Asynchronous Interaction Design

A few months ago, as cities began going into lockdown, I started researching best practices in working with distributed teams. There were a plethora of experienced managers hosting webinars and sharing their lessons learned over the years.

Here are a few of the things I learned along the way:

One key thing that stuck out: while every company needs something different, there was a clear difference between companies that saw this as a completely net new design challenge vs. a mere accommodation.  That is, "remote" isn't something that one could simply tack on to an existing model.

Recently, I turned my attention towards education.  Now that we're a few months in, teachers have had time to go through the experience of moving their courses online.  And so, I've been eager to understand what they've learned.  

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of similarities to the remote work research.

Here's what's seems to be fundamental:

  1. Async. It's not about remote or colocated, it's whether you've redesigned your processes to work asynchronously by default vs. simply sticking to the existing plan and simply"bolting on" remote.  Unsurprisingly, if you have a small company/cohort, you can get away with a "bolt on" approach.  However, if you are working on anything that necessitates scale, embracing async is pretty much required.
  2. Intentionality. If there are desired, critical behaviors that need to happen, you can't simply leave them to chance.  You have to actively and intentionally design for it.  If you're experienced in designing software products, this comes as no surprise. The challenge is that we're not used to thinking about iterating on process design when it comes to physical spaces because usually the constraints of the space itself, or the fact that people are working on the same schedule will enable such behavior in a consistent manner.  Not so, when you take away those constraints.
  3. Loneliness. In the shift to remote, the attention seems to be squarely placed on productivity.  However, what often gets overlooked is the, well, human side of people.  In the company context, there's a common understanding that some mechanism of socializing with co-workers is beneficial not just to productivity, but to their own individual well-being.  The same goes for the students, however it's not necessarily the same kind of problem.

There's a great old-school talk from over a decade ago by Robert Fabricant who offers that the medium of interaction design is behavior:

(check out the fashion choices in the audience)

I love that definition, particularly because too often people frame interaction design as the design of a user interface, which is too limiting.  Behavior happens within physical spaces even more so than it does in relation to our screens and devices.

And, in 2020, as we find ourselves socially distant, it strikes me that there's an opportunity to surface best practices and patterns that are specifically focused on how we design for asynchronous behavior.