Collaborative design: before, during and after the pandemic

Leading up the Creative and Design teams, Juan Diego gives his perspective on how his teams made a shift to ensure the design process never suffered when losing whiteboards and in-person collaboration, and going 100% digital.

This year has been a special one. It’s forced us to change our habits and it’s taken away things we’ve always given for granted. This global pandemic has come and impacted us in more ways than we’d like. But impact is always an opportunity for transformation. We’re seeing our local communities adapt to survive in a more challenging reality and we, as a team of creative thinkers, can’t be the exception.

We have an advantage. Zemoga’s model is based on remote collaboration and we’ve been refining the balance between remote and on-site for almost 18 years. We’ve been strategic when it comes to deciding which moments in a project require a team to get on a plane and spend a few weeks working kneecap to kneecap with clients, building the foundations for a product at their headquarters. But most of the time we function as a highly performing distributed team. There’s always a physical distance between us and clients. And, since we’ve been remote-friendly for years, there’s always a chance some team members are in our Medellín office, others in our Bogotá office, and others maybe chose to work from home that day. Thanks to our culture, based on ownership and trust, the system has worked very well for years.

So when the pandemic became a pandemic at the beginning of March, closing our offices and sending everyone home felt like a very obvious and natural move. But we’d be lying if we said it’s been all straightforward for us as designers.

Designing digital products has always been a highly collaborative type of work. Designers are all about communicating, whiteboarding, asking questions and bouncing off ideas. You cut those connections and the quality of the work is affected. Losing our shared physical spaces forced us to be resourceful and find ways to ensure remote work doesn’t mean sacrificing the touch points that allow us to learn from each other and do great work. The same applies to our collaborative partnerships with peers on the client side.

We’ve gotten smarter about how we use technology to stay more connected and respect everyone’s boundaries. We had been using Dropbox, Slack, Confluence, Invision and Zeplin as our main collaboration tools for years and we’ve relied on them more than ever for the past eight or nine months.

But when you eliminate the possibility of gathering around a whiteboard to sketch ideas, design suffers. We could share and version files, have a quick chat, jump on a video-call and share our screens. But the lack of a shared canvas was heavily impacting our ability to function as visual communicators. That’s where tools like Miro have made a difference. It’s empowered us with collaborative boards that allow for sticky notes, sketches and emoji to exist in a shared space that participants around the globe can join at the same time. Combine that with Zoom (and Zoom breakout rooms) and that starts to feel like a decent way to replicate some of our traditionally analog collaborative dynamics. Between March and December we’ve had countless casual sketching sessions between team members and more structured workshops with clients. We’ve missed the irreplaceable benefits of an actual room and a real whiteboard, but we’ve also learned to value the digital alternatives we have at hand these days. We can sketch user flows quickly and duplicate to explore variations on the fly. We can ask people to write ideas in stickies and then cluster them all together to identify themes. We can use emoji to introduce ice-breaking activities at the beginning of a workshop or to vote and prioritize the ideas the group likes the most at the end of a session. We can save and continue after lunch or maybe a couple of weeks later. We can take boards on the go and, asynchronously, keep evolving the team’s thinking on an iPad.

We’re not trying to replace our traditional ways of doing design thinking, but we’re finding ways to do amazing work in more ways than we were familiar with before. We’re learning the best of both worlds and we’re preparing for a post-Covid future in which analog and digital collaboration can not only coexist but complement each other.

We know we all have changed. We know some will decide to spend more time at home and use our offices when they need the resources they can only find in our physical spaces. That’s why we’re adapting to embrace a hybrid model that guarantees that people working remotely can join a meeting or a workshop and collaborate without feeling excluded, just because they’re in a different place. We’re rethinking our meeting rooms so that they’re better at including remote participants. We’re adapting the rules so that we can go from remote-friendly to remote-first, and technology will be key to democratize collaboration.

The design team at Zemoga is an incredibly warm and friendly group of talented people. We value eating lunch together, we love having fun as a team and god knows we miss sharing unsolicited design feedback as we walk by someone else’s desk. It’s been tough times for us as professionals and it’s been even harder for us as humans. But this has been a learning experience and we’re certain we’re now better prepared for whatever comes next.