A little over a month ago, Cardboard Design Lab launched on the Google Play store. This wasn't our typical product: a virtual reality app on an emerging platform, meant to teach, demonstrate, and validate VR design principles that are all still very much up for debate. All this in a brisk eight weeks! The only way to succeed was to work quickly, efficiently, and cohesively.
After its launch, our team agreed that this was among the smoothest and most rewarding projects we’d ever had. We’re proud to have created a product that achieved exactly what we intended. Beyond that, the working process was enjoyable—each week felt more productive than the last, and we used virtually no overtime hours.
During our retrospective, we tried to identify what made us so effective. Amidst plenty of high-level concepts, we wanted to document and share some very concrete examples of our team’s actions and behaviors. Here are a few of those processes that we found had a huge impact on our success:
Kick off your project in person
In our day-to-day work, it’s rare to have a client physically present. We, like many, compensate by using the wealth of communication tools now common in our industry: video chats, instant message, even the trusty (or dreaded?) conference call.
Ultimately, nothing beats a face-to-face session. This is especially true at the beginning of a project, when it’s most important that everyone is aligned on team responsibilities and project goals and outcomes.
That’s why we made sure to have a full-day in-person kickoff at Google’s Mountain View campus. Being on-site gave us time to form a real, intimate connection with the crew at Google. We were able to meet them as people first, before going on to work with them as faces on a screen or names in an email.
This empathy lasts throughout the project. When everyone gets to know each other in person, it’s that much easier to maintain a cohesive team later on, when deadlines are looming and stress is high. Plus, brainstorming activities are more fruitful when you can see everyone’s body language as they react to new ideas.
When it was time to head back to New York, we had a new group of friends at Google, and we knew our vision of the product matched up with theirs.
Seat your team in the same room
In a project with a short turnaround, communication needs to be clear and quick. We found the best solution for this to be physical proximity between all disciplines on the team: designers, developers, and project managers.
While our team worked on this project, we sat at the same quadrant of desks. This enabled constant communication between team members, and spontaneous feedback sessions to critique in-progress work.
This connection was especially valuable for a more experimental, technical project. In our case: the designers on the team were learning the ins and outs of a new platform, Unity, and tools within Unity were constantly being created and updated for the team by our developer. This meant dozens of pushes to Git every day—and sometimes simple text descriptions couldn’t fully convey the context behind each change. Instead, we could just call out to each other as relevant changes were made and shared. If there were questions, they’d be answered then and there.
Empower the team to be self-sufficient
Sometimes design teams are forced into limbo, stuck waiting for a client’s go-ahead before addressing new ideas or issues that emerge throughout the workday.
When a team is empowered to make its own decisions, that bottleneck is removed, and the team moves that much faster.
For Cardboard, our team was able to react to daily findings without waiting for permission to proceed. That doesn’t mean we went rogue—we checked in with Google every Friday, and sent periodic updates throughout the week as needed.
Between our initial kickoff and these regular check-ins, we knew we had a shared understanding of the product’s goals and principles. This gave us the freedom we needed to find creative solutions.
Self-sufficiency isn’t just important in the team-client relationship; it holds true within the team as well! It wasn’t the sole responsibility of a PM to reach out to Google, or to schedule meetings. Any team member could take those steps if it meant quicker collaboration.
Stay flexible with task management
At the start of the project, we gravitated toward standard digital task management software; in our case, Trello. Over time, it became a chore to log, assign, and organize the immense number of tasks we needed to track. Team members stopped checking the task board—resulting in a classic example of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Instead of forcing Trello usage, we addressed the issue.
In the final two weeks of the project, we shifted to a physical board. At each morning’s stand-up, we’d fill the backlog with the dozens of tasks we thought could be finished in a day. Some might take minutes, others hours. We’d assign them to team members, and each person could tackle them in whichever order suited the team best.
This gave us an extremely fluid and granular way to attack our daily tasks. Think of an idea or spot a bug? Write it down and put it on the board. Not a sophisticated system, but it was blazingly fast and visible. Seeing the tasks physically gave us a much greater shared understanding of our overall progress and needs.
Now, we understand this might be micromanagement and probably not sustainable for a full project, or even larger milestones. But task management should serve the needs of the team, and this system worked incredibly well for us, exactly when we needed it.
Work on the same thing, at the same time
For Cardboard Design Lab, we all simultaneously worked out of the same project file. Without proper preparation, this can be extremely dangerous.
Fortunately, Unity projects are made up of a collection of discrete files, each manageable by Git. We structured the project so that updates could be isolated to a single file – even going as far as splitting up our forest scene into sections, so trees could be placed in one section while lighting was changed in another.
As long as we all frequently pulled from Git, and knew who was responsible for which each part of the project, we were able to simultaneously work on different areas of the project with little fear of consequence.
While this takes a bit of set-up and planning at the start of the project, it’s more than worth it for the time saved down the road.
Summing it all up
You might have picked up on it, but each of these processes, tips and tricks can be housed under a larger, overarching theme: Communication. Just like any relationship, personal or professional, the ability to easily and openly talk to one another, understand needs, and iterate are the keys to effective teamwork, just as we experienced while working on Cardboard. Keep your lines of communication and collaboration open and honest from day one, and the rest will fall into place.