How to Run Design Exercises on a Remote Team

Hannah Oppenheimer
Oct 19, 2018 · 9 min read

Instructions for running design sprints will make you think that brilliant ideas only come from sticky notes and whiteboards. Designers need cold brew, dot stickers, and dry-erase markers. We need guerrilla user testing in the office cafeteria. We need to sit on the floor of a conference room folding origami in order to truly design the next big feature.

I am here to tell you a little secret: design collaboration can happen remotely. More and more companies offer remote work, especially for engineering teams. But very few organizations foster a remote-first environment for their designers the way HashiCorp does.

It typically comes down to the myth that collaboration can only happen in the office. As DHH put it in Remote:

“Much of the magic that people ascribe to sitting together in a room is really just this: being able to see and interact with the same stuff.”

So how can designers working together truly see “the same stuff”? Let’s take, for example, the design sprint. Developed by Google Ventures, a design sprint is a “process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers.” It may be the aspect of design that’s most difficult to prove it can be done remotely. And if design thinking exercises are thought of as a strictly “in-person” activity, the design team will either never collaborate because it’s too costly to co-locate for it, or designers will give up remote work so they can collaborate more often.

Instead, let’s learn some tools, best practices, and benefits of running a remote design thinking exercise.

Digital Sticky Notes

Replace sticky notes with a Trello or Asana board for your “How Might We” notes, assumptions, and even the daily design sprint schedule. In fact, the team at thoughtbot has already done some of this for you.

thoughtbot’s handy Trello board is a template to-do list or schedule for a Design Sprint.

“Digital sticky notes” (Trello or Asana cards) are better than physical sticky notes because they have features I want.

First, they usually offer an audit log. You can see who created the idea without guessing at the handwriting next week, and you can take notes alongside the idea while you still remember what it was.

In Trello, each card is like a digital sticky note. Here, Trello tells us in the top line that Hannah attached the image. No need to guess whose terrible handwriting this is.

Secondly, digital stickies are, by their very nature, available for future reference by anyone any time, not just the facilitator who took the sticky notes home at the end of the night.

Third, using tags and the like, you can actually show the digital stickies on multiple boards or columns — they’re readily portable. A sticky note can only be in one place at one time, either this column or that.

In Asana, we can add this idea to multiple project boards and use multiple tags to categorize it.

Sketching shared digitally

My favorite design thinking activity is Crazy Eights. For remote versions, this takes a little bit of prep work. Ask your participants to have paper and markers on hand for the meeting. We have a large enough organization that we’ve even talked about having “design exercise kits” (full of the necessary supplies and some just-for-fun swag) part of our company’s in-house store so that facilitators can mail them to participants ahead of time as needed.

After timing out eight rounds, each participant should take a photo of their Crazy Eights and upload that photo (in the right orientation) to the tool of your choice. People can save, annotate, and come back to these images more easily than paper lost in the shuffle.

Mitchell Hashimoto, Co-founder and CTO of HashiCorp, participated in a Crazy Eights exercise one morning from a hotel lobby using paper from his notebook. It worked. No need to block off a week of his calendar to travel in order to share awesome ideas with our team around the world.

Voting

Teams rallying behind ideas that everyone likes by voting. There are plenty of ways to “vote” digitally on your ideas without dot stickers.

For example, add emojis to the images in Slack. During our Crazy Eights exercise, we numbered our grids, and then participants selected the number emoji for the grid items with ideas they liked best.

This screenshot shows how cool remote design sprints are. 101 people were in the #team-consul Slack channel, so the transparency on this activity was high, even if there were only seven active participants on the video call.
In the closeup, it’s easier to see how the voting works. You can see by the blue number emojis that I voted for grid items 2 and 3 in the first person’s set of Crazy Eights.

Or use the “sticker” feature in Trello to vote. You can easily tack on the super vote feature if you weigh certain participants’ votes stronger than others.

The “sticker” feature of Trello is conducive for voting activities as well.

In Asana, you can click the “thumbs up” button to tally votes.

The Asana thumbs-up feature.

So many digital product management tools have a method for voting. Figure out what works best for your team, and as always, test out your tool of choice with a coworker before starting the sprint so that it goes smoothly during the real one.

Breaks

Breaks can actually be breaks in remote design sprints. I remember from in-person design sprints that some folks got so excited, that they couldn’t stop talking about ideas during lunch and coffee breaks. Not only was I was exhausted from facilitating difficult sessions, but the feedback at the end of the week from participants was that there weren’t enough breaks, even though there were so many. During break times in remote design exercises, you can lay on the couch with your dog or make yourself an energizing lunch. You’ll be more adequately recharged for the next session.

My dog having a tough day at the office.

Notes and Recordings

Digital design exercises can be recorded more easily than physical ones. Listening-only participants can attend the video call without crowding a physical room. We even chose to use a public channel in Slack when sharing our sketches, so some folks from the organization not on the call got to comment and add context to some of the ideas without making it feel like too many cooks in the kitchen.

People can view the recording later if they need to go back to hear an idea missed in the notes. And notes themselves can be taken or edited collaboratively by anyone during the exercise using Google Docs, rather than relying on one person with the sole projector display.

Prototyping

There’s a tendency in remote work to skip straight to high fidelity mockups because you’re already at your computer all day. If you’re a designer who works remotely, I highly recommend keeping paper and markers on your home desk. These are still my first stop in the design process. Although I work mostly from home, I still bring paper and markers when I spend weeks living the digital nomad life. I’ve even ditched my fashionable, minimalist computer bag for one that better holds paper, markers, my computer belongings, and a proper headset for calls.

For higher fidelity prototypes for user studies, designers are inundated with products to choose from. Unfortunately, though, the field is greatly narrowed when you’re selecting a prototyping tool that offers sharing functionality for remote testing. This has been one of the few limiting factors for remote work. We’ve found Invision to be the best for creating clickable prototypes that our users can access via web-based link without additional downloads required on the user’s part.

Remote User Testing

Not everyone can do remote user testing, even if your team works remotely. For example, for digital healthcare products, it may be critical to conduct user testing on site at the doctor’s office because so much of the experience is dependent on the user’s physical environment.

But for those that can do user testing remotely, you should. Even if your workplace is in a physical office, that doesn’t mean your user testing has to be.

Benefits

Testing with remote users allows you to reach outside your local area to get a better sample audience or experts in your product’s industry. Without a commute, you or your users will have a more precise and smaller time commitment required. I’ve found participants are rarely late when arriving for remote user testing because there’s no traffic or weather to prevent them from hopping on the call.

The test itself can be less awkward over a video call. You don’t have to ask users to angle the their screen so that you can see exactly what they click as you lurk over their shoulder. You can take notes while on mute without the user getting distracted or wondering what you’re typing.

Tools for remote user testing

At HashiCorp, we’ve had great success finding people who want to test our products through surveys on social media. You can also source people through tools like UserTesting.com. In a remote work environment you’ll also be interviewing internal subject matter experts over video.

Consider tools like Lookback for your video call. When running user tests on a mobile device, Lookback shares not only their screen but also their video, so you can watch their facial reactions to certain interactions. We love Lookback because it enables our team to add annotations on videos at specific timestamps so that your teammates, who weren’t on the call, can be directed to points in the recording, watch a few seconds, and add their own comments. You can also link to custom snippets of a video session which is really powerful for sharing just the insightful portions of video to your team.

The comment-in-time feature in Lookback is almost as great as that HashiCorp fleece.

For a more flexible video solution, we use Zoom. It makes sense to use Zoom instead of Lookback when the interview team has multiple active participants as Lookback is designed for one active interviewer at a time. It’s been the most reliable video conferencing, easy for participants to install, and has built-in recording. Zoom also has automatic transcription. It’s not always perfectly accurate, but it greatly increases efficiency in finding user quotes and copying them to reports or other documentation.

Best Practices for remote user testing

Let users know ahead of time if they’re going to be asked to share their screen. This gives people a heads up that they should turn off notifications, close windows, or open an incognito browser if they’re testing a website in their browser.

Similarly, let them know that it’ll be a video call. Don’t take for granted that people will understand what Zoom is. This will give users an opportunity to schedule a conference room at their loud workplace, or remove distractions behind them from their home office if need be.

Ask them relevant questions about their digital setup and physical environment ahead of time. What OS are they using? Will your prototype work in their default browser? If you’re testing a mobile app, what device are they on? Where are they physically doing the test — from their couch or a park bench?

Choose one facilitator. If you have multiple people on the call, introduce them, but secondary people can turn off their video so that the user feels more like it’s a one on one with the facilitator. The listening staff member(s) can also help with note taking, which will allow the lead facilitator to focus on running the test smoothly.

If you’re providing swag or money to say thank you, don’t forget to ask for a physical address (work or home) or an online money or gift card transfer, as you can’t personally hand them their reward in person.

Final Thoughts

Our product, engineering, and design teams still meet up a few times each year to collaborate in person. But having these tips and tools in our pockets keeps our product design heading in the right direction for the majority of the time when we’re not together. I hope these tidbits encourage other designers to try something new. Even co-located teams can benefit from the tools and techniques of remote teams, and vice versa.

Interested in learning more? I’m giving a remote talk on this topic for Austin Design Week. You’ll be able to attend from anywhere by simply joining a Zoom call. RSVP here, and feel free to shoot me questions ahead of time that you’d like me to address.

Finally, HashiCorp is hiring designers! If this type of work sounds great to you, check out our job description for the role of Product Designer on Terraform.

HashiCorp Design

Design for Devops

Hannah Oppenheimer

Written by

Senior Product Designer at HashiCorp. Ice cream maker, outdoor woman, and aspiring multipotentialite.

HashiCorp Design

Design for Devops

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