Let’s Design by Committee

Wait, no. Not like that. I mean, “Let’s design together”.

With such a broad portfolio of UIs to manage, the UX Team at ACL is justified in being divided and focused on individual products. But I wonder if by joining forces we can do a better job of creating consistent user experiences across the entire product suite and solve bigger problems, faster?

I believe we will. We’re going to try designing in small teams (2–3 people). Before any prototypes. Before any mockups. And even before any wireframes. I think we would do well to try initial “whiteboard fidelity” design or even concept level discussions in a collaborative environment.

Doing so should have a number of benefits:

  • More big questions get asked early
  • Feature scope is managed
  • Ensure consistency across entire portfolio
  • Cross pollination of ideas
  • Broader understanding of others’ responsibilities
  • Expanded understanding beyond a single service

The outcome of these collaborative design sessions could be a strong initial direction or it could simply be to cross ideas off the table. The session (and pre-session understanding of the problem the design will be addressing) is the bulk of the time investment most of the collaborative group will put into the process. Beyond that, the Secondary Designer can be a sounding board and the first pass for feedback on a direction or design. There will still be a single responsible UX Designer that will take the design to fruition; this is not reducing ownership, but rather fostering further collaboration and ideally allowing initial phases to progress faster.

Talking through a problem and the possible ways to design its solution is often one of the most valuable pieces of the design process for new features or products. Getting things started in the right direction and with more clarity makes the job of the UX Designer responsible for creating it much less ambiguous and hopefully more fruitful.

How to do early stage collaborative design

There isn’t one set way that this will work. It likely depends on the collaborative team, the complexity of the problem, and the time available.

The Designer Buddy System

The team will be comprised of the following people:

Primary UX Designer
This is the designer that owns the product’s user experience and visual design. They’re responsible for all the wireframes, mockups, and any other pieces of the user experience design process.

Supporting UX Designer, aka “The Buddy”
This designer should be involved with most, if not all, of these early stage design sessions. That will ensure at least one of the second sets of eyes will have a decent understanding of the existing needs of the project and existing solutions that have been designed. They are a Primary UX Designer on another project.

Relevant aside: We have a goal to move UX Designers around to different projects. In that spirit, the Support Designer will move to become the Primary UX Designer at a designated time, with the existing Primary UX Designer moving to a different project where they had been acting as Support UX Designer. This will help facilitate a smoother transition and reduce the onboarding effort required in becomming a Primary UX Designer on a project because they have experience and familiarity with the product and its purpose.

Advisory Designer(s)
This designer is not a permanent member of the collaborative design group, and may be a different designer for each feature. Ideally this should be the former Primary Designer for the product or the Director/Principal UX Designer.

Now that we have our team, what’s next?

Early Stage Collaborative Design Process

Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. It can be pretty simple, really.

UX Designer Buddy System — Process
  1. Understand the Problem
    After a document outlining the customer impact, business segment, and any other relevant preliminary details for a feature has been created, each member of the collaborative group should read and understand it.
  2. Collab Team, Assembllllllle!
    If the team is all in the same office, the options are wide open. A giant whiteboard is ideal. If part of the team is remote, that can provide some hurdles, but there are many ways to get around not being face to face (InVision Whiteboard, SyncPad, holding paper up to a camera, or even just talking things out via Slack call or a Google Hangout).
  3. Talk through big ideas
    How do they get into the feature? What happens after they’re done? What is the actual goal of the user? Why would they use that? Why should they care? Do we have similar needs in other areas?
  4. Brainstorm possible solutions
    Sketch, discuss, bring up and throw out terrible ideas. The goal is not to find the solution, but rather talk about what some of the options are.

The end.

That really is all it needs to be; a chance to work through the difficult blank screen of beginning a new design and be a dedicated sounding board for the direction a feature is heading. I really think this could help us design a more unified product portfolio with more efficiency at the early stages. For the rest of the design phase we should have the same collaboration during feedback and critique cycles, but that is far less involved if the context and background is well understood.

Unless there is an existing extreme overlap in responsibilities, adopting an early stage collaborative design process should benefit most teams and become another pillar in the quest for a culture of collaboration.