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Remote Design Teams: How to Use Cloud-Based Tools to Collaborate

Traditionally, members of a design team work together in one location. Now thanks to the practices of working from home it’s becoming more common for design teams to be geographically distributed, recruiting designers who live in other cities, and hiring remote design agencies.

If a design team is considering adding remote team members, it must adjust its design process. If it attempts to operate like a completely in-person team even after adding remote team members, communication and creativity will suffer. It’s critical for design team managers to employ strategies and tools to ensure the effectiveness of distributed teams.

What Makes In-Person Design Teams Successful?      

Design teams that work in the same location enjoy the advantages of easy in-person communication and impromptu collaboration sessions. Such teams also benefit from the opportunity to participate in in-person user experience research activities together, such as contextual inquiry and usability testing.

The key to success for an in-person team is the ability to communicate quickly, especially when visually sharing design ideas for feedback and collaboration. Members of a productive design team are always communicating, white-boarding, and helping each other iterate. And when conducting research, it’s always best to observe users in their environment, test prototypes in the right environment, and gain contextual insights.

Although it’s not possible to completely replicate an in-person work environment with distributed teammates, it is possible to achieve effective collaboration during research, ideation, prototyping, and iteration. To create a successful distributed design team, it takes more than just online software for chatting and user testing. It requires a thorough understanding of the design process and how to adapt the practices of in-person teams to distributed teams.

Moving the In-Person Model to the Cloud

Although managing a distributed design team comes with its challenges, it also comes with unique advantages. Design teams that recruit in remote locations can attract top talent that may not be available in their area. Remote designers in different countries can offer new perspectives and cross-cultural insights that may not be possible with a domestic team. Design teams composed of designers with different backgrounds will generally produce better work since a variety of perspectives will generate more well-rounded ideas.

There are several practices that can help distributed teams work effectively. First, it’s important for team members to schedule time every day to check in about what they’re working on, if they have any blockers, and if their projects overlap. This creates visibility and the opportunity for team members to jump in with advice or feedback early on. Workplace chat programs such as Slack or Microsoft Teams offer the ability to create multiple channels, so it can be useful to create a “Standup” or “Daily Check-In” channel where designers are expected to summarize their plans for the day.

Second, if designers are in drastically different time zones, it’s vital to create charts or notes for the team about overlapping working hours, how best to reach other designers, and how to communicate if there’s an urgent need. Websites like World Time Buddy can help people schedule meetings across varying time zones without having to do mental math and potentially getting times mixed up.

Screenshot of online collaboration tool Trello
Figure 1. Trello is a card-based collaboration tool that can be used for things like Kanban boards, affinity mapping, and collecting qualitative feedback. The ability to tag, collaborate, sort, and pin cards makes Trello a powerful online tool.

Third, distributed teams must have an effective way to collaborate in real time. This kind of rapid ideation is where great design ideas come from. Design teams often use white-boarding, scenario mapping, affinity grouping, and group sketching to ideate. Luckily, many of these traditional in-person exercises can be accomplished online via cloud-based tools. Here are a few popular options for online ideation and collaboration :

  • Trello can be used for affinity mapping and organizing sticky note sessions so that designers can review and up-vote items. (See Figure 1)
  • CardBoard enables digital scenario mapping and allows distributed designers to participate in real time. (See Figure 2)
  • Red Pen allows designers to mark up design comps with their notes and quick revisions.
  • Concept Board helps designers pull together quick concepts to begin a design project.
  • Draftboard helps designers send working design files to other designers to get quick feedback on a project.

Finally, regular design reviews can keep designers on track and ensure team buy-in. Design reviews can be held via applications such as GoToMeeting or Join.Me, which allow designers to share their screens while others can watch and comment in real time.

Screenshot of online collaboration tool CardBoard
Figure 2. CardBoard allows designers to conduct scenario mapping sessions remotely in real-time with other designers.

Cloud-Based Tools for Remote User Research

Design teams benefit from having talent in remote locations. They also benefit from conducting research with users in a variety of locations by accessing diverse behaviors and perspectives without the need to travel. Fortunately, the same kinds of tools that help distributed teams work together also empower teams to conduct research with remote users.

Some user research methods are better suited for remote applications than others. Generally speaking, if observing the context in which a user is going to use a product is fundamental to a research project, then an in-person approach is best. However, if understanding other aspects of the experience is part of the goal of the research, then a remote approach can be very advantageous. Users can be anywhere, just like the members of the design team.

Some research methods that can be done remotely include:

  • Surveys: Tools such as SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, and Google Forms can enable online survey data collection.
  • Diary studies: Google Forms provides a flexible platform that can be tailored to many types of projects.
  • Card sorting: Tools such as Optimal Workshop enable remote card sorting with clear instructions to participants.
  • Usability testing: Once a design is ready for testing, there is no shortage of usability testing platforms available. Two popular ones are and UserZoom.
  • Interviews: Tools such as Skype or GoToMeeting enable face-to-face interviews.

Communication Is Key

If you work on a distributed design team, the key is to always be communicating with your team, always be sharing ideas and collaborating as much as possible in real time, and always be learning from users in different locations. By employing cloud-based collaboration tools that facilitate many steps of the design process, any design team can easily keep collaboration and communication working across distances, time zones, and schedules.