Building a collaborative design culture for today’s world

This article is part of the CX School series, where UX leaders share some of the most valuable lessons they’ve learned about building and delivering exceptional customer experiences.

Building a collaborative design culture can be a challenge—even at the best of times.

Trying to do so during a global pandemic, when everyone is working remotely…

Well, that’s a whole other ball game.

But hey, every challenge is just an opportunity to do things better. Which is exactly what our design team did.

We came up with a new way of working during the so-called “new normal”. It’s helped us flex our collaboration muscles as a team and increase productivity.

And guess what?

It’ll help your designers do the same.

The big challenges design teams face today

But first, let’s unpack the four biggest challenges our design team used to struggle with.

Chances are, many of these will be familiar to you.

📢 Miscommunications

Sure, we’ve all got video-conferencing and instant-messaging tools at our disposal, but nothing beats a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. Back in the day, whenever you needed to exchange critical information, all it took were a couple steps to a coworker’s desk.

Now, things aren’t as easy.

Case in point: one of our designers was working on a token input for a specific product. They put together a swanky new design, tested and deployed it. Another designer working on another product could have used this feature, but they had no idea it existed. So, they created their own version.

This doubled up time needed for design and exploration as well as development hours and QA testing. To be clear, it was nobody’s fault. Our team was still working within an old paradigm.

Flybits has a very strong, group-oriented culture. It also has strong operational frameworks that enable collaboration and feedback. But these frameworks were designed for an in-office experience.

We needed to adapt.

📅 Non-stop meetings

Here’s what our designers’ schedules look like. By the way, this is the norm for our design team—for most of our teams, actually.

Design team schedule

Juggling a jam-packed schedule with daily work can be a challenge. Finding time to talk with colleagues who are experiencing the same… well, good luck with that!

🎶 Issues staying NSYNC

Having transparency into what other designers are up to is difficult when you can’t just give them a tap on the shoulder and ask. But it’s critical, especially when you need to provide support to a team member who’s overwhelmed.

Another challenge is understanding what other teams across the org are up to at any given moment.

Sure, daily team stand ups help, and so do companywide all-hands meetings. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty tactical stuff, our designers found they were lacking the information they needed.

👥 Keeping collaboration fresh

Flybits is all about collaboration.

It’s what enables us to include the diversity of thought and opinion on our team into everything we do.

It also keeps our product innovative.

Unfortunately, collaboration across a distributed workforce comes with its own hangups.

First off, getting real-time feedback became way more complicated. We were missing so much of the inspiration that comes from working together. And with the calendar crunch most of us were experiencing, finding time was difficult.

In other words, many of us felt siloed.

As a team, we noticed we were trying to make up for a lack of person-to-person contact by implementing operational frameworks that were far too clunky. Like scheduling in half-hour meetings to discuss things that didn’t warrant it.

So, we spent a lot of time ideating and planning at the expense of actually executing.

Which makes sense. We were spending resources trying to replicate the in-office experience, but it was taking away from our ability to produce.

Why collaboration is so important

Companies that promote collaboration are five times likelier to be more productive than those that don’t, according to a survey of 1,100 businesses. So, collaboration really is the ‘secret sauce’ of productivity.

Collaboration is absolutely essential to the functioning of every team, not just your designers. Don’t believe us? Here are eleven benefits of teamwork:

  1. Keeps your organization flexible
  2. Improves employee engagement
  3. Leads to healthier employees
  4. Makes meetings more productive
  5. Attracts top talent
  6. Increases speed to market
  7. Boosts retention
  8. Drives innovation
  9. Keeps stakeholders in the loop
  10. Amplifies productivity
  11. Helps your bottom line

Our framework for building a collaborative design culture today

Okay, now for what you’ve all been waiting for.

The operational framework we came up with to improve our design culture during the “new normal”.

We call it the Designer Circle.

Design Team - Design Circle

It’s a bi-directional operational framework that facilitates collaboration, keeps individual contributors aligned with their respective product teams, and enables our designers to capitalize on their strengths.

Your Designer Circle should improve squad collaboration and productivity. But it’s about more than just enabling your squad. It should also empower designers.

So, it’s also about personal growth, and giving team members an opportunity to learn from their colleagues.


Setting up team members for success

When you go about selecting supporting designers, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Individual professional and personal development goals
  • Individual strengths and weaknesses
  • Complementary attributes (for instance, pairing up a detail-oriented designer with one who is more vision oriented)

Let’s take a step back and give you an example of what I mean.

Karen, who is the lead designer for our mobile team, wanted to get more exposure to web design. Pairing her up with Amal, who leads the core experience squad, put her in a position to pursue these goals. Likewise, it gave Amal an opportunity to learn more about mobile design, which she was interested in. Conversely, Jen, who leads our analytics squad wanted to learn more about mobile, so she was paired with Karen.

To put it simply, each designer is paired up with two other designers. The idea is to make it mutually beneficial. There are a couple benefits to this.

On the one hand, it means that designers always have support, since there are two people ready to cover for them should they get sick or take time off. In terms of collaboration, it ensures that insights and work are being shared across teams. It also enables us, as a team, to implement a more cohesive, forward-thinking design culture.

In other words, it’s a formalized way of breaking down some of those siloes we discussed above.

Most importantly, it allows individuals to pursue their passions and curiosities and improve themselves.

In this new framework, team members:

Meet weekly or bi-weekly, with an hour-long knowledge transfer session to start, though it can be reduced as needed.

Set a clear agenda beforehand, ensuring team members understand what everyone is working on. These agendas should include an itinerary and concrete objectives. 

What about team responsibilities?

So far, I’ve talked about how Designer Circle can enable individuals to manage their own responsibilities more effectively. As an operational framework, you can apply it to almost anything.

Take design team responsibilities, like your design system and accessibility guidelines. These projects don’t fall to any one person. They fall to everyone.

Designer Circle - team responsibilities

Design Circle gives each team member responsibility over a portion of these larger projects based on their strengths and where they’d like to improve. It clarifies roles, promotes feedback, and ensures that a support system is in place.

I’m a firm believer that exceptional UX design starts with an exceptional work experience. That’s what a thriving design culture is all about. Designer Circle has made working on our team more engaging, collaborative, and it’s helped us produce better results.

Maybe it’ll do the same for you 😉

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