Remote Collaboration for UX Design Teams

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
December 21, 2020

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses how to create UX designs remotely, working with your product team and other stakeholders. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many teams have found themselves working remotely for the first time. So learning how to collaborate effectively while working remotely is essential to your success at this time.

Although the goals of your projects remain unchanged, you’ve lost your normal ways of working. Plus, many UX professionals are simultaneously supporting their children’s remote learning and taking care of pets during the work day. Fortunately, there are many tools and methods that can help us to adapt. Most of all, our indomitable human spirit makes us willing to do whatever is necessary to continue our work.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Staples, Inc.; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Michael Faletti—Senior UX Designer and Researcher at Saggezza
  • Andrew Wirtanen—Lead Designer at Citrix

Q: Do you have any tips for doing remote design collaboration with your UX team?—from a UXmatters reader

“I’d broaden this question a bit to include not just other UX team members but also other stakeholders such as Product and Development,” answers Warren. “Successful remote collaboration depends upon a couple of key things:

  1. Keeping your team small—comprising six or fewer people—works better than trying to facilitate collaboration among a large group of people.
  2. Finding a good remote-collaboration tool and familiarizing your team with it before you start.

“When our team at Staples went remote back in March, we had to find the right tool quickly. We’ve been using Mural ever since. I really like it and find it a great value. (I am not affiliate and don’t get paid to push their product.) For my team, an important feature is real-time collaboration—essentially a whiteboard, but in a virtual space where we can all be working and drawing together. Virtual-whiteboard activities democratize the process somewhat. All team members feel included. In an in-person setting, there can be a tendency for some people to be more vocal and active—others not as much. Collaborating in a virtual setting doesn’t change the vocal dynamic much, but it does lend a level of comfort and ease that doesn’t always exist in person. I recommend Mural’s ebook The Definitive Guide to Conducting Remote Workshops.”

Utilizing Effective Collaboration Tools

“At Saggezza, the members of our distributed UX team work across different geographies and time zones,” responds Michael. “Plus, within our enterprise organization, we must also communicate with other stakeholders. So our UX team needs to utilize the tools at our disposal effectively. Let’s look at a few of the tools—other than our email system—that are beneficial for remote design collaboration, as follows:

  • InVision—This tool assists us in collaborating and communicating across our UX and development teams, as well as with other stakeholders. We use InVision to deliver high-fidelity components to our development teams. But rather than creating high-fidelity screens for every feature that we work on from the start, we create low-fidelity screens during the exploratory and solution phases. Then, once we arrive at the storytelling phase, we create high-fidelity components for delivery. Throughout this process, we use InVision’s ability to customize a Kanban board, which allows our designers to collaborate and proves helpful when we’re collaborating with designers who are not only remote but working across different geographies and time zones. This is also a good solution for avoiding meeting fatigue.
  • Digital white boards—Tools such as Miro, Mural, and InVision’s Freehand help with collaboration and problem-solving across teams and designers. We use these tools for workshop collaboration with smaller teams, as well as for affinity diagramming and analysis sessions.
  • Microsoft Teams—This tool has been essential in keeping our teams organized during remote sessions—especially since the pandemic began. MS Teams has helped facilitate our getting quick feedback and lets us have open conversations in an organized manner. One of its most beneficial features for working remotely is real-time collaboration. When our team is working through a moderator’s discussion guide, we can have two researchers simultaneously reviewing, editing, and adding comments to one document. This makes the life of the UX designer easier later on because there is just one source of truth when they’re building a test stimulus. Plus, they can see any edits to the tasks for which they’re designing a solution in real-time.”

Following Meeting-Design Best Practices

“Remote design collaboration can feel much more complicated than in-person collaboration,” replies Andrew. “Fortunately, by following best practices and using the right software tools, remote collaboration can be just as easy and effective.

“The foundation for remote collaboration is your chat app. Using an app such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, you can create specific channels for teams or projects. Your channel not only lets you chat with everyone but launch video calls as well.

“One of my favorite solutions is an online-whiteboard tool such as Miro or Mural. You can use the whiteboard either synchronously, while you’re on a video call, or asynchronously. For design projects, I find online whiteboards most useful for brainstorming, flowcharting, modeling, taking screenshots, and wireframing. Best of all, you won't run out of space because you can zoom in and out on the whiteboard canvas.

“Perhaps the most important thing for remote design collaboration is following meeting design best practices. When you’re working remotely, meetings can become more critical because you can’t just walk over to someone’s desk or have a hallway conversation. I recommend your having everyone on your team read Kevin Hoffman’s book Meeting Design—you can read Chapter 5: Facilitation Strategy and Style on UXmatters—and UXmatters articles such as Jeremy Wilt’s ‘Transforming Meaningless Meetings into Meaningful Meetings.’ Your team’s meeting cadence and rituals also become more critical when you’re fully remote. Noah Levin shared an overview of Figma’s product-design process in ‘Inside Figma: The Product Design Team’s Process,’ which includes a warm-up activity on Monday and a cooldown on Friday.”

Focusing on Team Communications

“As UX professionals, it is our duty to communicate well,” says Michael. “At Saggezza, our UX team is a distributed team, working from Chicago, New York, and Dublin. Our team’s roles include designers, architects, managers, researchers, and analysts. Since our team ranges across different geographies and time zones, we have diverse needs for communication and must deal with the latest complications due to COVID-19. The following three things are of great importance to our team when it comes to team communication:

  1. Make your goals clear and ensure that all team members know their responsibilities. This might seem to be an obvious first step, but it’s essential that you ensure the designers on your team understand what their responsibilities are and where they need to align in the process.
  2. Leave no details to chance. As UX Designers, we often face receiving ever-evolving requirements from our stakeholders. Plus, we need to be sure we create solutions for our users that are based on specific research findings. Whenever you receive new requirements—whether from a stakeholder or research findings—be sure to reach out and communicate with the proper parties to gain the clarity you need. If you fail to resolve open questions, stakeholders might come to consider UX and design to be bottlenecks.
  3. Hold design breakout sessions. Once a week, I meet with three other UX designers in our own breakout session. In our enterprise setting, our UX team supports multiple applications, and we experience evolving design standards, ever-changing user needs, and multiple, simultaneous research efforts. It is imperative that we set aside time to talk through our ideas, design directions, and user journeys and share any updates before development implements a solution. This approach helps facilitate meaningful critiques during the exploration and concept phases before we are too far down the line.”

Promoting Healthy Teamwork

“With the spread of COVID-19, we all find ourselves working primarily outside the office, with limited in-person interactions,” says Michael. “So it’s especially important to make sure you’re taking your health seriously—including your mental health. Since we’re not generally commuting into work, it’s a good idea to use that extra time to do yoga in the morning, get outside during lunch, or go for a walk or a run around your neighborhood to get some much-needed fresh air and sunshine. Another thing that seems to help me is getting some virtual facetime with our team rather than just hearing their voices. Seeing someone’s reaction or their laugh and smile brings back some of the human interaction we desperately need during the challenging times through which we’re all living right now.

“Find time to be creative. The daily grind of making calls, eliciting stakeholder requirements, and working within a set of design standards, although important, can become monotonous. Finding some time to get outside inspiration can help immensely in breaking out of your day-to-day grind and can deliver real benefits. I try to take roughly thirty minutes a day to find outside inspiration—perhaps exploring Abduzeedo for user-interface or design inspiration and Pinterest as well. Whatever you choose, try to carve out twenty to thirty minutes a day to gain some new insights and inspirations from outside sources.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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