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Making a distributed design team work

Teams at 18F work from all over the country because 18F — and our parent agency, GSA — provide the infrastructure and support for our teams to live and work anywhere in the U.S.

There are now over 30 of us on the Experience Design team. We’re a multidisciplinary team of researchers, interaction designers, front end designers, visual designers, and content designers. Often, designers on the same project are not in the same location. Here are some techniques we’ve developed to help us work effectively when we aren’t in the same room or even the same time zone.

  • Share your design methods. Distributed teams risk creating a bubble around projects and what’s going on inside them. We have a few ways of making sure that designers across project teams are sharing their approaches and learning new ones from other teams. We first collected some of our common design methods and fleshed out starting points for each, then published those internally and externally. We also started running short training sessions on each of these methods in our weekly design team meeting, led by fellow designers.

  • Keep it sketchy. Just because something is destined to be a digital product doesn’t mean it needs to be clean, precise, and pretty. When video chatting, hold your notebook up to the camera, or take a picture of your sketch and upload it to Slack. Colin Macarthur (in Somerville, Massachusetts) adds that when you’re doing things remotely, you spend a lot of time looking at the screen, so you start to think that the computer is the right place to be working through ideas. Often, paper is the more efficient and creative place to be doing that thinking. He uses a document camera in addition to regular video calls to make it faster to show others what he’s thinking through on paper sketches.

Three example sketches of graphs, maps, and page wireframes Examples of sketches we’ve shared across our distributed design team.

  • Design in pairs. Thinking through design challenges together at the same time can still happen when you’re not co-located. Tools like ScreenHero that allow you to share control of your desktop with a coworker are great ways to capture gestures or process movements. We’ve found that this works especially well for moving from visual design mockups to front end design implementation, or for visual brainstorming. Other shared workspace tools like Mural.ly are great for paired synthesis work, where you may have a handful of us bringing what we’ve learned together from interview sprints. Designing in pairs is also a useful learning and teaching opportunity, since you can walk through trouble spots on the same screen.

  • Participate in critique groups. As a design team, we value interdisciplinary critique and sharing, so that designers get exposure to the challenges of other projects. To better keep one another in the loop, we’ve also decided it’s important to keep inter-city pairings for our critiques. We don’t need any additional tools to do this because we’ve invested in the infrastructure to hold meetings in different locations. We have small groups who meet each week to share and refine whatever each is working on and needs feedback on that week. We also do a lot of informal critique on Slack. People often leave a mockup or screenshot in a channel and ask for thoughts on a particular piece from anyone who’s around and interested.

  • Take time together (and also time apart). Good design work alternates between individual ideation and convergence and critique. Colin reiterated a feeling that we think many of us on the design team are still wrangling with: “Different design activities range from easy to do remotely, to fairly degraded to do remotely. Getting feedback on work remotely isn’t very different or hard. The same is true for research design work like coming up with research plans and interview guides. Often times when people are in person, that happens distributedly or independently anyways. Where it gets hard is on the generative phase.”

    When collaborative work happens in person, transitions flow pretty naturally: you split up, you regroup. When you’re remote, it has to be deliberately scheduled and set up. Amber Reed (San Francisco, California) said, “I feel most effective when I take a piece of what I would have done in a group for two hours, whittle it down to a 30 minute meeting with a clearly staged agenda. The job of stringing it all together falls back on the designer. Smaller pieces seem to work better virtually.”

    Individual project teams decide when it’s best for distributed team members to meet in person. Our teams working on the Federal Front Door and the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group did extensive research in different cities as well as remotely. When it came time to analyse and synthesize the findings, each team intentionally met in person for a few days.

  • Prepare for technical snafus. Each government agency has different software and hardware restrictions, and technology barriers are often higher for our partners. If you’re running a distributed design activity with a client or people outside of your organization, a quick “tech check” with each participant before the meeting kickoff can save the whole meeting. This lesson comes from Colin and Shawn Allen (San Francisco, California). Some tech failures can’t be tested beforehand as easily though, like with user interviews, where often our best strategy is to have many fall-back options for video chats, screen sharing, or audio tools. Sometimes these issues will be insurmountable. Be ok with moving on.

How to get started

  • Create context for one another. One more thing that’s helpful for any type of team, but especially for designers who thrive on context, is to help your team understand what it’s like to work as you every day. When you work on a distributed team, you see your colleagues heads and shoulders, and maybe a wall behind them — and that’s it. You don’t see what they see. You can learn a lot about someone by what they choose to surround themselves with. Our project team working with the Federal Election Commission did this through an off the cuff exercise we called “Show us your desk”:


Three pictures of desks including one in an office and two at home.

From left to right: Lindsay in Washington, D.C.; Jen in New York, NY; and Jeremy in Brooklyn, NY

Three pictures of desks with varying workplace styles. From left to right: Leah in San Francisco, CA; Noah in Portland, OR; and Josh in Charlottesville, VA

This is by no means a comprehensive list of what we’ve learned, so we’ll continue to share as we learn more (and, on that topic, we should note that working as a distributed design team provides us with continual opportunities for learning how to collaborate more effectively). As we develop new insights, we’ll keep sharing them with you — and we encourage you to share your strategies with us!

Colin MacArthur, Shawn Allen, and Amber Reed contributed to this post.

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