Remote, but not isolated.


Tips and experiences from being a remote UX designer for the last 6+ years.

This is not a story about wanderlust and being a digital nomad who has worked in 13 cities over the last 3 months. No, this is about how I’ve learned to communicate and innovate from a dedicated home office as a UX designer over the last 6 years.

At 5am on a weekday morning in 2010, I quietly got out of bed so as not to wake up my wife, walked over to the closet, got inside and closed the door behind me. I turned on the pull-string light and sat down at my desk to get a few hours of freelance design work done.

Yes, my office was in a closet. To be exact, the space was 3’ wide by 4’ long, just enough room carved out of the clothes and storage I shared it with. It’s laughable, but it served its purpose. I could quietly go into my office late at night or early in the morning without disturbing my family and get work done in privacy.

The closet office was temporary. I eventually migrated to the laundry room office and finally to a backyard office that we built and where I’ve been ever since. Over this period of time of figuring out where I could work best, I also learned how to work best as a remote UX designer.

Have a dedicated office

Having a dedicated office does not necessarily mean that you need to be in a separate building, with its own electric, A/C and a door that locks. But, it does mean that having a place in your home that is set aside specifically for “work time” is important. Having a physical separation between work and non-work times and places helps to keep you from feeling that you are always working. Yes, you will want to work in different locations from time-to-time for variety and for being around other human beings. But, specifically designating a place that is “your work space” can really help your sanity.

My work spaces have evolved from working in the bedroom, to the laundry room, to finally a dedicated backyard office where I’ve been for the last 6+ years.

Along with having a dedicated office, make sure you have sufficient internet bandwidth. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a problem I’ve experienced and seen happen to others. As a remote UX designer, you will need to communicate clearly and seamlessly, often through video and other virtual collaboration tools. If you’re giving a design presentation to stakeholders, sharing a prototype with your development team, or moderating a remote usability study — choppy audio and buffering video will quickly undermine your ability to do your job.

Once you have a dedicated office to go to, you can show up, showered and dressed. Being remote is not an excuse for wearing your jammies all day. Basic grooming and generally taking care of yourself is always a good idea. Since it’s likely you’ll be on a video call communicating with colleagues, clients and users, make sure you’re presentable from the waist up.

Show your face

Whether you work in a fully remote team or a partially distributed company, being able to clearly communicate is key. When I first started as a full-time remote UX designer, the software company I worked for had over 30% of the employees working remotely, distributed over several time zones. My confidence level with working remote was pretty high, knowing there was some trust, familiarity and culture to support it.

It was a good environment to start out in, but it was far from perfect. Here’s a tip: Don’t use a “collaboration” tool that as soon as you enter into the virtual meeting your identity is already anonymous. It’s surprising to me that there are a few virtual meeting tools out there that have video turned off by default. It can be tempting to keep your video off, especially when other people on the call have their videos turned off, but resist the temptation. When you are hidden from view, people think you’re multitasking, which you probably are. Don’t hide yourself; be intentionally present.

Find a collaboration tool that shows your face by default and does not limit how many people you can actually see in the meeting. Zoom is a great tool for this and supports the full-on Brady bunch tiling, which is really fun when you have a meeting with 25+ people.

Fun with co-workers in a Zoom meeting.

Seeing and communicating with another person is key in avoiding feelings of isolation. Over the years I’ve built many strong working relationships and friendships through virtual communication methods, and when you finally meet up with someone in the same physical space it’s a great reunion of sorts. Even still, I’m always surprised by how tall or short a person is in-person.

Meeting up with my UX work friends, for the first time (physically).

Avoid Status: Unknown

Another tip, be intentional about when you are “online”. Your co-workers shouldn’t have to guess about where you are or what you’re doing. If you are working, keep Slack open and show a status that gives others a clue about what you’re up to. Slack makes this really easy.

Slack makes updating a status, easy.

Keeping Slack open on your desktop and having it on your phone may sound like you’re opening yourself up to a full day (and sometimes night) of distractions, but you can control which channels you want to be notified on and snooze the others.

Being online and available doesn’t mean that you’re on call. Find out what work hours are expected of you and what hours you can define yourself. Many employers that support a remote or hybrid-remote environment are open to flexible working times and will support time blocks that you work best in.

When you are online and available and others are online and available, don’t be afraid to interrupt a coworker to ask a question or share an idea. And be willing to be interrupted by others. This is a natural part of working together in a physical space and it should become natural in a virtual space as well.

It takes time

Being a remote UX designer requires having self-discipline, motivation and organization skills that take time to acquire. Take the time to find what works best for you in your remote, or semi-remote situation. And don’t rule out the closet office, it might be what you need. 😉

(This article originally published on Medium.)