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What’s Holding You Back from Doing UX Design Remotely?

August 24, 2015

“I like the idea of working remotely, but I’m worried that I won’t produce great work if I’m cut off from the team.” Does this statement ring true for you? It did for me six months ago, as I struggled through a remote contract. I hadn’t worked remotely before. As I feared, I did not produce great work, and I felt lost as to how to improve the situation.

People had often asked me why I couldn’t work from anywhere like developers do. But, usually, I just shook my head. I couldn’t explain exactly why not. Was it because I couldn’t talk with users? Not really. I’ve worked on many projects on which I couldn’t speak with users. I realized that it was something to do with communication. But why should doing UX design remotely be any different from remote visual design?

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In this article, I will explore whether there really is something about UX design that might prevent our doing it well on a distributed team. Then, I’ll walk you through some practical steps for getting going with remote work. Finally, I’ll explore what UX-specific challenges exist with remote work.

On Working Remotely

In his famous book Lean UX, Jeff Gothelf states that in-person collaboration and co-location are best for a successful agile team. He identifies a direct correlation between the “level of progress and momentum” on a project and a team’s physical togetherness. Who wouldn’t agree with him that a bunch of people gathered around a whiteboard can stimulate and share ideas at a fantastic pace.

Even so, Gothelf doesn’t rule out remote UX design. In fact, he’s delivered a seminar explaining that, with the right tools and systems in place, it’s possible to do remote UX design well. I listened to his seminar eagerly and was surprised to discover that most of the advice he had to offer is not specific to UX design. Rather, his secret of success is to get generic measures for remote work in place within a company.

Before discussing the complexity of how User Experience fits into a distributed team, I’ll suggest some resources you can use to familiarize yourself with best practices for remote work. One excellent resource is Zapier’s free, downloadable book Ultimate Guide to Remote Working.

Spend an evening reading Remote: No Office Required, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, who know a thing or two about remote work. It’s a treasure trove of insights from pioneers in remote work who have conquered the remote landscape. Fried and Hansson’s company, 37 Signals, was fully distributed from its inception, and they created some hugely successful tools to support remote work, including Basecamp and Campfire. Over ten years of experiences and learnings fill this punchy, easy-to-read book, which informed a lot of Gothelf’s thinking.

The Basics of Remote Work

I’ll summarize some key points from the aforementioned resources to get you going on remote work. Before accepting a remote role, you’ll need to do your homework to ensure you’re up to speed on best practices for remote work. Figure 1 shows some things you should consider.

Figure 1—Steps to success in a remote UX role
Steps to success in a remote UX role

To assess your ability to succeed in a remote UX role, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would I be a good addition to a remote team? Some people aren’t cut out for the remote life. It doesn’t suit everyone. If you’re a people person and thrive on the energy of being in an office, this may not be for you. Do you get lonely and bored when you’re by yourself? Do you struggle to get things done without people around? Be honest with yourself. Don’t embark on a remote journey if you aren’t cut out for it.
  • Is management ready for remote workers? When a company is set up for remote work, its managerial approach reflects that. An infrastructure for remote work is in place, and management makes sure that people have everything they need to get the job done—no matter where they are. Inherent in management’s providing support for remote work is having respect for remote workers and making sure that communications do not favor office workers. Find out how the company schedules and conducts meetings, shares documents, and manages time zones.
  • Are the right tools in place? There is an ever-growing list of awesome tools that make remote work viable. A project team should have such tools set up and consistently use some combination of them—for example, tools for
    • screen sharing—GoToMeeting, WebEx, or RealtimeBoard
    • coordinating to-do lists—Basecamp or Trello
    • real-time chats—Sqwiggle or HipChat
    • version control and file sharing—Dropbox or Google Drive

Once you’ve got your head around the discipline of great remote working, think back on your previous issues with remote work. Were they really about doing UX design remotely or were they simply down to poor communication?

Remote UX Design

In 2012, the outlook of Lifehacker on the question “Can I get a job in user experience design and work remotely?” was pretty dire. “It’s basically impossible to work remotely as an effective, in-house user experience designer,” commented Matthew Magain. The key reason behind this was the loss of teamwork and collaborative UX techniques such as sketching, card sorting, and participatory design sessions.

Matthew Magain has also written a very helpful article, “How to Be a Remote UX Designer,” about the many tools a UX designer can successfully employ as a remote UX professional. The list is extensive and encouraging. You can show it to any manager to back up why you are perfectly capable of working from home. However, Magain still maintains that these aren’t sufficient to allow UX designers to do everything their job entails remotely. He said, “The biggest hurdle to working remotely for UX designers is that, by definition, a user experience designer needs to engage with users.”

Now, in 2015, are collaborative design and the lack of in-person contact with users still blockers to UX professionals’ working remotely? Not according to some of the UX folks who told me their stories.

Story 1: Erika, Remote UX Designer for a Small, Distributed Startup

Erika Pelser is Senior UX/UI Designer for Ceros, a startup that develops Web-based software. She joined an established remote setup, with some team members together in their New York office, but the rest scattered across Brazil, New Zealand, the UK, and various states in the US. She is the first and only UX designer on the project and doubles as the visual designer.

Despite her initial misgivings, Erika was surprised to find how close a remote team can become. They have daily standups and are in close communication via Slack and email. “The two most important things for remote success are transparency and over-communication with your team,” she explains. “You’re now getting judged by your work you deliver. It’s not how you dress. It’s your response times that matter.”

Big Win: Using Slack and InVision

Erika has come up with a straightforward process for communicating her designs. She uploads sketches and wireframes into InVision. The whole team gets involved in providing feedback, using its commenting feature. The integration of Slack and InVision is a big win for them. They share InVision files in a Slack channel. The comment-and-amend loop is really efficient.

Erika conducts all usability testing remotely. First, she creates a prototype in InVision, then she sends each participant a link. Participants complete the test tasks while using GoToMeeting’s screen-sharing feature. Erika records the test sessions using QuickTime. Later, she collects the most important bits into a single video clip. She creates a report and plays back the best clips during a stakeholders’ meeting.

Her last round of testing made such an impact that the company produced a new Web site. They told her that they finally understood what they needed to tell their users.

One of Erika’s biggest challenges in working remotely was communicating interactions to the development team. Sketches weren’t enough. Some developers needed to see things move to understand how they worked. Her solution was to make a simple prototype, combining InVision and ScreenFlow, which let her animate user interactions with panels. Once the developers understood the choreography, they were able to build it.

Although Erika is also the visual designer, she is careful to first complete a thorough UX design process before moving on to visual design. Her teammates get excited about the insights her customer-journey maps and personas reveal, and they fully support her UX design process. Erika is very enthusiastic about the results she’s achieving with remote UX techniques and told me, “I am in a dream job. It is amazing!”

Encouraged by Erika’s positive account, I put a call out on LinkedIn for more input on doing UX design remotely. A number of positive responses came back.

Story 2: Stephanie, Remote UX/UI Designer for a Large Multinational

Stephanie is a Senior UX/UI Designer for an in-house team at a large, multinational telecommunications company. She works remotely, on the east coast of the US, and her team is distributed across other US states, Brazil, and the UK. Stephanie is pleased with the quality of the UX design work she’s delivering. Her only complaint is the obstacle of working in different time zones. Stephanie’s setup interested me because both her company and her toolkit were very different from Erika’s.

Key Steps to Success

Stephanie attributes her success to having proper briefing documents, regular meetings, and transparency regarding who is responsible for each deliverable. The team tends to kick off projects with an in-person workshop, or hot house. Whenever possible, they whiteboard some big concepts, then take photos of their sketches and share the photos using their mobile phone. They also post these whiteboard sketches to the SharePoint site for a project.

Stephanie starts with sketching, then creates prototypes in Axure, which she shares with the team via AxShare. There is a change log on the first page of the prototype file, so everyone can see how it is evolving. They gather feedback during calls. All meetings are by phone and/or WebEx. Their remote usability testing practice is not as strong as Stephanie would like, but they’ve successfully run remote testing using WebEx.

I pointed out that, because Stephanie also does the visual design, she doesn’t have the hurdle of communicating to a remote visual designer. She agreed that this did streamline the process, saying: “If the UX designer and visual designer are the same person, things do go smoother. But I think having a good debrief session and experienced people makes it a lot easier.”

When I pressed her about UX-specific challenges of remote work, she said: “The only aspect of UX that could not be remote or handled online would be anything involving physical prototypes.”

So far, so good—happy UX stories from a multinational and a startup. I kept hunting for more stories and came across an excellent blog post, “Why Your Next UX Designer Should Be Remote,” by James Turner, who is one half of the nomadic UX design team Kennedy/Turner. James passionately stated, “You can do amazing UX remotely!” In fact, he went so far as to say that it’s “often better than you’d get in person.” I chatted with James on Skype to find out more.

Story 3: Kennedy/Turner, Nomadic UX Design Team

James Turner and his partner Holly Kennedy met in London and formed Kennedy/Turner. This is a UX design team created with a twist: it would not only be remote; it would be nomadic. Since January 2014, they’ve navigated the unchartered waters of remote UX design, while traveling in the US and Europe.

They’ve pivoted their strategy along the way. In the beginning, they described themselves as “remote designers,” but soon realized that this didn’t do justice to the value of their work. They are UX designers. Their location is secondary. After all, most design agencies are remote from their clients. So they refined their strategy to working only with startups in the US, where they found a lot more companies were willing to work with remote people. In regional tech hubs like Salt Lake City, there just aren’t enough designers. So even if companies have an office there, they’ll also have remote staff.

Kennedy/Turner decided to focus their expertise on healthcare product design, seeking companies who have built a physical product that requires UX design for a digital component. Becoming intentional about the clients they prefer to work with facilitates their working on projects they find meaningful. It also helps them to develop their skills in a specialized area. James said that the key to their success was establishing both their remote method of working and their UX process up front, before taking on a client.

I asked James to isolate how he and Holly had solved the remote-UX conundrum. The two main challenges that they had encountered related to communicating design thinking without being in the same room.

1. Expressing Design Rationale

Typically, UX designers present their work to a client, while explaining their design rationale. As designers respond to their clients’ questions, they establish a relationship with them and build trust. This communication might involve a quick sketch or a verbal explanation. Being remote meant Kennedy/Turner had to find another means of expressing design rationale. So, following the example set by the GDS (Government Digital Service) Design Documentation Process, they decided to try out Hackpad, which is now their main method of creating design documentation.

Hackpad is a Web-based, collaborative, real-time text editor. Every project in Hackpad can have its own workspace with an infinite number of pages. James and Holly use it as a project wiki. Every meaningful event and feature has its own page on Hackpad. When they run a workshop, they write up the discussion, including the pictures and decisions they’ve taken. They save all of this in Hackpad, which is accessible to all team members. As they move through the design phase, each feature of an application has its own page.

What James found surprising about using this tool was that, not only could they record their discussions efficiently, but it actually improved the quality of their design work. Through the discipline of rationalizing their design decisions, their work became tighter. Keeping a tangible record of design thinking was very important. Openness in design thinking fostered trust and coherence.

The historical feedback record was instrumental in facilitating design communication. Looking back reminded the team of their previous decisions, and it helped new team members—particularly new UX designers—get up to speed. Plus, the documentation helped them in creating design guidelines. Communicating with Hackpad and Slack is so successful that they resort to calls and screen sharing only when something is really complicated.

2. Living Without the Wall

UX designers love Post-its. They are a firm favorite for collaboration sessions or sharing ideas with a client or team. Working without the wall was one of the biggest problems that James and Holly encountered. They tried a few whiteboard tools to solve the problem and finally settled on RealtimeBoard.

They pretend the board is real, which requires discipline. They make an effort to work within RealtimeBoard after each user interview or journey-mapping session instead of on their wall. In this way, they show their clients their thinking and record ideas permanently. (Transporting a pile of Post-its every three months when they move to another city just wouldn’t be practical.) James admits that this solution is not always ideal—it may demand more effort—but the results can be really good.

Although James is a major advocate for remote UX design, he does acknowledge that he benefits from working as part of a team. “I think, with most problems you’re trying to solve, it’s better to have someone to bounce ideas off. I don’t know how successful it would be doing it on my own.” He admits that designing alone can suck and, if Holly were somewhere else or they employed another designer, there would “be a new set of problems, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable.”

In Summary

Remote UX design is not without its difficulties, but it’s certainly a viable approach if you’re up for the challenges. If you have the get-up-and-go and are open to trying new ways of working, that’s a good start. When you’re considering taking on a remote UX design project, you need to look at this from two perspectives:

  1. Remote work—Both you and the team must be committed to following remote best practices, as described earlier in this article.
  2. Remote UX design work—It’s your responsibility to vet or establish a solid UX design process, then to keep the fires burning.

If none of these stories matches your situation, you will need to pay special attention to defining your method of working. If you share my desire to do great design, you should be able to figure it out. So, now, what’s holding you back from doing remote UX design? Finding clients! That’s a story for another day. 

References

Foster, Wade. The Ultimate Guide to Remote Working. Mountain View, CA: Zapier, Inc., March 2015. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Fried, Jason, and David Heinemeier Hansson. Remote: No Office Required. New York: The Crown Publishing Group, October 2013.

Goudrewau, Jenna. “Back to the Stone Age? New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Bans Working from Home.” Forbes, February 25, 2013. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Gothelf, Jeff. Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2013.

Gothelf, Jeff. “Notes from Designing with Remote Teams.” UIE Virtual Seminar, September 2013. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Kidman, Angus. “Ask LH: Can I Get a Job in User Experience Design and Work Remotely?Lifehacker, November 16, 2012. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Magain, Matthew. “How to Be a Remote UX Designer.” UX Mastery, December 21, 2012. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Moor, Tom. “The Trouble with Timezones.” Tom Moor Blog, November 18, 2013. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Nieters, Jim. “Artists, Not Assholes.” UXmatters, November 3, 2008. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Pienaar, Adii. “The Challenge of Remote Working.” Adii Pienaar Blog, February 2013. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Turner, James. “Why Your Next UX Designer Should Be Remote.” Kennedy/Turner Blog, March 2, 2015. Retrieved July 19, 2015.

Independent Experience & Service Design Consultant

London, England, UK

Marg LaingMarg is a User Experience Consultant and is based between South Africa and London, UK. She started her career in 2000, when the world of information architecture was just emerging, and spent 12 years working in London digital agencies as the industry evolved. Marg is passionate about user research, information design, and UX design. She loves contributing to products that get built and are a pleasure to use. She’s a big fan of sketching, lean methods, collaborative design, and community. Marg is a volunteer with the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and organizes the local UX Durban Meetup.  Read More

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