Design is a team sport

The responsibility for designing the user experience isn’t just on the team of designers and researchers you’ve hired. If it’s your product, you’re on the team too.  

How often does this happen: you’re a manager (product, marketing or otherwise) who has hired a team to create a product for your customers. You provide the team a list of requirements then leave them to get on with the work of thinking through, prototyping and building it. Oh, you’re involved in the process—you provide feedback at regular intervals, email the deliverable to other stakeholders for their input, and show up to most of the design presentations.

Do you consider yourself part of the project team? Probably. Is your participation as effective as it needs to be? Probably not.

There are a lot of ways to work with a design partner. As a researcher on many of these user experience project teams, I’ve found the most efficient and effective way incorporates a healthy dose of collaboration. But when we say “collaboration,” what does that actually mean?

I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean: taking turns. In the example above, there are lots of hand-offs: requirements to the designers, wireframes to stakeholders, feedback from multiple sources. It’s like playing tennis where ideas are bounced back and forth between you, your designers and maybe other stakeholders and subject-matter experts. Taking turns is not collaboration, it’s a bunch of individuals who happen to be working on the same thing.

The problem with the tennis-match approach to collaboration is that it’s terribly inefficient. Sure, you might end up where you need to be eventually, but how much time elapses between when your design team generates an idea, wireframes it, passes it on to you and waits until you provide your feedback? How much rework happens when your feedback last week conflicts with that of your subject matter expert this week, or of another stakeholder next week?

Real collaboration is more like a game of rugby, where everyone on the team is present and working together at the same time toward the same goal. I think this is part of what Leisa Reichelt of the UK’s Government Digital Services group was talking about in “There is no UX, there is only UX.” She writes that responsibility for designing the user experience isn’t just on the designers and researchers on the “UX team.” It’s on everyone at the company, from procurement to the lawyers. And that includes you.

So here are some tips on how to ensure your design process is truly collaborative rather than a series of turn-taking:

  1. Get everyone in a room together. Yes, I mean physically. When you’re deciding on requirements or giving feedback on a design, you want the benefit of everyone’s expertise, the ability to deal with disagreements real-time with the whole group, and to reach consensus as efficiently as possible. Being face to face is the best way for that to happen.
  2. Draw. Get whatever it is you’re thinking about out of your head and on to a piece of paper or whiteboard for everyone to see. This lets your ideas move out of the abstract into the concrete. Allowing the group you’ve gathered to see what you’re talking about is extremely valuable, so pick up a Sharpie and start sketching sooner rather than later. Think you can’t draw? Can you make lines, circles and boxes? Good, then you have the visual vocabulary you need to draw.
  3. Reflect. Once you’ve spent time talking about and drawing your ideas, take a moment to stop and summarize. It’s important to state explicitly what you think you just heard so your comrades have a chance to either agree with or correct your understanding of what you just discussed.
  4. Resist the urge to exclude. Remember #1? Part of getting everyone in a room together is including those with decision-making powers who have the ability to derail your project. Almost every project I work on, I hear clients rationalize leaving someone out of the collaborative process: IT or the lawyers or someone who might act as a stumbling block. The thing is, if they have decision-making power you’re better off involving them early and often so you understand what their objections are and address them. Trying to brute-force compliance at the last minute rarely works. Not sure you’re capable of managing would-be derailers? Involve a skilled facilitator to help.

You are a critical player in bringing your product to life. It’s not enough to turn over the responsibility of conceiving and creating it to your design team. Nor is it sufficient to merely touch base with them in regular intervals. Get involved, because design works best as a team sport.