UX design emphasizes the importance of making design decisions around users. As the practice evolves, many design thinking techniques are also evolving to do UX well, and nearly all of them call for the participants to be in the same physical space.
There are numerous myths regarding working on UX design tasks remotely; however, the advantages can easily discredit the negative assumptions. For instance, some people believe that brainstorming and testing prototypes simply cannot be done with remote teams – especially if those teams are distributed across borders.
The truth is that collaborating online throughout the design process can be one of the best ways to gather and analyse insights quickly and efficiently.
Establishing teams for design thinking while working with remote teammates in other countries can be a highly successful endeavour if you have the right knowledge and tools. Let’s examine some key phases of a UX-driven project and the tools that can enable distributed teams to collaborate remotely without sacrificing efficiency and quality during the process.
1. The discovery phase
During the discovery phase, teams may analyse existing products or competitors for a better idea of what’s working in the market. These teams will also typically conduct interviews and other research to understand better their users and how they feel about existing or proposed solutions.
It’s during the discovery phase that design and development teams get to the heart of what matters most to users. This stage of the project aligns a company’s vision and needs with the user’s spoken and unspoken needs.
The ultimate goal of the discovery phase is to frame the questions correctly to ensure that the work that follows in the project will address the right problems both tactically and strategically.
As an analogy, good discovery concerns itself with not only climbing the right ladder but also making sure it’s leaning against the right wall.
Tools for remote collaboration during the discovery phase:
Mural – Mural allows companies to collaborate in real-time regardless of their physical location. This tool relies on visual inspiration to connect users by helping them understand each other’s ways of thinking as they push ideas forward.
Each team member can stay on track by writing notes in Mural. My team uses this tool for a project across six countries and three languages. You have to know what you are doing, but it is powerful and works well. It’s also more expensive, so make sure you need everything it has to offer.
Optimal Workshop – Optimal Workshop helps teams with card sorting exercises and provides expert advice in a simplified style. The point of this tool is to make sure that every card sorting effort is effective, and that the card sorts can be stored online for analysis.
Proven By Users – Proven By Users is another card sorting tool that puts a spin on traditional methods. Remote teams can use this tool to generate data based on the online participation of users. This data can then be categorized and undergo analysis, thus enhancing the discovery phase.
Practical UX Methods – Practical UX Methods is modernizing design thinking at each stage of UX design. This free website offers multiple solutions and tricks in a “recipe” approach, focusing on real-world variables such as costs and deadlines. Teams can find customizable guidance from start to finish learning from fellow UX designers that have used these methods for real projects.
2. The prototyping phase
The prototyping phase is when the results from the discovery phase, such as the research report, journey map, design studio sketches, requirements and other learnings, are brought to life in order to create a clickable prototype of the solution.
This is an iterative phase where, with each successive sprint, the original prototype is refined based on stakeholder and user feedback. Each iteration improves the prototype’s usability, interactions, and visual design. The goal is to build something as close as possible to “the real thing” in HTML so that user test results will be accurate.
Although the creative act of building is still relatively individual, the ability to collaborate with built-in comments across various tools helps to facilitate teamwork. There are many prototyping tools out there and most of them have commenting or other input features, including Adobe xD, Adobe Muse, InVision, and Proto.io.
In this phase, working across geographies isn’t much different than working with a team across town or down the hall.
3. The testing and iteration stage
During the testing stage, teams can collect user feedback to connect with customers on a deeper level and make changes to the prototype in the iterative phase.
Also known as spiral prototyping or rapid prototyping, the iterative stage helps teams realize the needs of users and determine how to go about meeting those needs. The lower-fidelity prototype created in #2 is tested, then modified based on results, then tested again until a high fidelity version is ready to move to development.
This stage is customizable based on the size of the project (e.g., complete or phase-driven), the development philosophy (e.g., prototyping in different flavors of agile behaves differently), and the business needs (the MVP timeline for instance).
Tools for collaborating on the testing and iteration stage remotely:
First, a concession. My team has not seen a testing solution that is better than an in-person experience when it comes to qualitative insights. As humans, there is no substitute for developing rapport face to face which, in the hands of an experienced tester, can yield profound and unexpected insights during a session.
Having said that, there are remote options that deliver great results, especially for more task-based or time-to-task focused testing.
User Testing – User Testing gives you the power to filter testers, with a focus on building a massive base of users for testing. In fact, the company spends a lot of time and energy on building their user base. It is a great resource when your needs happen to line up with its offerings, and the reviewers can be very good. This option is best for projects that have a broad target base without specific criteria. Just be sure you use it correctly; i.e., it’s wise to plan what to “throw out there” in order to get decent feedback.
Loop 11 – Loop 11 is the smallest company on my list. This is a service that focuses on small- and medium-sized clients. For my team, the platform works well when we use it to test an internal product we are developing. The Loop 11 team is very responsive, which is another plus. Although it has a smaller feature set and doesn’t really have a large pool of users to pull from, it’s perfectly useful and priced well, especially if you also have your own users for testing.
User Zoom – User Zoom is a good all-around toolkit which has been around long enough that they have worked out most of the kinks. User Zoom is good for basic, unmonitored task-based testing. The pricing can be confusing, however, and we often end up working directly with them for projects. My team hasn’t been in touch with their support teams, but I’ve heard from others that their paid support is also top-notch.
On-site and remote teams can successfully collaborate
Developing an approach that allows teammates to work together in-house and off-site is increasingly important as UX teams evolve. Whether employees or agency partners, the expectation that everyone will always be in the same room doesn’t match modern work life.
With the right approach and toolset, remote teams can carry out the prototyping and testing process from a distance. Collaborating this way encourages creative thinking during the design process and, when managed well, allows teammates to focus on their strengths, detailing the specifics with accuracy.
By utilising the right collaboration tools at various design stages, it is possible for businesses to achieve desirable results with partners that work remotely at nearly every phase of a project’s life cycle.