Daily video walkthroughs
Sharing designs and gathering feedback is a critical part of any design role, remote or otherwise — yet there’s some magic lost when posting flat JPGs to Slack. Context is lost, words are overlooked and the level of detail or feedback required isn’t immediately obvious.
The answer is to record videos — a practice that has made the biggest impact on my role. Some days these videos come in the form of narrated user journeys via InVision, other days they will be videos of me navigating around concepts in Sketch. But whatever the format, these videos are raw, scrappy, and help to frame both the problem I’m trying to solve, and the journey I’m taking to find a solution.
The videos are rarely more than 10 minutes and usually contain a bunch of swearing, awkward mouth-noises and mistakes — but sharing these quick and un-polished chats is almost like presenting in person. What’s more, my team gets the chance to watch, consider and then provide feedback at their own pace… which in some ways is a little better than an in-person meeting. Better still, I try to share a video at the end of my working day — which makes every morning a little bit like Christmas when I open my computer to heaps of feedback and fun ideas to explore.
I use Loom for quicker videos like the one above, and Wistia’s Soapbox for when I need a bit of finesse (they let you edit). Whilst I don’t always look my best, sometimes it’s important to show the team a bit of face to communicate how excited I am about their progress, or how a smooth interaction gets me all giddy and animated. An interesting side-effect of video walkthroughs is that I find myself more comfortable talking about the slightly more vulnerable side of design — failed concepts, ideas that didn’t pan out, or problems that I have no idea how to tackle—than I do when writing things down.
Communicating work-in-progress (WIP) for active projects is another painful task when done wrong. Images shared in project tracking tools can get lost in the noise, feedback can become buried, and almost no context or sense of progression is maintained. My solution? Nothing fancy, just a good ol’ Dropbox Paper document.
Whenever I start a new creative project, I’ll create a single Paper document which can be accessed by the entire company. It’s always named “🤓 WIP: Project Name” and has an entry for every day I have something to share. Then under that day’s heading I’ll quickly drop in a few screens and annotate some of the areas for discussion — then share with the team (usually accompanied by a daily video walkthrough).
Here’s an example for a project I’m working on right now:
Aside from the obvious benefit of being able to collect feedback in one centralized place, this format also does a great job of communicating the journey a project has taken. Since the doc starts with the latest work, anyone with an interest can scroll down to go back in time and see how a design has evolved — forming a permanent record of why certain decisions were made, who was involved, and the discussion that helped inform the result.
Of course there’s also no harm in showing sketch work either…
Show, don’t tell
It’s pretty easy for teams to get bogged down in detail, especially when everyone has their heads down on building a big feature. In the past when I worked in an office, I’d try to re-ignite that ‘new project feeling’ by pitching my ideas for the future — either as flashy presentations or by sticking concepts around the walls. Visual inspiration goes a long way — after all, showing is more powerful than telling.
Working remote, I’ve found the best way to achieve the same thing is to share slightly higher-fidelity animated prototypes and interactions with the team— usually within a Slack channel or spec doc to bring life to a conversation, and make a static design feel tactile and real.
One of the biggest benefits of prototyping isn’t necessarily to dictate how an interaction should be built, but rather to inspire how great something can feel. Even if they’re silly ideas, small moments of visual inspiration like the one below can get others excited about what could be.
Better still, when you share prototypes as GIFs (above), you can create them by whatever means you feel comfortable. After Effects… tweened-layers in Photoshop… Flash… use whatever tool you want! Personally I like to write nasty HTML in Codepen, record it with QuickTime, then convert the video to a GIF using this witchcraft. It’s worth the effort.
Make time for face-to-face interaction
There’s no substitute for talking through design challenges in real-time — it’s especially useful for clarifying briefs and problems before you begin digging in. The most valuable video calls are ones where I’ve spent 5 minutes screen-sharing with another designer, centered around the problem of “this doesn’t look right and I don’t know why”. If you’re worried about video being jumpy and awkward, at Help Scout we use Zoom and I’ve literally never experienced a bad connection.
These one-on-one calls also complement larger team calls, which we do a fair amount too. If you work in the Southern Hemisphere, there’s no avoiding the 6am starts to accommodate for the time-zone differences with North America… but in my experience this is a pretty acceptable compromise (especially when it means you can finish mid-afternoon)!
Outside of scheduled team meetings and 1-on-1’s, I’ll often find myself involved in impromptu pairing sessions with a developer (prompted by 🍐in Slack) where we jam on a problem and brainstorm solutions together. Every time that happens, the outcome is better and faster than any formalized process I’ve ever used.
Aside from the productivity, the occasional video chats help to avoid the creeping feeling of isolation that comes from spending 8 hours sandwiched between noise-cancelling headphones.
Find your tribe
Design is hard because it’s a labour of love, a passion project and a fire that needs to be stoked. In order to keep that passion alive as a remote designer, I find it invaluable to seek out like-minded people and talk shop once or twice a week. When I share my wins, my highs, my lows, my anxieties — I somehow feel more capable and competent in myself. I’ve found that mentoring scratches that itch.
I currently have the pleasure of mentoring three awesome designers in a regular capacity, am mentored myself by the lovely Eva-Lotta, and am an advisor to several startups. Mentoring is a win-win for both parties, and I’m honestly a better person and designer because of it. I draw immense satisfaction in helping other designers achieve success in their own world by listening, asking questions and occasionally sharing my own experiences.
Although I’d estimate only spending 3–4 hours per week on these out-of-work discussions, I consider them very much part of my job. They keep me grounded, productive and inspired.
If you’re interested in either volunteering your own time, or if you’re looking for a mentor — I’d highly recommend Out of Office Hours.
Whatever form it takes, finding a way to to collaborate, chat and work with other designers can be a great way to inspire your work. Sure, your physical space, a dream computer setup, an Instagram-worthy desk are all nice to have — but collaboration is what will make you better.
Sometimes, in-person is just better
In my opinion, successful remote teams are ones who have spent a little time together, at some point, in the same physical space. When you’re given the opportunity to interact, have fun and get to know each other as people — you’re able to form meaningful relationships, and gain the ability to give and receive constructive, honest feedback when you return home.
Of course, nothing connects people faster than being forced to go hiking at 5am — which appears to be the Help Scout CEO’s strategy (it works).
Similarly there have been occasions where it’s made sense for me to fly overseas in order to help meet a deadline, on-board new designers or pair with an engineer. It’s difficult to leave my family, and logistically challenging now I live in the middle of nowhere — but in every case it’s been a worthwhile use of my time. Sometimes all the process and remote culture in the world can’t replace good ol’ fashioned face-to-face interaction.
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