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September 12, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

Playbook: Better Collaboration Through Design Reviews

When you think about making a great product there are probably a few tools and methods that come to mind, like JTBD, Lean UX, and Agile development. I joined CrowdRiff as their Head of Platform Design a few months ago, and we think there’s another ingredient that goes beyond process that absolutely has to be there. For a product to truly be great there needs to be a culture of collaboration and design thinking supporting the team that’s making it. So how do you create and maintain one?

Obviously there are a lot of ways to go about this, and the intent here isn’t to cover all of them. Recently, Jon Lax wrote a great article about the idea of having plays that you can run at different points in your product development. In that spirit, I’d like to offer up one of my plays for increasing collaboration and spreading design thinking when I join a product design team.

The Situation

For this play to work, you first need to be in a position to make it work. These things often work best when they come from the top down, so if you’re not in a senior role then you’ll need to have the trust and support of someone who is. The idea can come from any level in the organization, but for it to be successfully implemented it’s good to have leadership onboard, so win ‘em over!

How it Works

Here’s the core of the play: institute design reviews at every meaningful stage of whatever process you’re using. A design review is a chance to look at how something works, how it feels and figure out how to make it better, but it’s also a chance for everyone on the team to be heard regardless of their area of expertise.

Design reviews should be introduced at whatever stage you, the instigator, have the biggest contribution to. For example, if you’re a UX designer – invite everyone to have a look at your wires or prototypes or customer journey map or whatever it is you’re working on and ask them to help you make it better.

Invite pretty much everyone on the team. Got an anthropologist doing ethnography (you should be so lucky) – great, get ‘em in there and tell them the problem you’re trying to solve. He or she may not be a designer but they’ll have a tremendous amount of knowledge and hopefully insight into your users. Got a bunch of devs whose prototypes look like a riff on super kid? Perfect, because they might know about a new library or API that can enable your idea to do even more than you’d hoped.

Why it Works

Change is hard. That’s why I think the fundamental building blocks of a cultural shift are Trust and Value. You want people to do their work in a different way, so your first mission is to get them to trust you and your second is to show them the value of the new approach.

The key here is to get them critiquing you first. You don’t have to implement every idea you hear, but you should listen and acknowledge. As quickly as possible you want your design reviews to:

  • show that receiving a critique of your work is not the same as getting a criticism of you as a person
  • establish that critiques aren’t just about finding fault, but also about finding what’s working and building on it
  • demonstrate that your work is better than it was and it’s thanks to the contribution of the team
  • give the whole team a feeling of ownership and pride about the deliverable you produced, even though they didn’t work directly on it

Shaping Feedback

You’ll need to put on your big kid pants as some of the initial feedback may vary from un-constructive to vitriolic. But take it with a smile and under no circumstances should you engage. Being defensive will only make the process take longer and you gotta practice what you preach. It may happen quickly or it may take awhile, but your focus on positive reinforcement for the comments that really help should turn the tide.

That’s not to say that conflict is a bad thing, just that it’s not necessarily good to start there. Once the process is working and everyone feels nice and safe in the trust tree, I sometimes encourage a bit of conflict. People who are passionate bring an energy to the process, it just needs to be balanced out so that everyone feels they can speak, arguments don’t become personal, and people are willing to be heard but then let their ideas die if necessary.

Spreading the Word

If things are going amazingly well then you may have your product team-members asking to have their own design reviews. If that’s not happening right away, then find the people that are contributing the most constructive feedback and express your interest in what they’re working on and that you’d like to return the favor.

The Instant Replay

Our team has a lot on our plate – we’re overhauling our product and incorporating nascent technologies like machine learning so you might assume implementing design reviews would have created more carnage than collaboration.

Instead the team’s been open and receptive and we do a design review at every stage from concepts to deployment. I love when our developers call out things that aren’t aligned and help to solve UX problems – cuz that’s how it should be amiright?

UX/UI Design

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