Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Distributed work

Using information architecture to make distributed teamwork easier

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Published on April 17, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

When you’re working from home, it’s hard to tell how well you’re communicating with your team.

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Should your emails be more succinct or more detailed? Are people already overwhelmed with too much information or are they feeling out of the loop? When you can’t see facial expressions and body language, who really knows?

With video conferencing, we get a bit of the face-to-face rapport we used to have in person, but for the bulk of our work, we’re now relying more on written communication. So how can we make sure every email, meeting note, project plan, and creative brief is adding clarity, not confusion?

When people talk about information architecture, they’re usually describing how designers and UX writers structure content or present data on websites. But it can mean different things in different contexts. And the COVID-19 outbreak has created an entirely new context. 

Teams are now physically separated from their office and each other. Many are learning new collaboration tools, so it can take them longer to locate the right information. When they’re looking for a file that’s nested in layers of folders—which may or may not be logically named and organized—it can feel like wandering around a maze. 

We want to help you put things in context for your co-workers so they can easily navigate to what they need. Here’s how to use information architecture to build a well-structured home for content. 

Look at the whole puzzle, not just your piece

Karen McGrane is the author of Content Strategy for Mobile and Going Responsive and founder of UX consultancy Bond Art + Science. In her work as a consultant, McGrane has noticed how a lot of great design work done on the front end can fall apart when the back end processes and tools aren’t taken into consideration. 

"Meetings require a lot more cognitive effort when somebody is working from home—whether it’s a videoconference or phone call.”—Karen McGrane

The problem starts when a content team, design team, and development team focus only on their piece of the puzzle without thinking about the impact on other teams. Now that so much of the economy relies on how well distributed teams work together, the stakes are even higher. 

“The shift to remote work is a big deal for everybody,” she says. “All sorts of things we took for granted that you could figure out sitting in a room together, now we're going to figure out how to do it on the internet.”

That’s why McGrane recommends taking a holistic approach that begins by building an information structure that benefits the entire team. Here’s how to get started.

Shift to asynchronous tools

In a distributed work environment, language, structure, categorization, and naming become much more important. 

“My friend and colleague who has worked remotely for the last 15 years, wrote up one of those tweet storms about what it means to work from home,” recalls McGrane. “One of the points he made that resonated with me was the idea that meetings require a lot more cognitive effort when somebody is working from home—whether it’s a videoconference or phone call.”

“There may be more interference in somebody's home with pets, kids, and other people in the house trying to do meetings or phone calls,” she says. “That's a high load effort for people. Think of ways to shift some of those conversations to other asynchronous mechanisms like a Dropbox Paper document, where somebody writes up, ‘Here's the problem we're trying to solve.’ People can comment on it. You can set a deadline for it [and @mention them to say] ‘You need to weigh in by the end of the day tomorrow and then we're gonna make a decision.’”

McGrane recommends using shared, asynchronous tools when you’re developing long-form content such as project plans, strategy doc, and creative work. Phone calls and videoconferences can be saved for when you want to build team cohesion through real-time human interaction.

“We've got to think about the appropriate way to use the tools we have at our disposal,” she says. “I've worked with tons of companies that default to in-person meetings for everything. It might be time to question, ‘What is the value of this in-person meeting?’ If it's not to get together and feel like you're part of a team—if it's just to discuss something and make a decision—there are more efficient ways you could achieve that that would enable you to use the full suite of work-from-home tools more effectively.”

Establish a shared vocabulary

“Coming from the dark ages of computing, I grew up in a world where folder names could be eight characters long,” says McGrane. “People got used to being really concise. I remember when Macs finally let file names be as long as you want, it was like, ‘Wow—this changes everything!’ 

When you create a folder system, make sure the naming isn’t ambiguous. Make sure you team has a shared vocabulary for their file naming. Take advantage of the space you have to be clear about what each file contains. 

“Labeling becomes much more important when people are dealing with a greater influx of written information they have to process."

If you’re sharing files that are saved using a naming system you developed, be sure to communicate your methodology to your co-workers so they can maintain a consistent format. 

“You have to just be clear,” she explains. “If you're going to take that document and edit it, then save a new version with a new file name: what should that file name be? Just basic file hygiene.”

Label content according to context

As you build your content structure, McGrane recommends paying close attention to the way you label not only your files and folders, but your streams, channels, and tasks as well.

“[Labeling] becomes much more important when people are dealing with a greater influx of written information they have to process,” she says. “I have this client that has a lot of strict security requirements. They've given me a PC to work from. Then I also have my Mac. I'm literally sitting here at my desk with a Mac and a PC and my phone, switching between all three of them all the time. I've got messages coming in on one channel that don't come in at other places. Anything that helps me understand and prioritize the information that's coming in, is extremely helpful.”

One goal should be helping your co-workers filter out the content that doesn’t pertain to them. Even the way you name Slack channels can help them understand which channels to join and which they can ignore. Descriptive, well-written subject lines let them know if it’s an email they actually need to read or not.

Create a shared document for each project

With the multitude of apps distributed teams are using, it’s good to distinguish between the ones that facilitate communication and the ones that facilitate content creation and collaboration.

“My Slack has Twitter integration, Dropbox integration, Google Docs integration, and Zoom integration,” says McGrane. “If I'm thinking about my role as a manager, it makes it easier to integrate everything so people aren't having to jump from system to system to try to figure out where they're supposed to be.”

 

“We need to have a shared document in a collaborative space. That is absolutely necessary in today's world."

In some ways, though, having so many channels can add to the cognitive load. There’s more chat than ever, but not all of the chat matters or moves a project forward. 

“We need to have a shared document in a collaborative space, where people can type in their ideas or notes, then other people can comment and collaborate. That is absolutely necessary in today's modern world,” says McGrane. “When you're thinking about people starting to work from home, I can imagine there are probably people who have never done that before. There's Dropbox Paper, Google Docs, and the document editing function in Slack. I use all three of those about equally.”

Make your messaging easy to scan

Just as you created a clearly named, easy-to-navigate system of files and folders, you can use the principles of information architecture to streamline the messaging within your docs.

Since your co-workers are going to be wading through even more written communication than usual, keep your message brief and to the point. Shorter emails with a clear, task-based model work best. Every note should be as clear and concise as possible. 

“Some of that is writing the initial text in a simplified way,” she says. “When readers are scanning, they tend to scan the first few letters or words in the sentence. If somebody just glanced at this email for half a second, what are the two or three words they would take away? Think about the layout of the email so you're in the context of everybody's different screen size or device. You can't anticipate how much of that email they're going to be able to see.”

To make your messaging scannable, try using bold section headers in your emails, and formatting your shared docs with H2 subheads and bullet points wherever possible.

“If there's an action somebody needs to take, make sure it appears close to the text that it's supposed to act on,” she adds. “One thing that happens a lot is you get a long email thread. Then somebody's like, ‘I’ve got the updated document below.’ But the attachment shows up 70 pages deep because it’s a long email thread. Things like that can cause people to miss something that's important or not understand that they have to take an action there. Linking to a cloud-based document [instead of attaching a file to an email] may make that easier for people.”

Whether you’re starting from scratch with a blank document or using a template with pre-designed elements, make sure you structure your content to reflect the hierarchy you want to communicate. Will a reader be able to grok the purpose of the doc at a glance? If the layout looks like a series of text blocks, re-format your content as an outline to help guide the reader.

 

Structure your content to reflect the hierarchy you want to communicate. Will a reader be able to grok the purpose of the doc at a glance?

McGrane says setting up a clear hierarchy of information is what takes it from being a collaborative notepad to being a professional document. “You’ve given thought to: ‘Is that being encoded in a meaningful way? Do I have the right system of headings and subheadings? Is the styling on those clear?’ Could you get a good sense of what you're going to find in this document just by reading the outline?’ All of those things to me are what professional communication is.”

Determine channel preferences

When you’re ready to invite people into your shared document or send them a link to a folder, you’ll get a faster response by meeting your audience where they are. Since you know you won’t be able to find them by walking over to their desk, you might need to check different channels to track them down.

So now’s a good time to find out where you’re most likely to reach your teammates. McGrane recommends checking in to ask, “Under these circumstances, if I need to get ahold of you quickly, what's the best way to do it?” 

Ask whether they’d rather connect on email, text, Slack, Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts—or if they’d rather hear a human voice on the phone. They might even prefer to set a time on their calendar at the end of the day, so you can hold your questions and ask them all at once.

“All of those things are new housekeeping stuff we've all got to do,” says McGrane. “Think through what would be the appropriate way to deliver this message such that it will be read and understood and acted on any platform or device.”

Even as you learn new ways of working in a distributed work environment, be flexible and ready to adapt to an evolving ecosystem. 

“Know your tools. That’s the name of the game,” she says. “Also, your tools are going to change. So don't get too precious about any particular one.”

To see how you can use shared documents to create effective information architecture, check out dropbox.com/paper