Digital designers understand the impact that design thinking has on product development. As champions of their users, they’ve tirelessly articulated the importance of building websites, apps, and other digital projects with the customer’s needs and wants in mind.
"If you want to build truly great products, you need a collaborative approach."
Businesses are finally coming around to the idea. With software eating the world, more organizations are transforming into technology companies. They’re turning their focus to software to help them reach their goals. The result is an explosion of digital products, all in need of thoughtful, user-centric design.
It’s a fine time to be a designer.
But even the most skilled designers won’t reach their full potential trapped inside a silo. The same goes for developers, marketers, content creators, project managers, and any other team or individual building digital products. If you want to build truly great products, you need a collaborative approach.
The Power of Collaboration
Being a part of an open, communicative product team that embraces collaboration is something to behold. Everyone takes ownership of the product. The enthusiasm seems to feed on itself. And when the dust settles, there’s an astounding product that everyone’s proud of.
Of course, this level of collaboration requires a special kind of product team. Fortunately, these teams are made rather than found. But it requires a bold individual who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo and start a conversation.
Designers, as champions of the people, are a natural fit for this cause. More importantly, design teams benefit considerably by opening up the design process to the rest of the product team. This collaborative initiative can shift the mindset of the entire team and portend a future full of open communication and inclusivity. You’ll end up with a better team overall and a much better product in the long run.
Art by Felic Art
✔️ Better communication
The biggest benefit to cross-functional teams results from the conversations that happen between those teams. Without arbitrary departmental walls, communication blossoms. Problem-solving becomes a group effort and solutions flow effortlessly from one team to another. But it’s not just solutions that spread. Ideas do too.
Take design thinking, for example. What was once an approach relegated to the design department is fast becoming the gold standard for the entire product team. Likewise, the flow of ideas reveals approaches the design team may never have considered. This borderless approach, where ideas and methods flow freely across departments, is what makes collaboration so effective.
✔️ Endless fresh perspectives
Any and every creative discipline suffers from creative block. They’re moments when you’re creatively drained; where none of the solutions that come to you seem quite right. Young designers sometimes fall prey to the brute force approach in these situations. They double down and put in overtime, believing they can replenish their creativity through force of will.
Experienced designers know that a fresh perspective is a real solution. When you share design responsibilities with the entire product team, you’re never left wanting a new way of seeing things. Another team member in another department may not have a perfect answer, but their perspective often triggers the light bulb moment in the designer’s mind that leads to the solution.
✔️ Better understanding of the product and user
A designer serves the end-user, first and foremost. They engage in design thinking to meet the user’s needs while championing their case to colleagues. To do it well requires a conscious effort to pull back from minute details and see the product as a whole. The bigger picture, in other words.
When design teams foster inter-departmental collaboration, they form a holistic perspective of the entire product. They gain insights from developers on the technical feasibility of design patterns. They learn even more about their users from the marketing team. Likewise, they can share the user data and behavior insights they discovered during research with marketers, elevating the entire team.
Most importantly, a focus on the entire product gives designers the unique ability to connect business goals directly to their users. They understand their customer and their teams better, which results in better design solutions across the board. Working toward a goal is one thing. Knowing why you’re working toward that goal is another thing entirely.
✔️ Better products, faster time to market
A unified team with free-flowing information and a sense of ownership over every aspect of a product’s development inherently produces better work. Technical teams understand the importance of users. Design teams understand technical limitations. Marketing understands how everything works together. And management better understands how to guide everyone toward a common business goal.
Products designed and built with siloed teams aren’t inherently bad. But there’s a reason some of the biggest names in tech and design emphasize collaboration. An approach built on open communication and cross-functional teams lead to better and faster results, full stop.
Art by Jiaqi Wang
Creating a Collaborative Design Process
Many designers still think of their discipline as a secondary or tertiary function, far removed from real-world business considerations. It’s not exactly surprising, considering how long design principles went undervalued. But this idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
"It’s crucial to see design as a discipline that guides the entire product team."
It’s crucial to see design as a discipline that guides the entire product team. Whether an organization realizes it or not, design sensibilities and thinking provide enormous benefits to a business when paired with a collaborative approach.
This approach, sometimes called participatory design, is an open invitation for all stakeholders to actively engage in the product’s design. Attendance requires open communication, inclusivity of ideas, and new insights to better serve the user. Rigid roles and departmental silos are left at the door.
✔️ Start with a conversation
You could call what a designer does a form of translation. At a high level, they take abstract concepts and translate them into tangible results that meet user needs while serving business goals. This deep, purposeful pondering of problems naturally lends itself to independent work. From sketches and wireframes to mock-ups and everything in between, solving design problems has often been a solitary pursuit.
The fact is, you’ll solve more problems with a group than you would by toiling over those same problems by yourself. You can start by discussing your design goals with other team members and departments. Developers can help whittle away technically appropriate solutions. And discussing your design thinking with marketing helps align your efforts to overall brand strategy.
✔️ Embrace internal design reviews
Implementing internal reviews opens the door for other teams to provide feedback on the design’s progress. Having regular reviews helps you, as the designer, absorb and implement critiques from your team members. It calls your attention to things you may not notice on your own.
Design reviews are uncomfortable at first. We designers are proud and passionate creatures. We’ve spent countless hours honing our craft. But it’s important to understand that reviews make you a much stronger designer. Going back to the translation analogy, regular feedback helps you identify where your translation missed its mark. It provides the opportunity to do better.
Once you get comfortable with internal reviews, you’ll crave the feedback that comes from them. Don’t shy from implementing regular reviews during every stage of the design process, be it wireframing or prototyping.
✔️ Try an Agile Design approach
Agile design is another great example of cross-functional teams. What was once a software development framework is now an approach employed by some of the best product design teams.
Incidentally, the Agile design methodology implies that designers work alongside other product people, including engineers, marketers, content creators, and so on. This encourages product ownership and builds trust across the entire team.
Open communication is the biggest benefit of Agile design. The idea is to foster an open team that shares insights, knowledge, and feedback with everyone, regardless of discipline. Some of the things that help encourage inclusivity and communication are:
- Design reviews, where designers meet with engineers to measure designs against technical workability
- Design retrospectives, where the team discusses what worked and what didn’t during a design iteration
- Daily huddles, where everyone on the product team meets to discuss their day’s focus and overall progress
And of course, as most designers already know, understanding how the user thinks and feels about the product as early and as often as possible is equally important. Teams should leverage communication, even for the customer, rather than assuming a solution works for them. This is something that agile shares with design thinking.
Product design principles and Agile work extremely well together. In the same sense that a cross-functional team compliments each other, the act of pairing Agile to your design process is greater than the sum of its parts. It helps you create great products faster while keeping the end-user in mind throughout the product lifecycle.
✔️ Use the right collaboration tools
It wasn’t that long ago that our tools reflected the individual and siloed approach to design. Even the term “design handoff” embodies this approach, implying the designer’s work is all but finished. Collaboration is about taking responsibility, not passing the buck.
Thankfully, we now have access to amazing tools that make results produced by every department flow more easily. The result is more opportunities for collaboration at every stage of the product design process. This means more inclusivity, better communication, and improved productivity for everyone involved.
Best Design Collaboration Tools (2022)
Collaboration tools for design, development, content creation, and creativity have come a long way over the years. The last few years in particular have produced a bevy of collaborative design tools that make working together on design projects more fluid and easy.
⚙️ UI/UX Design Tools
Figma quickly became one of the most popular tools for UI and UX designers. It’s built from the ground up with collaboration in mind. The app enables simultaneous design collaboration that feels easy and seamless. It also has powerful prototyping capabilities that make internal design reviews a breeze.
For creative teams that prefer the Adobe ecosystem, Adobe XD offers many of the same features in a standalone, cross-platform application. It’s quick and runs smoothly, and it’s one of the few Adobe with a free license.
The original UI design tool, and a longtime favorite of Mac-based designers, Sketch finally has its own collaboration features. Similar to Figma and XD, these features provide simultaneous collaboration on design files in a user-friendly package.
💻 Web Design Tools
Editor X is an exciting new collaboration tool for creating responsive websites. If you’ve ever used Webflow, Editor X builds on the concept of drag-and-drop page building and adds fully customizable code to the mix. The exciting part is that it’s built from the ground up with collaboration in mind, meaning designers can build a single site together in real-time. Many of Editor X’s features even address some of the problems associated with collaborative design.
✏️ Whiteboarding Tools
The venerable whiteboard has long had a place in both design and development. Incidentally, it’s a centerpiece in collaborative design — perfect for brainstorming sessions, daily huddles, and stand-ups. As such, an easy-to-use digital whiteboard that boasts real-time collaboration is a must-have for any product team. Miro and MURALare both great options.
🚀 Project Management Tools
Product people need a means of tracking their own progress as well as the progress of their colleagues. Tried and true as ever, Atlassian’s Trello is a great project management solution that scales with your team.
For agile teams that require more robust features and bug tracking capabilities, Atlassian also offers Jira, which integrates wonderfully with Trello while maintaining an easy-to-use interface.
💬 Communication Tools
In 2022, it's pretty difficult to overstate how ubiquitous Slack and Zoom are for chatting and video conferences. It’s even more difficult to justify adding them to this list, yet here we are. If you aren’t already using them, or at least something very similar, keep this in mind: Collaboration starts with communication.
📁 File sharing tools
Dropbox is the gold standard for file sharing. In addition to seamless file sharing, it offers powerful collaboration features. Dropbox Paper, for example, provides real-time document collaboration aimed at creatives.
For creatives, Playbook is a great file management platform built especially for creative professionals. With Playbook you can find your files quicker by browsing visually, and share them in a format that’s more like a ready-made portfolio than tired old cloud storage.
Art by Gloria Shugleva
How to Work Collaboratively While Remote
There’s still some debate regarding the effectiveness of remote work. This, of course, extends to how well remote teams can collaborate. Without a doubt, there are challenges for remote teams on the communication front, many of the concerns are merely misconceptions.
The reality is that, if your team embraces the tenants of collaborative design, remote is just another place where great work happens. That said, for people who genuinely prefer the social interactions inherent in a physical space, there are ways to make remote work more collaborative.
Here are a few:
- Commit to daily huddles through video conferences
- Create rituals, such as one-on-one video chats or quick catch-ups at the end of the day
- Encourage quick interactions through video rather than sending a message through chat
- Invest in great tools to support the team
- Regularly share progress on goals and tasks
Lastly, in a shared office space, huddling around a whiteboard is nearly effortless. For remote teams, the right tools are supremely important. But again, if you’ve fostered a collaborative environment and leveraged one or more of the above apps, you already have everything you need to work well remotely.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Cliches aside, organizations have kept great minds across every department unnecessarily isolated from their teammates for too long. We need to abandon the trope of the lone designer, lost in bezier curves and far removed from the rest of the business. Our discipline is critical to a product’s success.
In an era where design is often the sole differentiator between a good product and a bad one, our role in a product is invaluable. It’s not enough that every business transforms into a technology company. They must also be a design company. It’s a big responsibility, but if you like the easy route, you probably wouldn’t be a designer.
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