The Secrets of Distributed Design
How to maintain the creativity of your design team while working remotely
By Jasson Schrock, Partner and VP Experience Design, BCGDV
The COVID-19 crisis is changing the way we work. Although many of us are lucky enough to be able to continue our work from home during this period of social distancing and office closures, remote work can be confusing and difficult for some people, particularly those who aren’t used to it.
As designers, this can affect us more than most. It’s true that in theory we can just sit at home with our design tool of choice, but this misses one of the most important parts of our work: Communication. At DV, we’re used to running interactive ideation sessions and bouncing ideas off one another. It’s one of our go-to tactics, but without in-person contact, things run a bit differently, for ideation, communication, and for project management.
Luckily, we’re well-equipped to run remote teams without sacrificing creativity. Here are a few pointers to keep your design team working creatively without disruption.
Remote work requires some flexibility from everyone. This means being flexible with your communication style, and understanding that other members of your team will likely work very differently from you. Understand that this is normal, but make sure you have agreed-upon communication tools and frameworks. Favor asynchronous tools as far as possible, such as Slack or email.
You won’t have the natural communication points that would in person, and it’s therefore sensible to over-communicate. Virtual standups via Slack or video are vital, and catching up at the end of each day to give work summaries is also useful. Establish a framework to make these calls as successful as possible; this might mean nominating one person to be a moderator, perhaps through votes collated by Slack’s voting feature, or sticking to a predefined presenter list.
Setting up a virtual bullpen is a good idea, and is an especially useful means of coming together. A bullpen is a non-meeting meeting, where there is no set agenda and no defined talking points; participants simply come in and do their regular work. It may sound odd, but coming together in this way is extremely helpful for building bonds and letting organic conversations happen that might not otherwise. You don’t all need to jump on video unless a conversation starts — it’s about being present at the same time. Optimize times that overlap for everyone, particularly if you have team members in different timezones.
Working from home also brings its fair share of social challenges, such as parents who will need to look after children, pets, and other things that might keep you from work. But, for designers, we can also look at the opportunities presented by getting out of our usual environment. You’re a different person when you’re at home to when you’re in the office, and use this as an excuse to unlock your creativity. Maybe it’ll reduce the formality of your design style and encourage others to do the same. Pull back on the formality you might usually have on communication tools — have fun!
Where you might usually run through a demo in person, share or record your screen instead. It’s easier than writing out every explicit detail in an email, and can be particularly useful in documenting bugs. Quicktime can do it, and if you’re using a Mac, you’re already set to go.
Recent years have seen massive growth in the variety of design tools on offer. You’re probably already using a few, but now is your opportunity to really learn what these tools offer in terms of collaboration. Miro is a great tool for collaborative whiteboarding, and can take the place of your usual post-it notes sessions, and you can work simultaneously with your teammates on Abstract, Figma, and Zeplin. If there’s a tool here that you’re not familiar with, why not try learning it over the next few weeks?
If you’re not already using a ticket-based project management system, keep it simple for now — just use a Google Sheet or another collaborative document. Coordination is critical, but now is not the time to set up a complex project management system and risk confusing everyone.
Now is a good opportunity to divide and conquer: Small teams are able to move faster, and so putting in place feature teams to work on smaller-scope projects works well. Just make sure you have the check-in and oversight points in place so that you’re pointing towards the same goal.
With your standard work processes no doubt looking a little different, now is also a good time to identify bottlenecks, whether that’s in giving and receiving feedback, communicating with stakeholders, or getting engineers the files they need. Designers are particularly good at identifying pain points and coming up with innovative solutions to relieve them: Why not run a research team on your own workflows?
Although the circumstances are difficult, now is the time to optimize our remote capabilities as designers and get them in shape for the future. The world of work is becoming more distributed, and this crisis will no doubt speed that up. So learn the lessons now for when the crisis passes: You’ll be grateful (and more productive!) when you return to the office.