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Communicate and Collaborate for Successful Design

By Erik Levitch , User Experience Designer
Dec 20, 2011

Design isn’t easy.  Without a set of tools to handle collaboration and communication, the design process will always feel stifled and ineffective.
This undeniable truth became apparent during the “Design Collaboration & Communication” course I attended last month. There, the students heard that communication breakdowns usually occur because of process, not design. Think back to a time when a project went in a million different directions: there was no vision, lack of buy-in and a lot of frustration.

What could have been done differently? Let’s review some common scenarios most designers have experienced and some tips from the class on how to avoid them.

Scenario 1: The Concept Debacle

It’s been a week and a half, and the whole team (client, engineer, etc.) is eager to see progress on the new web application.  The producer sets up a meeting and the design team works diligently to develop an amazing deck.  After the presentation, the feedback isn’t quite as expected; the client noted features that were missing, the engineer pointed out cases that weren’t considered and everyone is left bewildered and frustrated. What went wrong?

Tip #1: The fidelity of your output should always match the fidelity of your thinking.

The more detailed the design, the more detailed the feedback; it’s often tempting to “wow” with an awesome deck, but it can do more harm than good. Don’t be afraid to show a sketch or a work in progress if the goal is to receive feedback on direction, not on the details.

Tip #2: Set intentions.

Without proper context, it can be difficult to extract feedback that will take the design to the next step. Before any presentation, set expectations and make sure that everyone understands what they need to bring. In the previous scenario, the designer could have gotten what he or she needed if everyone, beforehand, understood the purpose of the meeting.

Scenario 2: Huh?! I Didn’t Know This Feature Was Important

The design team has been working day and night to create a content portal that satisfies both business and user needs. After a successful meeting with the client, the design team debriefs development on the key features and functionality. Everything seems to be in order until a wild mega-menu begins to cause painful development issues. The timeline is tight so the lead developer suggests including the mega-menu in another phase; however, the interaction designer is adamantly opposed: this feature is too important to remove. Ultimately, the back and forth causes an unhealthy riff between team members and an extended launch date. What on earth happened?

Tip #3: Facilitate participation. Get buy-in.

No one intends to remove team members from the design process (…right?), but it can happen when time is short and budgets are limited. Everyone must understand the context behind design decisions and feel that they’ve been included. When team members are invested, they’ll understand when and where they should focus their efforts. If the development team was involved in the creation of the design, they could have foreseen the potential issues with the mega-menu. As a result, more time could have been allocated to finish and tweak the important feature.

Tip #4: Define success.

When success is defined upfront, it is a lot easier to know what it will take to meet that goal. A clear definition of success empowers everyone to look at a project and prioritize the most important items. Otherwise, team members are forced to come up with their own modified version that translates into misaligned and wasted effort.

In Conclusion

It doesn’t take a major shift to be more effective with communicating design; just a change of perspective and knowing what to communicate and when. These four tips should help you understand goals and eliminate these two common and frustrating scenarios, as well as other design communication challenges you may face within your organization.