Many companies that normally work together in person have been suddenly thrust into an all-remote world. That can be scary for anyone, but especially for UX designers who rely heavily on face-to-face collaboration with their cross-functional peers.
If you’re in this situation, you may be thinking: How can I ideate without a whiteboard? How do I lead my team through sketching exercises without paper? WHAT DO I DO WITH ALL OF MY SHARPIES AND STICKY NOTES?!
At GitLab, our entire company is all remote and globally distributed. We’re used to finding ways to sketch, think and brainstorm asynchronously, so we can accommodate team members who live in time zones all over the world.
You need just a few ingredients.
Clear, simple guidelines and instructions
Guidelines are really important in any design thinking activity, but when you’re asynchronous, they become extra important, because participants can’t ask clarifying questions or observe what others are doing. So it’s the designer’s role to communicate the activity’s purpose and goal, along with clear instructions and a sense of psychological safety.
And just like with in-person activities, you also might want to provide timing advice. For example, consider how you want an individual's ideas to influence others. You might want to give everyone a day to ideate and then ask everyone to drop in their ideas at the same time, so they don’t inadvertently influence each other. Or, you might ask people to intentionally play off the ideas of others. It’s ultimately up your judgement about the goals of the session.
Shared understanding of context
The team should already understand some basics about the product or context they work in and the audience they are designing for. If you’re working with a newly formed team, you might try a couple synchronous workshops to get everyone on the same page.
A place for everyone to contribute their ideas
This one is easy. There are a lot of tools you can use, including Mural, Google Drive, or even Slack. At GitLab, we use Mural, and we also work within our own product to run collaborative design sessions.
All you need is a place where team members can quickly and easily add text, photos of sketches, images, or even videos, and then freely discuss them. To encourage creativity, you’ll likely want to pick a tool that offers flexibility.
Facilitate team communication
When a team meets in person, they get a lot of non-verbal feedback that can be really useful. People might smile at each other, nod when they hear a good idea, or sigh when someone suggests something that won’t work.
It’s important to offer a way to surface these reactions when you can’t use immediate nonverbal communication. As the team shares their ideas, provide supportive comments (that will encourage others to do the same). You might also use emojis to enhance communication.
Step just a little outside your comfort zone
This last one is important in any kind of design thinking environment. If you’re a designer working with a product or a client team, it’s likely that many (or most) of the participants in your sessions are not designers. Some participants might hate drawing, and some might be terrified of the idea of uploading something they drew to the internet.
This is where it helps to work with a team that has already established some rapport. As the designer and session leader, it’s also your job to set a relaxed and casual tone and a low bar for participation.
At GitLab we say “Everyone can contribute,” and we value action and results over perfection. Let people know it’s OK to not be perfect. As an example, this is how one designer at GitLab set the rules for her team sketching session:
Rules for the game
- This is a 10-minute activity in total. You don't have to spend more than 5 minutes for each round.
- Let's not think about layouts such as the top-header, GitLab logo, and left menu.
- There are no right or wrong answers.
- It doesn't have to be beautiful. (You will be surprised to see how ugly mine is.)
- For round 2, you don't need to fill in all the blanks if it is hard for you. It's not an exam. :-)
To see this method in action, you can read through this issue from February 2020. Believe it or not, this team was doing this exercise for the first time!