Misadventures in Collaboration: A Cautionary Tale

Clients care about a stellar product getting created quickly, so it’s up to the design teams to work well together.

UX is moving away from pure design and becoming a business strategy, deeply embedded in the overall process of how we create products and services. However, in order to successfully create powerful designs that contribute to the success of a business, there’s one crucial skill required: playing well with others. It was true of group projects in school and it remains true now – working collaboratively in group settings will ultimately create a better end result. But for us designers, it can be harder than it seems.

Many of us have yet to fully embrace the benefits of collaboration, but I can’t stress enough how important it is. A UX consulting team frequently interacts with numerous design and development teams, which can include a customer’s in-house UX design team, an implementation partner’s UX design team, or an external agency, each of which consists of many different skill levels and titles. All of these people are there for a reason: they bring value and perspective. However, if egos get in the way, brilliant ideas can get lost in the mix, resulting in failed implementations, unusable products and services, and an ineffective team.

How group projects can go awry:

My team often works on projects with other groups, all with the goal of designing, developing, and implementing large-scale, enterprise software applications. Many times, these teams are contracted by a customer, and can include an external design agency to come up with technology-agnostic designs, a UI development partner for implementing designs, and my UX team for business-process design and technology best practices, in addition to implementation of the software’s UI technology. This is pretty typical of a professional group project; three teams working together to achieve the single goal of creating a successful product.

Common problems can rear their ugly heads when teams aren’t able to properly collaborate. During some projects, I’ve seen participants insist their way is the only way, refusing to listen to others. Despite everyone having great ideas, only one voice dominates the conversation. When designing a product, one person or group’s ideas should never be the end all, be all – it’s critical to source information from everyone involved with the project to achieve the best results (Remember those school projects where one person did all the work and everyone bickered? You probably didn’t get very good grades on those. Same principles apply here).

Not surprisingly, when these scenarios occur during projects, the lack of collaboration always fractures the team – no one feels their voices are being heard, resulting in disaster. Customers don’t like it either. When they hire a team of experts to create the best product possible, they expect results. If those team members are struggling to work together, customers won’t be happy, and probably won’t hire them in the future.

Lessons learned:

The number one lesson learned is to play nice. If you don’t, whoever hired you will pick up on the disputes between team members and find someone else who can handle the job. Clients care about a stellar product getting created quickly, so it’s up to the design teams to work well together.

When you can, carefully choose who you work with. I have the privilege of selecting my team members, and have taken time to cultivate a wonderful team of individuals who truly understand how to work together and build off of each other’s great ideas.

That being said, you can’t always choose who you work with. That’s when you have to be an adult, put your ego aside, and respect that everyone working on the project with you is there for a reason. They are all smart, they all have good ideas, and you can all learn from each other. This will save you many headaches and hours wasted butting heads, and will result in a stellar product and happier clients.

It is absolutely critical for UX designers to look outside themselves or their team when working on a project together. We all have creative ideas – it’s why we ended up in the field we’re in. But when great ideas are combined, they can create something truly extraordinary. We are not designers because we can produce pixel-perfect wireframes, know CSS really well, or have the right title; we are designers because we can create a fantastic product for the end user. We need to broaden our definition of UX design and the way we teach it to encapsulate how we work together to deliver an end result. Those of us who fail to collaborate will miss out on the amazing transformative abilities of UX design at its best.