How to design a distributed team
Five time-tested steps to designing together — from afar
Designers solve problems by applying equal parts human empathy and rigorous research. Over our five years doing human-centered design as a distributed team, Mohr Design has regularly turned that inward on our own organization. Listening to one another, observing the best practices of other teams we admire, and learning from our experience has enabled us to create a distributed design studio that works.
One thing that’s for sure is just like in more traditional office settings, working within a distributed model is not a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. Some team members, given their family requirements or other preferences, may be more up for early-morning meetings than others. And while some may choose to make themselves regularly available for ongoing Slack communication, others need to go heads-down to hyperfocus or to meet a deadline. Indeed, everyone on the Mohr team has needed to find their ‘sweet spot,’ both for self-guided work and for distributed collaboration.
Stitching these preferred working styles together isn’t always easy. But by treating the structuring of a team as a design challenge, we’ve landed on five ways of designing together from afar.
Step 1: Define a vision that the whole team can commit to.
At Mohr, we pride ourselves on our flexibility and adaptability, both as individuals and as a team. But our work is demanding, and we’re professionals. Because expectations are high, we’ve all agreed that independence comes with a healthy dose of self-management. So we’ve established a collective vision of what our professionalism should look like.
For example: we get dressed for the day (at least on top). We manage time zones: if a West Coaster continues to work on a deliverable while a colleague on the East Coast logs off for the evening, the West Coaster will let their colleague know its status before she logs off herself later on. On video calls, we control background noise, maintain privacy and confidentiality, and limit distraction.
These basic rules developed organically, from experience on our team and in our previous roles. But to make them clear and transparent to new team members, we’ve found it necessary to define and communicate — and iterate continuously on — a written version of this shared vision for the ideal distributed work-life.
Step 2: Make space for individual work styles.
Sharing a vision doesn’t mean that everyone works the same way. Our own individual working styles can change based on personal preference or client need from day-to-day. For us, it’s about being able to find our rhythm as a team, whether we’re working alone or together.
From the beginning, we’ve packed our team with self-starters who are able to define their day alongside their responsibilities, to remain accountable to one another. However, accountability also means creating a safe space for team members to tap each other in for help or insight when needed. In a pinch, a simple ‘ping’ in Slack or the willingness to jump on a video call to talk through an idea can change everything.
Step 3: Build digital team rooms.
Historically, the team room — sometimes called the “war room” — is the central working area for a design team. It’s a place for pinning up inputs and ideas, working alongside one another, sketching, making, iterating, and staying immersed in the needs and mission of a project.
Traditionally, though, having a team room has required all team members to be in the same location at the same time. Since we’re distributed, we’ve learned to rely on great digital tools that replicate the team room experience.
Since our projects vary, we adapt our digital team rooms to work best for each project’s needs, selecting various tools for an efficient combination. Most projects require Slack channels; some use moodboards on Are.na or canvases on Google Draw, where notes, sketches, and inspiration live together. It’s important to put everything in the team room, whether you think a colleague will need it or not. You never know when it might spark an important connection, revelation or simply prevent someone from tracking down a file that was casually mentioned in a meeting — we’ve all been there.
We also have developed a best practice of documenting the output of every collaboration session, ensuring that we don’t lose important insights once the session is over and that we leave with clear action items. Often, the documenting occurs simultaneously with the ideating, and we work with our PM team to make it consumable and get it into the right hands.
Step 4: Create mechanisms for sharing inspiration.
Finding and sharing inspiration is key to the creative process, and there’s certainly no rule saying this has to happen within a traditional office setting.
Whether it’s the result of some idle online searching, reading a book, scrolling artists’ instagram feeds, catching a view from the running trail, learning something from a podcast, or joining a discussion at a local community meeting — when inspiration strikes, we want to share with one another. You never know how sharing your ‘aha’ moment might impact someone else, and it’s worth it to bring what personally inspires you to the table — even if that table isn’t a physical one.
Whether it’s through a quick standup meeting, a dedicated channel, or a shared moodboard, we find it critical to build in those digital mechanisms for sharing inspiration.
Step 5: Keep your clients happy.
Just as important as working together as a team is working well with clients. After all, a happy team and happy clients make for better design and, ultimately, happier users.
We may be distributed around the world, but managing client relationships and expectations effectively takes earning their trust. It means defined structures and healthy habits, such as regularly coming together — online and when possible in-person — for check-ins, collaboration sessions, and presentations. We also have invested in a dedicated PM team who we rely on to manage action items and keep us designers on track.
It helps that we’ve become experts at working around the little things, such as troubleshooting every imaginable video chat service or otherwise managing tech restraints when communicating across a distance. Regardless, though, we’ve found that there’s no “ideal client” for a distributed team. So long as they consider user experience a pillar of success, are open to learning, and eager to embrace bold ideas that people love, we’re happy to bring and share support from our distributed points of view.
Reach out if you have questions or want to share your own learnings from designing over distance. Or get in touch to find out more about how we can help your business design quality products and services that people love.
Mohr Design is a design agency that works with a wide range of clients, from big established companies to startups looking to define their offering. We deliver experiences that users love and that people need.