Designs Well with Others: Collaboration for Designers (Part 1)

“And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against…” – poor design, typographic crimes and the threat of confusing interfaces! Sounds great, doesn’t it? Successful teams can feed off each other’s creative drive to push innovative ideas forward resulting in amazing work. Poor team dynamics, however, can lead to Frankenstein creations. Overcoming these challenges enables a distributed team to author its own success story.

Just like the X-men who only succeed by uniting their forces, the “UX-men” (and women!) must also learn to work together in order to pull off projects that are far greater than their individual skills. The challenges and benefits of such collaborations stem from the same source: the diversity in backgrounds and perspective.

Diverse teams, with different “design upbringings,” can make collaboration difficult. Designers tend to be emotionally attached to their own work, their own ideas and – like it or not – working in a team teaches them to adjust that attachment: to take feedback, value perspective and relinquish control.

But this is far easier said than it’s done.

This two-part article looks at how you can optimize your team dynamic throughout a project. The first part will examine the steps you can take at the beginning of the collaboration to ensure all parties know their role and start off on the right foot. The following article will navigate the last stages of teamwork from surviving clashing egos to improving your design alliance from one project to the next.

The heroic mission

The foundation of any superhero design team is not something to be taken lightly. Each hero’s role should be well defined and in tune with their respective talent and skills: their super power. By clearly outlining responsibilities early on we prevent well-intentioned, do-it-alls from attempting to do, well, everything.

Next comes the most important part – the one thing that unites our heroes – the mission. Ensure the team’s objective is well defined so that all members share the same measure of success. When re-designing an existing website, for example, success can be measured by looking for an increase in conversion rates or purchases; an increase in new visitors; a decrease in the frequency of support calls; or a decrease in visits to the help page.

To that end, give your team the context necessary to understand your client’s objectives. Bring everyone around the table at least once so that they can hear the business case directly from the client and have the opportunity to ask their own questions. This not only gives the team a greater understanding of the client’s needs, it also makes them more committed to the outcome of the project.

Finally, acknowledge that one superhero may not be enough to save the day. After the goal has been established, delineate how individual teammates will work together towards attaining that goal. For instance, I can design an awesome sign up page that entices users to register using a quick and effortless process. My teammate can write equally awesome, easy-to-read copy that will inform the users why signing up is a great idea. Together, we make a great sign-up form that no user can resist!

A winning strategy

Even the best teams don’t go into battle without a strategy. Start by writing a proper project plan using your team’s best estimates. Your plan should map out all work phases and highlight the ones that can be done in parallel. Remember to make time for the often-forgotten research, testing, and presentation of your work. Further, plan time to integrate the client’s comments – especially in the beginning!

For longer projects, consider separating the process into milestones. This ensures that you get periodic sign-offs from your client throughout the project. It’s no fun discovering that the wireframes you used to build the visual design were never actually approved by the client.

…and now he wants something drastically different.

Keep your plan updated and make it visible. For longer projects, post the project plan in a public area such as a conference room. This ensures that everyone has a clear idea of where they’re headed and helps them anticipate timeline problems before they arise. For example, when faced with the addition of extra work that threatens to put a team behind schedule, teammates can collaboratively devise ways to make up for lost time by simplifying (or removing) less-important features.

If you’re looking for a more high-tech way of keeping everyone up-to-date, Freelance Switch has a great list of web-based applications that can help you set up a kick-ass project plan and to share it with your team.

 

Lastly, the start of a project is a good time to ensure that all superheroes are well equipped with collaboration tools and, further, that they share the same conventions for organizing and sharing their files. When we work on a solo project, we might be tempted to give into the bad habits of un-organizing our Photoshop layers or working on files without uploading them to the cloud. There’s no place for this in a successful team as someone else must be able to pick up where you left off at any time. Make sure that all team members know where to go to access all work being done on the project. Set up a file naming convention that will be common to the team. Avoid naming your files “webdesign-v2-final.psd”. Once there’s a couple “final” and “now-its-really-final” files in that folder, no one will know which one is the latest version. Either use dates in your file names or archive older items.

The saga continues…

Congratulations! We’ve united our UX-heros under one noble mission; we’ve set up the foundations of successful teamwork such as well-defined roles; and we’ve equipped our team with the necessary tools to their project survival. Come back for the sequel wherein our heroes go head-to-head in a heated ego battle! Learn useful tips for receiving and delivering constructive feedback and ensure your team reaches a happy ending. See you Thursday!

UX Booth would like to thank Jeremy Keith for the photo used as this article’s lead image.

About the Author

Raluca Ene

Raluca, INM’s creative director, is responsible for the user experience quality of all INM projects. She is passionate about design ideas and has a strong background in agile project management. She strives to achieve a good balance between the right and left side of her brain. The kind of balance necessary to creating rich, relevant and meaningful experiences. Follow her on twitter at @eneraluca.

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Comments

  1. Hi Raluca, great article! Planning and coordinating is the key to success. As you said its very important that the team members are in the know how of why a design/development is being done, the purpose of it and the expected end result out of it. If the team fails to understand this then there will be lot of confusion towards the end of the project and it can hamper the whole timeline. Especially for a UX designer taming the ego is very important, as every body out there love to poke their nose into the decision that UX designers take to solve usability problems. Accepting criticism is the challenge here. If that is mastered then the journey can become smooth.

    • Hi Antony! Thanks for the nice feedback! I agree, accepting criticism is hard for anyone to do, but designers need do overcome this on a regular basis as part of their work structure. To boot, we tend to be empaths and naturally attached to our work. Two characteristics that make us better designers but also make it more difficult for us to take feedback. Melisa touches on strategies to master your empathy in her article:
      http://www.uxbooth.com/blog/invisible-armor-protecting-your-empathy-at-work/

      The second part of the problem is that everyone seems to think they are either a UX designer or the user… thus the importance of defining roles.

  2. Andy Montgomery May 16, 2012

    Great piece Raluca! I’m working on a project presently that requires a lot of collaboration within the UX team at Viget and these are some helpful tips.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on how UX designers specifically can divy up responsibilities within a project. It can be challenging to determine how to break out pieces of the project and yet still maintain a consistent purpose and aesthetic. Looking forward to Part 2!

    • Thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated!

      Your question refers to dividing UX work between team members with the same role (ex:UX designers)?

      It’s a tough question. From my experience, the best strategy depends on the team since it should account for their strengths/weaknesses and preferences in terms of work. Within a team that works together periodically, you can have plan out a strategy that should include long term goals for your team. For instance, we play on team members strengths when the budget is tight, but when the budget permits, we allow team members to learn and improve by giving them tasks related to their weaknesses and plan internal feedback sessions to allow them to improve.

      Presently I’m also working on a project where our internal UX team needs to work with the client’s UX team. There aren’t too many overlaps in terms of specialty, which makes dividing deliverables easy. The hard part we’re facing is convincing the client that there are specialties which they would benefit to add to their UX team (weather through us or hiring full time staff). They currently have a large scale web presence and not one usability expert or UI designer.

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