7 Things the Best Design Teams Know About Using Asynchronous Communication

Geoff Whiting

design prototype with asynchronous feedback

We’re expanding our look at asynchronous communication tools and tips to look at its place in the design process. Design teams are some of the most collaborative in an organization and they need established protocols to keep this teamwork on the right path. Unfortunately, that’s become more difficult in the age of COVID-19 as many designers are now remote and speaking asynchronously more often than not.

As creative work expands and your design teams grow more diverse, and get more input from other teams and customers, there’s a need for best practices to help you think about using asynchronous communication as leadership tools. Its applications will help you better manage the design process for your current project and run better at an organizational level.

1. Learn the design pattern

design pattern and interaction wireframe

Asynchronous communication has a specific design pattern that’s often discussed as a reactive design principle. The message-driven communication in applications and other systems usually follows a three-step pattern. Understanding this pattern can help you think about how to use asynchronous communication tools as well as how to build them if you’re working on chatbots for marketing, messages within a SaaS platform, or any app that has notifications and support.

Here’s the pattern broadly:

  1. The client sends a message to a server
  2. The server sends an acknowledgement to the client immediately, while then taking as much time as it needs to process the request
  3. The request is processed, and the system generates a proper response. This is turned into a message sent from server to client

Design elements get much more complex if you’re working on multiple-receivers event-based communication. Microsoft has put out some guidance to help you look at the high-level ideas, especially for propagating changes across multiple microservices. When you split the two parties involved in communication — whether that’s via a server response or allowing two people to respond to each other at separate times — there’s more flexibility in the communication. Internally, this allows people to work simultaneously and then collaborate as needed without interruption.

Messaging and notifications are the core elements of this design pattern because your first user who sends a message will wait for a notification or display before going back to work. Separate notifications are needed to bring in the other party or service, and then they operate in the same way as the initial user.

It’s a vastly different flow with time and action constraints significantly different from synchronous systems. Reviewing it for the sake of team communications will help with your next project, whether that’s managing a project or building out a new API.

2. Test to verify asynchronous utility

Run through the “why” behind the elements you’re designing and check to see if the actions you support are the most useful for the user’s needs. When including areas of asynchronous communication and notification, check both that they work and that they’re delivering the needed information. 

It’s become fashionable to create asynchronous elements and rely on chatbots and knowledge bases for a variety of new services. Automation and AI enable 24/7 support tools, which leadership tends to place a priority on, sometimes over the service element. However, if customers are always elevating their concerns to the human level, a long-winded chatbot or multi-click selection tool can be frustrating.

Ask yourself what the user would prefer to say and how to say it

UX/UI testing should already place an emphasis on customer needs and scalability. What we’re discussing here is to think about delivery mechanisms specifically. Getting this right first — before trying to finalize content or interaction steps — can help you identify universal needs that lead to a better UX overall.

Asynchronous design still needs to be useful and helpful.

3. Cultivate a desire for collaboration

Asynchronous collaboration elements play a role in all design situations. Building a project, communicating with your team, interacting with customers, and even sending reports to leadership will all have asynchronous tools that serve a smart purpose of bridging gaps and sharing ideas. You can use these tools to encourage deeper levels of collaboration.

What’s important is that you lead your team not only in practice but in the direct ask. Turn to your asynchronous communications tools often and ask for feedback, provide information, and remind your team to engage with each other. This can be especially useful if you’ve got designers and developers working on a single project.

Building lines of communication between teams and customers — with set rules on how often communication can happen — also helps keep your team on the right track. They’ll avoid the bad habit of thinking that reviews from anyone outside of design aren’t useful. Bring in as many stakeholders as comfortable and show them how you’ll communicate.

Asynchronous tools are the preferred method here because these distinct groups won’t impact your team’s day-to-day. They minimize interruptions and disruption while allowing leaders to review communications and distribute the right items to the right designers. You can control the flow to keep efforts running smoothly, while also expanding designers’ perspectives. 

Help them collaborate and learn more about your customers and end users to think holistically about their work. It smooths over many rough edges ahead of time and can speed up your ability to get buy-in from leadership and the customer for your next project.

One specific area where this collaboration effort is most useful is in design critiques. Moving these to asynchronous efforts gives everyone the time they need to perform the task, can minimize the overall time it takes, breaks down past barriers now that you’ve got people across time zones, and is overall more flexible to support your needs. Improve it further with clarity and direct asks.

4. Clarify people and feedback needs

Top designers often share projects multiple times with a variety of stakeholders during the creation process. There’s no benefit to waiting until the end to share and get feedback. 

Make the most of these requests by using asynchronous tools to publish workflows, wireframes, or prototypes, and project documentation. Choose your specific way to share and ask for feedback, and then spread the link around to everyone who you want to help.

It’s a worthwhile best practice to not only share this with certain people, but also to ask them specific questions or for certain exact elements. Use comment systems or checklists to make those requests and thread these elements as much as possible to keep feedback mechanisms useful and coherent. A few thousand comments that are always visible can make any project hard to understand.

For managers and team leads, you’ll want to do this publicly. Develop the practice and reinforce it. It’ll set expectations appropriately for all designers and teammates. They’ll also start asking specifically for reviews and feedback from you.

5. Match internal needs with communication tools

People on your team will have their own preferred mixes of asynchronous and synchronous communication. Some people love meetings while others will do everything in their power to avoid them. As a team lead, your mission is to strike the right balance with communication needs and styles.

After you have this idea together, look at workflows and project management needs. Map out communication tools for each point of collaboration based on your team’s requirements. If you’re starting out, there are tools like GoVisually that support free collaboration on projects. Sketch is a preferred tool for many developers and graphic designers.

Map needs to how your workplace has changed due to the coronavirus

At other times, you’re going to have to address the bigger picture. Slack and Trello are reliable systems that help with asynchronous tasks, though you have some options to blend in synchronous interactions too. Ensure that they provide structure and support for everyone.

You can get impressive results from asynchronous collaboration when you support it with appropriate tools. Make it easy for your team and clients. At the same time, keep synchronous channels open to be flexible when someone needs an extra hand.

6. Schedule time for your own feedback

The beauty of asynchronous communications tools is that they give you space to make the time you need in your day or week. One of the best things a designer can do is use asynchronous channels to talk with you team and explain when you’re going to review items and share them, and why it’s okay for you (and the rest of your team) to do this through asynchronous design software.

The “tip” we’re discussing here is something we all know, but not all of us do. Make time for yourself to give feedback and make time to read and use the feedback you’re getting from others. Scheduling it helps you to both set aside time to get things done and helps your teammates know when to expect your thoughts on a project.

clocks to demonstrate Asynchronous timing
Don’t let scheduling your asynchronous feedback feel this overwhelming

What’s most useful from designers is providing feedback at a generally consistent time so people can know when to expect the flood of messages from being tagged — it helps them schedule their feedback time, too. When others do this for you, it’ll help you plan your day and even give you room to read industry best practices or other documentation and design that are getting buzz.

Taking specific time for design feedback and management helps ensure everyone gets what they need on the right timeline and can reduce stress around these reviews.

7. Learn when to use synchronous communication

For many of us, creative pursuits are locked in the brain. You can get in the groove and put something together when everything seems to fall into place and clearing away distractions makes that even easier. See our previous post on asynchronous communication for more on that Focus Time.

However, you don’t want to get locked in your head. There are times you’re going to need to talk with your team and other designers. Get proactive on learning when that is for you and the rest of your team!

Synchronous communication, especially video calls, should be part of your mix. It’ll help you reach people who are slow to provide updates or reply to email. It gives everyone a chance to address ongoing issues or ask for help, which they may only feel comfortable doing when they know it’s a time people will be receptive to the ask. Also, live communication makes it easier to ask for clarification and ensure everyone is on the right page for a design project moving forward.

Just like you planned your feedback time, it can be useful to plan your meetings.  Set recurring ones to help keep teams focused and build out criteria for when additional meetings can be called. You still want to keep it short and sweet, but regular items plus the ability for others to request them can keep your project on-budget and in scope.

The first time you use a meeting to catch scope creep, it’ll be worthwhile from budget, time, and workload perspectives.

Rely on video across communication types

Designers need to support customers and teams as much as possible, which includes supporting how everyone communicates. Broadly, this means being able to adapt to people’s needs and pivot between asynchronous and synchronous communication.

One of the best tools to merge these two capabilities as needed is video. You get the in-person efforts and interactions — especially in the COVID-19 era — of synchronous tools while being able to record and share items later via asynchronous channels. If you’re a fully remote team, this makes even more sense because it gives everyone the same communication elements. If one person needs clarification, everyone who has seen the video might.

Video also gives you a fantastic opportunity to speak and share clearly. Video breakdowns of steps or needs — in particular for you product designers — can help teams define checklists and share updates.

That’s where CloudApp comes onto the scene. We’re a smart integration service that allows you to record screens and meetings, snip, and clip things to make digestible elements, and easy annotation for images, GIFs, and recordings. You can turn one synchronous asset into any number of asynchronous ones specifically built for individual purposes.

At its heart, everything is about making collaboration easier for designers. So, we’re offering a free trial of CloudApp to give you great tools for your entire team and customer base. Enjoy.

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