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Why collaboration is key (An alternative to designing in a box)

by Evan Simmonds

Through almost a decade of experience in digital design, Digital Art Director at CHE Proximity, Evan Simmonds has come to realise that the most magical work happens when designers and clients come together. But what are the essential ingredients for successful collaboration?

Just as it sounds, collaborative design is a straightforward approach to the design process that connects the design team with their client to work together towards a solution. Although it might seem logical, surprisingly, it’s still far from the norm.

You can be forgiven for thinking designers need space to be creative (we do), and clients need Account Managers to mediate and translate (they do). But this separation, although based on the best intentions can have its flaws. At times it can be downright painful.

When the designer’s role in a project becomes interpreting a brief and creating a solution or series thereof; the client becomes limited to either buying into the idea or critiquing it.

What if you’re unsure of the proposed solution or it completely missed the mark? You’re left hoping there’s enough budget, time or good-will to ultimately fix it. The prospect of this can leave both parties feeling anxious. 

A collaborative design approach changes this dynamic by opening up the ability to communicate with each other more regularly. Designer and client have ample time to discuss the solution - there’s no surprises and it happens together. This doesn’t mean as a client you’re expected to be creative, it simply means you get to understand and influence the entire creative process.

The essential ingredients

There are many ways to adopt this approach, Google Ventures has successfully done hundreds of one week collaborative sessions they call the Design Sprint

To give you a quick overview of how collaborative design can work, here are some of the most common ingredients: 

Open access to people within the client’s business to find answers quickly

A designer who’s open about not having expertise in their client’s field shows maturity. Rather than making assumptions or claiming knowledge, a resourceful designer works to identify the people within who can fill all knowledge gaps.

A physical space where work can be shared and discussed regularly

Sharing work that is not quite ready can be hard for designers who hold themselves to high visual standards. So a physical space where work can be displayed helps to remove the designer from the work, in turn making the ensuing discussions focused on how it can be improved.

Physical proximity to each other, close enough to be a short stroll away

By physically seeing and understanding what each party’s role is, you’ll build stronger relationships. Clients see the hard work and thought behind solutions, and designers begin to understand the challenges and pressures the client must navigate.

Short daily contact between client and designer

This is where ideas are discussed and discarded. We problem solve together, and this doesn’t mean clients are expected to be designers or designers lean on the client for solutions. The process works best when the designer leads the solution and leans on input from the client. The client naturally has a much more intricate knowledge of how the solution would fit with both their implementation and deeper strategy goals.

Testing with real customers - fast

Any collaborative team will have multiple stakeholders with varied opinions. Testing not only empowers the team to recognise opinion as just opinion, but quick testing also finds flaws in thinking fast. Even five to six users interacting with a solution can help identify potential pain points or opportunities.

It also doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive or even a massive time investment, users can be as simple as grabbing someone off the street or finding staff members within a business who are enough removed. 

Try it yourself

It’s as simple as being open to trying a new process. It could be as small as getting a two-man team in for a few days to tackle a challenge your business is facing, giving them space to work and ensuring your team and wider stakeholders are available to them. It’s amazing how much both designers and clients can begin learning from each other when the barriers are removed.

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