How to Foster Design Thinking in Remote Teams

July 8, 2024

You might not realize it, but you can see evidence of design thinking everywhere, especially in the design of apps, Web sites, and social-media platforms. The careful categorization of products on Amazon is an example of design thinking. Another is apps offering the ability to change font sizes and color contrast to support accessibility.

Design thinking revolves around people and leverages the best design toolkit for balancing your audience’s needs and business requirements to achieve success. It’s about building empathy with the people for whom you are designing, generating ideas, embracing experimentation, and iterating based on feedback.

You might assume that achieving such a large goal would be challenging when working remotely. In remote settings, team members might struggle with collaboration, communication, and staying connected to their colleagues.

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In writing this article, my aim is to help creative directors, team leads, and others overcome the challenges of working remotely by providing a structured framework for problem-solving and fostering creativity on remote teams. I hope that reading this article makes it easier for you to ensure that everyone on your team is on the same page regarding how to make the process of designing products and apps more effective.

How to Develop Design Thinking on a Remote Team

Establishing a design-thinking culture on remote teams requires intentionality and effort, but can yield great results and offer significant benefits. Let’s consider a few practical ways of fostering design thinking on remote teams.

1. Empathizing with Users

If you don’t understand users’ needs, wants, and motivations, how can you design something that truly meets their needs? Empathy is at the heart of design thinking.

However, when working remotely, getting face time with users to better understand their needs and painpoints can be challenging. To foster empathy with users on remote teams, you can do the following:

  • Conduct remote user research. You can conduct surveys, interviews, or online focus groups. I recommend doing polls to get fast responses that provide enough insights to help you make better design decisions.
  • Run user interviews using video chat. Set up one-on-one sessions with target users and ask open-ended questions to uncover their experiences, frustrations, and wishes. Take detailed notes.
  • Analyze the product’s analytics. Usage data, help-desk tickets, and other analytics can highlight where users struggle. Look for trends and outliers.
  • Search support forums and social media. People often post publicly about their painpoints, issues, and needs, and these forums can be great sources of feedback for improving designs.
  • Do guerrilla user research. If possible, observe public product usage in real-world settings. This can reveal painpoints that users might not explicitly state.
  • Immerse yourself in the user’s world. Study their workflows, environments, and mental models.

A GE Healthcare case study provides a great example of empathy in design thinking. Industrial designer Doug Dietz realized that the Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and medical scanners he designed for children terrified them. Empathizing with these children helped him transform MRI machines and scanners from dark holes that scared children into pirate-themed adventures or undersea explorations, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Doug Dietz transformed frightening experiences to adventures
Doug Dietz's empathy transformed frightening experiences to adventures

Image source:

This transformative design-thinking approach removed children’s anxiety and made medical testing and scanning better experiences for children who were ill. Take this example as inspiration and develop a deep understanding of the user’s context and motivations and try to put yourself in their shoes. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions to ensure that your design-thinking process is truly empathetic.

2. Defining the Problem

What problem are you trying to solve? What is the underlying issue or painpoint that users face? Defining the problem clearly and collaborating to solve it through design is essential. Reframing and understanding the problem lets you frame an opportunity into specific problems that you can tackle.

I suggest that you read Thomas Wedell-Wedellsbor’s book What’s Your Problem? It offers clear, usable frameworks for transforming problems into solutions. Let’s look at an example from the book: One building received a complaint that the elevators were too slow. The result was a drive to increase the speed of the elevator so people could reach their floor faster. But increasing the elevator’s speed would be expensive and impractical. Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests that the problem definition shouldn’t focus on increasing the elevator’s speed but rather on changing how people experience the ride. The solution: adding mirrors to the elevator’s walls. The end result: people became preoccupied with their own appearance, making it seem like the ride went faster. Complaints about the elevator being too slow ceased, and the business saved money—just by reframing the problem appropriately.

In this way, use your insights to craft a problem statement that captures the users’ needs and guides your team’s efforts. Ask Why? or change the question you’re asking to get to the heart of the matter. Distill disparate priorities down to the core problem you want to solve, then dedicate your design-thinking efforts to solving it. This vital step provides the foundation for generating solutions that truly connect with users.

3. Ideating Solutions

Understanding the problem isn’t enough. Design thinking calls for generating many ideas and considering multiple solutions before deciding on a path forward. But, on a remote team, replicating the energy of in-person brainstorming can be challenging. Let’s look at some techniques that you can use to get your team’s creative juices flowing, as follows:

  • virtual whiteboarding—Using a shared online whiteboard such as Miro or Mural, team members can add sticky notes, drawings, and diagrams to map out their ideas visually. This freedom promotes divergent thinking.
  • brainwriting—Individuals can capture their ideas in a shared document or on a whiteboard. Then, they pass their ideas to another team member who can build on them. An alternative is to gather all the notes in one place, then discuss them as a group. This approach can help you avoid having one person dominate the discussion and allows multiple ideas to filter through.
  • brainstorm sprints—Set a brief time limit—five to ten minutes—and develop as many solutions as possible. Then have team members share their ideas and build on one another’s ideas. Repeat this process a few times. The time pressure can spark the imagination.
  • random prompts—Use random words, images, or questions to spur new ideas and directions. For example, ask, “How might we improve this by incorporating dancing?” The unexpected associations can drive originality. At first, you might get nonsensical outputs. But the goal is to get a person’s mind working. Eventually, you’ll get great ideas.
  • role playing—Have team members take on various user personas and think through solutions from their point of view. This builds empathy and expands perspectives.

The main aim of these techniques is to encourage a free flow of ideas without judgment. Embrace wild or unconventional ideas. They could lead to the most innovative solutions.

4. Prototyping Concepts

With some potential solutions in hand, it’s time to move on to prototyping. Rapid prototyping and testing, in particular, are central to design thinking. Although prototyping and testing solutions might seem challenging when working on a remote team, there are effective techniques for prototyping concepts and gathering feedback remotely.

Start by creating low-fidelity prototypes that convey the essence of your ideas without your investing large amounts of time in their creation. These could be paper prototypes, simple clickable prototypes that you create using tools such Figma, Sketch, or InVision, or Wizard of Oz prototypes, for which a person simulates the behavior of the potential system. The goal is to translate your ideas into artifacts that you can show to and test with users as quickly as possible.

Urge your team to quickly transform their rough ideas into prototypes. Set time limits or engage your team in hackathons or contests to see who can create their prototypes the fastest. The success of using prototyping to help remote teams with design thinking rests on the use of good tools. You can test your early prototypes remotely using tools such as, Validately, or TryMyUI to get video recordings of real people trying out your concepts. Or conduct live sessions during which your team members play with your apps and products.

Testing rough prototypes can reveal flaws, spur new ideas, and prevent your wasting too much time perfecting the wrong solution. Through fast prototyping and testing, your team can quickly iterate and refine ideas according to user feedback. This approach saves time and resources and avoids your team’s building something that doesn’t meet users’ needs.

5. Gathering User Feedback to Improve Designs

Once you’ve created prototypes of early-concept designs, you must test them with real users. Remote teams have the advantage of being able to connect with users all over the world. Identify your target users and reach out to get their feedback. Here are some ways in which you can do this:

  • Set up video calls or remote-testing tools. Buy subscriptions for your tools of choice. Use them to show your prototypes and designs, observing users’ reactions. Ask open-ended questions to uncover users’ thoughts and identify painpoints or areas for improvement. Take detailed notes and highlight key insights from each session.
  • Gather your observations of users’ responses. Pay special attention to users’ actual behaviors, body language, and facial expressions as they interact with your prototypes. These observations can reveal how they really feel, which could be different from their verbal feedback.
  • Test with a diverse range of users. This can help you identify different perspectives. Try to conduct usability testing with at least five to eight users initially.
  • Analyze your findings from usability testing. Pinpoint themes and patterns. Identify the most critical issues on which you should focus first. Then redesign and refine your concepts based on the insights you’ve gained.
  • Repeat rounds of quick prototyping and usability testing. Continue until you have validated your concepts with real users. This method empowers remote teams to design and refine their designs while keeping the user’s perspective at the forefront.

If your product or service is live, make it a habit to check your Web and software data analytics to track performance over time. By analyzing your data over time, you can get clues or direct insights on how to improve your designs or eliminate problems.

Final Takeaways

The reality is that, if you want to successfully foster design thinking or conduct any kind of design process remotely, you need the right tools and communication protocols. Here are some important takeaways:

  • Invest in good communication tools such as Slack or some other messaging platform.
  • Invest in sharable design platforms on which your team can collaborate to improve designs.
  • Focus on creativity and innovative thinking by conducting brainstorming sessions and through team-building efforts. You need to give your people successful collaboration experiences and conduct exercises that support creativity.


Fostering a design-thinking culture enables remote teams to tap into their collective potential to create groundbreaking solutions. With an adaptable mindset that focuses on the user, remote teams can develop innovative products, services, and UX strategies that drive real value.

I hope you’ll use the tips I’ve shared in this article to help your remote teams do their best work, collaborate, and drive powerful results. Distance shouldn’t hinder a team’s creativity. Embrace design thinking to unlock your team’s full potential! 

Founder at WPBeginner and CEO at Awesome Motive Inc

West Palm Beach, Florida, USA

Syed BalkhiAs the founder of WPBeginner, the largest free WordPress resource site, Syed is one of the leading WordPress experts in the industry, with over ten years of experience,. You can learn more about Syed and his portfolio of companies by following him on his social-media networks.  Read More

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