Managing design remotely


Managing design remotely

When everyone works alone and communication is difficult, how do you build a collaborative, intellectually rigorous culture?

For my first full-time design job, I was the only designer in a startup of about 15 people. Five of us sat in a horseshoe configuration in one room of the office, backs to each other, facing the windows.

Even though we were five feet from each other, we rarely swiveled our chairs around to talk. Instead, we mostly communicated through protracted Basecamp threads or private IM conversations. At this stage in my career, I had accumulated a lot of UX knowledge through books and blog posts, but I hadn’t put it into practice. Instead of turning around and having a conversation with my co-workers, I spent a lot of my time writing condescending, essay-length Basecamp posts. Most of these posts were attempts to educate my co-workers about what “good design” was, or to persuade them that even their most minute product decisions should be handled differently.

Of course, I now realize this was the worst possible approach I could have taken. Even as I invested hours of each day writing about the value of good design, I knew it was counterproductive. In fact, to avoid being on the receiving end of my rants, colleagues were shutting me out of meetings and ignoring the design phase altogether.

But at the time I saw no alternative! Since I rarely talked to my colleagues in person, I lacked the empathy to understand their perspective. And because the preference for written communication was a cultural norm in the organization before I arrived, I felt too intimidated to actually speak up and have a face-to-face dialogue. Instead, I turned my back to my employees so I could write them angry notes on Basecamp.

Later on, I would learn much better ways to communicate, but only because the culture at other companies made it feel safe. Open offices and friendlier employees helped me feel comfortable collaborating with colleagues to make better products together.

I started working at DOBT last September. We’re a distributed team, and because we’re spread out across different time zones, a significant portion of work is done asynchronously. At DOBT, written communication is not only a cultural norm, but it’s occasionally enforced by sleep schedules.

As the first designer in a growing company, my goal is to make the way we work as comfortable and appealing as possible for the next designer we hire. But, here’s the question: how do you build a culture that encourages creative collaboration and intellectual rigor when everyone works alone and communication is restricted?

We still have a long way to go, but here are some things that have helped:

Hire awesome people that value design.

As the first full-time designer on a product that’s been in development for over a year, I’m fairly relieved that our engineers have kept Screendoor in relatively good shape from a UX perspective. Of course, I see a million ways to improve what’s there, but I also know that if we had hired differently, it would have been much worse. Having sales people who understand the importance of great design (some of whom have actually taken design thinking courses) is also immensely helpful.

Keep the lines of communication open.

In addition to video check-ins with the whole company on Mondays and Fridays, I have regular one-on-one video chats with staff that aren’t on the dev team, since I don’t have as many opportunities to talk to them in the course of a normal workday. These face-to-face chats help each of us understand what the other is doing, building empathy and ensuring we stay in sync.

Evangelize UX best practices.

“Evangelization” is different from “proselytization.” At that first job, I would fiercely argue why my opinion was correct, even going so far as to cite multiple sources at the bottom of a 500-word post. At DOBT, I just occasionally drop links into our office chat, or introduce them as I explain my own process. Simply providing exposure to UX concepts within the company pays dividends over time.

Give new ideas room to breathe.

It can be easy for people to misinterpret written communication as antagonistic, or to lose their minds if they disagree with what’s been said. I’m definitely guilty of this, but I try to take a deep breath, give it five minutes, and give the author the greatest benefit of the doubt before I reply. This saves a ton of friction and unwanted stress for all sides.

Separate the solution from the problem or job-to-be-done.

Mig Reyes, a designer who works remotely for Basecamp, recently mentioned that he’s always asking two questions at work:

  1. Why does it have to be this way?
  2. What if we did this weird thing instead?

I’ll get to the second question in a bit, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of the first. Whether I’m researching a product decision made before I was hired or addressing a feature request from a customer, it’s essential to uncover the root problem before proposing a solution.

When you understand what people are actually struggling with or the job they need done, you can start to think creatively, challenging assumptions about the existing solution. We have found Intercom’s four layers of design really helpful in separating the problem from the details of implementation, focusing everyone’s communication as a result.

Suggest crazy, fun ideas.

If you’re the only product designer in the company, you have an imperative to suggest concepts that might sound insane to others. You’re the only one whose sole job it is to satisfy the user. In consumer tech, the best solution for the user is often something which resembles magic, so start with that.

This doesn’t mean you should stubbornly fight for unrealistic concepts. Instead, you should make it a point to begin by ignoring existing constraints, starting from impossible and working out the details from there.

Point out easy wins.

If there are discrete tasks an engineer can take on that will immediately improve the product, point them out! Keeping a UX backlog handy for when they have some downtime can go a long way.


Josh Rubenoff leads product and design at The Department of Better Technology.

The Department of Better Technology makes Screendoor, which gives your team everything you need to build an online form and manage the process behind it.

Sign up today and start reviewing submissions together.

Source: Medium:Remote Working
Managing design remotely

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