Open Design Kit: Doing distributed design

The modern workforce is going digital. Teams are taking advantage of new communication tools in order to meet people where they are and allowing them to work from wherever they are most fulfilled and inspired, be it a home office in Montana, a coffee shop in Toronto, or a War Room at WeWork. While this remote-friendly attitude has been quickly adopted by organizational functions like engineering, marketing, and sales, design groups have lagged behind, stuck with the idea that teams need to be in the same physical room in order to create great designs.

At Bocoup we believe that remote design, like any other distributed team endeavor, just takes a little bit of creativity. Got a remote team? You can do design remotely and you can do it well.

Remote design teams present a unique challenge because design, as well as the design process, is a visual medium and many remote communication tools are unreliable and lend themselves to misinterpretation. And because remote work lends itself well to solitary tasks, there’s a tendency to encourage isolated contribution over group collaboration on projects, and that may not work as well for design.

As Ryan Gantz, Senior Director of Product Design at Vox, said when I asked him about remote design,

There’s an instinct to give remote designers solo tasks, to give them space to go off on their own. In many circumstances that’s valuable, but usually it’s exactly the wrong approach.

I’ve been asking people about design and doing it with remote teams, to get a sense of what the challenges are and Ryan sums it up well. Instead of walling off designers to complete tasks alone, it’s helpful to share work often and do as much as possible in teams. Since design is visual, showing work and working together (we’ve even had pair designing happening) is much more helpful in the long run than designing off on your own.

In addition, there is always the hindrance that technology brings to the table. It can be hard when there are delays on a video conference, or momentum can be lost because a connection slows down or cuts out completely. We love technology, but it’s important to remember that the little things are important, especially when talking about design. As Ryan said,

These things matter, because great products are born out of teams that push to see a broad vision through, but also fight for the details they care about.

With these challenges in mind, we’ve created the Open Design Kit, a collection of methods for doing design work with a distributed team. Since many of them are traditionally done with everyone in the same room together, we’ve modified them to be remote-first, helping other teams see how they can do this as well.

By approaching things just a bit differently through the use of online tools and our own experience, we’ve successfully workshopped the design values for a project, created journey maps, synthesized ideas in an affinity diagram exercise, and much more. We’ve been testing, adjusting, and iterating these methods – we know that with perseverance, a willing team, and an experienced leader, remote design can be successful; we’ve done it.

Now we’re sharing our ideas about design with the world. Since it’s all on GitHub, we welcome feedback and additions, and we’ve outlined how to contribute your ideas on the site.

In addition, if you are looking for help with any of this, we’re available for that too. We can lead you through remote design solutions, coach your team through its efforts, or provide training. If you’re interested, reach out!

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