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Dichotomy of Collaboration in the Design Process

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The expectations, formulations, and realities of creating something new with others

I’ve become opinionated about collaboration. Not in a way that demands great attention or insists we come up with an altogether new approach towards assimilating teams. I simply believe that the way in which we work together to create products and services is wildly important, and frankly, one of the most challenging aspects of design school.

Nearly every design student I’ve spoken to about teamwork and design collaboration has shared a full spectrum of experiences, ranging from emotional labor and heightened stress to personal accomplishment and success. If collaboration is such a substantial make-or-break part of our work as design students, why isn’t it discussed or taught as part of our process framework? It’s time we begin to explore, analyze and poke holes in our approaches to creating with others.

Layers of Collaboration

There are two layers of design collaboration that affect how and what designers create: internal and external. Internal collaboration refers to design teams. At Carnegie Mellon, this usually means a group of 2–4 interdisciplinary designers working together to complete a studio project, such as designing a concept for an AI counselor or virtual museum. In the workplace, this might translate to a group of designers, developers, and product managers that communicate closely to deliver a new product or feature. External collaboration, on the other hand, involves users in the design process. This is guided by a human-centered design approach and includes strategies like design research, co-design, and design workshops.

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Both layers of collaboration inform the design process and the quality of solution that is created. So why does CMU (and most other design schools) focus solely on external collaboration — specifically user research? While I believe that understanding the user is one of the most essential roles of a designer, the lack of emphasis around understanding each other as designers hinders our collective work product. To explore this further, this piece focuses on internal collaboration between designers and how we might create more space for connection and reflection among teammates in high-pressure, yet unstructured environments.

For Goodness Sake!

We’re experience designers, for goodness sake. If we can build delightful experiences for our users, why shouldn’t we ensure our own experience as students is every bit as enjoyable? Some designers might think this is counterintuitive. They might argue that there’s so much work to be done and so little time that it leaves no room to slow down. While I often feel that way in the moment, I believe we should take time every week to intentionally design our shared experience. This practice will not only make us more thoughtful designers, but will also give us a social IQ that will qualify us to be leaders in the workplace.

Whether you are a grad student or product designer, you will be working with dozens of other people across departments, spaces and mediums. All of these people have different expertise and, in a diverse workplace, different backgrounds and stories. As a design student at Carnegie Mellon, the characteristics of working together are even more dynamic than the workplace because there is a deliberate lack of structure, no team hierarchy and overlapping roles between members. So, unless you’ve already established relationships with people on your teams, how do you go about building trust, establishing norms, and understanding needs? We have to design for these objective in tandem with the products and services we are hoping stem from the process.

Michael Arena, the Chief Talent Officer for General Motors and PhD in organizational dynamics, wrote a book called “Adaptive Spaces” about collaboration amongst colleagues in highly adaptive companies. He explains that there are three roles critical that are needed for innovation: brokers, connectors, and energizers (Arena). He goes on to state that:

“We must think about our connections more intentionally.”

If we can do that as teammates, we can not only build more thoughtful products, but also establish lasting relationships among our peers.

Adjusting our Toolkit

In my first year of design school, I learned about the double diamond. It maps out the phases of the design process and illustrates when your approach should be divergent and when it should be convergent. I was also introduced to the chart below, which is what I like the call the messy reality of the design process. It often requires several leaps of faith, a sense of humor, and a feeling of trust in yourself and others that are supporting you.


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Let’s imagine you are forming a design team with three other students you’ve just met. You know their names and where they are from, but that’s about it. None of you have experience with this type of design, either. Might it be helpful to have a model that illustrated how to collaborate with peers through the design process? I think so.

Below, I’ve both compiled three strategies I’ve learned from others and employed myself, to help create benchmarks for trust and understanding during group work.

Expectations

People come into every group project with different expectations, but often those expectations aren’t communicated until it’s too late. Last year, I worked on a UX design project with Matt Prindible, who taught me the concept of The Three C’s. The three C’s stand for: Curious, Competent and Capable. During our first team meeting, we started a Google Doc with each person’s name and the three C’s listed underneath.

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We went around to each teammate and asked:

In the context of this project, what are you curious to learn about?

Based on your past experience, what are you competent at doing already?

In terms of this project’s requirements, what are you capable of contributing to?

After capturing each person’s answers, we used this as a guide throughout the six-week design process to help delegate work, set expectations for individual goals, and remind ourselves what areas of expertise we held. Beyond group dynamics, I’ve found that the Three C’s are valuable to return to after projects are complete. The model allows you to evaluate whether you learned the things you wanted to, and measure your contributions and competencies.

Formulations

Designing from scratch is tough; especially in the beginning when you are creating a shared vision. Ulu Mills and I worked together last April to create a product ecosystem. Early on, I suggested we focus on a passion area of mine: mobility and autonomous vehicles. She was not sold. We spent the first few meetings knee deep in post-it notes. I would breathlessly explain autonomous vehicles and the many ways in which they could shape transportation, communities, and society, while Ulu questioned everything. In the end, recognition of these tensions made our final service successful.

Semantic Differentials, a rating scale that measures the connotation of concepts, was one of the tools we used to formulate our ideas. Semantic differentials helped us answer questions like: will our autonomous shuttle be more human-like or bot-like? Will it feel more sleek or more comfortable?

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Through this exercise, we developed shared understanding of our final concept far before it was ever built. IDEO and Sundance developed an action-oriented version of this exercise that applies to group dialogue called Creative Tensions. The idea is that participants share where they stand on a topic by virtue of where they stand in the room. While this may seem silly for a small group, you can do something similar by mapping out you values on a whiteboard or with physical blocks.

Realities

Even when you set expectations and formulate understanding of your values, the reality is that group projects require an uncomfortable amount of time together and are just one of many commitments team members have in their lives. That’s why communication is so important. How do people communicate when they are excited, frustrated or not feeling confident? What channels of communication does everyone have access to?

After a few failed efforts of communicating with one of my groups this past semester, I confessed my Collaboration Love Language to my teammate, Cathryn Ploehn. Not surprisingly, my language was communication. I explained that I ask question, seek clarification, and coordinate meetings because I care about our success, not because I’m questioning individual capabilities. It’s my way of showing the team that I want us all to be included and understood. After hearing from me, my teammates shared their “collaboration love language” and the ways in which they feel successful in a group. Although this should have happened earlier, this was a valuable inflection point in our group dynamic that shifted how we connected and communicated both in and outside of our collaborative environment.

As Google’s Paul Santagata said after conducting a massive two-year study on team performance, “There’s no team without trust.” I’ve seen this time and time again as groups are formed and tasked to approach technically challenging projects. While this paper explores just a few strategies that can be used to build strong collaborative frameworks, there are many more ideas out there. It is up to us as students, designers, and educators to integrate trust-building frameworks into our design processes. At ‘the end’ (is if there is an end!) of the design process, it’s really not about the cool concept you’ve built– it’s about how you feel about it, talk about it, and learn from it. I believe that the way we support each other as teammates during that process is an indicator of how we will grow as designers, leaders, and change-makers in the world.


Carlie Guilfoile