When collaboration becomes consensus-driven design
Product teams manage the risk of launching a new experience through a list of activities: design reviews, signoffs, user research, engineering feasibility, and more. As companies find themselves entrenched in building “empowered teams” who “make decisions collaboratively”, it can be tempting to design based on consensus as it is often the most personally comfortable choice for everyone.
Why “personally comfortable”? Generally, nobody wins any battle in the collaboration process (whether for their agenda or a bigger goal). Still, it is enough for everyone to agree that it is good enough to launch. The green light for a design handover goes beyond just the design manager and the product team but also includes other collaborators roped in along the way who may not always deal with the product.
Design handovers often look similar from company to company: the designer gives the audience a presentation of the user flows and specifications, then gives a window of time to address burning questions.
Before the handover, the process looks similar (no matter what you call it): the designer and product manager get together to discuss requirements, the designer produces some output of research and design, and they find ways to make it better/less risky before seeking approval.
This entire process involves close collaboration with product and cross-functional partners: which can either mean a lot of meetings or long Slack threads. The designer has to take in feedback from different people till everyone eventually lands on a comfortable enough outcome.
What do you think when you hear the word collaboration? Is it a bunch of people in a meeting room writing post-it notes and sticking them on squiggly whiteboard sketches? Is it a meeting where the designer gathers feedback from important stakeholders? Or is sending a Loom recording of a walkthrough of your designs and sending it on Slack?
I find that companies overestimate the power of collaboration. As nice as it sounds, it takes a mix of skill and luck to have productive, mature collaboration. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of people with opinions, egos, agendas, and varying levels of persuasion skills seeking to find some level of agreement in which they accept the resultant output.
Junior designers can find it even more challenging to leverage the power of collaboration: at that stage of their career, it’s about quantity, shipping products, and ensuring that there are iterations that come after so there’s a clear demonstration of UX processes.
Eventually, it may look like collaboration, but it’s just consensus-driven design. That’s where the possibility of innovation becomes small.
If not, the loudest (and often the most important) voice(s) will drown out everyone else’s. Designers need to steward this rhythmic dance between diverging and converging, but when do we stop the dance and move on?
There are two intuition-based techniques that designers can employ to better facilitate a productive collaboration.
Define the Design Vision Early
Early on during the requirements gathering stage, there’s an opportune moment for designers to sense the risk appetite of the team for the feature/project/product whilst also helping the team leave their appetite behind and think bigger and broader.
Before even having those workshops and discussions, designers should define the design vision of the product and the upcoming feature. Whether it’s a new way to add a payment method or something completely new, having that guiding principle helps the designers ensure that the discovery stages later are fulfilling this vision.
Design vision can be anything: a single vision statement to a full-fledged operationalised design strategy. When distilled, it is just “what the design of the product should be” but originating from designers and user needs. For instance, it could be to always uphold ethical design in every feature and experience. This means stakeholders would avoid ideating unethical designs when fulfilling their business needs.
It could also be a minor vision statement for the particular feature: what does this feature need to achieve in terms of design? Does it need to be the most visually pleasing? Does it need to be 100% accessible? These are supplementary statements that support the bigger, overarching product design vision.
Without the design vision defined early, designers can be at the whim of product managers and engineers. If not, they’ll find it challenging to sell their ideas. This vision also helps stakeholders understand the benchmark of design in the team: thus potentially preventing shortcuts or poorer experiences due to feasibility/business needs.
Use Your Intuition
Data-driven design has been around for a long time. With user researchers and data analysts, designers also get more opportunities to find data to back their design decisions or validate their hypotheses. More and more tools are built to help companies experiment and do A/B testing faster and easier.
While using data is never wrong: it may only sometimes be the most optimal. Sometimes, it is better to launch and be proven wrong than to stay in the discovery phase for another month—unproven hypotheses can be expensive since companies have to make assumptions and continuously limit their product development opportunities.
Knowing when to use intuition and when to rely on data is one of the top skills for a great designer. Designers are there for a reason: unless explicitly stated, designers are meant to be relied on for design direction, aesthetics, and experiences. They are the ones architecting each step of the user on the app. Many stakeholders rely on designers to turn their wishes into reality as user interfaces.
Relying on moderated studies, desk research, benchmarking and so on are great ways to triangulate data and validate hypotheses.
The problem is sometimes you don’t get the luxury of having that much data—or even the time to think about data at all. At this point in time, designers should employ their intuition. What works best, based on their experience and skill level? Is there anyone who is more experienced and better in design around? Can designers leverage their intuition?
With a mix of intuition, skepticism, and openness to feedback, designers can help stakeholders find the best possible solution without feeling like a genie granting wishes.
Half of the design role is to be a steward: a leader in designing the best experience using a deep knowledge of design. If companies want to innovate, designers need to ensure a sound design vision and intuition behind every decision made, or else the product becomes a poor experience for users.
While we can’t always avoid consensus in design work (e.g. CEO approved something less than ideal), there is still time for the designer to evangelise employing their design vision for other projects. It is okay for the product to have patches of poor experiences here and there so as long as things are planned for improvement.
Most importantly, it is essential to stay open-minded. Even the vision statement can change, and people can change their minds too. It’s not a designer vs them, but rather, the team vs the problem. Recognise that there’s a common obstacle between everyone, so refocusing on the problem statement and being open to possibilities would be key to a meaningful discovery phase.