Managing a Remote Design Team

1st June 2020

We caught up with Dan Healy, Head of User Centred Design at the Satellite Applications Catapult to gather the most effective ways of running user experience and design activities remotely. Here, is our deep dive chat as part of our Ask the Expert series.

Sam @ ADLIB: To start things off, it’d be great if you could give us an idea of what Catapult does?

Dan: We exist to make the world a better place and to grow the UK economy through the effective use of space technology. We work on projects where there’s an opportunity to use satellite data to gain insight into a whole bunch of different things. It could be observing activity in the world’s oceans to track illegal fishing vessels or using something called remote sensing to check and ensure the structural integrity of bridges around the world. Some exciting, important opportunities – things that you wouldn’t even imagine were possible.

Sam @ ADLIB: Incredible. So, in the context of that, what’s your specific role?

Dan: My role is Head of User Centred Design. My role is as much to do with coordination, facilitation and oversight as anything else. In practice, that means that my job is about making sure that we’re doing and prioritising the right sort of work. I’m also responsible for evolving our culture of user-centred design so that it allows the organisation to take a user-centred approach to all that we do. I’ve got a team of really talented designers and feel like I’m well placed at knowing who would be well suited to particular projects, especially if I know that someone’s got an ambition to work on something.

My organisation has a solid history of user-centred design. One of the things that attracted me to the job was the fact that I hadn’t seen many examples of a ‘Head of User Centred Design’ being advertised and I loved the specificity of that. It suggested a maturity of thinking around user-centred design and design thinking. That said, we still have room to mature and that’s where I think I can help. I want to celebrate the incredible work that we’ve done but also look ahead to the exciting stuff that we’ve yet to do.

Sam @ ADLIB: As we know, Designers can come from a wide variety of backgrounds including research, psychology, graphics, product… What sort of skills and backgrounds make up your team?

Dan: It’s an amazing mixture. We’ve got skills in service design, product design, immersive visualisation, industrial design, and design research. My background is in user-centred design and in particular user research and accessibility. I enjoy helping people who are working on projects that have more of a user experience focus to enhance their skills in that way. For example, I’ve just been working with a member of my team with the design of a usability testing study, which was conducted remotely. It’s something that I’d like to do more of with my team.

Sam @ ADLIB: It’s an interesting exercise and one of the reasons I enjoy working in this sector so much, because of that diversity in people’s experience.

So to talk about the current situation; in your role as a Facilitator, a Manager and also a key relationship for internal stakeholders – I’d imagine having to work remotely has thrown up some interesting dynamics and brought about new challenges. Has the business been used to remote work in the past and what has that looked like?

Dan: That’s an interesting question and one that I’m going to challenge. A few people have asked me “how are you adapting to remote working? Is that something that you’re able to take on easily, or is it proving difficult?” We need to be aware of the fact that, what we’re doing at the moment isn’t simply remote working. Someone on LinkedIn said something along the lines of “this isn’t working from home, we’re at our homes during a crisis trying to work”. When I saw it, it resonated with me. I thought ‘thank you for saying that and acknowledging what this is because it’s not just remote working’.

I feel like I have multiple working personas. What I mean by that is, there’s Dan Healy, Head of UCD, who works at the Satellite Applications Catapult office four days a week. That’s probably my most productive version of working me. Then there’s Dan Healy, Head of UCD, who works at home on a Friday – that’s me, usually in a totally empty house, with all the broadband I could possibly want and no distractions. I’m pretty effective in that context too – I can get my head down and focus. Then you’ve got this version of me, where I’m working from my daughter’s cabin bed desk. I can hear the kids downstairs running around like maniacs and my wife (who’s also supposed to be working full time!) is trying to home-school them and to help me out with my busy schedule. This is an incredibly tough situation. This isn’t remote working for me, this is coping with the situation we’re in and trying to make the best of it.

Sam @ ADLIB: That’s very well put, there’s a huge difference between what we know as remote working and our current situation isn’t there.

It sounds like you’ve been working on a semi-remote basis before with the team, how has that changed what you’re doing now? And what character traits do you think are most important when working with UX and design teams remotely?

Dan: I think flexibility and creativity are essential in this context. It’s not good enough to just say “okay, we now have Zoom and Teams, let’s do all of our meetings on those platforms” but we won’t change anything else. That doesn’t work. As you’ve probably found out yourself, doing video calls all day is intense and it lets people into your life in a way that perhaps you’re not used to or comfortable with. At times, I’ve quite enjoyed the opportunity that it gives for showing vulnerability and authenticity. I think it’s helped me to come across to my organisation in a way that is perhaps more representative of who I am. For people to see the messiness, the chaos of my life makes me more human.

In terms of my organisation, we’ve adapted remarkably well. Over 150 people have pretty much moved out of the office and are conducting their work in a new way. Where we still need to do more work is around challenging our virtual behaviours. We need to rethink what meetings are for, to challenge the length of meetings and the tools that we use to facilitate those meetings.

One of the things I love about my job is that, as a user-centred designer, I’m invited into a wide array of different activities. I recently contributed to a homeworking policy that was put together at pace to try and address what’s going on at the moment and to give people assurances around what they could expect, what their rights are, and what is expected of them. I was delighted to collaborate with our Chief People Officer on that.

One of the things I did as part of that process was put together some guidelines on virtual etiquette. For example, if you want to chat with someone in the way that you would face to face in the kitchen or next to the water cooler, then ‘Teams’ is probably the best thing for that, but you should check if the person is available before you launch into a full conversation because that can be stressful for them. If you want to run a workshop, then we’d recommend using Zoom and something like Miro or Microsoft Whiteboard. Also, consider reducing the duration of your workshop or break it down into a number of shorter workshops. A workshop conducted in person is very different from a workshop conducted online. Not least because, certainly in my situation, I can’t afford the luxury of three hours. This means I can’t help with childcare.

Essentially, it’s about being as kind as possible to people. That’s one of the things that I encourage. We need to be kind to people and consider what they’re going through and how different it might be to what we’re going through. Everyone’s got their own struggles, it’s just that some of them aren’t as visible as others. There are different ways that you can exhibit that sort of kindness, for example, if you see that someone’s diary is very busy, and they’re in back to back meetings, could you maybe give them five minutes back between your meeting and the next one? Could you reduce your 45-minute meeting to 40 minutes or your 30-minute meeting to 25 minutes so they can get a cup of tea, go to the loo, get some headspace? Simple, seemingly trivial steps that are important.

Good practice around meetings is more important than ever. Before you book in that meeting, check whether someone is actually available, check whether you’re not triple or quadruple booking them, because that causes people to stress and that affects their mental health. Be considerate because if you’re double booking them or triple booking them, they’re going to have to spend time getting out of that mess. Put yourself in their shoes, what does that feel like?

Those are the things that I’m encouraging my organisation to adopt. I’ve already seen examples of it and that’s great.

Sam @ ADLIB: It’s interesting to think about some of those. Like talking about the communication etiquette that’s involved when actually the dynamic has changed a lot. You are in essence connected to (in some cases) somebody’s front room and their home.

When you look at some of the tools you mentioned and some of the practices when you talk about meetings and workshops, how do they look now compared to a few weeks ago when the world was so different and what have been the key changes that you’ve had to make?

Dan: They are different and, in some ways, I would say they’re better. I was facilitating a workshop recently and, before the pandemic hit, we would travel to one of our other office locations to run the workshop. I feel that changing the way these workshops are held has challenged the status quo and we’re now doing things in a different, more valuable way.

For example, for this workshop, we needed to use video conferencing for the conversation. That was an easy part, we would just use Zoom but the whiteboarding part proved a bit tricky. We’d been using Miro from time to time prior to the pandemic and so this time around it was a case of committing to Miro and seeing how it worked.

When I ran the session, I brought up the Miro board and said to the people at the beginning of the call, we’re going to do this as a bit of an experiment and let’s see how it goes, then started to put up sticky notes as things were going along.

Initially, the session would have been three hours, but I recommended that we break it down into two halves and made sure that we had a break in between. That seemed to go down well. At the end of the session, I asked how people found it.

I was delighted to hear that people thought it was better than doing it in person. It brought the whiteboard to the focus of the conversation, whether I was capturing things accurately. The areas that hadn’t yet been discussed were very clear and it felt like we’d got somewhere – we could all see the progress of our conversation. That was unexpected but great. If anything, it’s probably going to help us to show the value and the importance of what we do in the UCD team.

Sam @ ADLIB: That’s really interesting. In terms of how you communicate, manage and get the most out of your team is there a particular rhythm you’ve settled into? Or a working practice that is much different from what you were doing before?

Dan: When the pandemic hit, I was very aware of the fact that my team were used to being in the office. I’d spent a lot of time getting to know my team in person and doing my best to try to bring us all together. Now, we’ve been forced apart and this could have changed the dynamic irrevocably. We discussed and agreed on an approach to keeping in touch with each other. We have a virtual coffee for half an hour each day, which is optional. We can’t always make it but importantly, it’s not work-related, just a chance to chew the fat. I’ve enjoyed the fact that we’re six-plus weeks in and we’re still doing that.

Team meetings are working well – we still do those every week. We also have a session called ‘Design Horizons’, which is once every few months where we take some time out (typically about half a day) to focus on some of the more strategic, visionary things for the team. That’s posed a challenge. We’ve introduced different ways of doing it using Miro boards and Zoom and running a much shorter session. I broke it down into just two hours with a 10-minute break in the middle, but perhaps that was too short. You could say that I’m taking a user-centred design approach to this, too. It’s all about experimentation and iteration, seeing how good we can get. Things have changed a lot, but I think we’re still managing to keep in touch with each other and we feel like a team.

Our informal channels in Teams and WhatsApp have become more important than ever. I always make an effort to say good morning to everyone on Teams first thing if I can. I like to encourage that sort of positive domino effect of people chiming in. We’ve started to introduce (sort of by accident) a joke of the day, though sometimes we have to rely on Siri and Alexa to help us out. It’s good fun and we’ve done that pretty much every working day for six weeks now – quite an achievement!

Sam @ ADLIB: It’s quite easy in this situation for everything to become about work in a lot of ways and it’s good to encourage some of those things and I imagine some of those will probably stick way beyond the current situation as well.

Finally, is there one key piece of advice for people who are looking to get their teams functioning at their optimum in this situation?

Dan: A piece of advice I would give to someone in my position is, make sure that the approach you’re deciding upon is a result of collaborating with your team. Work with your team to find out what works – ask them questions, listen to their answers. This can feel like quite a vulnerable position for a team leader because you might feel that your team is looking to you to be the rock, the person that has all of the answers. However, imposing an approach that doesn’t work for your team risks a long-lasting and negative impact on the team’s dynamic.

This article previously appeared on the ADLIB Blog.



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