Inciteful Stories. Driven By Design.

Remote Possibilities

Writing about managing, mentoring and making design with team's remotely. Views are my own.

Remote (Work) Possibilities, 3 Core Principles

Image Description:   Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the  moon .   Image Source:  Wikipedia Commons

Image Description: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moonImage Source: Wikipedia Commons


Over the last 10 years the way we designers make and manage has changed significantly.

  • Before the focus was on career, today its purpose.

  • Before you needed a good boss, today it’s great colleagues.

  • Before the workplace was in the office, today its wherever.

For today I’m going to focus on the later change in our industry, the shift to remote teams. Keep in mind I've written this through the lens of product design, though most of this is applicable to marketing creative teams.


3 principles for guiding remote design teams

Now the shift to remote teams isn’t really new news persay. We see this already embodied at GitHub, which has a partially remote staff.  Elsewhere Wordpress is shuttering it’s office space in lieu of a completely virtual office. Just recently DigitasLBi, one of the larger advertising and marketing agencies in the world, sounded off on their 2018 predictions.

"In 2018, FLEXIBILITY will be the word of the year in the talent market. To attract and retain the best talent, organizations need to offer flexibility in how, when, and where their employees work. It’s no longer a perk; it’s a business imperative for attracting and retaining the best talent." —Michael Kahn Global Brand President, DigitasLBi

Here’s the thing though, this isn’t a set it and forget approach to staffing. You don’t just go “remote.”

Remote teams require clear principles with new mentorship and management approaches built on some new tools, workflows, processes. So in an effort to help those who might be just starting out within a remote team and or in charge of managing one I’ve codified a collection of principles, examples and toolset recommendations. These are reflective of my experiences as a remote creative and design director over the last five years.


Principal 1, Radical Transparency


Sunlight is the 

best disinfectant

Set Rituals

You want a recurring cadence with team members where they know they have a place to communicate and be listened to with clear indicators on a path forward for any blockers they might have.


Ritual—Weekly team stand-ups

Teams come together to discuss what they've worked on last week, what they'll work on next week along with any blockers. This is also a good time to bring levity along with structure. For example, solicit your team to share a singular gif on how they're feeling about this week.  

Toolset; A variety of video conferencing tools from slack, zoom.us, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc. are out there. My preference is Zoom.Us for its reliable connectivity and chat tools.

Ritual—Sprint Retrospectives 

Chances are if your team practices scrum/agile they take part in retrospectives with their ScrumMaster, which is typically their Product Manager. These "retros" are a place to see what could be changed that might make the next sprint more productive.


Company and team wikis

From posting the latest information for onboarding new employees to sharing the latest progress on a new project so everyone can see as well as comment, wikis are the way to go. That said make sure that if people post comments you respond. Transparency doesn’t work if people’s input is ignored.

Toolset; As a team using slack we prefer to use the bot "Howdy.ai" which helps us automate our meetings. In terms of Wikis, for our purposes we use confluence as the backbone for our intranet based wiki.


Principal 2, Plan for the plan to change


Everyone has a plan 

till they get punched 


the face.

— Mike Tyson


Quarterly Employee Planning

A plan is just a starting point. Most plans are going to change once you get going, so they must be broad and malleable enough whilst also plotting a clear general course.

A. Build a 90-day plan

Before each new quarter work with your employees collaboratively to craft their 90-day plans. Each plan should contain corporate goals that they need to carry out coupled with real-world KPIs. Keep in mind these KPIs should ladder up to your company's larger quarterly goals.

Individual development goals should also be included. These are goals outlined by the employee defining what they want to learn in order to grow their skills and or overall career. Your job as a manager is to then support these goals. Be it sending them to a conference, purchasing books, signing them up for online courses, supporting any webinars they wish to host and so on.

B. 90-day plan check-in 

It's important to meet weekly with your direct reports to check-in on progress towards their 90-day goals. In some cases, you may need to strengthen the importance of some goals. Forex. "Increase lead generation through landing pages by 20 percent" needs to be changed to 30 percent because the sales pipeline is slowing down. In other cases, you may need to course correct altogether due to a new customer and or market research insight(s) you've received. Forex. "A significant gap in the customer journey has been identified when funneling our prospects to the sales team and we must rethink our email template design” vs. say, focusing on SEO optimization for the company blog.


More information

For planning the first 90 days see Inc.com’s article “How to Build an Onboarding Plan” and Insperity.com’s “5 steps to creating employee development plans that truly work.


Principle 3, Empathy


Each of you is perfect 

the way you are... 

and you can use a 

little improvement.

― Shunryu Suzuki


To drive collaboration across teams I recommend using "Design Thinking", which is an active, empathetic, and relentless focus on optimizing the user and customer experience. This methodology allows for several opportunities to bring cross-functional teams together. For brevity sake, I'm going to focus on just two.

A. Design studios

As a product design team, you start with customer-centric questions because there’s something that you need to know in order to build or improve your product for your customers of today and tomorrow. Those questions may include a set of missing information, an assumption(s), or an MVP driven hypotheses.

To answer these questions, teams should perform insight-driven research. This research allows you to define what the problem space is, why the problem exists, and where opportunities lie. And this gives you your Problem Statement...

“We have observed that [product/service/organization] isn’t meeting [these goals/needs], which is causing [this adverse effect]. How might we improve so that our product/service/team/organization is more successful based on [these measurable criteria]?”

Source: 18f.gov

With your Problem Statement in hand, it's time for a Design Studio.

A Design Studio helps you visually articulate how your product features and ideas will look and behave. This is a collaborative sketching exercise (not drawing!), made for cross-functional teams, which;

  • Builds on your broad hypotheses
  • Uncovers solutions to your hypotheses
  • Identifies your first MVP target test

When you're done you'll have produced a little "v" for your Minimal Viable Product that you can stand up and validate with your customers.

Toolset; We use Slack team channels for discussions, Mural.co for collaborative virtual whiteboards, InVisionApp.com for lo-high fidelity prototypes, Respondent.io for user recruitment and usertesting.com for conducting testing.


More information

For Design Studios see Jeff Gothelf’s book published by O’Reilly Media “Lean UX, Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience” and for UX Research see Bran Nunnally and David Farkas’s book published by O’Reilly Media “UX Research, Practical Techniques for Designing Better Products


B. Design Systems

"Shipping beats perfection" —Salman Khan, CEO Khan Academy

The first step to fixing any broken user experience is to solve for UX consistency. You do that by creating a shared library of components for design, messaging and motion, based on an atomic design approach that adhere to brand standards and a set of heuristic guidelines. This component library and or design system, built in the JavaScript Library React, allows for designers to spend less time pixel pushing and spend more time on interaction design. It also frees up engineers to spend less time interpreting designs and spend more time on application logic. This shared design system in turn brings teams closer together by giving the time to ideate on customer-centric problems. And in the end this gives teams the ability to ship quick and learn faster.

Toolset; We use a confluence of Sketch and Adobe Creative Cloud offerings to design component elements and our UI kit, Principle for Mac and Adobe After Effects for motion design (Possible transition to InVision Studio), InVision Craft plugin(s) (Though not entirely stable), Lingo for version controlling of design library elements (Possible transition InVision’s Design System Manager)  


More information

See UXPins “Creating a Design System: The 100-Point Process Checklist

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have any additional suggestions and or comments on ways to improve how to manage, make with and or mentor remote teams please share them in the comments section below.