How to be remote ux designer

How To Be A Remote UX Designer

by Matthew Magain, UX Mastery
December 21, 2012

One question we get asked a lot is: is it possible to become a UX Designer while working remotely?

This question came up on an Ask LifeHacker column recently, and I chimed in with the comment that only a subset of what a UX Designer does could be executed remotely. I thought I’d elaborate in this post.

Remote Worker vs. Working Remotely

Becoming a remote worker is a life-long goal for many. There are many advantages—being able to dictate your own hours, working from wherever in the world you choose, and tapping into a global client base. However, the biggest hurdle to working remotely for UX Designers is that, by definition, a user experience designer needs to engage with users. It’s an undeniable fact that a large chunk of UX work simply isn’t feasible unless you’re operating on site at the client.

If you’re a UX designer and you spend your entire day on your computer, you’re really missing the point. The answers aren’t at your desk.

Whitney Hess

That said, there are plenty of UX-related tasks that you can offer in a remote capacity, assuming you have a computer and a broadband internet connection. Often the key to negotiating a remote-working arrangement is to get some runs on the board with your client or employer first, or at the very least develop a portfolio that shows off your process and demonstrates your capabilities. With this in place, you’re going to have an easier time communicating your process, which will put you in a better negotiating position.

UX Techniques For Remote Workers

Below is my list of tools and techniques that I’ve successfully utilised on projects while working remotely, to varying degrees.

Note the big fat caveat here: your circumstances may vary. The degree that you’re able to utilise these tools and techniques is dependent upon many factors—the size and nature of the project, the individual personalities involved, and the relationships you have with the client and the rest of the team.

Research Tools

Analytics Review
DescriptionAnalysing web or mobile usage data, and making subsequent recommendations
CommentsThe ability to review analytics remotely assumes that you do, in fact, have access to the data. If the site is an intranet, for instance, this is likely to be a hurdle unless you can get access via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or similar.
ToolsGoogle Analytics (web); AppAnnie (mobile); more analytics tools…
Online Surveys
DescriptionCrafting an online survey, primarily to solicit feedback from current (or potential) users.
CommentsThe majority of surveys I’ve created in the past have been sent to individuals that I haven’t met in person, so there shouldn’t be any logistical hurdles to creating and delivering a survey remotely.
ToolsSurveyMonkey, Wufoo; more surveying tools…
Competitor Analysis
DescriptionPerforming an audit/review of competing websites and apps; conducting user testing of competing sites; writing a report that summarises the competitive landscape.
CommentsIf the competitors are websites, then there’s no reason for you to be on site to review them.
ToolsSilverback; Screenflow; Camtasia Studio; Microsoft Word; Google Docs
Heuristic Evaluation (Expert Review)
DescriptionEvaluating a website or app and documenting usability flaws and other areas for improvement.
CommentsMost usability evaluations of websites that I’ve performed have been done remotely. A good method for determining how usable a site or app is entails working through a checklist, such as the one from, and relies upon the practitioner being sufficiently experienced to judge whether something is usable or not. Another common task is a literature review, which falls into the same bucket.
ToolsGoogle Spreadsheets, Microsoft Excel
Content Audit
DescriptionReviewing and cataloguing a client’s existing repository of content
CommentsPerforming a remote content audit assumes that all of the content within scope is already online—if there are offline processes that should be included in the scope of your project, then you’re probably going to have to be on site, talking to staff, in order to understand them.
ToolsGoogle Spreadsheets, Microsoft Excel
Contextual Enquiry
DescriptionInterviewing users in the location that they use the website/app, to understand their tasks and challenges
CommentsThis is a contentious inclusion, and is only really an option if the site you’re working on has a global audience. If that’s the case, then depending on where you’re based there’s a good chance you can find some users local to you. However, if the users are isolated to a specific geographic location, or you live and work from a remote location, then it might be possible to conduct a series of interviews via telephone or Skype. In general, successful contextual enquiry needs to happen in person, but if the project allows for it then you may be able to utilise technology to bridge the communication gap.
ToolsSound recorder; Pen and paper for note taking
Usability Testing
DescriptionSitting users in front of your website or app and asking them to perform tasks, and to think out loud while doing so.
CommentsUsability testing is generally something that works best in-person. That said, remote user testing services such as Loop11 and have a place, if utilised appropriately. The big downside of performing remote user testing is that the session is not guided. If the participant hits a hurdle and can’t recover, you can’t jump in and help them out. It may be possible to overcome this by conducting the session using screen-sharing software, but I haven’t tried this personally.
ToolsSilverback; Screenflow; Camtasia Studio; Skype; more testing tools for web and mobile

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Models and Personas

Personas (User Profiles)
DescriptionCreating personas for your project involves morphing qualitative and quantitative data from analytics, surveys, interviews, user testing sessions, and other research activities into a handful of representative “typical” users. These personas are assigned names, photographs, motivations, goals, and a believable backstory that is rooted in the backgrounds of real people using your website or app.
CommentsAssuming you have all of the data necessary, there’s no reason why your personas can’t be created remotely. It certainly helps to have met and built an in-person relationship with real people, but in essence this task is an exercise in informed creative writing.
ToolsMicrosoft Word, Google Docs
Scenarios (User Stories)
DescriptionA scenario is a narrative describing “a day in the life of” one of your personas, and probably includes how your website or app fits into their lives.
CommentsLike creating a persona, an accurate scenario requires that you have the right information upon which to base your narrative. Assuming you do, the actual process of describing how each persona feels as they complete tasks throughout their day is as straightforward as pulling together the data that you’ve accumulated into a sequence of events. You may need to validate some of the tasks in your story with the users who contributed to your research, but that can hopefully be completed over the phone or by email, as compared to conducting additional interviews.
ToolsMicrosoft Word, Google Docs
Mental Models
DescriptionA mental model is a visual depiction of a scenario. Pioneered by Indi Young, it utilises a timeline to depict events in a user’s life, and incorporates an additional dimension in the features that your website or app possesses that speak to each of these events.
CommentsAs with personas and scenarios, a mental model is a document, and it relies upon informed research. If you’ve got the data you need, you don’t need to be sitting on-site to create it.
ToolsGoogle Spreadsheets, Microsoft Excel, Adobe Photoshop
Experience Maps
DescriptionAn experience map is an extended version of a mental model. Rather than looking at one subset of time for a single user, an experience map is an holistic, visual representation of your users’ interactions with your organisation when zoomed right out. Because many organisations and the projects within them are large and complex, an experience map is usually captured on a large canvas—a necessarily big poster that you can zoom in or out of to explore the details.
CommentsAs with other deliverables, if you’ve got the data you need, you don’t need to be sitting on-site to create this document.
ToolsAdobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator

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Visual Tools

Storyboards & Comics
DescriptionA storyboard is a tool inspired by the filmmaking industry, where a visual sequence of events is used to capture a user’s interactions with a product. Depending on the audience, it may be an extremely rough sketch, purely for crystallizing your own ideas. Sometimes it can be useful to create a slightly more polished version of this—a comic—to communicate this sequence of events to key stakeholders in order to achieve buy-in for a concept.
CommentsThere’s no reason for you to be on-site when creating your sketch, except perhaps to validate the ideas depicted with users and stakeholders. If you can perform this validation over the telephone or email, then go for it.
ToolsPen & paper, Wacom Bamboo tablet, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator
Wireframes, Prototypes & Mockups
DescriptionA wireframe is a rough guide for the layout of a website or app. A prototype is similar in that while far from being a polished product in terms of visuals or functionality, it gives an indication of the direction that the product is heading. “Mockups” is the term I use for wireframes that have been created in high fidelity, but for some people these three terms are interchangeable.
CommentsAs with the other deliverables mentioned here, the task of creating the deliverable is easy enough to perform remotely, assuming you have all of the necessary data to inform the deliverable. The key is to ensure that you establish that user feedback loop as your wireframes evolve. Whether that happens by showing people your wireframes in person, or having them review them remotely, is up to you.
ToolsBalsamiq Mockups, Axure, Hotgloo, HTML/CSS, more wireframing and prototyping tools…

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Reporting Findings

DescriptionThe obvious tool to use when presenting your research findings.
CommentsIf you’re presenting using slides, as with in-person presentations, be clear who will be attending the presentation, send follow-ups to lock in the time and technology being used, and test it beforehand. And don’t be late—there’s nothing that says “unprofessional” more than dialling in late. In my experience, the more important the presentation, the more important it is for you to present it in person.
ToolsGoogle Calendar, Skype, GoToMeeting,
DescriptionA document containing the details of your research findings.
CommentsWhile I like to keep my projects as lean as possible and avoid unnecessary documentation, reports have their place in certain situations. If you’re walking a client through a report over the phone or Skype, be sure to send it through well in advance, to give them the opportunity to look over it before the meeting.
ToolsGoogle Calendar, Skype, GoToMeeting,

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As I mentioned at the start, one of the biggest challenges UX Designers face, particularly those not working somewhere where UX Design is an in-demand skill (think San Francisco, Chicago, New York, London) is communicating the value of UX to a client. It’s this relationship-building exercise where in-person interactions can make all the difference. Trust, respect, rapport—these are all more difficult to build with a client when you’re not standing next to them. This is especially here true in Australia, where personal relationships are a key cultural consideration to doing business with someone.

While none of the techniques listed above will replace the ability to go to the pub or a coffee shop with someone to build rapport, once you’ve successfully established that trust and respect with a client—by whatever means—you should be able to utilise some of these remote techniques.

I’d love to hear your experiences performing UX-related activities while working remotely. Let’s hear them in the comments!

This article first appeared on UX Mastery and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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