3 Ways Distributed Design Teams Can Stay Agile

Having a design team an ocean away presents some challenges, including misunderstandings that often result from cultural and linguistic differences, occasional time zone conflicts, and difficulty always keeping everyone in the loop regarding decisions that are being made. How do we combat those challenges? Here are three strategies that can help keep your distributed design team on track.

Our design team is always working at optimized speed. Having international offices allows us to actively produce results, explore different ideas, and come up with unique solutions around the clock. When the sun rises at our headquarters at the beginning of each workday, a great deal of work has already been achieved. As some of our team members lay themselves to rest, team members on the other side of the world are ready to take over and begin yet another cycle of accomplishments.

From a business perspective, that level of productivity is remarkably beneficial. It allows us to stay ahead of the game. After all, at any given moment, our design team is responsible for keeping multiple projects on track. They’re meeting several sets of deadlines while dealing with changing priorities and an ongoing influx of new projects. It significantly reduces any potential waste of time, keeping projects moving regardless of the time of day or night. In addition, working with an international team helps bring fresh new ideas and points of view to the table, drastically improving the creative process.

That said, although highly advantageous in many ways, having a design team that exists an ocean apart does present challenges. Those challenges include misunderstandings that often result from cultural and linguistic differences, occasional time zone conflicts, and difficulty always keeping everyone in the loop regarding decisions that are being made. How do we combat those challenges? 

Here are three strategies that help keep our distributed design team on track.

1. Communication is key

Throughout our projects, each project team has regular standups so that everyone involved is updated on what is happening. Among designers, there are frequent calls to discuss current tasks, challenges, things that need improvement, design trends, and best practices. As a result, the design team has a holistic view of everything that is being worked on and can easily allocate work, clear up misunderstandings, and stay up to date on the latest design news.

Generally speaking, we align work in accordance with team geographies. Because of that practice, daily handoffs aren’t usually required. When handoffs are required, we do our best to ensure they’re limited to specific Jira tasks and design reviews. That way, responsibilities, expectations, and accountability remain clear even while other team members may be asleep.

2. Be practical and organized, and establish a solid work process

Whether a designer works on a project alone or receives help, organization is a fundamental skill for everyone to have. This is important for any design team, international or otherwise, as products always go through a number of iterations, all of which must happen quickly.

Establishing a solid work process is also critical for efficiency. If one knows which path to follow in order to reach a determined goal, the journey will happen smoothly. In addition, one never knows when a team member will need to access certain design folders or files. If an urgent task to update a screen suddenly comes up, for example, available designers need to be able to pick up the task and finish it without a lot of help, regardless of who worked on the screen previously or where they are located.

To promote consistency across the design team, we have documented our work process in Confluence. When we onboard new designers, we go over the process and documentation in significant detail. While our existing process works well for our current needs, our design team is growing. Accordingly, we’re actively exploring ways we can improve our process and documentation. We want to make certain it continues to suit the needs of our evolving distributed team.

Because our team is in different time zones, Slack is a great communication tool. We created a design channel where we can easily communicate with each other as a team. We prefer Slack over email because Slack gives everyone notifications on their phone and desktop. If an urgent matter that needs to be addressed to the whole team pops up, Slack helps us see it and begin addressing it much faster than if we were using email for communication.

We also use Jira for managing our tasks. After multiple iterations and testing, we were able to establish a task management process that works for our distributed design team. In particular, we create detailed Jira tickets for each individual task, clearly specifying each high-priority requirement. Each task follows a strict but simple project flow. Designers tend to be visual people, so we keep it simple in a visual sense, too, using Jira categories such as “to do,” “in progress,” “review,” and “ready for development.”

We further customized the default Jira workflow to add “design review” and “ready for QA.” Those additions are crucial, because in our process, a senior member of the design team is responsible for performing a final review of each task that is part of the project’s bigger story as represented in Jira. Once the design aspects are complete, a ScrumMaster performs a final review of all tasks before the project moves forward.

Overall, our work process helps us ensure that every project’s designer has a global view of what’s going on with the project, and that nothing moves forward before its time.

3. Build a team of superheroes with different superpowers

Our design team thrives on variety, and our designers all have distinct personalities and strengths. Some have great technical knowledge and a passion for learning new tools, and others are exceptionally reliable and always ready to help. Others have a unique and creative style that never fails to spice things up when a design needs a little push.

We encourage our designers to be proactive in exploring new tools and keeping up with the latest industry news. We’ll share our favorite blogs, things that inspire us, or examples of how another brand did something that we should try. We push each other to find ways things can be done better while nurturing each individual’s style. We advise each other accordingly and place great importance on being supportive. This leads to a healthy exchange of knowledge and ongoing improvement in everyone’s skill sets and personal growth.

By being aware of our strengths and seeking to understand each other on a personal level, we use those differences in our favor. We also do our best to ensure that we work on the projects and tasks that suit us best.

Our ideal scenario is to have a single designer owning a single design project. Whenever possible, our design team leader assigns projects to match the designers’ skills and interests. Of course, in many instances, project timelines, designer availability, and level of effort (e.g., a more or less design-heavy project) must take precedence over the designers’ preferences. Ultimately, it’s all about finding the design solution that allows us to best meet the needs of our clients.

Overall, our designers are given a high degree of creative freedom. With that freedom, however, comes the firm expectation that all designers are accountable for their work and responsible for their decisions.

Keep on the Right Track

The software design and development industry is always changing, and we must be quick to keep up with new demands. While we can always make improvements in the way we work and interact as a team, our disciplined approach to our work will continue to be a defining factor for our success. By following the set of principles outlined above, we are able to stay on the right track as we move forward. Challenges will always come along, but the way we overcome them will set our design team apart.

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