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Tools for Collaborating Remotely

Whiteboarding and sticky notes in the time of social distancing

Photo of a man quizzically looking at a laptop with a woman's face popping out of the screen.

Palantir has had remote team members since 2008 and made the transition to being a remote-first company in 2015. That means we’ve got a ton of practice doing collaborative work without having to be face-to-face. 

Collaboration is essential to our consulting practice. We help our clients deliver digital transformations, and you can’t do that without a lot of upfront work to identify opportunities, align on goals, and make strategic decisions. 

Traditionally this type of collaboration happens face-to-face in glassed-in conference rooms with infinite sticky notes, a white board, and plenty of coffee. Well, I don’t know about you, but right now my hands are super-dry from all the soap and hand sanitizer, and that’s without having to share sneeze-space with my teammates.

The good news is that there a ton of great virtual tools out there that can replace common collaboration exercises like: 

  • Talking face to face
  • Whiteboards
  • Sticky notes
  • Marking up documents and comps with a red pen
  • Stopping by someone’s desk to ask a quick question

Talking Face to Face: Google Hangouts, Zoom, Go-To Meeting, Blue Jeans, etc.

We’ve done almost all of our client and internal meetings on video for the past five years, and it turns out that it works really well. When we started, we were a little apprehensive about technical difficulties, but the issues have been minimal. Our “cameras on” culture ensures that we can see each other’s faces and catch non-verbal cues, and every one of our clients has been able to join our video conferencing with minimal to no issues. All of our video conferencing tools offer the ability to record meetings, which has been a real asset to us.

Some fun added bonuses of video meetings:

  • You can meet our pets! 
  • You can comment on our interior design chops (and see how much better our UX and design team is at it than the rest of us)
  • And if we ever DO meet in person you can be surprised at our height! (We’ve got at least three Palantiri over 6’2)

Whiteboards: Freehand 

Starting with messy, low-commitment sketching is the fastest way to generate ideas and build alignment for UX and UI design. Before any hi-fi work goes out the door, we sketch each user flow or experience in planned, collaborative, remote sketch sessions with all members of the team using Freehand from Invision.

The real benefit to remote sketching with Freehand is that we can do more of it. Onsite meetings can be tricky to schedule, expensive, and disruptive. With Freehand, our clients can hop into a sketch session from their desks and then tackle the rest of their day.  As a result, our clients help us weed out any non-starters and elevate good ideas before a ton of the project’s budget is sunk into hi-fidelity deliverables. 

Some fun added bonuses of remote whiteboard:

  • Unlike a real life whiteboard, It’s incredibly easy to drop in high fidelity assets for inspiration, reference, and frankensteining.
  • You don’t have to erase Freehands like you do real-life whiteboards, so you can keep all your project’s sketches on a single infinite board. This is particularly helpful for flow sketching.
  • With an online whiteboard, no need to fear accidentally grabbing a sharpie instead of a dry erase marker.

Sticky Notes: Jamboard and Freehand

Sticky notes are God’s gift to discovery work - there’s nothing like a stack of colorful squares to get ideas out of your head and into a format for brainstorming, sorting and prioritization. 

In fact, sticky notes are SO important that we have two tools that serve that need: Jamboard and Freehand. 

Jamboard is a tool from Google that straight-up reproduces stickies: you can create identically sized squares with text, and you can choose your candy color. We like this one best for rapid brainstorming and prioritization. While designed to be used with a proprietary hardware device, it works great with any computer or tablet. The key limitation with Jamboard is that each board is a fixed size, so sometimes you have to do a fair amount of resizing of the stickies to fit everything in. The key value of Jamboard is that it’s already part of G Suite, so if you already have a subscription, there’s no additional costs associated with spinning it up and no log-in issues for anyone who already uses Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides. 

Freehand is like a whiteboard that you have to draw stickies on. We like this one best for User Story Mapping, which is a method for agile project planning. The key benefit is the size of the space - user story maps can be both long and deep, and Freehand offers infinite space to work in. The key limitation is access; some of our clients find collaborating in Freehand to require some tinkering upfront with permissions and account creation.

Some fun added bonuses of remote stickies:

  • They don’t fall off!
  • You don’t have to take pictures of your stickies and painstakingly record them into a more permanent format.
  • Say farewell to the guilt of throwing away an entire tree’s worth of stickies for one discovery session!

Marking up comps with a red pen: inVision and Google Docs

Creating documents, decks, comps and wireframes is part of the deal with software design, and it’s essential that our clients have the ability to grab the red pen and tell us how to improve. 

Google’s G Suite Docs and Slides are our standard for reporting status updates and sharing insights. The settings allow for levels of input - view, comment, edit - and they are easy for almost all our clients to access and work in.

inVision is our go-to for sharing early UX deliverables like style tiles and wireframes. The secret sauce? Tour points, comment threading, and creating clickable prototypes. Tour points enable us to annotate our wireframes to clarify functionality (clicking this button takes you to X page). Comment threading helps keep client feedback organized and makes it easy for us to ask clarifying questions. And we can also create clickable prototypes showing full user flows (although we often transition that type of interaction to our style guides).

Some fun added bonuses of remote document collaboration:

  • All fonts - even Comic Sans! - are easier to read than handwriting
  • In G Suite you can assign comments to a person, which makes it easier to keep track and take action
  • Shared documents can be accessed anywhere, so no need to haul around tons of paper

Stopping by someone’s desk to ask a quick question: Slack

Sometimes we all need to ask a quick question to get unstuck, and with remote work the obvious avenue - stopping by a colleague’s desk - is out. Fortunately, Slack makes asking quick questions very easy! Palantir’s Slack is a hotbed of project questions, process questions, cries for help, and #dadjokes. 

There are two key advantages to Slack: crowdsourcing and record keeping. It’s not always clear who has the answer to a question, and it’s a lot easier to post a question to a team channel than it is to stand on your desk and shout to an open office. And once we get an answer, that answer stays in the system and we can reference it later - key for solving misunderstandings.

The downside to Slack is that it makes it instantly possible to break anyone’s concentration at any point. We have a few strategies for solving this. All our team members create “personal user manuals,” which - among other things - capture individual preferences on Slack and other communication tools. We also organize our channels by project, discipline, team and interest which lets people opt in and out of conversations on their own time. And finally, everyone tweaks their settings and notifications at their preferred interruption levels.

Some fun added bonuses of remote chats:

  • Gifs! Nothing helps clarify tone like a carefully selected gif.
  • Emojis! We’ve uploaded a surprising number of custom emoji
  • Compliments! We have a custom “plus plus” emoji that the entire team uses to share successes and compliment each other. It’s a genuinely great way to keep all of us in the loop on both individual achievements and company wins.

Remote collaboration from inception to close

With this tool set, Palantir can collaborate effectively both internally and with our clients from the inception of a project until the close. Do we prefer to do in-person onsites? Absolutely - face to face work is a great way to accelerate understanding and alignment. But the real key to effective collaboration is consistency over time. Our projects succeed because our teams use our remote toolsets and practices to continually learn and iterate with our clients over the long term.

Geschwisterbild - Laptop by Jonas Ginter licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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