User Experience Design With Distributed Teams - Part 1: Ideation & Sketching

UPDATE: Instead of continuing with part 2, I decided to not label articles “part 1”  again and instead talk about the topic, collect more ways to do ux work remotely on Twitter and write more specific articles on the subject.

Lately, I’ve been working more and more with teams spread across different cities, countries and timezones. Though there are times when it’s difficult not having everyone in the same room (you know the drill), user experience design can work quite well remotely when you give thought to the tools and methods you are using. Starting with ideation and sketching, I will have a closer look at how the different steps of the ux design process are affected by remote work.

Co-located ideation kickoffs

The ideation phase of a project is the part of the design process, where I recommend having a co-located meeting if possible. Getting everyone together and sharing ideas visually is a great way to start a project. With a whiteboard, post-its and a good facilitator, a design studio session can produce a lot of output in a short amount of time. This can make working remotely later on easier, as you have created a shared vision early on.

Remote ideation sessions

But what if a co-located ideation kickoff is not possible? A whiteboard and post-its are so effective as everyone can share their ideas immediately — no one needs to wait to give input. That’s why a simple voice or video call does not do the trick here. People need to be able to write and sketch freely and need to see in real-time what others are sharing. Laïla von Alvensleben has carried out an interesting study on this subject. She describes her experience with a distributed team implementing remote design thinking using tools like Murally and Slack. She points out that getting used to the collaboration tools and having a good plan and facilitation is important for a productive ideation session.

Using digital tools for ideation instead of physical tools can be awkward. That’s why I really like the approach of EightShapes. They use document cameras to share what other team members are sketching on paper. When your team needs to do a lot of remote sketching, this might come closest to the co-located experience. Jeff Gothelf, author of “Lean UX” shared his experience with a similar approach.

What's next?

More and more great products are designed with completely distributed teams. I think we can learn from these lead users and integrate some practices into our mostly co-located teams. Even if you only work remotely from time to time, it’s great to have a good setting available to do a quick ideation session remotely. When working with remote clients you can do more iterations and do not need to rely on in-person meetings only. There definitively is some preparation and discipline necessary to make it work, but new tools like Murally and Deekit make it easier to replace the whiteboard and post-it we are so used to as user experience designers.