Designing Together Virtually: Examples from a UX Boot Camp
Published: August 23, 2011
“Where’s the remote?” A few years ago, anyone asking this would have been searching for the channel changer. These days, however, this question more often refers to a remote member of a team at work.
Working remotely is a growing trend that has merited a lot of attention, especially when it comes to articulating the trade-offs between remote and face-to-face working styles. For user-interface designers in particular, working with remote teammates can be challenging, because body language and creativity are two big factors that working remotely can adversely affect. In our first article, “Tales of Designer Initiation: User Experience Boot Camp,” we discussed the impact of a short timeline on the design process. This article draws on that same two-week design project to examine the impact of remote work. Our experiences expose some of the strengths and weaknesses of traditional design activities when teams perform them over the wire.
Establishing a Relationship First
In a Cirque de Soleil show, incredible performers balance upon one another from quite a height. How is this possible? In addition to their hours of training, what really makes this possible is the strong bond the performers share. Because they trust each other so completely, they are able to move past their own fears and focus on the performance. Although there are far fewer risks in design, we could say the same about designers: when there is a bond of trust among team members, their design product is far greater than what each of them could have done individually.
An atmosphere of trust among designers means you can sketch out new ideas without fear that others will discount them. Brainstorming becomes very fluid and creative, and team members wholly engage in design reviews, knowing that the activity will be constructive rather than destructive.
Team-building exercises for colocated teams are a dime a dozen—a quick Google search yields thousands of results. But how do you build trust when members are remote and don’t have the time or the means to build trust through multiple face-to-face interactions? Here are some of the techniques we employed:
- Make first impressions count. The tone a team’s first encounter sets has an incredibly strong influence on the team for the rest of a project. Enthusiasm and excitement at the start can create a friendly environment later on. In the absence of physical cues, as is often the case when teammates work remotely, enthusiasm can be very helpful. For example, during a UX Boot Camp, one team member said, “I’m really looking forward to this project ,” while another said, “This is going to be pretty exciting.” Verbal expressions like these created a shared enthusiasm in our first meeting.
- Set expectations early. Getting to know how your partner works early on in a project goes a long way toward building trust. Early bird or night owl? Creative genius or organized expert? East coast or west coast time zone? Because we were remote, we had to explicitly ask these questions, as opposed to observing our partner’s habits in the office. For example, one team discovered that one partner liked to work later in the evening, while the other was a morning person. As a result, they scheduled meetings only for the middle of the day. Setting accurate expectations and knowing when you can depend on each other helps build trust between partners.
- Use a Webcam whenever possible. Maximizing awareness of people’s expressions in communication does wonders when you are establishing credibility and building relationships. When we work remotely, we can’t walk into each other’s office or lean over the other person’s screen to check out what they’re working on. Whether for a long requirements meeting, a wireframe review session, or a quick status update, use video-sharing software such as Skype or Google’s Video and Voice plug-in technology to reduce the space between remote participants and approximate real, face-to-face conversations.
Although team-building tactics are particularly important at the beginning of a project, don’t forget about them as the project progresses. Some techniques might change slightly or be more appropriate at different stages of your relationship, but building trust is always essential.
Project Scoping and Brainstorming
To start, our teams used brainstorming methods to scope their projects. Because this is the step that lays the foundation for the rest of a project, it’s important to get it right. Brainstorming requires strong contributions from all team members to ensure that a team considers and discusses all aspects of a topic. After this phase, all team members should have a unified vision for their project.
Using Paper and a Webcam
One pair decided to mind map their requirements and ideas on paper. One person drew and shared what she was drawing using her notebook computer’s built-in Webcam, as shown in Figure 1, while the other commented and watched. This setup proved to be challenging. To ensure that her remote partner could see the drawings, she needed a large piece of paper, a thick pen, and a way to adjust the position of both the Webcam and the paper. Moreover, it wasn’t possible to share and view the paper drawing and see each other at the same time.
Figure 1—Original setup with only a notebook computer and its built-in, low-resolution Webcam
This pair has since minimized these challenges to some extent by adding an extra monitor and using an external, high-definition Webcam, as shown in Figure 2. As a result, they’re spending less time adjusting their work environment to enable the other person to see well and more time sharing quick prototypes, while simultaneously discussing them face-to-face over video conferencing.
Figure 2—Improved setup with two monitors and an external, high-resolution Webcam
We should also note that this method yields only a single hardcopy of the brainstorm document. If you and your teammates need to refer to the same documents throughout a project, we recommend that you scan or photograph them.
Using an Online Software Service
The other pair chose to use an online, cloud-based service to create their mind map. Most applications that are available online today offer a free trial account, so there are typically no additional costs. Be aware, though, that the number of mind maps you can create for free using such trial accounts is limited, so check out their policies before you start. The major benefit of online tools like these is that they allow both partners to drive a meeting or add content simultaneously and see updates in real time. When you add a Webcam, it’s about as close to a face-to-face whiteboarding session that you can get remotely.
Doing User Research
When advancing to the next phase of the project, it’s not surprising that both pairs opted to use the Web for user research. They needed to complete this phase rapidly, and internal and external resources provided more than enough material for market requirements, personas, and so on. Although doing user research on the Web is not unique to working remotely, here are a few tips:
- Share in real time. One pair used Google Wave, which lets you modify rich text documents synchronously. Although this application is not popular for everyday use, it was well suited for guerrilla research. They rapidly exchanged URLs, quotations, research findings, and information about competitors, all in one document that organically organized itself. The partners were able to see each other’s changes in real time, periodically meeting to discuss their progress, and breakout again to continue their rapid research.
- Organize information on wikis. Even a short research cycle can yield a lot of information, so its organization is an important consideration. Writing everything on a whiteboard is helpful for face-to-face working groups, but when you’re working remotely, having a single place to store and quickly access all details is key. While emailing findings to each other may seem easy, it becomes very difficult to locate and retrieve specific details later in a project. Moreover, traditional documents aren’t flexible enough to capture information in different data formats. One pair decided to use an internal wiki to store their research, because they had already had success using a wiki on other projects. You can use wikis to independently add content or collaboratively edit a page and see changes to the content in real time. Of course, most wikis have some limitations, too—for example, you might need to learn a wiki’s text-markup language to create formats such as emphasis, list, table, or link.
The design phase of any project is arguably the most difficult part to perform remotely. During early phases of design, you normally feed off of each other’s ideas and energy. However, the enthusiasm of collaboration often dissipates across remote channels. There are many design tools out there that can help—one pair took more than 30 minutes exploring their options—so it’s just a matter of finding the right one for your project!
- paper sketching—Low-fidelity, paper-and-pen sketches are classic tools for capturing initial design concepts. With little to no overhead, paper and pen let you churn out a series of ideas with freedom and ease. However, when you are working remotely, you’ll need more than paper mockups, because it’s too difficult to iterate and build on these artifacts collaboratively. If a Webcam is built into a notebook computer’s monitor, as most have today, one partner has to awkwardly point the screen toward the paper while the other navigates, as one team did. The other pair took time to scan and share their sketches via email. This approach removed the need to adjust Webcams and paper, but it resulted in asynchronous design, and they lost their ability to feed off each other in the heat of the design moment.
Although pen-and-paper techniques may work well for iterating through a few high-level ideas, they quickly become inadequate for remote work. In a face-to-face setting, iterating designs on paper comes naturally, but those who work remotely quickly move to wireframing the details using sketching software.
- wireframing—In this remote project, the partners wanted the ability to quickly build on each other’s designs and also to remain connected to one another throughout the design process. They found that it was easier to share design files when both partners were using the same tool. Plus, either partner was able to iterate on the designs immediately during reviews rather than needing to take notes and make changes to the design later.
Three participants had licenses for Balsamiq Mockups, and they knew they could rapidly wireframe their designs because its widget library is tailored to creating low-fidelity mockups of Web applications. Although they used Balsamiq as their wireframing tool for this project, there are a number of other desktop applications available for wireframing. Evaluate your options, then decide on a common tool or document format your greater design team can use.
Keeping It Creative
All projects are susceptible to falling into ruts, and working remotely can exacerbate this problem. When you are remote, it’s easy to feel disconnected and become unmotivated about a project. Because our project was only two weeks long, there wasn’t really time to fall into a rut, but there were definitely times when the creative juices seemed to stop flowing. This caused more panic than usual because we didn’t have the luxury of time to recover. However, we found a few ways to spice things up, and there are many things you can do to help you overcome this problem!
- Change the status quo. If you’ve been spending a lot of time working as a team, take some time to work by yourself and vice versa. It’s amazing what a change in your work dynamics can do for a project. Working by yourself gives you a chance to quietly focus on and explore ideas; working with others provides the opportunity to vet and build on each other’s ideas. Either way, change is good!
- Make the effort to communicate. It’s all too easy to stop engaging with each other when you are working remotely. After all, no one can gather around the coffee machine to chat or stop by your office. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep in touch and stay connected. “I resist the urge to send an email when I have a quick question and instead use instant messaging,” says one member of our team. A quick chat is an easy way to make contact with team members and keep the conversation flowing.
- Take recess together. So, you’ve just spent a few hours sketching some designs with your partner, and you’ve hit a wall. This is inevitable. It happens all the time. Instead of always taking a break by yourself, consider taking it with your partner. For example, discuss an episode of a TV program you watched last evening, share a recipe, or watch a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk together. Not only does this change your context, which kick-starts creativity, you are also continuing to build your relationship with your partner.
Communicating the Design
The final phase of our UX Boot Camp project was pitching our designs. Each design team had about 10 minutes to present their concept or design. For our boot camp, the pitch included designs, their rationale, and scenarios. Ideally, our goal was to sell the executives on the receiving end of the pitch our idea, so they would give it their go-ahead for the next phase of development. Over the phone, you have only 10 to 15 seconds before someone forms a lasting impression of you. We could argue that this is the step that benefits the most from the eye contact and physical communication of face-to-face meetings. However, it is possible to be successful in pitching remotely when you understand the psychology behind it.
- Enable virtual eye contact. I know, I know, we’ve already talked about making use of video-conference software, but we really mean it! This is most critical for pitches and presentations because making eye contact communicates confidence and lets you really key into your audience. Even if you’re able to set up a Webcam on only your side, your audience benefits from being able to feel they are making eye contact with you. Be sure to look straight into the Webcam while you are speaking and stay relaxed.
- Go against the grain with slides. Most presentation tips advise not using slides, because you want your audience to focus on what you’re saying and slides may be distracting. However, pitching remotely is the exception to the rule. You’ll need something to join you and all remote parties, and slides are a great visual aid. Of course, other presentation tips such as limiting the number of words on a slide are still valid here. Minimalism is the new black. You should communicate mainly through what you say; your slides should simply illustrate a background for the conversation.
- Test, test, and test again. If you work remotely, you probably participate in many Web conferences a week. So you probably know that inevitably some technical glitch happens at the start of almost every meeting. Perhaps someone hasn’t installed the right plug-in to enable remote sharing, or Wi-Fi doesn’t work in a specific conference room. We highly recommend that you test your Web conference setup with someone on the other end in advance of your pitch. Find a colleague at the remote location who can help you to test your setup in advance. Since first impressions are lasting, you don’t want yours to be a technical glitch!
Remote teams are nothing new. More often than not these days, at least one member of a team works from home. Naturally, this changes the team dynamic and the interaction patterns among team members. This article is not meant to unveil new procedures for making it seem as though you’re face to face. In fact, sometimes changing up the status quo can give rise to new creative bursts. Instead, the purpose of this article is to discuss the impact of working on remote teams throughout the design process.
Designing remotely was a first for several of us participating in the UX Boot Camp, so we had to figure it out quickly. Experiences at each phase of the project revealed the hurdles of designing remotely: establishing relationships, designing in tandem, and communicating ideas with success. For each of these phases, we stress the importance of using a Webcam to facilitate your expressing yourself fully. In addition, a consistent set of software tools for all members of the team can help you set expectations, design efficiently, and make a great first impression!
Keep in mind that our design project was a rapid, two-week project, so this is not an exhaustive list of strategies and tactics for remote design work. The key is to appreciate that one technique may not fit all stages when working remotely, so it’s important to know what options are available. It is our hope that, by sharing our experiences, we’ve offered some food for thought and inspired you to push for a better process and tools for remote work—that is, for what is quickly becoming a typical work environment.