As a digital design consultancy, we work highly collaboratively with our clients at their offices. As such, we’re naturally exposed to a wide variety of company cultures and ways of working.

Andy Thornton
Andy Thornton
3rd May 2018

Based on our experience, these are the things the most effective in-house design teams do consistently.

Workshops, not meetings

In our experience, too many businesses are victims of a culture of passive, unproductive and often unnecessary meetings. Inefficient use of time, a lack of ownership and absence of explicit objectives compound ineffective outcomes and lead to ever-increasing scepticism amongst participants. And yet, everyone still turns up for the next one. Apparently, even innovative companies like Tesla have this problem so we’re all in good company.

Today’s established ways of working have typically focused on a ruthless prioritisation of ‘efficiency’ at all costs. Working alone is perceived to be more productive. collaborating with others is seen as slow, wasteful, or even frowned upon. Not always entirely without due suspicion however.

Despite being more connected than ever, today’s workforce ironically seems to have adopted a default stance of reluctance or even inability to naturally collaborate with peers and colleagues. Siloed into narrow specialisms and over-reliant on passive technology channels, such as email and remote messaging services, communication with each other has become stunted. In extreme cases, entire businesses have bred a culture utterly incapable of productive dialogue in order to reach a consensus on decisions.

“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

- Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla

Whilst collaboration continues to be the ‘du jour’ buzzword of success in today’s dynamic and disruptive business world, there is clearly a long way to go. Are meandering and meaningless meetings going to remain the de facto approach for the foreseeable future? Hopefully not. Very often this is merely a symptom of an acute deficit in facilitation skills within the organisation.

This is an ideal opportunity for a good designer to step into the void, and why all designers need to get more familiar with the skill of leading and shaping meetings, ensuring they become participatory by default. By transforming meetings into active and decisive workshops where collaboratively resolving a problem or moving a solution forward is made an explicit purpose of each and every gathering, the organisation will see disproportionate benefits to these otherwise wasteful and costly uses of everyone’s time.

Clearleft Workshop
Clearleft workshop

Collaborative co-design

The days of designers handing down solutions from their ivory tower for others to implement are well and truly over. For design to succeed and thrive in an environment of rapid iteration and intense measurability, it needs to involve non-designers intensively. Not just in spirit, but in practice - methodically and repeatedly. Workshop collaboration is not enough.

Activities such as usability testing are nowadays expected as a given part of the user-centered design process. It’s also become an accepted truth that any credible design method will incorporate workshop activities to some degree: typically to brainstorm ideas or perhaps gather or prioritise features with business stakeholders as part of a cross-disciplinary team. Unfortunately these are still very often tokenistic gestures in order to tick the box of what is claimed to be ‘standard design practice’.

Although designers may have the expertise to explore ideas and bring them to life, it’s all too easy to fall back on the tired old stereotype of the creative genius - mysteriously ploughing away at their own esoteric furrow in solitude until the eureka moment hits. This process crutch is a familiar one: the designer will have all the answers if we just give them enough time and space to solve the problem.

In our experience, many designers are still struggling to adapt to the new normal of radical transparency and constant collaboration.

True co-design involves stakeholders, and ideally customers or end-users, actively working on design problems alongside designers day-in, day-out, no excuses. Today’s systems and cross-channel customer experiences are too complex for any one individual to be the fountain of all knowledge on a particular subject matter or touchpoint. Bringing in a wide range of expertise to become active and persistent members of a product or project team, whilst also extending collaborative activities beyond the workshop, is what’s required to truly deliver standout success in the market.

On-site collaboration at Clearleft HQ

Ritualised design critique

Vital to any design team, critique provides designers a framework for evaluating their work, helping speed up the decision-making process and improve the quality of solutions.

Yet critique isn’t always something that happens as routinely as it should, especially within inexperienced design teams. Designers may occasionally receive sporadic feedback on their work by design peers or business colleagues, but very rarely critique. It’s a subtle, but important difference.

Add to this the common excuse of “too busy” and you have the conditions for a perfect storm of ineffectiveness: a workload peppered with ‘business as usual’ design outputs and crowded calendars starts to chip away at the ideal of setting aside dedicated time for frequent and necessary community gatherings. Meetings are not seen as work (because, oh guess what, they’re not productive enough), thus discouraged from ever being accepted as a standard part of the weekly workload. These daily compromises reinforce a vicious circle which dilutes the effectiveness of coming together as a disciplinary team.

However by establishing a few simple routines and ensuring they’re adhered to, critique can be a disproportionately effective use of everyone’s precious time. Good critique helps to:

  1. Identify problems with solutions early in the process, when they’re still cheap and easy to rectify.
  2. Provide a diverse range of input and expertise that may offer routes to alternative solutions.
  3. Improve a designers’ critical thinking & communication skills.
  4. Provide support and the opportunity of knowledge sharing amongst your organisations design community.

As a general rule weekly design community sessions, acting primarily as a safe space for each of the design team to share work-in-progress and seek constructive feedback from their colleagues, work best. This protected time is also invaluable to share learnings, techniques and tools with disciplinary peers.

It’s worth remembering that critique is vital from non-designers also. Regular drop-in sessions for business stakeholders outside of the immediate design and product teams can be invaluable in bringing in external input and perspective, whilst also showcasing what the design team are doing. Great design teams don’t isolate themselves.

James Bates, Creative Director, Clearleft

Finally, in addition to any established routines, it’s easy to neglect the more ad-hoc, conversational critique that should occur naturally when working amongst other designers and peers. This ongoing dialogue between individuals should be encouraged as much as possible, whether by grabbing someone nearby or making use of your #design Slack channel (or equivalent).

Guerrilla usability testing

Even with minimal time or budget, usability testing offers an vital opportunity to test design solutions, validating assumptions about what customers and end-users will find valuable about your product or service before they become costly mistakes. As anyone who has conducted such activities will testify, 95% of the time usability testing will throw up previously unknown blind-spots and shortcomings worthy of addressing prior to launch, sidestepping any avoidable slip-ups.

But sophisticated and expensive lab testing environments with one-way mirrors, multiple video feeds or eye-tracking equipment can in many cases be luxuries to get to the necessary insights you need to design better products.

Today, every designer carries around a portable, fast and low-cost usability lab of their own: their Macbook.

Luke Darbyshire, Product Designer

Whilst there are challenges around expertise, impartiality and how to interpret or ignore feedback from participants who aren’t a perfect match of the behavioural characteristics of the target audience, the advantages of a bold and proactive design team unafraid to get their hands dirty in the wild greatly outweigh any potential shortcomings.

There are four crucial benefits to ad-hoc and improvised testing:

  1. The small scale and insignificant cost empowers the design team to test things themselves without any lengthy funding or approval process.
  2. Test facilitation done well can steel a designers objectivity, with direct and unavoidable first hand experience, helping them assess and respond to the effectiveness of their solutions in the future.
  3. Involving non-designers more directly in testing, synthesis and insights sharing builds greater empathy for the user across the organisation.
  4. Improved awareness and confidence of the practicalities of testing encourages a more natural culture of learning, ultimately helping to pave the way for paid testing on a more formal basis in the future.

Great designers and researchers avoid procrastinating on how, who and when to test. They simply find the most relevant public space and approach participants directly, in the white heat of that scariest of things to the timid and wary product team, known as: The Real World.

The early stages of designing a product provide the biggest opportunities to conduct guerrilla testing. When used between other more formally organised and professionally facilitated tests, and in combination with intensive collaboration, they help to accelerate the iteration cycle of any prototype and flush out potential issues well in advance of development.

If you’re looking to turbo charge your design team’s ability to workshop, collaborate, critique or user test, drop us a line and find out how we can help.

This article was a collaboration between Andy Thornton, James Bates, and Luke Darbyshire.