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All the signs are there: remote work is on the rise, and its upward trend will continue. By some estimates, up to half of all US workers will carry out their jobs remotely by 2020.
There are numerous benefits to remote work: flexibility and better work-life balance for employees, and wider talent pools and reduced costs for employers, to name a few.
But what about remote design? Surely, designers won’t be required to work in distributed contexts. After all, our work is highly visual in nature. We need to be able to draw and point and gesture. We’re meant to work shoulder-to-shoulder.
The fact is, remote design is already prevalent in our field. A recent survey on remote design shows that a majority of designers face remote work on most or all of their projects.
The odds are you’ll have to design with a distributed team, if you haven’t already. The question is how you’ll handle it when you do.
With a little forethought, remote design can be as productive as working in person.
Effective remote design begins with a “digital first” mindset. This doesn’t mean simply transferring your old ways to an electronic medium: it means rethinking your approach.
To make remote design work for you, following these four key recommendations.
Recognize the dynamics of different remote situations and plan around them. There are three basic configurations of remote teams:
Mixed teams are the most common, but also the most challenging. It’s important to address the inherent imbalance in communication in this setting.
Regardless of the team breakdown, strive to give everyone an equal say and encourage participation. Here’s how:
For instance, Hanno.co is a digital product design agency that is completely remote. They are even able to conduct multi-day design thinking sprints completely online. Checking in with teammates is a key factor in their remote collaboration. They have found that daily standups help keep the design process moving forward.
We spend a lot of time and energy maintaining our office buildings. Getting our physical workspaces in order is important for productive work and effective collaboration.
Why don’t we spend as much effort configuring our digital workplaces?
The remote workspace is a constellation of services and tools: conferencing calling, chat, file sharing, and project management tools. It needs attention too.
In remote design efforts, it’s up to you to coordinate services that define the digital workspace. Focus on tools that help you visualize and iterate solutions. Here are some tips:
MURAL recently partnered with Jeff Gothelf to conduct his Lean UX workshop online. (See summaries of these workshops online here and here.) Participants spanned nine time zones and had not previously met. The group was still able to come together and effectively complete the training. Despite not being co-located, their ability to visually brainstorm was not diminished thanks to the virtual whiteboard.
The digital first perspective isn’t just about tools or technology: it’s a new way of thinking about design methods. Breakout groups, for instance, don’t work well on conference calls: a single audio stream prevents concurrent conversations. Instead, you need to consider activities that are inclusive of remote participants.
Consider these aspects:
The design studio format, for one, naturally works well with distributed teams. For instance, MURAL conducted a design studio recently. Hand-drawn sketches were immediately photographed and upload. The result was an instant digital record of the workshop.
Working online can improve the quality of your output. Take advantage of benefits of electronic media.
Digital materials can be easily duplicated, distributed, and shared. They are also extensible, portable, and archivable. Eliminate “workshop amnesia” after design sessions, and never worry about having to wipe the whiteboard clean.
Use digital technology to synthesize ideas and find patterns faster. Here’s how:
Today, being a designer does not guarantee that you will be sitting next to colleagues all of the time. Remote design is ultimately about keeping your creative momentum going, even when you’re not in the same room.
Don’t be daunted. Moving to remote work does not signify the end of an era, a farewell to visual work. Rather, it is an opportunity to think about old practices in exciting new ways. Embrace remote design, you’ll thank yourself later.