserTesting.com.
To find out more, check out the recording: "Effective Remote Design," webinar with Jim Kalbach
Webinar by Jim Kalbach with UserTesting.com
Recommendations for Remote Design
Below are three key recommendations for remote design:
- Strategize for remote work. Don’t expect the tools, process, and team to magically work in remote settings. Talk about your digitally defined workplace explicitly. Adjust your process to be remote-friendly. And make sure the team is able to participant effectively.
- Go “digital first.” Digital first means leveraging the web -- let being online together be a superpower, not your kryptonite. Even when your team is working in the same place, work online and capture insights digitally first. Then, work backwards to record your results offline. Working the other way around -- trying to fit offline approaches online -- often doesn’t work or comes too late in the game.
- Pilot an all-digital effort. Learn how your team can work best with your processes in a remote context. Take a small effort and force yourself to work remote. For instance, take an upcoming user research project and try it out remote: no paper, sticky notes, flipcharts, or printouts allowed. You’ll learn a lot about your habits and behaviors that needs to change to be effective remotely.
Remote work is not permanent and can be quite fluid
Webinar Materials and References
- For more on effective remote design, you can look through the slides from my presentation.
- Also, check out one of our earlier blog posts that contains most of the references I make in the webinar.
- We also have a brief post on the high-level findings from our survey on remote design.
Questions from the Webinar
We got a lot of good questions during the webinar. I was able to answer some of them in during the talk. Here are all of them, along with some thoughts and answers from my side.
MILA asked: How about working with a remote team across the world that could never meet in the beginning due to limited financial resources? How do you deal with people you'll never meet in person?
JIM: I recommend meeting in person at least once at the start of any project or effort. Even companies like Automattic, that don’t have an office and have team members distributed around world, meet face-to-face one a year.
But that might be possible. In that case, I suggest trying to build as much rapport as you can with your team virtually. For instance, view each other's profiles on the web, like on LinkedIn and facebook and try to get to know them a little better. Follow them on twitter or instagram for an increased sense of connection with them. Or, do something social online, like have a virtual happy hour.
It takes a little more work and a little more imagination, but connecting with people on a personal level is also possible remotely.
AISHA asked about time zones: Aisha asked: “Any suggestions for time zone issues, including overseas groups.” and Michael wants to know: “Do you have any suggestions working specifically with global teams?”
JIM: I get this question a lot. Time zones present difficulties for remote design. There are two recommendations.
First, get comfortable converting times. Find a time zone calculator online, and a determine acceptable meeting times. You want to find where your days overlap, and make the most of those times.
In some cases, there are no overlaps. For instance, I’ve done several projects with folks in Australia while I was in Germany (e.g., 7 am in Australia is 9 pm in Germany). This usually means someone is getting up early or staying on the phone late at night. Try taking turns if you need to collaborate often so than one or the other doesn’t have all of the burden.
Also note that seasons between the northern and southern hemisphere are different. This also means that daylight savings times can shift around time differences by two hours, i.e., when one moves ahead an hour and the other back at the same time.
But also work asynchronously as much as possible. Set up workflows that allow a distributed team to contribute to an exercise whenever they want.
DUSTIN asks: “So how do we train that remote work muscle, especially for those who are reluctant to do so?”
JIM: Pull the Band-Aid off quickly. As I mention above, pilot an all-remote effort to see where you need to improve. Hanno.co did this with an extensive remote design thinking exercise. Check out their summary here.
Also, try running experiments. Take an effort or meeting that has a low profile and do it all remote. For instance, we partnered with Jeff Gothelf to run his Lean UX with remote participants. It took us three attempts to get it right.
Working across time zones is a challenge of remote work
He also asks: “Do you recommend that companies have regular "all remote" days (you mentioned remote Fridays)”
JIM: I’ve not given it much thought, but I actually would recommend that - yes.. As I mentioned in the webinar, working remote takes a different mindset. It’s a soft skill that can be practiced. I think forcing yourself to do work remote in a pilot effort or on a regular basis makes you and your whole team more effective in the long run.
TISH asks: “As an independent contractor, it can be difficult to win over customers to the fact that I can work remotely and still provide exceptional service and solutions. How do recommend easing their uncertainty of working with someone who isn't right in the room or able to show up in person?”
JIM: Meeting in person upfront helps. Beyond that, provide details about yourself online. For instance, send them your LinkedIn profile. Or, during the first remote meeting, introduce yourself in a personal way.
For instance, at MURAL we’ll often introduce ourselves using pictures. Each person on the call goes out and find images on the web that reflect their hobbies and interests. We then review them as a group. It really helps build a personal connection.
MATTHEW wants to know: “What's the compelling case for remote design, beyond reduced cost for employer & flexibility for employee?”
JIM: There are lots of benefits to remote design. Chief among these is an increased talent pool. Good designers are a hot commodity these days. If you’re not in design center, like The Valley or NYC, you may not have a deep pool. Opening up to the idea of working remote opens up your talent pool.
Remote work, in general, is one of the fastest growing benefits human resource departments. People expect more flexibility these days.
Having happier designers is never a bad thing.
MATTHEW asks: Does MURAL offer a offline version, I work in a security company and cloud based products aren’t an option.
JIM: No, MURAL does not offer an offline version. We do have security levels and test that we’ve passed for companies like IBM. Contact me directly if you want to know more (jim at mural.co)
MOUNEEB: I think process plays a very important part .. so I am looking to hear your ideas on how process and accountability can be enforced.
JIM: Process does play a large role. As I mentioned in the webinar, don’t assume your offline process can work the same in a remote setting. You’ll have to adjust it to find the medium.
I find that regular stand-ups and scheduled touchpoints helps the process more than rules of enforcement. It’s more about getting people in the habit of following a process than anything. Repetition is the best way for that.
For instance, my team has three standups a week for 15 minutes. None of us are collocated. We use a mural to capture each person’s update, and then we can have a good conversation about who’s doing what. It’s invaluable to a distributed team.
MERLIN: Do you have suggestions on how to clearly communicate the design solutions for remote developers (for instance: India). We end up to use more documentation than lean.
JIM: I’ve worked with offshore development teams in this past. We created UI specs that we’re hundreds of pages long. It’s less than ideal in terms of documentation.
As I mention in the webinar, MURAL let’s you put UI screens together in one place. You can then comment on them across distances. It may not reduce the actual amount of specification, but it will reduce pages in a deck or document.
Also, having everything on one board is a great way to get an overview.
ALEX: I'm just starting a remote relationship with a development team. Do you have any advice for a designer/developer specific remote relationship?
JIM: I’m going to sound like a broken record, but it’s best to meet in person first. Do some team building activities together.
Otherwise, presence matters. Try using Sqwiggle. I used it on one project, and it really increased the amount and type of communication the team had. You’ll likely find developers asking you small questions at a more frequent rate.
You can also try doing some remote team building activities. Start each call with a personal story. Or, as I mentioned in my answer to Tish (above) you have everyone find images on the web that represent their hobbies and interests. Then collect them all in one place to share with the team.
I think standups are crucial for the designer-developer relationship as well. Just having that regular contact is important. In a remote setting you don’t have the casual water cooler talks. So scheduling regular time to talk is needed. It may take some getting used to, but once you get into a rhythm you’ll find it helps.
Presence matters in remote collaboration
MARTINA: how do you deal with situations in which you realize there has been some off line communication crucial to the project (in which one was not involved, but should have been)?
JIM: This is the reason I suggest going “digital first” for everything. With the digital first mindset, nothing should be offline and not accessible later.
But conversations will happen offline that won’t be captured. The same could happen in remote context as well -- where a decision is made in a skype call, for instance.
Here are something to do:
- Follow up conversations with an email. Just summarize the main points and decisions made.
- Record conference call meetings. Typically they don’t get re-visited, but having that record when you need it is worth the extra click of a button.
- Take photos of whiteboards or other offline work to get it in the digital sphere again.
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.
November, 03 2015