When I’m on a design team working on a project for one of our clients, there are certain tools I can be fairly sure will get used at different points. There’ll be a planning phase, where we lay out what we know on a digital whiteboard like Miro or Mural, add notes and concepts, and move little boxes around until things make sense. At some point, most of the team will be in a shared Figma workspace, creating and refining wireframes, layouts, and workflows. Copy gets worked out in a shared Google Doc. Everyone’s kept on task through Asana or a similar shared project management tool. And of course, we’re all going back and forth via Slack all day long.
All of these tools are collaborative, so my every question, tweak, and click is visible to everyone else (including the creative director) and vice versa. But the crazy thing—at least compared with design workflows of the past—is that our work is visible to the client too. In real time. And it’s great.
Ask someone a few years ago (including me) how they’d feel about working in an environment that’s constantly visible in this way, and they’d probably start looking for another job the next morning. Nothing was more terrifying, or more detrimental to your design work, than a nitpicking client or a micromanaging CD. Having someone look over your shoulder while you tried out different approaches would crush creativity. We mostly insisted on defending our space, worked independently after the initial brief and kickoff, and saved the feedback for periodic check-ins.
But rather than an intrusion, today’s real-time interactive workflows are often seen as the preferred way to work by plenty of creative professionals. I think a lot of us were surprised by this shift, which was thrust upon us during lockdown as a replacement for in-person meetings and work sessions. But it turns out to have a few real advantages.
Part of it is functional. Instead of getting micromanaged or nitpicked, design teams often find that feedback is more constructive and less superfluous in a real-time environment. A lot of the less helpful critiques that designers get (“Did you think about making it yellow?”) come from CDs or clients who fear losing control of a process they don’t 100% understand, or trying to prove that they’re relevant. Being able to watch the team over their shoulders provides a sense of inclusion that dispels that fear, and shows their money is being well-spent.
It also makes non-technical clients less likely to give feedback that seems reasonable to them, but absurd to the design team. We once gave a client Edit access on Figma for a content-heavy project, so they could change the text in the product and web app directly. Almost immediately, they stopped making long-winded content suggestions, since they could see exactly how little sense it would make in the context of the user flow.
This kind of interaction tends to raise the level of feedback: when you see a designer already tinkering with dozens of options for one detail, you’re less likely to poke at the detail, and more likely to talk about the bigger picture, which is the stuff of great client relationships.
But for me, the most interesting things about real-time collaboration are emotional and social, and this is where I think the embrace of these tools ultimately comes from.
The biggest loss many people felt when going remote for so many months was social interaction. Real-time collaborative tools offer some of the easy back-and-forth that makes in-person work feel like you’re part of something larger.
For one example, let’s go back to Figma for a second. It has a feature where you can press slash (/) while in a workspace, and a little speech bubble pops up over your cursor, that everyone else can see.
Whatever you then type shows up in the bubble in real-time, follows your mouse for a few seconds, then evaporates. It’s essentially the same information you’d get in a text message or email, but because it’s dynamic, temporary, and right there in the workspace, it feels like a conversation. It’s a micro-interaction of the best sort, and it feels playful, contextual, and low-effort.
It’s also low-stakes—people tend to take this sort of commentary in stride, and not see it as critical in the way an email might. This makes for more productive conversations, in my experience, since people are less likely to get defensive, dig their heels in, and wage a battle of wills rather than ideas.
But above all, watching people doing creative work in real-time is fun. Clients love watching design teams whittling away at their wireframes, I love watching copywriters hone their sentences, and practically everyone loves watching those online videos of illustrators plying their trade, penstroke-by-penstroke.
One platform that saw huge growth during the pandemic was Twitch, where literally millions of people log in to watch people do often mundane things, like digging holes in Minecraft, or editing code. Observing skilled people doing unexciting things is strangely comforting, as anyone who’s gotten into Project Runway or the Great British Baking Show can attest.
One of the long-term benefits of this real-time observation is that it’s gradually moving design teams to more of a “sandbox” mentality. We can talk through what’s going on in our heads while we work it out on the screen. Getting immediate, well-informed feedback makes us bolder explorers, since we can trust that someone will notice early on if we’re heading down a dead end. That’s good for design outcomes, and it’s also good for design teams, who might have trouble building confidence and cohesion in a digital vacuum.
It also raises the question: what other fields might begin to shift toward real-time observation? Would you want to watch your accountant working on your taxes in real-time? How about your mechanic, fiddling with a faulty starter? Observing surgery on a loved one would probably do wonders for the emotional well-being of concerned family members. And I, for one, would genuinely enjoy watching my lawyer swearing at a redlined contract that just showed up in the mail.
We’ve got all of these amazing tools for sharing experiences in real-time, and so far, we haven’t used them for much more than news and marketing. Maybe it’s time to start finding joy and connection in the boring stuff we all have to do anyway.