Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to write about my experience as a user experience design intern at Microsoft for two-summers with the Windows and Devices team and, more specifically, how I applied my learnings from school to my internship experience. However, due to the pandemic, my second internship had to shift to a remote work environment. So I decided to pivot the focus of this piece to investigate how these two work environments affect a collaborative design process, having worked with the same team in-person and now remote. Further, I wanted to look at how the two work settings impacted my workflow, productivity, and the overall state of mind.
In design practice, you often hear the importance of co-creation, to be able to build meaningful products and experiences. But, what does it mean to collaborate successfully, and to sustain a connection with our colleagues and users, through distance? And do I need to learn new skills for remote working? Thus, I wanted to ground myself in what it means to collaborate.
According to Canto — a human-centric digital asset management solution defines design collaboration as:
“An iterative process that brings together different ideas, roles, and team members with a shared goal in mind.”
This definition helped me identify areas that have influenced my contribution as a designer, such as:
- Interactions and the role they play in effective communication
- Environments and how they affect productivity and state of mind
- Tools and how they lend themselves to different stages of the design process
- Storytelling for maintaining alignment across stakeholders, and as a way to convey your vision
- Rituals for creating personal identity and voice, leading to different perspectives and approaches to problem-solving
By no means is this article a solution piece, more so assimilation of insights I have observed in my practice as a designer, with the intent to spark a conversation.
Pillars of design collaboration
The following article aims to delineate the five pillars, as mentioned earlier, across my two-internships. I believe they provide a solid foundation for meaningful design collaboration.
1. Interactions — navigating ambiguity, curbing misunderstanding, and fostering empathy
Successful creative collaboration necessitates effective communication between the designers. Externalizing ideas helps keep momentum regardless of the design phase. But, remote communication can distort our conversations’ cadence and affect the overall understanding of intent. When we look at traditional paradigms in in-person communication, the same types of interactions happen, but what’s missing with our digital communications?
First, we need to understand what comprises an interaction:
Step One: Determining the goal
Outside of coincidence, there is almost always a reason an interaction usually occurs; we tend to reach out with a particular need in mind. Understanding the intent of the interaction before reaching out and the anticipated outcome might provide more clarity when picking the appropriate channel and tone of communication.
Step Two: Choosing the channel
Because there are so many channels available to us to communicate through, such as email, Slack, text, having specific channels to correspond, receive feedback, schedule meetings, might help reduce redundancy and filter feedback into a more focused place which is particularly essential while navigating ambiguity especially across horizontal workstreams. This also goes a long way in strengthening trust within these feedback loops, and prevents the formation of boundaries from over-communicating or communicating via inappropriate channels.
Here is a sample framework for determining channel appropriateness and response time.
Email: An official thread that needs archiving, and has a defined set of stakeholders, where a meeting most likely will need to be scheduled. This channel typically elicits a one-day response time.
Slack / Teams: Once a workstream has begun, there is a need to share artifacts back and forth, add new team members, or have quick ad-hoc conversations. This channel typically elicits as-soon-as-possible response time.
Text: This channel is rarely used unless there is an emergency. Since this channel blurs the line between personal and professional life, there is no way to sustain conversations via text messages or share it with a new audience.
Note: This framework can exist or change on an organizational, team, or individual level. So leaning on leadership to help create a spectrum that these entities could exist between could be beneficial.
Step Three: Establishing a shared language
In an article, Havard Business Review describes how using a shared common language will help reduce the amount of back and forth and misunderstandings that tend to happen in the digital space with the use of shorthand and acronyms in an attempt to be more efficient. They recommend writing clear, complete sentences, where possible. Because of the lack of non-verbal cues in written and digital communication, being conscious of what you want to communicate and what you emphasize will help ensure your language lands with the intended tone.
Furthermore, a meaningful interaction can foster empathy and help distribute power equitably — one of the tenets of equitable communication is empowering people to find and share their voice. According to a research study by Hammicka and Leeb, introverted individuals are less likely to be inhibited in online versus offline interactions.
From my experience working in-person and remote, I realized the significance of effective communication as a designer. It helped me appreciate the value of establishing a shared language with my team, especially while navigating ambiguous projects where externalizing ideas helps bring clarity to my work. Adopting an online communication etiquette proved to be very useful for increasing my productivity and collaborating better with my team. Going forward, either remote working or in-person, I will be intentional about how I choose communication channels, tone of communication, and response times.
It is also critical for leadership to exhibit empathy and offer support to keep morale, especially in situations where people might be dealing with challenging times like the current pandemic. However, remote work situations pose a significant challenge to fostering empathy and compassion due to geographical separation. Therefore, finding ways to bridge this gap would be beneficial for cultivating and maintaining a connection. For example, research has shown that encouraging team members to turn their video on (is preferable, but not required) during a video call, can serve as a way to bridge the distance and empathy gap.
2. Environments — the spaces we work out of
The physical environment in which we design has an enormous potential to boost creative confidence, inspire, and increase overall productivity. Several studies have shown that factors such as the layout, temperature, lighting, and ergonomics of the space significantly impact the occupants’ wellbeing and ultimately determine the quality of work produced in that space. Beyond the architecture of a workplace, an ecosystem that enables the fluid transition of ideas from digital tools to the physical environment can not only aid creative output but also facilitate better collaboration.
Further, interactions at the workplace aren’t just limited to planned discussions, but they also include ad-hoc conversations. Spaces in the offices such as the communal kitchen or the hallway encourage informal chats through chance meetings that might lead to conversations that might otherwise have not been intended.
Working at the Microsoft campus last summer provided me an opportunity to design in a space where I felt truly inspired. The variations in volumes and layouts of the different spaces on campus lent themselves to various design activities and tasks appropriately. For example, the studio had break-off areas that facilitated impromptu design discussions via a Surface Hub that functioned as a digital whiteboard to seamlessly bolster generative discussions. The energy in the studio was highly conducive to brainstorming sessions and creative collaboration. However, I found that I could dive into focused work in rooms that were quieter and secluded more quickly than in the open-plan studio spaces. I found that the Microsoft campus was thoughtfully designed, keeping in mind different work styles and provided an ecosystem that enabled me to be efficient at work.
Although the home is generally associated with being a space where people feel comfortable, it doesn’t always boost work efficiency and productivity, especially if it requires constant inspiration. While I enjoy the comfort of working in a setting that I’m used to, having one designated area with a desk feels limiting. During generative design phases, being able to move through physical space and use the entire body to broaden the range of creative output. I found myself increasing the number of monitors I used to maximize my screen real estate to be able to switch between tasks quickly and smoothly. Additionally, I found having artifacts in my workspace that would function as my muse went a long way to help me stay inspired.
While creating a workspace that constantly inspires creative pursuits while maximizing productivity can be a process that takes time, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, I found that working in an immersive space can impact creativity and productivity significantly by serving as an extension of thought. Find objects and triggers that inspire you and provide creative fuel through every stage of the design process. Alter your work environment, so it best suits the task you need to perform.
3. Tools — workflows, processes, and how we get work done
The tools we use in our workflows and the processes that support them are direct determinants of our ability to succeed both in-person and now remotely. As mentioned in the Environments section, our work settings go a long way in fueling creativity. However, the tools we use and processes that we employ in these environments also play a role in actualizing, augmenting, or archiving that creativity into something tangible and shareable. As a designer, there are many tools available, some spanning the organization, some team-specific, and some introduced by an individual. The lack of consistency makes having a solid grasp on any given tool stack to complete a task, challenging. This might lead to silos of different workflows, making collaboration disjointed. And now, as we have transitioned to working remotely, we need to take once offline tasks into a digital setting, oversaturating our ability to have a clear direction on how to achieve a task best. Stephen Gates from InVision summarizes remote working as:
“an amplifier for the good and the bad, what is working and what is not, this spans across team, organization, or process”
This is especially true of workflows, particularly in companies where they are not well-defined.
I noticed that being in-person affords a certain happenstance nature and energy that brings a working-session around a large whiteboard to life. During a work session, an idea is still amorphous, so a physical whiteboard or sticky notes are the best incubators. This is because tangible media like whiteboards and sticky notes provide low-fidelity and quickness to the externalization of the idea.
However, the task of externalizing a nascent idea over a video call, in a digital setting by nature creates a higher barrier to freely expressing unformed thoughts. Additionally, thoughts are often edited before they’re even expressed because of the higher fidelity digital tools offer, which defeats the purpose of rapid ideation. On the flip-side, I have found digital work sessions to be very beneficial, when an idea has matured, e.g., reviewing UX flows or wireframes. Having the ability to have someone’s design file open simultaneously affords you the ability to receive actionable feedback in real-time, while in-person, you would have to reflect on feedback received after a presentation and then implement it, which can sometimes lead to misinterpretations.
Try to identify the areas in your workflows, to see how they map to what your team or organization is doing and create cohesion where possible. Lean on your leadership team to develop and refine work processes that are efficient and beneficial to all.
4. Storytelling — how to connect with your audience
Throughout history, humans have been drawn to stories, and we are natural storytellers. It is no surprise that storytelling is essential in the context of design practice. Storytelling plays a significant role in the framing of the design process, and it manifests in the language used, the visuals, the interaction design patterns. It is also crucial in the way we present our work as designers. No matter the phase of the design process, a compelling narrative with a positive outcome for the end-user is necessary to get buy-in.
Working in-person and sharing the same physical space with the audience to whom I was presenting my work afforded me to tell the story in the most expressive way possible since there was an opportunity to use gestures and move freely in space while presenting. Further, being able to read the audience while presenting and have real-time feedback helped connect better with the audience.
Unlike in-person, working remote poses limitations to presenting design work in terms of being able to present with the whole body and connecting with the audience. I attempted to make up for the lack of gestures and the expression of emotions by infusing the same energy into the presentation itself. This took the form of kinetic typography to control the pacing of presentation, which could have otherwise been achieved through the use of pauses and gestures. My filmmaking background enabled me to break down the different channels of a video to make my storytelling immersive while remote.
In summary, we often hear the words,
“threading storytelling into our practice,”
for communicating more effectively. However, stories are much more than a means of communicating — they’re a direct pulse to how we connect to our users and the work we do. In a remote world, it is especially crucial to lean into this practice and find a way to connect with the stories you tell, personally, because we’re not only storytellers but as designers, we’re also story-makers. Use digital tools as vehicles to deliver the narrative to help bridge the comprehension gap that the digital space creates, and ultimately, use stories as a way to evoke empathy in the stakeholders and build an emotional narrative around the problems you’re trying to solve.
5. Rituals —finding our identity, and creating a shared culture
Understanding the difference between routines and rituals, according to Ness Labs, rituals have a greater sense of intentionality behind them when compared to routines. They carry some meaning and aren’t necessarily spiritual or religious.
We create rituals in our daily routine to create meaning in something that could otherwise be banal or monotonous. Routine tasks such as getting dressed for work, or making a cup of coffee or taking a walk can all be made more meaningful and symbolic of a higher intent. Rituals bring in consciousness, mindfulness, and a sense of belonging to something larger. As designers, we might use rituals to stay inspired, re-energize, and connect with our peers by sharing a part of our culture and identity through our rituals.
Find opportunities to look inward at your daily routines that would otherwise seem mundane and take the time to be mindful as a means to connect with yourself. Creating new rituals might help keep you inspired and stay connected with your identity through times of physical separation. Lastly, find time to share with others what you value as a means of self-expression and solidarity.
Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, recently shared during an Intern Q&A that when trying to achieve work-life balance in his day, he considered them as separate entities. But he has since learned that it’s not about finding a balance between the two, but it’s about harmonizing the two as one because that is the world we live in now — a world that is a blended reality between where we work and where we sleep. As I wrap up my internship at Microsoft and head back to school for my final terms, my biggest takeaway about designing in a post-COVID world is that no matter how well we collaborate, aim to be productive or refine our processes, it’s ok, not to be ok all the time. And that some days, no matter how well-honed your process or workflow might be, you may just not be productive. Therefore, meaningful collaboration is not always about what we’re making; rather, it’s about who is making it. So I encourage us all to take one day at a time and try to bridge the gap between us (family, friends, and colleagues) and take a moment to check-in with the people around us and ourselves. And try to provide support in an area you can to help another person, because we’re all in this thing together.
- Respect legacy infrastructure, but be bold and raise recommendations if you have an idea that could improve the team’s ability to collaborate.
- It doesn’t matter if you’re an intern, or senior leadership, a good idea, is a good idea.
- Be agile in your learning style, and try new ways to make ends meet.
- Take a moment to check in with your colleagues, as humans, not just a work acquaintance.
- To have others advocate for you and your ideas, make sure their voices are heard in your recommendations.