Working remotely? These tools can help teams optimize processes
As the world shifts to remote work to combat the novel coronavirus disease, the question has become, “what tools are available?”
Fortunately, there are many well-designed tools that facilitate remote teamwork. We implemented remote tools at Standard Beagle to help the team balance work with traffic congestion. When we made the decision to require remote work due to coronavirus concerns, this wasn’t a dramatic shift for us.
As we embraced these tools, we realized how powerful they were. We constantly iterate on our processes, so these tools go through continued scrutiny. Here are our current favorites. We don’t get paid to endorse any of these, so this is honest experience with the products.
Tool for quick communication
Slack is an instant communication tool for teams. It’s kind of like chat or group texts, but far better.
The Slack app itself is available on the web, desktop and mobile. It allows teams to create a work space and then to create channels for communication. Think of these channels as a way to organize conversations. In our case, we have specific channels for projects we’re working on. We also have one for sales, one for marketing, and various others for topics of interest.
Using Slack has helped us move all internal communication out of email and into Slack where we can have real-time conversations. These conversations can be searched and it’s easy to upload attachments and format code while sharing, making this a robust method of internal communication.
Tools for general team/client meetings
We use two video conference tools.
Google Hangouts is an easy way to have a face to face meeting when you’re working remotely. We find it works best among members of our internal team. It’s good quality for hosting our team on our morning standup or on our weekly sprint estimation call.
We used to use it for client calls, but we found that it was much more finicky if the bandwidth wasn’t great. Also, permissions were sometimes easy to forget — we’d invite a client and then forget that the default blocks people outside of our company.
We started with Zoom in 2019 after testing it on a few calls. Since then, Zoom is our go-to for nearly every client call. We also use it for coordinating remote meetings, virtual intros, and class instruction. We pay for an account, which gives us the freedom to schedule long meetings, customize the background, record, and more.
Zoom is a strong contender for replacing Google Hangouts completely. The team prefers it because it just seems to work better and offers remote control features.
Tools for User Interviews/Testing
Yep. Zoom is a great tool for user interviews and testing, too. Here’s why:
- It’s easier to recruit participants
No travel! Participants like not having to leave their homes or offices.
- It’s easy to record sessions
We can record to the cloud or locally
- It’s still “face to face”
It’s better than a phone call because most people have a camera that we can request they turn on.
This service allows you to gather both limited qualitative and quantitative data completely remotely.
I don’t feel this is a substitute for in-depth, formative user interviews, because there is no communication between the tester and the testing subject. It’s limited to the quality of the initial questions and doesn’t allow for the tester to ask follow up questions depending on responses. However, it’s a strong tool that collects data from website users and can provide useful information. And since it’s completely remote, it’s here on this list.
Invision is the tool we turn to for clickable prototyping and testing with clients. It’s easy to set up and simple to work with. Does it have fancy animations? No. If we want to test fancy animations, we can use Figma (see below). But most of the time, we just want to test flow and if the user can find what we expect. Invision is great for that. We simple set up Zoom, then share the Invision link, and off we go on our test.
Tools for Ideation and Design
Both Miro and Mural are excellent tools for activities throughout the UX process. They both have strengths. I have used both Miro and Mural for creating empathy maps, affinity diagrams, user personas, and more. Both tools have an extensive library of templates to start from.
You don’t need both. From the feedback I’ve heard from designers, they prefer Miro to Mural. I chose Mural because I like the business diagramming tools in addition to the UX tools.
I don’t think you can go wrong choosing either one.
Figma has turned out to be a solid design collaboration tool for us. We create style tiles, design libraries, wireframes, and hi-fi mockups using Figma. Rather than creating files and exporting so that we can receive feedback from other designers or the client, Figma allows us to send a link and let stakeholders comment — right on the document.
Our design team can also work on a file at the same time without worrying about overwriting.
We can’t speak to other digital design tools, like Sketch, but we definitely love Figma.
Tools for programming
VS Code Live, is like Google Docs for your code. You can have multiple developers working on the same document and code base with multiple cursors, commenting, running terminal commands and automated tests. I’ve found that it is a great tool for remote assistance — better than desktop sharing, because you aren’t tied to the same shared screen while you illustrate changes and make examples. Plus it keeps getting better.
Automated Build and Setup, or docker
I’ve worked at many shops where setting up a new developers system was a multi day or week affair where every little special configuration or system workaround had to be rediscovered or painfully extracted from tribal knowledge. It is then immediately forgotten, because the whole point was to get started on “productive” work.
These pains and roadblocks become almost unworkable on remote teams because they almost certainly rely on being able to sit down with each specialist on the team that knows how to get over each set of hurdles. Use this old database driver, with this version of the database, and this other SDK, and block automated updates, etc.
If you build your software from scratch every time or have a shared docker image, you all have a common starting point so that anyone can be more productive right away, and changes can be shared by the team no matter where they are.
Cloud based, SaaS and local tools
Back in the bad old days of slow internet, just about the only way to get access to the team’s shared dev server and database were with VPN, and sometimes remote desktop. There are still many reasons that an organization might need that type of setup, security, auditing etc.
However, productivity is not one of them. Being able to have a fulling running, or at least mocked out version of your application running on each developer’s system means that a remote team can still get stuff done even when the network is down.
Cloud based integration environments like AWS, Azure, or Digital Ocean have such good performance and are so easy to manage, that our team feels much more productive using them. The same with the hosted versions of almost all the development productivity tools.
Tools for QA testing
Our team loves screencastify because it makes it really easy to record and share videos. We use it when our testing team needs to show our development team what they are seeing that is hard to explain. SO instead of creating a Jira ticket that says “screen moves around,” they can create a video and show how when they move their mouse, the display moves from side to side. It cuts down on miscommunication and aids in clarification.
There’s a tool called Usersnap that does something similar. This premium tool allows you to take a screenshot of the page and submit tickets about the issue directly to an email you designate. We stopped using it because of the cost.
This might not sound like a remote enablement tool, and yet it is. Thorough testing of websites and applications requires loading it up in multiple physical devices. Device labs or shared community devices were one way around that in a shared physical environment. Browser stack is much more effective than buying devices for every dev/tester.
Best in Show
Obviously, we’ve been using these tools for a while. If you’re just starting down this path, start slow. Choose a few to start with.
- Miro or Mural
Best of luck as you embark on this journey!