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What Happens to Remote Working When Design Gets “Real”?


The increasing popularity and feasibility of remote work is a historical accident; since data can be everywhere at once, designers and developers can work from anywhere. However, when we finally move beyond designing “pictures under glass,” we’ll bump back up against the limits of the physical world. How do we make this transition?

There’s been a lot of excitement around the internet of things, especially among those of us who design user experiences. Rapid prototyping through 3D printing and low-cost platforms like the Tessel and Raspberry Pi are beginning to turn hardware design into a much more flexible, rapid, iterative process — one that looks a lot like software design. We’d be mistaken, however, to just transplant what we know about design workflow and team structure into this new medium.

One of the biggest challenges will be keeping our work in sync. Today, designers just check the latest timestamps in Dropbox, and developers just git pull to get fully up to date. But what happens if the latest iteration requires a 6mm change in the positioning of a hinge? If your team is all in one place, you’d just fire up your 3D printer to crank out the updated prototype, then pass it around so everyone can get a feel for the new design. A distributed team, however, faces some serious problems. Do you buy everyone their own 3D printer (and an unlimited supply of that sweet, sweet ABS)? And what if your lead UX guy is on a two week work-cation in Costa Rica, and didn’t bring his 30-pound MakerBot?

Suddenly, remote work is looking like a real hassle.

That’s not to say that the idea of the distributed workforce will die out — as always, life finds a way. But the trend toward remote work will not reach its ad absurdum conclusion of the officeless world. The rise of “lean hardware” will ensure that there will always be a place for beautiful design studios.

So how do we as digital designers make this transition from bits to atoms?

  • Virtual reality will certainly play a role, with technologies like the Oculus Rift already being used by Elon Musk’s SpaceX to help design and prototype rocket parts. VR will allow designers to get an intuitive sense of the products they’re designing, without requiring a full 3D printout.
  • There will also be a significant market opportunity for decked-out co-working spaces, giving remote workers access to the tools they need without requiring individual investment in physical design tools. These will start popping up damn near everywhere.
  • We will see a return to old-school materials, with clay and balsa models taking up residence once again in our studios. 3D printers won’t replace low-fidelity physical prototyping, just as Photoshop hasn’t replaced a designer’s sketchbook and pencils.

Perhaps most importantly, we’ll learn to lean on those who have always been living in the “real” world: architects, industrial designers, engineers. As digital designers, we’re the new kids in an old field. The best of us will succeed in merging centuries-old physical design techniques with the lean and rapid digital approach — but this cultural divide will not be bridged via Skype. As we learn a whole new way of working, there will be no substitute for face-to-face interactions.

The payoff for hauling our butts to the office every once in a while? We get to design and build whole new classes of smart objects and devices, with bloody brilliant UX to match. I’ll take that trade.

Author Geordie Kaytes

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