Designing distributed: collaboration on Doist’s fully-remote design team

4 min read
Ana Ferreira
  •  Apr 12, 2019
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At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about the Doist Design team. We’re composed of eight members, including one marketing designer, two illustrators, and five product designers. This isn’t atypical for a mid-sized team, except for one thing:

We’re based in six countries: Germany, Greece, Luxemburg, Portugal, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. We’re a fully-remote team, and our company is composed of 63 team members across 23 countries.

We’re frequently asked how we collaborate remotely across time zones.

  • “How do you brainstorm design ideas without everyone in the room?”
  • “Can you achieve a consistent design system without in-person collaboration?”
  • “Isn’t iterating designs across time zones cumbersome and slow?”
  • “Can remote design collaboration really work at scale?”

Well, we’ve been working this way for over six years. With two products, Todoist and Twist, and ten million users under our belts, it seems to be working. We’ve found workflows and tools that allow us to solve many of the real challenges associated with remote work and thrive as a distributed design team.

This is how we’ve managed to successfully rethink and reimagine design workflows for a fully-remote team.

Hint: it involves us getting together sometimes.

Collaborating across countries

It’s a common myth that collaboration is impossible, or at least extremely difficult, for distributed design teams.

The fact is, however, that remote collaboration is neither impossible nor difficult; it just demands thoughtful communication.

“Nothing is impossible, and we consider the advantages of remote work to be much larger than the disadvantages. We’re no longer bound by locations or frontiers.”

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It’s no wonder people struggle to understand how the Doist team collaborates; after all, the time difference between some of our designers is as large as eight hours. If designers can’t get in the same room at the same time to gather around a whiteboard to share and discuss ideas, how can we collaborate as a team?

The best way to describe this is the pyramid of remote design collaboration. We call it the pyramid because there’s a clear hierarchy of practices and approaches, from foundation to tip. A strong design system forms the basis of how we work, and we layer collaboration and communication, both asynchronous and synchronous, on top of this foundation.

The pyramid of remote design collaboration

Building a design repository (the foundation)

Without a common system for organizing our work, collaborating would be impossible. Our most foundational level of collaboration is global access to team files. For this, we use shared Dropbox folders.

We create additional design cohesion by working with the same applications, such as Sketch for design and Procreate for illustration. We take extra care to be considerate of the asynchronous aspect of our collaborative efforts, like using very specific naming conventions to make sure our files are completely transparent.

Dropbox Folder of design layouts for our Ambition and Balance Blog

Ensuring we are all proficient with these tools means we can easily share knowledge, without sitting in the same office.

A shared system acts as a working language. Between the members of our design team, we speak a host of languages, including Portuguese, Greek, and German; however, in collaborating we all default to English.

Likewise, while we all have individual approaches to design, having a basic shared system—including common file naming and the same tools—provides a cross-team understanding that informs all the other layers of the pyramid of design collaboration.

Virtual brainstorming (layer two)

The second level of distributed design team collaboration is virtual brainstorming, for which our tools of choice include Marvel, Zeplin, and Dropbox Paper.

“While we all have individual approaches to design, having a basic shared system…informs all the other layers of the pyramid of design collaboration.”

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Our design team can brainstorm, comment in place, iterate, and create specs and guidelines that are shared not only between designers but with everyone in the company. This facilitates in-team and cross-team collaboration.

Having tools that allow for digital brainstorming and virtual iteration is crucial in a remote team setting. Design requires trial and error, and tools that accommodate this flexible process. Brainstorming does, in fact, require a whiteboard—but that whiteboard doesn’t have to be physical.

Our example, this is how we use Dropbox Paper. When developing our “Close threads” feature in Twist, we began our initial research with customers calls. We wanted to know how users approached discussions and whether having a definitive end to a conversation would be valuable to them.

Digital brainstorming in Dropbox Paper

This led to developing a problem statement and potential solutions on how the feature should work. We shared different approaches to the user flow in a visual way with mockups and prototypes, after which designers and UX copywriters provided their feedback. This all started with a blank piece of virtual paper and a bunch of people in different timezones.

Doist collaborates digitally on a potential feature

Spilling ideas across digital canvas boards is simpler than ever with the right tools.

Virtual design iterations of the Twist Inbox

Communication and action (layer three)

The third level of design collaboration is utilizing our team communication and project management applications, Twist and Todoist. Relying on the tools we build gives us close proximity to the problems present in our products, and a clearer way to solve them through design.

Twist is our asynchronous communication tool where we discuss all our projects, ideas and solutions, and where our written communication takes place.

Almost all communication on Doist is written and asynchronous, which often means you have to wait for feedback—rather than receiving an instant response by sending a message or tapping a teammate on the shoulder.

It sounds tough, and there’s a big learning curve, but this method is surprisingly efficient. Yes, you need to be precise on the kind of feedback you are looking for, but usually, you get more thoughtful, accurate and considered feedback when someone has time to look through your work, think about it deeply, and give a nuanced response.

Product Designer, Alex Muench, requests feedback on an upcoming Twist Feature

And while you’re waiting for that feedback you can focus on deep, distraction-free work.

Asynchronous communication allows designers to get into a flow state that can be highly productive.

Asynchronous design conversations happen in Twist

Design discussions eventually need to lead to action. Todoist is where we organize our work, both individually and as a team, and where we can have an overview of the state of each task or project.

With project details attached to every task and a responsible party assigned, looking at a Todoist project provides a transparent look at what we’ve accomplished and what comes next.

Twist Web Parity design project in Todoist

Mindful meetings (the tip)

The fourth level of collaboration is video calls.

We have one weekly meeting on Mondays where we discuss the work from the previous week, the work we will be doing that week, and if we have any blocks or need help anywhere. This meeting is about 30 minutes long and provides an excellent overview of what each person is doing.

A glimpse into Ana’s design meetings

Occasionally we’ll have a meeting to discuss ideas and conduct design reviews. These typically don’t include all the designers, but a group of two or three. In these meetings, one designer will go over the work currently on their plate and the others provide feedback.

“Remote collaboration is neither impossible nor difficult; it just demands thoughtful communication.”

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These meetings don’t occur for every project and rarely take more than 45 minutes. Often, the second and third levels of collaboration are enough. They’re also more flexible for big-time differences.

As our Head of Design, I also schedule monthly 1:1s with everyone on our design team. It’s an opportunity to catch up on non-work related stuff, but also discuss the current status of projects, questions any of us may have, roadblocks and plans for the future. It’s also a chance for both parties to provide feedback on things to improve.

I like to start the meeting with the question “How are things going?”. This allows the designer to give me a quick overview and usually sets the tone for the conversation. Another question I like to ask is, “Are there any roadblocks you’re facing that I can help you with?”, allowing the designer to tell me if there is anything specific or concrete that I can help with to facilitate their work or life.

We’re mindful of having too many meetings and default to asynchronous communication. However, these virtual meetings are essential for keeping us connected as a team, working through complex design challenges, and building a genuine connection despite being distributed.

Organizing large-scale projects on a remote design team

Day-to-day and weekly collaboration is one thing. But what about large design projects that span weeks or even months?

Most of the work at Doist is organized in what we call our “DO System”.

  • A project is referred to as a “DO”
  • DOs are carried about by “Squads”, an interdisciplinary team that usually includes a designer (or two), an illustrator (when needed), and a developer per each platform and any other required squad member (support, copy, marketing, etc.)
  • A DO is completed during a “DO cycle” (4 weeks), or several cycles.

These small and mighty teams are responsible for designing, implementing, and shipping their assigned tasks, ranging from product features to landing pages to anything and everything else.

The designers and illustrators in the squad are responsible for making the final decisions related to, well, design and illustration. However, they may still gather feedback from the rest of the Design team and from all the squad members, to make sure we arrive at the best possible solution.

Each DO receives a dedicated channel in Twist where multiple threads are created to discuss the various parts of the project as it evolves and its own Todoist project for task management.

Progress on projects are provided in a weekly snippets thread where “what was done last week” and “what will be done this week” are shared and discussed.

This organized project system allows our Design Team to take part in a variety of design projects across the company while living wherever we want to call home.

Remote to IRL

As a remote team using mostly asynchronous communication, we spend most of our time working alone, trying to imagine our colleagues behind static avatars. However, we value in-person and personal relationships just like any other company.

“Virtual meetings are essential for keeping us connected as a team, working through complex design challenges, and building a genuine connection despite being distributed.”

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Mentorship meetups

To try to strengthen in-person relationships, every new employee that joins the company is assigned a mentor: someone from the same team who is there to help out and answer any questions. During the first three months, the newcomer is invited to visit the mentor for one week, with all the expenses paid, so that they can work together. This small trip is enough to establish a more personal connection, and for the new employee to feel more comfortable asking for anything.

Doist designer, Ben Breckler, attended in Mentorship Trip in Porto, Portugal

Annual retreats

The company also organizes yearly company retreats where everyone from the company gets together. We’ve visited Menorca, Iceland, Greece, and Chile! In 2019, we’ll visit Azores, Portugal.

During this week, we work together, hang out and visit the area we travel to, and above all, we get to know our colleagues. After the retreat, we feel closer to each other, and more at ease reaching out and asking for things.

Mini design retreats

As the company grows, it becomes harder every year to talk with everyone. As a result, we’re now experimenting with team retreats, where each team gets together. Last year the Design team spent a week in Prague, just visiting the city, working in the same place, and spending time together, making the team bonds even stronger.

Our retreat schedule takes us all over the world:

  • Menorca 🇪🇸2015
  • Iceland 🇮🇸2016
  • Athens 🇬🇷2017
  • Santiago 🇨🇱 2018
  • Prague 🇨🇿 2018 (just the design team!)
  • Azores 🇵🇹 2019

All design teams, remote and non-remote, have their challenges. It’s up to the company, the team, and individuals to try to find the best solutions for how to work.

Nothing is impossible, and we consider the advantages of remote work to be much larger than the disadvantages. We’re no longer bound by locations or frontiers. Being a truly global team of 64 people, stretching from Melbourne to Madrid, gives us the insight to create tools that resonate with people across the world.

Building Todoist and Twist has led to $20+ million in annual recurring revenue and tens of millions of users who are more productive in their day-to-day and communicate better at work. We’re proud to have accomplished this as a completely distributed team. New technologies and a willingness to adapt allows us to work, collaborate, and build relationships with incredible people from across the world.

Want to read more about remote work?

  • Collaboration workflows for remote design teams
  • The growing trend of remote culture
  • The 9 best online collaboration tools for remote workers
  • Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard