Distributed UX Design: How to Keep Communication and Collaboration Active when Working Remotely

By Stori Walker
Senior UX Designer, projekt202

Telecommuting. Working remotely. However you label it, more and more people are doing their jobs as geographically distributed teams. There are many articles out there that describe the benefits and drawbacks of telecommuting. One thing they all agree on is that, for some types of jobs, working with teammates and/or clients that are located in various cities, states or even countries is a growing trend that can be extremely productive and rewarding for all. User experience (UX) design is one job that can be done with excellent results outside of a traditional office setting.

Strengthening remote working skills also improves the ability to work with clients who are not physically in proximity on a regular basis. It allows designers to establish and practice processes for communicating and collaborating, not just within the design team, but also with any other teams that may be involved in a project.

Note that although remote UX research and validation is possible and can be more beneficial than in-person testing in some circumstances, UX design is the focus of this article.

UX Design is Particularly Well-Suited for a Distributed Team Environment

Obviously, telecommuting cuts down on company overhead, helps the planet by reducing cars on the road, and allows people to customize their environments and schedules in ways that increase their happiness and health. While it does take certain types of personalities to make remote working successful, UX design, for the following reasons, is well-suited for operating within a distributed environment:

  • It allows for inspiration from a wider set of experiences. If everyone is sitting in the same office looking at the same sketches on a whiteboard, design solutions can fall into ruts. It’s easy to get into the habit of coming up with the same solutions over and over again.
  • By brainstorming remotely and/or digitally, teams avoid falling into “groupthink.”Members who otherwise may go along with peer pressure have more opportunity to have their voices heard. Many designers are introverts and work better when in a remote environment.
  • Less interruption encourages a greater focus. This is especially important when designing for complex systems that have many moving parts. In an office setting, especially ones with open floor plans, interruptions can use up most of your day if you consider not only the interruption but also the time needed to remember and refocus on what work was being done prior to the interruption. Working remotely, even if it is just part of the time, provides designers with more time to concentrate on all the details in a design.
  • Teams having some, but not all, asynchronous working hours can be more productive. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to move forward because you’re waiting on someone else to pass you information or complete their parts of a process so you can work on your part. Having one to three asynchronous work hours each day makes it easier to continue being productive on a more regular basis, since not all team members are pigeon-holed into the exact same time slots for completing their assignments.
  • Good UX talent is challenging to find. Not all great designers live in the same cities. Allowing for a distributed design team enables companies to hire the best and brightest designers no matter where they live.

Best Practices

Over the years, as projekt202 has worked with many clients located outside of our office areas and as we continue to take advantage of hiring UX talent all over the world, rather than being restricted to just those in the immediate areas of our offices, we are continually refining the best practices we have developed for conducting remote UX design.

Communication

The most critical aspect to working with various teams, distributed or not, is ensuring that communication is consistent and complete. When working with people who are not physically near you, it may take a bit of time to get used to making that extra effort to communicate, but ultimately you may learn that your communication skills improve because you have to be more deliberate with communication in a remote environment.

  • Communicate daily. Make a point to communicate each day with at least one member of your immediate team. “Out of sight, out of mind” can be true, so it’s important to maintain regular contact with your immediate teammates so they have insight into what everyone is working on and how it is all progressing.
  • Talk informally as well as formally. Part of building trust and empathy is developing personal relationships with team members. You may not be close enough to invite your teammates to dinner at your house, but exchanging at least some non-work-related information helps to align various personalities, foster empathy and strengthens communication overall. It is also a good idea, if possible, to have team members meet in person once in a while to continue developing interpersonal relationships.
  • Use video and voice, not just text. It’s easy to miss facial cues and gestural communication when all your chat is via text. Regularly turn on the video camera to both improve communication and to encourage team building. There’s nothing like having a cat randomly jump into camera view unexpectedly to get a laugh and build some comradery. It also is good to see each other’s work environments so you can more easily relate to and empathize with the ins and outs of each other’s daily work life.
  • Strive to over-communicate. It sometimes takes a while on a new project to figure out how much communication is “just right.” We’ve found the best approach is to initially communicate frequently and about most everything to figure out the best amount and method of ensuring all teammates have the information they need. One example is using a calendar, such as MS Outlook, to show when you’ll be out of your home office. That way, if someone is looking for you, they can check your calendar and know you’ll be back from the doctor’s office in an hour. Doing it via calendar also helps cut down on emails that just say things like “Running an errand. Back in 30 minutes.”
  • Don’t depend only on email. Most everyone is somewhat drowning in emails. It’s best to use a variety of communication channels. Which one to use should be determined by the situation. We usually keep Slack running so that coworkers can message us with questions, comments, cat gifs, etc. At times when 100% concentration is needed, Slack can be set to “away” or turned off while email and phone are still available as communication channels.
  • If someone is silent during meetings, explicitly invite that person to speak. This is a big one. When in a meeting, especially those without video, take note of who is not speaking at all or very much and encourage them to voice their opinions and concerns. This is something that may not be as automatically done as you would in a face-to-face situation, so get into the habit of staying aware of who is participating in distributed team meetings. Sometimes people are hesitant to “interrupt” a meeting, so it’s also good to allow for pauses or lulls in the conversation so everyone has a chance to speak.

Collaboration

While collaboration in a face-to-face environment can be productive, successful collaboration can also happen in a distributed space with excellent results.

  • Remember the communication best practices described above. Collaboration is all about communication, so take all of the best practices above into consideration when working collaboratively.
  • Maximize use of available tools. There are so many collaboration tools available now and more are appearing each year. You should regularly review both the tools you frequently use and compare/contrast with new tools to determine which are best suited for your needs.
  • Get creative with collaboration methods. Even with the variety of tools currently available, it’s possible to improvise and come up with new ways to collaborate. Sometimes, using tools meant for other types of work can be repurposed to be excellent collaboration tools. One example is to use a Wacom tablet, drawing software and screen-sharing applications together to allow for real-time team sketching when you can’t stand in front of a physical whiteboard together.
  • Be open to both planned and impromptu collaboration sessions. One of the benefits of always having a chat application open is the ability to spontaneously ask another teammate if he or she has a minute to collaborate or give you feedback on an idea. Even asking people who are working on other projects to give you quick feedback can help you expand your ideas.

Additional things to keep in mind when using online tools to facilitate collaboration, whether teams are distributed or not, are:

1) Client information must be kept secure. This includes proprietary information such as designs, etc.

2) All assets should, at some point, be compiled into a single archive. If you use cloud services, you should gather all project materials together in one location so they can easily be located for future reference. This means you shouldn’t leave designs only in InVision; also save a copy to your main file-sharing resource.

Agile

Many of the projects we engage with at projekt202 are structured using agile methodology. Rather than adding to the complexity of working with distributed design, this actually allows for streamlining several aspects, namely around communication.

  • When designers are assigned specific user stories, it follows that what they are working on, how much effort it involves and what remains to be done are made transparent via agile tools and user story tasks lists. Distributed teams can clearly track who is doing what each day.
  • Regular stand-up meetings provide consistent reporting on work that the designers are doing and allow them a routine to make known any obstacles and progress made since the last stand-up.
  • End-of-sprint reviews act as milestones to illustrate how designs are evolving. This is useful to ensure that remote collaboration is successful, and allows the larger team a chance to ask questions and provide feedback.

List of Tools

This is not an exhaustive list, but one which contains tools used by various teams at projekt202. Tools preferred by the author are marked with *.

Chat:

  • Slack*
  • Hipchat
  • Skype
  • Google chat
  • Sqwiggle

Screen sharing:

  • Screenhero*
  • GoToMeeting
  • Zoom

Video conferences with screen sharing:

  • GoTo Meeting*
  • Zoom
  • Google Hangouts/Skype/Sqwiggle plus Screenhero

File sharing (prefer those with version control)

  • Dropbox*
  • Sharefile
  • Google Docs
  • GitHub
  • Adobe Creative Cloud

Whiteboarding/Sketching:

  • Adobe Illustrator, Wacom pen, plus a screen sharing application such as Screenhero.*
  • AWWapp.com
  • Twiddla

Diagramming/flowcharting:

  • Mural.ly*
  • Trello

Prototyping:

  • Axure*
  • InVision
  • Balsamiq

Collaborating on same document/deliverable simultaneously:

  • Google docs
  • Microsoft One Drive*
  • InDesign (books consisting of various indd files) plus file sharing
  • Axure (Axshare)

Design feedback:

  • InVision
  • Comments in PDFs

Project Management (provides the team with insight about what each member is doing):

  • Asana
  • Harvest Forecast
  • Wrike
  • Trello
  • JIRA
  • Basecamp

Compiling and sharing inspiration and/or notes:

  • Evernote
  • Mural.ly
  • Trello
  • Microsoft One Note (via One Drive)*

Additional Resources