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Collaborative UX Design for the Enterprise

In the 1950s, two boys were growing up in Northern California unaware that their collaborative designs would change the world. One was fascinated with electronics from an early age and built his first computer in the 1970s with a high school classmate, who introduced him to another guy who loved computers too. They became fast friends and went on to work together at Hewlett-Packard and Atari. The two made a great team because, on top of having similar skill sets and passions for computers, one was more interested in technical problem solving, while the other was more of a visionary.

A few years later, they decided to put their partnership to the test and start a new company. Together, they created groundbreaking technology, completely changed the game, and became infamous names known around the world: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Saying that these Apple founders were smart guys is an understatement. Aside from having some of the sharpest technical and user-centric design skills around, their minds worked differently. They were able to see problems and develop solutions unlike anyone else. Could they each have been successful on their own? Sure. But as a team, they were even greater.

At Drawbackwards, we see the same story play out when enterprise companies call on outside experts for UX help. Many of them are already doing amazing work with their internal teams. They just need a bit of external validation to vet it or a few extra resources to complete projects on time and reach their goals.

We can all agree that the business landscape has changed, so the way we work needs to change too.

No matter which situation you relate to more, we can all agree that the business landscape has changed, so the way we work needs to change too. Silos used to be just fine, allowing one person to do a piece of work and pass it along to the next person. But user experience design — especially at the enterprise level — is complex, iterative, and requires a wide range of skill sets and perspectives. Because of that, teams need to learn when it makes sense to partner with outside experts and how to collaborate effectively to create something even better together.

3 Ways to Know It’s Time to Bring in a UX Partner…

As a leader at an enterprise company (or any company, really) it can be tough to know if or how to reach out to an external partner. Here are three signals that it may be time to team up.

#1: You’re surrounded by “yes people.”

Many in-house employees feel uncomfortable saying no. Whether it’s a small decision about how a page should be designed or a big decision like pivoting an entire product line, they often lack the authority or confidence to say what they really think, especially when the person on the other end of that message is a superior.

UX partners are in a better position to say no because that’s why they were hired in the first place. If they think something could be done differently or better, they’re going to say so. If they see that too many features are being crammed into a product or release, it’s their job to speak up and save the team from making critical mistakes.

#2: Your team has deep expertise, but not broad exposure.

As an in-house employee, your main responsibility is to know your product and industry through and through. However, internal designers spend so much time focusing on one area that they often aren’t exposed to what’s happening outside of their bubble.

More ideas leads to better results.

Most UX design firms work with companies in multiple industries and gain insights they can apply to other projects. For example, at Drawbackwards we have designed a number of iOS and Android apps for businesses in diverse industries. We’ve learned design patterns that make the onboarding experience easier on the user. In some cases we are able share what we’ve learned at a high-level with other clients to make their app’s onboarding better too. More ideas leads to better results.

#3: You don’t just need more UX thinking; you need better UX thinking.

Many teams have strong technical capabilities but struggle with strategic thinking, a user-centric research process, and design leadership skills. These employees may have bandwidth to do more work, but you’re not just looking for greater output. You’re looking for a better process and more sophisticated thinking.

External UX partners haven’t been immersed in your product, so they offer a fresh pair of eyes to see some of the things your team may be missing. Their strategic mindset and comfort with pushing back (when appropriate) also helps cut through the clutter and guide you to a smart solution.

Plus, many UX firms have in-house experts who can help with front-end development, content strategy, copywriting, and other disciplines that directly affect the success of a project. Consulting with them helps cover all the bases and create the best possible product, without having to hire additional employees or separate vendors.

…And 3 Benefits of Collaborative Design

Collaboration can be scary for everyone because it’s a change from the way things have always been done. Enterprise teams may wonder, “Will these designers be competing with us? Are they going to take our work? Will they make us look bad?” These are completely normal concerns. However, the pros of collaboration usually far outweigh the cons. Plus, a design team that’s experienced in working with other design teams is going to have the leadership, exercises, processes, and tools that will make collaboration feel non-threatening and help both teams experience the benefits.

In a big company, one small UX change can solve a multi-million dollar problem.

#1: Deliver better results

Doing things the same way they’ve been done will only lead to the same results. Trying something new may be a little risky, but the upside is huge, particularly at the enterprise level. In a big company, one small UX change can solve a multi-million dollar problem.

Let’s say a customer service team uses help desk software that is tough to navigate and requires toggling between 3-5 different systems during every customer conversation. All this confusion and switching leads to longer calls and higher costs. You could assign your internal UX team to this challenge, but because they’re really familiar with the software and “how it’s always been done,” it may be difficult for them to look at it as a new user. Having a collaborative design process with a UX partner would provide the opportunity to blend the internal team’s deep product and audience knowledge with the external team’s fresh perspectives and ideas. Together, they could consolidate and customize the tool to save a little time on every customer support call, which adds up to millions in savings.

#2: Learn from each other

The best UX collaborations benefit both teams. By working side by side, they soak up each other’s knowledge and skills, allowing both sides to grow and apply their collective knowledge to the next project.

For example, we worked with a healthcare technology company to design their app, customer portal, website, marketing collateral, and more. They had a talented team of designers and developers, and we collaborated with them to lend our UX expertise. It was a great partnership because we learned so much about the healthcare industry and had the chance to try new things with them. Likewise, they learned a lot from us about UX best practices around creative thinking exercises, strong documentation, usability test design and execution, research approaches and what data to focus on, better design tools, effective UI design patterns, and more, in addition to gaining a design thinking mindset that will come in handy in the future.

#3: Launch faster

Collaborative design helps teams finish projects faster and better than before. They’re more efficient because they have more minds and hands on deck to divide and conquer tasks. They’re more productive because there’s more communication and less rework. And they’re happier because the process is easier and more enjoyable.

It’s not just about launching products faster. It’s about launching better products.

It’s not just about launching products faster, though. It’s about launching better products. External teams can offer expertise and tools to create more successful products from scratch or make existing products more effective. For instance, we often find that many enterprise teams don’t have the resources or expertise to do audience research, even though those are crucial pieces that could make or break a product’s success. By bringing in an outside partner to work with the internal team on researching and testing, you can put ideas in front of real users sooner, see how they respond, and launch a product that hits the mark the first time.

Kicking Off the Collaborative Design Process

If you’re feeling the pains of managing everything in house, or the benefits of collaborating sound intriguing, consider these two options for bringing in a UX partner:

  1. If you have multiple potential projects that you need help with, share one of them with the external team. This approach allows you to see how they work without a huge commitment.
  2. If you have one major project that needs attention, embed the internal and external teams from the get-go. Make sure the UX partner not only has the skill set to help, but also is a good fit with your company culture. As you begin working together, put guidelines and processes in place to ensure everyone stays aligned throughout the project.

Whether you decide to dip your toes into the collaboration pool or jump in with both feet, recognizing the signs that it may be needed and exploring the possibilities is the first step to building great design teams — and products — of the future. The collaborative design process may not always be easy, but as Jobs and Wozniak can attest, the results are worth it.

Wondering if you should continue building an in-house UX team or hire a partner? Check out this article to evaluate the options, and request our UX agency checklist below for a handy resource that will help you choose the right firm.

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