It’s always lovely when our teammates stop by during their lunch break or pop over to our desk for a spot of brainstorming. But what about when we want their input while we’re still in pajamas (or halfway around the world)? It’s something we all had to figure out fast when Covid struck. As we emerge from lockdowns, more and more of us are working remotely than ever before.
Thanks to modern technology, we can overcome the limits of location and bring together people who would otherwise not be on the same team or even in the same time zones. As such, it’s given us the opportunity to try out different approaches to remote design.
But the challenges of designing haven’t gone away with this shift in location — and some new ones have arisen. Both designers and clients can find themselves struggling to be as efficient as possible when working together over a distance. We all know that face-to-face interactions are important for building strong relationships and understanding what the client needs, and this is often more difficult to do without seeing their reaction to your designs first-hand.
Remote design has challenges—but there are lots of ways to involve other parties in your project even if you’re not all in the same physical location: With a little preparation, the right tools, and some good ol’ teamwork, you can design remotely without sacrificing quality or productivity. Here are some tips to help you set up solid processes for scaling across borders.
What is remote design?
Remote design is any kind of collaborative design work involving people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity. This could include your immediate colleagues and remote team members, freelance contractors, or stakeholders who aren’t part of your organization.
The advantages of designing remotely
In the past, designers were restricted to collaborating in physical locations. In today’s workplace, however, this isn’t the case. Collaborating online has made it infinitely easier for teams located all across the globe to work together effectively — something that became a necessity when the Covid-19 pandemic caused workplaces to close.
Now, many companies allow employees to work from home or other locations, rather than within the confines of an office building. This benefits both parties. Workers get to enjoy more flexibility in their daily lives. Eliminating commutes mean employees are happier and more productive at work (which is better for everyone), — and they save money by not having to travel every day. The same is true of designers, who are often most productive in their natural environment.
The challenges of designing remotely
The main challenge of remote design is a lack of face-to-face interaction with the people you’re working with. It’s hard to communicate ideas or feedback effectively when there aren’t any visual cues or body language to influence how someone interprets what you’re saying.
Distance can also lead to miscommunication or things slipping through the cracks. When you’re working in an office, managers can keep a close eye on workers. Away from that, it’s easy for tasks to be forgotten about or missed.
Consider the emotional side of things, too: surveys reveal loneliness, distractions, and an inability to ‘switch off’ are all issues remote workers grapple with daily. So, how do you overcome these challenges?
Tips for designing remotely
As with all things, there are pros and cons. Designing without being next to your team has its pitfalls —though there are ways around all of them. You just have to be proactive. Here are some tips to maintain productivity and transparency on a remote design team.
1. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
One of the biggest challenges of working remotely is not being able to get immediate feedback from your team, which can make some people afraid to make mistakes.
The thing is, no one is perfect, and it’s important to be okay with that. Each mistake is an opportunity to learn. As long as you own up to your mistakes and learn from them quickly, your teammates will continue to trust you with their time and effort regardless.
If you’re still struggling with design stage fright, don’t be afraid to reach out to a colleague via your team chat app or video call to get their thoughts. Chances are, they’ll feel flattered you turned to them for advice.
2. Use WIP documents
WIP (work in progress) documents can be a powerful tool for communicating designs remotely. These are basically quick snapshots of your work-in-progress files. You can list any important changes or additions you’ve made since the previous version, like ‘added wireframe‘ or ‘updated color scheme for mood board 4.’
The idea is to work through a high-level design problem and create a record of all your ideas and where they came from. Get all your thoughts out in one place first to reduce time spent going back and forth about designs. It also prevents any one person from putting too much effort into the wrong solution (or more than one solution) before looping in other people who would like to contribute their thoughts. Using a diagramming tool that records changes is a good option.
WIP documents also help others understand the project status and who is working on what part of the problem. Nobody likes waiting for someone else to finish up their work (and being asked for updates every 10 minutes is a pain, too). With WIP documents, you can keep everyone on the same page by showing what you’ve done so far on each task.
3. Show, don’t tell
When working remotely it’s really easy to ‘talk’ about things, but it isn’t always as easy to show them to your team and clients. So, when you need some feedback, try using images instead of just talking. This will help others understand what you mean quickly! Plus, there’s less room for miscommunication.
If you’re doing research remotely, then try showing your client visual assets, rather than telling them what you’ve found out about their customers. User personas, for example, are great tool. Don’t just give your client a list of adjectives about their users. Use visuals to paint a picture of the user journey and show your clients that you understand their priorities.
4. Schedule some face-to-face interaction
In general, it’s really easy for designers to get stuck behind a screen, so try to make an effort to meet face-to-face as much as possible. Video chats are a great way for everyone involved (the design team and the client) to feel like they’re part of your process.
Being face-to-face with someone is important for communicating, which is why it’s better to meet in person before you start working if possible. If you can’t make time to go out together at least try to show up ‘in person’ via video conference every now and then. This will help you avoid misunderstandings, which sometimes occur when working remotely.
5. Use video walkthroughs
Sometimes, when you’re mocking up a new feature or trying to work through different prototypes, it’s hard to understand what someone is thinking just by looking at a screen share. Luckily, since the introduction of video walkthroughs, this has become so much easier.
You can use walkthroughs during design reviews to get quick feedback before diving into high-fidelity mockups. Providing a visual guide makes the whole process go much more smoothly.
Walkthroughs are also ideal for client calls. In remote design, it can be difficult for clients to understand your decisions. This happens even more when it’s time for them to explain their thoughts about the design back to you! Clients may have trouble reasoning through problems because they don’t have the benefit of seeing how everything fits together, especially if they’re not designers. The communication barrier is no one’s fault, but it can feel a bit frustrating.
Another advantage is that video walkthroughs allow your clients to hear your voice, which helps them to feel connected.
6. Avoid miscommunication by sharing everything in writing
You work remotely, so don’t take anything for granted, and make sure to share everything in the form of written information. Send regular updates about your progress. It’s much better than making routine calls, which can easily turn into lengthy status updates no one wants to listen to.
Updates are especially useful if you’re researching or trying out variations on a concept before putting them together in a full design comp. All this saves time in the long run and prevents awkward misunderstandings when your colleagues finally look at what you’ve done after weeks or months of work.
If you’re using digital diagramming tools (highly recommended!), then you’ll automatically have a lot of useful artifacts. In the course of a typical design process, you may have created many diagrams that provide context for your work. You can export materials like user personas, journey maps, affinity diagrams, and other models and export them for use in your ‘remote’ presentations.
7. Get the most out of your face-to-face time
Face-to-face time is important, but it doesn’t suit everyone, nor does it always fit into schedules. A big plus to remote work is that people are embracing asynchronous communication and moving away from the need for constant availability.
However, when you do spend face-time with your team, try to get the most out of every minute because it makes a world of difference. Being all together in one place allows you to have more informal conversations about design and sketch ideas quickly if they come up while talking.
8. Find your community
When designing remotely, try to make sure you can find a community of like-minded people who design and develop software remotely as well. Design communities give you an opportunity to bounce ideas off someone. You also get to be part of a network that understands what it’s like to work on a team where everyone isn’t in the same room.
If you’re already working on a remote design team, don’t let isolation discourage you from finding your own people. Real-life meetups and online forums are good ways to do this. Here are some places we recommend for discussing design online:
- Dribble: this site is full of people who share their daily design life, their projects, or the things they take interest in. It’s also a good place to find collaborators.
- Behance: this is a portfolio website for designers. The cool thing about Behance is that you can upload different elements from all your projects in one page (as opposed to one project per page), creating continuity.
- UX Stack Exchange: this site provides discussion boards for users asking questions and offering feedback from the UX community. As a designer, it can be useful to understand other viewpoints about what you’re doing, or you can share your expertise with others.
- IxDA: this site has lots of information, not only about designing, but technology in general.
- Awwwards: for anyone focused on visual design, Awwwards is a must. Designers from around the world submit creative, inspirational designs, offer critiques, and vote on winning concepts.
9. Use tools for remote design collaboration
Digital designers have been applying their work to screens for quite some time now. And as new tools emerge almost daily, the opportunities for working digitally are growing.
Technology has transformed the way we work. We have remote whiteboarding for sharing ideas. Screen shares and video walkthroughs make it easier for remote designers and clients to communicate. And online workflows allow seamless collaboration from one phase of design to the next.
To make sure remote design runs smoothly, choose tools that are up to the job. With Cacoo, our own diagramming tool, everyone can have unlimited access to assets and work in real time. Add comments, ask questions, and share ideas with your team and clients wherever you are in the world.