Three core skills needed to successfully design remotely

Being a remote product designer at Buffer is a very productive way to work. But to be successful at it there are core skills that need to be developed.

Background photography by John Towner

When I made the jump to remote design work at Buffer I had no idea how it would work out. I was so used to face-to-face meetings, having design explorations all over the wall and daily stand-ups with the team. Design is a collaborative process, so how could I possibly do this remotely? The truth is, designing remotely can be incredibly productive but there are three skills that need to be continually developed.

Showing your work early is vital. In a remote setting, work is a solitary activity but that doesn’t mean you’re not connected. To ensure visibility, you have to entrench yourself deeply into other peoples’ workflows which, over time, can have a positive knock-on effect with your work. Get Product, Engineering and Marketing involved early in your design process and carry them through with every stage of it. This can feel disruptive at first, but over time you’ll see how invaluable those different perspectives are on your designs. Find ways to break down your ideas so they can be communicated even faster. Not everything has to be a pretty picture.

When working remotely, you’ll come to rely on the written word the most. It’s a powerful medium that kick-started our modern society but its also handy in remote work too! I still find myself experimenting with ways to ask better questions and answer others in a more thoughtful way. Learn to document your design thinking in a way that tells a story so others understand where you’re coming from. Like a novel, it should have a beginning, middle and an end. As designers, we’re always finding ways to better communicate with our users. We should use that same process for our written communication to our team.

When working remotely, time flows differently to how it does in the office. For a start, your team members can all have different timezones! This can feel cumbersome at first. It means you won’t get the answer you need right away. That’s ok. Again, this is where the written word becomes your friend. The answer you want may not come until someone is awake and you’re asleep, so you’ll have to phrase your questions more clearly and more precisely to avoid confusion. The benefit here is you’ll get a more thoughtful and considered answer in return. Something you may not have gotten in the office.

Thanks for reading ✌️

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James Morris

A remote designer who codes. Senior product designer @Buffer, previously @SoundCloud. Sharing about product, design, coding and working remotely @moreofmorris.