Agile & design: Keeping designers connected in a remote world

A designer’s source of inspiration can come from many places — art, nature, a particular location, or a point in time. Designers are also inspired by one another. A healthy design team includes lots of shop talk, supportive critique, and help thinking through creative challenges. Being under one roof can make information sharing and problem solving more fluid as people are within sight and in mind, but being remote need not dampen the creative exchange of ideas.

Alley is a fully remote company with dozens of team members across 20 states and 5 countries. Additionally, UX designers are embedded within production teams, meaning our designers are distributed both geographically and across teams within Alley. There are many benefits to this structure. As a remote company, we can hire the best people wherever they are. We promote a healthy work-life balance as team members are not required to make long daily commutes. By spreading designers across teams at Alley, we engender trust and camaraderie among designers and developers. This translates to more efficient work, better products, and ultimately greater value for our clients.

But not being together in an office means we’ve had to be intentional about ensuring our designers have a chance to connect, talk shop, and spur each other on creatively. Here is how we’ve come to achieve this:

We lean on Slack.

We have two active UX design-oriented Slack channels that are used for asynchronous communication and design support:

  1. A review channel. Here, we drop work in at any stage of its production for critique from other designers and strategists. Before work goes out to clients, it is common for people to share logo sketches, wireframes, style tiles, and design prototypes for internal peer review. In this way, we learn from one another, and our clients receive peer-reviewed work.  
  1. A community of practice channel. In this channel, we share links to interesting articles and examples of inspiring design. This is where we debate the merits of dot voting, give the thumbs up or down to new brand identities, and ponder the best way to depict Covid-19 data. We also use this channel for housekeeping matters— to plan for meetings, presentations, and assign out internal design projects.

We maintain an active Community of Practice.

Weekly, members of our UX design and editorial strategy practice gather to talk shop. The one-hour meeting takes place over Zoom and is open to anyone at Alley who is interested in UX design and related topics. The time is used to demo work, discuss overall practices, and present on areas of interest and expertise. Recent presentations have included best practices when rendering data as maps, demoing the design system created for a large news outlet, and sharing findings from design prototype testing.

We encourage design buddies.

When a designer is tasked with a challenging project, they can seek out a “design buddy.” This individual agrees to provide additional critique beyond our Slack channel and Community of Practice gatherings. This is a great way for designers with a particular skill such as data visualization to mentor others.

We hold remote design studios.

When faced with extremely challenging UX problems, or when we seek a novel design approach, team members can organize a design studio. In these sessions, a Product Owner (PO) or lead designer prepares information for participants in advance of the studio. This can include backgrounders, website links, or a simple presentation deck summarizing the design challenge. After thinking through the problem, studio participants are invited to sketch ideas for how they would solve the challenge. Proposals are loaded into a Google deck where we vote on them anonymously. The lead designer takes these ideas and inputs and iterates on them. In addition to helping projects along, these occasions are fun for our designers who get to gather around a shared challenge.

We (will) get together (someday). 

As much as we love our remote structure and, through the intentional practices above, keep our team of UX designers well-connected with one another, there are times when gathering in person just makes sense or is a fun change of pace. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the Covid-19 pandemic is preventing any in-person meetings. We look forward to times when team members in the same city can gather to swarm on information architecture or design templates. We look forward to our next retreat where we reflect on our work processes, check in to make sure we do feel connected and supported by one another, and just kick back with a drink.   

We hope that very soon, all readers of this post who work remotely will be doing so out of their own choice and preference.

Let us know if you have any questions about our remote work culture. We’re always happy to discuss it. In fact, check out our e-book on remote work! And if you are a member of a remote design team, we’d love to hear how you stay connected.