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12 Competencies of UX Design

No. 11: Collaborating and Critiquing for Growth

This is the eleventh installment of our series on the 12 Competencies of UX Design.

How long do you think it would take a construction crew to build a barn from the ground up? A few weeks? Maybe even a month? Now imagine this construction crew doesn’t have any machinery, vehicles or even electricity at their disposal — only ropes, small tools and their own two hands.

This is exactly what Amish and Mennonite communities in the U.S. and Canada have been doing since the 18th century. Even without the help of modern technology, these communities are able to construct an entire barn in as little as 10 hours in what is referred to as a “barn raising.” They do it by combining the efforts of an entire community in a feat in both engineering and teamwork.

Not only does this demonstrate how collaboration can help teams achieve extraordinary things, it also showcases how a team’s planning and preparation plays a role in the success of a project. That’s because Amish and Mennonite communities spend the weeks before a barn raising gathering supplies, assigning duties and establishing a clear plan of action so that the day of the construction itself goes off without a hitch.

In many ways, the most effective UX teams have a lot in common with these communities. They understand that when it comes to creative success, mere teamwork isn’t enough. What really matters is how they work together — and how collaborating and critiquing for growth plays a crucial role in user experience success.

The Art of Collaboration

Prior to a barn raising, community members clearly establish what role each individual will play during construction based on experience and expertise. Though each person contributes differently, everyone understands how labor is divided and individual efforts contribute to a shared goal.

The most effective user experience teams are organized in much the same way. While people with a background in visual design may guide aesthetics, developers may focus more on the technical functionality of an experience. What all team members share, however, is a vision of success. Individual team members leverage their unique skill set to help the team succeed.

This means asking questions like:

  • Why work together instead of independently?
  • How do you collaborate throughout the design process?
  • How often do you give and receive feedback on work?
  • How can you make the solution even better?
  • What can you learn from this and apply to future designs?

Having teams communicating closely, discussing solutions as a team, and working together incrementally helps collaboration flourish. To do this well, individuals and teams must be in the collaboration sweet spot, here:
June Internal Image Chart@2x

Patient

UX design — especially at the enterprise level — is complex and iterative. It requires many small but meaningful improvements over a long period of time rather than trying to make something “perfect” the first time around.

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s easy for individuals to get impatient and want to make more sweeping changes or accept the first best guess to get to the finish line faster. Of course, experienced UX professionals know that the only constant in user experience is change — and that “success” today may look nothing like it will in just a few months’ time. Testing and iteration with users turns your hypothesis into a solution. This is why patience with a project, with coworkers and with the design process is crucial for any UX team.

Pragmatic

Most professionals have heard the term “minimum viable product” before. At Drawbackwards, we say Minimum Valuable Product, where the fewest features necessary, paired with a high-degree of quality and value to solve the primary problem for your primary market is delivered.

Creating a minimum valuable product is a different lens for creating a viable product, since it requires everyone on a UX team to share an understanding of what makes an experience valuable in the first place. This requires deep empathy among team members — developers will understand what matters to designers and users, while designers will know which technical trade-offs developers feel are crucial to deliver the product where the user still feels the value.

This is why pragmatism is such a crucial quality for UX teams. They all align behind what valuable looks like for a user, and then be willing to “kill their darlings" — their personal ideas and favorite patterns, and find a new path in order to achieve that goal.

Flexible

Many designers who have been in the field for a decade or more may have come from a more traditional fine arts or graphic design background. Sometimes that shows up where designers create solutions based on aesthetics or layout and print typography traditions vs. the fluid nature of the screens and devices and interaction points and channels that serve as today’s canvas. Traditional graphic designers are often trained to deliver solutions that demonstrate personal artistic execution versus serving the needs of users first.

These designers end up hiding navigation or labels or make cute visual devices to arrange things that are more for layout purity than user success. Developers may have similar desires to either keep the code ultra clean on one hand or use an overweight framework to reduce short-term risk and production time on the other hand. Collaboration and knowing the necessary trade-offs are keys to success.

Collaborative teams have to be willing and able to adapt their approach to the needs of the user, and invite other team members to identify how to do things better. This kind of consensus-building requires both open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of individual team members.

How to Improve Design Collaboration

Since collaboration is at the core of user experience success, how can a team help it flourish? Here’s a few tips on how to foster open communication and more effective teamwork on a design team.

Create a sense of psychological safety.

Over the span of two years, Google studied some of their most effective teams to understand what makes them so successful. Among more obvious factors like dependability and structure, one important factor stood out: Psychological safety.

“It’s unnerving to feel like you’re in an environment where everything you do or say is under a microscope,” one article about the study reads. “But imagine [a situation] in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard.”

This is psychological safety, and it is the bedrock of collaboration. Without it, team members are unlikely to voice their concerns, thoughts and opinions in a way that will benefit the team and the final product.

Establish a shared language.

User experience teams are usually diverse. Not only do designers, developers, researchers and strategists all come from different disciplines, they may also encompass a wide range of experience levels. Sometimes, the only way to empower teams to communicate more effectively is to establish a shared language that everyone — regardless of their background and experience — can understand.

Exercises like card sorting and mind-mapping can be a great tool to build a shared lexicon, as can simply asking team members to shadow one another. Fostering empathy between distinct teams is the key to better communication.
Embrace brainstorming.

Brainstorming, though we may want to consider calling these exercises closer to design thinking, can be a powerful way to collect and compare many different solutions to one another, and identify which ideas have the most potential. Psychological safety plays a big part here, since brainstorming, or collaborative exploration, requires everyone in a room to feel comfortable both offering their ideas and having those ideas discussed in an open setting.

There are plenty of creative brainstorming techniques that promote both open communication and psychological safety, including:

Start with the Worst First

A counterintuitive but surprisingly effective approach to brainstorming is to start by coming up with bad ideas rather than good ones. This tactic not only sets the bar low enough to invite ideas, but also helps team members get aligned behind what constitutes a “bad” solution. For example: “Where do you want to go to lunch?” How about McDonald’s! “OK, now where do we want to go for lunch?”

Ask “Why?” Five Times

Sometimes referred to simply as the “toddler approach,” asking why is a helpful way to get to the root of how a solution solves a problem. Doing it five times ensures that you can clearly see if and how a particular idea supports a shared vision of success. And it can uncover the deeper reason why or why not to do something.

Bubbles Over Balloons

I first shared this idea in a talk about backward thinking for Creative Mornings. Balloons pop on accident, balloons are held tightly and are considered precious — bubbles pop all the time freely, by design. By thinking of new ideas as bubbles rather than balloons, team members can better build upon great ideas without holding onto solutions that may not serve a particular user’s needs. Tee up an exercise to “blow as many bubbles as you can” and see what happens with that freedom to create, knowing most will fail.

Make feedback and critique exciting.

Feedback and critique is a crucial element of the design thinking process, but that doesn’t mean it’s done well all or even most of the time. For many creatives, the prospect of having their work ‘critiqued’ is enough to send a cold shiver down their spine. That’s because in many working environments, critiques are still seen as inherently negative.

The key to unlocking your team’s creative potential is to make critiques an exciting opportunity for learning and growth. Just ask Jared Spool, who writes: “A well-done critique is a way to step away from the specifics of the design process and better understand how to create great designs. We do this by starting with the current design and asking ‘What is it we’re really trying to do here?’ and ‘How close are we to doing it?’”

To make critique exciting rather than scary, shift your approach from “What feedback can we give / receive about this work?” to “What can each of us learn from the work this designer has done?” This way, even the most profound UX disagreements can be solved without losing sight of the end goal.

Creating Design Success through Teamwork

Collaboration can be scary. Many people hesitate to do it for fear of wasting time, going over budget, or getting pushback on their ideas. These are completely normal concerns, but the pros of collaboration usually far outweigh the cons. Though collaboration may take more time in the beginning, it saves time and budget in rework later on.

This is why collaboration, teamwork and an ability to “play nice with others” is so crucial to UX design success. Without it, valuable ideas and perspectives get lost in the shuffle of office politics, big egos and undermines or excludes the needs of a user. Collaboration takes patience, pragmatism and flexibility on the part of every team member, but the hard work that goes into it always pays off.

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