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Everyone’s a designer: how to collaborate smarter

Colleagues, collaborators, clients, and stakeholders can all have valuable design input. Here’s how to encourage and manage non-designer feedback.

Jeff Cardello
April 18, 2017
Design process

Every design project inevitably involves a whole cast of characters with unique skillsets. Everyone from marketers to project managers, SEOs to copywriters, needs to work with the designer(s) to build a successful digital product. And to the end-user, it all needs to come together to form a harmonious whole.

So while not everyone has the title “designer,” everyone does have a stake in ensuring the final design solution succeeds — and ideas on how to do it. For that success to happen, we need to let people our collaborators know we’re hearing their voices and carefully considering their ideas.

Here’s a few thoughts on how.

Everyone in the (creative) pool!

Assorted art supplies
Brainstorming gives teams an open space where they can pitch all sorts of ideas, and maybe break out some less common creative tools.
“When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it's you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”

–Steven Spielberg

The kickoff of any design project provides us a great time to brainstorm. Even with a detailed creative brief in place, there’s room for ideas to fly — and find their way into the design. And by bringing in people from diverse areas of expertise, you can bring even more diversity of ideas and perspective to the project. Not to mention, earn a few brownie points from people and teams who often end up left out of this stage of the process.

In my past life in the corporate sphere, I made a point of including an eclectic mix of people in early brainstorming sessions. Anyone from fellow copywriters, designers, and developers to retail space designers got an invite. Inevitably, ideas emerged that just wouldn’t have in a room full of likeminded people.

Have a whiteboard on hand and colored markers to jot down people’s ideas. Provide pads of paper and a multitude of pens. Bring a rainbow of Post-it Notes. Acknowledge all the ideas that materialize out of the creative ether and show that they’re important. Then evaluate which ideas fit the project and its scope.

Granted, not every project allows you time for brainstorms. But if you do have the luxury, this a great way to connect with other people from different departments and give them a chance to contribute. You may even inspire someone to learn more about design, which will make for better communication in the future.

People want to feel like their ideas matter, even if they’re just pointing out websites they like and features they look for. Of course, this doesn’t mean you just blindly implement every whim they offer up. As a designer, it’s your job to put all of this through your own creative filter and integrate only those pieces that make sense.

Later on during the prototyping process you can include these people again. They’ll be happy to see that their ideas made a difference.

After project kickoff

A rocket launching into space
‍Though it takes a whole team to launch a rocket, it only takes a few to steer it.
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

–Steve Jobs

Okay, so the initial meetings are over. The project gains a little more momentum every day. People who aren't directly involved in the actual work of creating it have had the chance to share their input. You have a clear idea of all the moving parts. Everyone from the executives to the developers understands the goals of the project.

Now it’s time to give the team time and space to execute.

And that means it’s time for the content and design specialists to put their heads — and deliverables — together.

Writers and designers possess distinct skills, but content and design are inextricably linked. Both focus on the organization and communication of information. So it’s vital that content specialists and designers work together closely, and aim to not step on each others’ toes.

So get real content produced and into the design as quickly as possible. Designing with real content will give everyone involved with the project a more accurate representation of how the final website will look and work — not to mention, more time to iterate on both the messaging and the presentation.

It’s also important to involve your developers (if any) from the very beginning and regularly seek their input on feasibility. If the designers, developers and copywriters are all united, the process will be smoother and the timeline shorter.

Not everyone is a designer, but they all contribute to the final design as the project takes shape.

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Listen and respond to feedback

‍”Hey, do you have a minute?” Words that can send a shudder down the spine of any designer.

Design is simple right? What’s so hard about moving around some images, laying out text and adding some flashy colors? The bigger and brighter, the better, right? Well, not always ... most design projects take a bit more thought.

People without a design background don’t understand the theory behind it. We shouldn’t dismiss their well-intentioned feedback with an eyeroll. Even when it’s tough not to.

We designers need to be the ambassadors of our craft. We can’t just brush off bad ideas. But we can educate others on why their idea won’t improve functionality or the UI.

As responsive design takes over to accommodate the multitudes of digital devices, what may have worked in the past won’t work today. So yes, that suggestion to make the calls to action bigger may look good on a desktop, but may make the design tricky to navigate on a mobile device. You need to explain the specifics of why it is a bad idea, without actually calling it a bad idea.

Show people examples of websites that have elements of what you’re including and why these work. Explain how your design will differentiate it and make it better than the competitors. Framing what you’re doing as an expression of a considered strategy is a language that the higher-ups will understand — and, bonus, it’s honest!

Ask people to clarify

‍If we don’t understand someone’s idea, it’s hard to see what needs to be done.

We’ve all experienced subjective feedback. As a former writer for a major chain of retail pet stores, I was often asked to make something more “fun.” I’d go back to my desk and inject as much fun as I could. Fun. Fun. And more fun.

Then I’d turn in my revision, only to get the comment that it wasn’t the right type of fun.

No one wants to feel like a hamster on a wheel, scrambling to reach a goal that isn’t clear or attainable. Whenever someone gives you the suggestion to make something more “hip,” “cool,” “edgy,” or some other murky adjective, ask them to explain just what they mean, ideally through examples. By getting a clearer sense of what they want, we can more effectively work towards the goal.

Test with the users you have at hand

Once you've developed a ready-to-experience design, invite all the same people you brought to the brainstorm to check out what you've done with their ideas. As original contributors, they'll have a strong sense of where you started from and how you arrived at the current design — but distanced enough from it to provide detached feedback. Again, it's not a matter of implementing every little idea or improvement. But if your coworkers or clients catch a problem you missed, they'll have saved you from exposing that design flaw to the public.

Plus, they'll often have unique insights and knowledge to offer you in refining the UI. If, for example, you used a brand design pattern, but the support team knows users struggle with that pattern, you've now got a chance to fix a problem with your design — and perhaps makes improvements across the board.

We’re all design experts (sort of)

As human beings, we know when something works — and when it doesn’t. Anyone who has ever sworn at the clunky checkout page of an online retailer, been frustrated filling out confusing paperwork, or wandered aimlessly in a big box store has experienced poor design. When something could be done in more logical way, we innately sense it.

Not everyone is skilled as a designer. But we all know when something works, so everyone can play a part in making a design better.

Jeff Cardello

Writer, improviser, and reformed music snob. Check me out @JCardello.

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