Designer's guide to a war room and how to end it

The designer's war room is where the team can make quick decisions and align on critical parts of the product experience. After the "war room" ended, we aimed to transition to a sustainable remote collaboration.

Designer's guide to a war room and how to end it
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 1964 Stanley Kubrick

Tips, Tricks, And Tools To Make Remote Collaboration Rock

In recent years, there were a couple of times when my design team stopped their regular cadence and switched to a "war room" style of working. We named these irregular times workshop, design sprint, discovery week, and most recently war room.

The premise of the designer's war room is that the team will make quick decisions and align on critical parts of the product experience.

In reality, there are challenges:

  • balancing discussions, explorations with prototyping, and decision making
  • distribute work evenly in the team
  • manage urgent tasks outside of the topic of the war room
  • find appropriate tools
  • end the war room and transition to something more peaceful

How to balance thinking and making

Design work is decision-making without enough information. To make confident decisions the team can follow principles, guidelines, or best practices. For me, the most critical part in facilitating good discussions. Walking through potential options, building hypotheses, considering pros and cons. This takes time. And often feels like standing still while time is flying by.

To boost creation next to the conversations, we split the days into the group and individual activities. We ended up talking in the mornings and making things after lunch. This was the rhythm of our team. More nigh-owls than early birds who appreciated the focus times in the afternoons.

We set weekly goals for the war room and held weekly retrospectives on the highlights of what we achieved that week. Most of the time the goals we set were not met. As Churchill said, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential,”. Eisenhower went even further and stated that “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”. Creating a habit of reflection helps to keep the celebrate all the little things achieved, even those which were not planned.

Urgency in times when everything is urgent

We began by announcing the war room's draft objectives on different communication channels. No end date, only the goals we committed to achieving. Regular check-ins with leadership were key to create awareness in the org what designers are working on.

Setting up a dedicated channel for smaller tasks helped catching, monitoring, procrastinating disruption. During the war room, this helped the team to stay laser-focused on the tasks at hand. We set up a handy bot in a dedicated #design-magnet channel in Slack that helps distribute our "magnet tasks". This also enabled the team to do these smaller tasks in bulk to limit the time fragmentation and constant context switching.

Men in Black II 2002 Barry Sonnenfeld

Weapon of choice

"We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us."  John Culkin

Having shared space to put things helps to cut the time to find those things. For us it was Figma. Everyone worked in a single file. We explored splitting work into different pages based on topic or designer but in the end, we used a single page. One page in one file for all. This required us to do regular "housekeeping", archiving explorations, clean up the clutter.

A recent gem we found in the crowded space of video conferencing tools is Around. A tool that helps make participants comfortable to do other things. So you won't feel awkward multi-tasking during a call. A tool that blending into the background and lets people do their thing together.

In the past, we kept a pretty tight JIRA board. At times when the entire team is working together daily, this turned out to be less useful. Setting weekly and daily goals and reflecting on each week together helped us stay focused.

Saving Private Ryan 1998 Steven Spielberg

How to end the war

We ended the design war room with a celebratory design walkthrough. The team invited stakeholders to showcase all the artifacts, share key learnings. This event was open for anyone interested, and we recorded it to share it with those who could not make it.  

After the "war room" ended, we aimed to transition to a peaceful, sustainable remote collaboration. In our team retrospective, we discussed what worked in the war room and what needed improvement.

We decided on the following:

  • rebranding the War room to the Design studio
  • integrating Around to the team's toolkit
  • share with the broader team what is being discussed in the design studio each day
  • experimenting with ways to reduce the number of Figma files and pages

Quotes from the team:

"Not living on a deserted island any more"

"War room helped to keep the whole design team moving forward in a more focused and aligned direction and be more close."

"Consistent design -  because all designers sit in the same room. Have time to think through different platforms, light and dark mode, etc."

"The war room helped connecting stakeholders directly to get more actionable decisions on what to design next"

"Further weeks of war room with elevated energy levels, better focus, and less distractive (jump in and out if needed, organically and instantly reacting to each other's design) felt like a real studio environment working next to each other (with even more intense collaboration)."

"Around feels like a virtual open office - we had a lot of fun and the collab between designers improved"

"Dynamics I liked during the war room: work → feedback/discussion → work → feedback /discussion."

"Great progress in such a short time."

"Big progress in the war room, it was a good structure to have uninterrupted time for designers."