Daylight has three studios around the world, in San Francisco, Munich, and Seoul. We often form teams from across these studios to work on a client project.
Before COVID, members would fly over to the location considered home base. We formed project teams flexibly across locations, and the flexibility afforded us designers the opportunity to get immersed in projects and get to know the culture of the other locations.
When we ruled out flying in 2020, we adjusted by working remotely across time zones, cultures, and homes. We sometimes treaded into new projects not knowing how hard it was going to get with this new arrangement. We learned a lot through experience. We’d like to share our learnings and tips so that future teams don’t have to feel as much growing pain as we did.
What we share here is our direct experience at Daylight. Depending on the scale of your own company and type of work, you may find that a different set of choices works better for you.
Human-centered design is a methodology that invites ambiguity
Daylight specializes in end-to-end projects that require research and strategy up-front and buildable solutions towards the end. We adopt the human-centered design process, which invites us to start with open-ended questions and be inspired by the people we are designing for.
The double diamond that the Design Council defined over a decade ago accurately captures the divergent and convergent nature of human-centered design. The work overall is not pre-defined. It does not come with concrete turn-by-turn instructions, so instead we embrace ambiguity and design our way forward to clarity.
The first few projects we did remotely and in isolation from one another were tough.
Our teammates were feeling drained by the end of each week.
Group video calls wandered and dragged on for 3 or more hours.
We were creating so much design content, and yet it felt like we were not moving forward in the project.
The work day got longer as we tried to hand off and sync at the beginning or end of our days with the overseas team.
Why was working remotely in isolation so hard? Why couldn’t we just cut meetings short and call it a day? Why couldn’t we just do our part and work in a relay style, handing over the ball back-and-forth with teammates?
Ever heard of the Chinese adage, “Same bed, Different dreams (同床異夢, 동상이몽)?”
It’s used to describe a situation in which two people appear to be on the same page but have fundamentally different ideas in their heads. We found that Same bed, different dreams is what could happen when people in a team design in isolation and forego sufficient alignment with one another.
In collaborating remotely, opportunities to align among collaborators were reduced to a minimum and it turned out to be detrimental to pushing designs forward. When we used to work in the same space, we’d align on direction and process by tossing back and forth impromptu ideas and questions. These moments didn’t require planning, and were crucial to helping us agree and get on the same page about what needed to be done.
As designers we had an intuitive understanding that alignment was needed to converge, but hadn’t exactly analyzed to what degree and frequency we needed to chat or discuss to be effective. For example, we hadn’t previously needed to know that for a co-designing team of two, about two syncs over Zoom each day helps us get on the same page, or that a mix of differentiated types of virtual meetings — 1:1 calls, group calls, status calls, and design reviews — can help form the conversations needed to move a project forward.
It was when we were stripped of the ability to bandy thoughts back and forth, we noticed the importance of aligning between teammates, and learned how to intentionally set up our process to help teammates align.
Time zone differences created a need for hand-off and documentation for the other team. Teams also had to meet through video calls to discuss the hand-off and documentation. If the receiver had any questions, even trivial ones, they had to wait several hours to get an answer. Given these time delays, the people preparing hand-offs felt like they needed to complete a significant milestone to make it easier for the next person to be able to build on top of it. Given that after my day, the other person’s day would start, there was no room to skip a beat. The pressure to be consistently productive each day on one’s own tired out members of our team.
Sometimes design terminology to describe our process differed between our own studio locations, making it hard to communicate ideas precisely.
The client’s asks were sometimes hard to communicate abroad not only because of a language barrier, but because of a cultural one.
For example, whenever our global team presented to our corporate Korean client, we found them to be not as responsive as we had expected. It turned out that the corporation preferred top-down communication presentation styles and preferred not to give feedback on the spot as they needed to sync internally across their levels of hierarchy before circling back to us.
It took a bit of digging to find out how to engage our Korean client effectively, and while this was happening, the overseas team felt out of the loop.
Our tools moved online, and we begin to use multiple platforms, each optimized for a distinct activity: Miro for online post-it synthesis, Dropbox and Google Drive for storage, Figma for design, and Slack or email for updates. “I don’t know where to find this or that discussion or file!” was already a problem before remote working situation, but the remote setup increased our reliance on documentation and digital communication, amplifying the difficulty.
When we reflected on the difficulties, we were able to adapt. These are some things we started to do differently so that we could enjoy our work more and be more effective.
1) Prioritize co-locating the team for the most ambiguous phases of the project
2) If distributed, then design your process for alignment
3) Measure and take note of how the arrangement is working
1) Delegate open-ended problems to pairs or at max, groups of 3
2) Wrap up the day with video screen recordings
3) Distinguish meeting types in order to run them predictably
Working remotely across time zones and cultures has changed our team dynamic. We lost some ability to organically align in real-time, but gained the understanding needed to adapt. As a result, now we’re able to plan projects and teams specifically for a local, remote, or hybrid project team setup.
Our advice for future teams is to design an intentional strategy and process to facilitate team alignment.
We hope that many of us get even more skilled at, and therefore less stressed out from collaborating remotely in 2021.
Adding a family member to a home entertainment app can take less than a minute. So why is it that updating household members to maintain public housing eligibility can require an unexcused absence from an hourly job, two bus rides, a paper form, and a long line at the public housing authority?
Closing these kinds of glaring chasms between the frictionless consumer digital world and time-consuming analog social services is one way we can reduce the many added burdens that stack the deck in our society.
It’s a place Daylight has put a lot of energy into. We are committed to working with public organizations, universities and foundations to bring the best of what we learn from consumer design to social impact challenges. And we’re happy to say, the frustrating example above is one burden we are successfully overcoming in partnership with the Santa Clara County Public Housing.
But we also recognize there are many heightened challenges in such digital transformations. Public agencies don’t have the same fiscal freedom as private capital. Those who could benefit most from digital social services lack access to the latest technology. And philanthropies and scientists who seek to innovate also need to adhere to rigorous evidence-based practices.
How do social impact innovators navigate these challenges and constraints? To provide some insights and spark dialogue, we thought it might be helpful to share some of the key takeaways we and our partners have learned in our recent digital transformation work.
1. Align on whether you need “a house you can move into.”
Creators of consumer digital products talk about launching and “learning in the wild.” Fully specifying a product before you start guarantees you will spend a lot of time and money building things that don’t actually achieve the outcomes you hope for. Instead, put something out there that has only some of what you hope for, but allows you to launch faster, learn sooner, and in the long run, focus resources on product features that are most valuable, compelling and effective in the real world. In this approach, feature specifications are held lightly and considered fluid.
However, an under-resolved minimally viable product (MVP) that inadequately solves social needs can be a non-starter for a public service organization or funder. Using public resources requires concrete outputs that meet public needs. Philanthropic grants are finite and are usually tied to clear requirements. That can clash with “fluid” specifications.
So how do you reconcile these different philosophical approaches and constraints? There’s no simple, right answer. It’s a topic worthy of a deep article in and of itself. But we’ve found that more important than where you land on this continuum, it’s critical that there is crystal clear alignment on that placement across all parties.
One of our development partners shared an analogy that helps a lot. When you start a project, figure out as a team of stakeholders, “Do you need a house you can move into?” In other words, at the end of this project and budget, would it be OK that your digital transformation is well on its way to a delightful, intuitive experience that will quickly go viral, but still doesn’t have a fully operational bathroom and guest bedroom? Or is it more important that the house is ready to move into––the experience might not be ideal and the product may not get the traction you hope for, but it does achieve all necessary feature requirements?
There’s a great deal that can go into such conversations and often there are nuanced ways to create a hybrid approach, but just asking this key question at the beginning goes a long way in making sure there are no fundamental misalignment between stakeholders.
2. Find your product hero.
Making the investment in a digital transformation can be a catalytic moment for a social impact organization. Having lined up funding and design collaborators, this is the opportunity to radically improve critical services, nudge positive behavior change in a target population, or empower individuals in a compelling new way. Understandably, this can inspire many within an organization to weigh in on what’s needed. But, sometimes, all of that good intent, without prioritization, can be counterproductive to the outcomes everyone seeks. Design and development collaborators can get whiplash trying to respond to disparate inputs and quickly use up precious time and resources.
The key to heading this off is finding and investing in a product hero–a respected individual who can artfully take in many disparate opinions, consider organizational needs, and be the empowered product manager who will work closely with creative collaborators to act against those priorities. There are both strategic and tactical needs here, from nuanced decision making to operational execution. We’ve seen these different needs played by one individual or divided into two positions (product manager and project manager), but both roles are meaty and require day-to-day involvement. That’s not an easy ask for social impact organizations that are already stretched thin doing good work, but from what we’ve seen, it's a critical driver of success for any digital transformation and is worth the strategic investment.
3. Figure out how to “Fail fast and fail often” safely.
Both human centered design and lean startup approaches look at failure as an opportunity to learn and build better products and experiences. Failing early, when the stakes are lower, can go a long way to mitigate larger risks later. But in the social sector, it’s not always appropriate to expect grantees or social services recipients to be guinea pigs of early prototypes. A lot of mutual commitment goes into relationships between providers, funders and community. One failure could lead to loss of trust in the product, jeopardize relationships, or worse could even adversely affect already marginalized populations. There’s no one, simple way to overcome this challenge, but proxy users and co-creation are two approaches that can help.
When Daylight was designing a digital tool to be used by social service providers with new parents, it was essential that we show our early ideas to users, but it wasn’t possible to impose on the service providers and their end clients. So, instead, we papered our community with flyers and found a collection of analogous families who were more than happy to try things out, offer their opinions, and, of course, be compensated for their time and expertise. In these situations, seeking out similar individuals who self-select to participate can provide helpful analogous learnings.
Taking this approach one step further, making users and service providers part of the core design team and process can provide even greater sustained insight. It’s the approach Daylight harnesses whenever possible. Having such representation at the table throughout research and design increases ownership and trust. And it allows us to collectively experiment and fail safely.
4. Design with and for service staff.
We are all attuned to and seek to address the greatest unmet needs of our communities. But interestingly, for many digital transformations, one of the critical means to get there is to also pay deep attention to and design for the needs of social service provider staff.
If the admin tool that enables a medical assistant to share a public health video with a new mom is clumsy, the whole effort will fail. If a user-friendly app for public housing tenants doesn’t play well with the existing workflow or backend system of the public housing staff, the product will never get off the ground.
We’ve learned to prioritize listening to and understanding the nuanced staff needs, workflows, and tools. Co-creations sessions with staff along with rigorous technical research of legacy backend systems is essential for creating digital products that minimize workflow burdens, adhere to labor laws, and actually empower the staff who will be in charge of delivering the experience that drives the ultimate impact we seek.
5. Plan for a new baby, not a new dishwasher.
This is another helpful parting zinger from one of our development partners. When an organization plunges into a digital transformation, there’s generally a shared understanding of the significant upfront investment of organizational focus and funding required. But like buying a dishwasher, everyone looks forward to seeing the satisfying results once it’s “installed.”
That potential for spectacular, scaled impact is 100% true, but our development partner is wise to remind us that doing a digital transformation is more like adding a new baby to the family than having a new dishwasher in the house. Even after that product has been designed, developed and launched, its ongoing success and impact requires sustained commitment and product ownership. This can mean everything from managing day-to-day product support to additional feature development to new content creation to scaling to larger audiences to exploring new business models.
Some of this work can be mitigated by choosing to build on top of an existing digital platform. While potentially limiting product features and requiring ongoing service fees, this approach can reduce upfront development costs and provides ongoing product support. Alternatively, external design and development collaborators can continue to provide ongoing support beyond launch. Or that outside team can progressively help an organization build up that capacity for themselves.
Whichever way you go, it’s helpful to remember you have a new baby in your organization rather than a new washing machine. The potential of that baby is oh so much more, but it will also require plenty of love.
What resonates for you?
These are just a handful of the lessons we’ve learned from some of our social impact digital product work. We know there’s so much more to learn. If you have thoughts to add to the conversation, advice for us, or are interested in collaborating, we’d love to hear from you.