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Next-level collaboration: the future of content and design

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During the making of Toy Story, Pixar Co-founder Ed Catmull recognized that their editorial workflow was unlike that of traditional animation, where work was easy for one person or team to own and then neatly pass off their part after completion.

Pixar’s complex digital animation process made for fuzzy individual roles where no one person or department could completely claim ownership for a certain piece of the puzzle. And ideas were welcome from anyone on the 200-person film team. It all made sense: digital work is inherently iterative, overlapping, and messy.

Traditional animation process

Traditional animation process

Pixar’s editorial process

Pixar’s editorial process

Looking back at his team’s accomplishments, Ed realized his greatest achievement wasn’t launching the world’s first full-length computer animated film—it was the creation of the type of working environment that allowed that film to be made in the first place.

His new mission going forward: to “preserve the confluence of forces necessary to create magic.” And that’s what Pixar’s consistently achieved ever since.

Broken user experiences are a result of broken cultures

Pixar’s realization that their process—and culture—needed to evolve isn’t unique to computer animation. As designers, developers, and digital workers of all kinds, we’re experiencing the same friction with our workflow right now.

Our work used to be simple. Process was straightforward, everyone had clear-cut roles and responsibilities, and designers got by on pure talent and flawless execution. Today, the realities of responsive, adaptive, sensor-rich, digital design have ushered in complexities that require a more involved design and implementation process.

“Broken user experiences are a result of broken cultures.”

But because our departments and teams aren’t connected, effort has piled up on the front end. Working in silos, where we talk to each other only over email or during scheduled meetings, has presented too many unknowns for us to keep up with.

This segmented, waterfall workflow just isn’t sustainable. As Travis Gertz said in his brilliant article earlier this year, “The secret isn’t content first or content last… it’s content and design at the same time.”

Or as many of us have found who work in agile project workflows: the secret is design, content, and code at the same time.

Tools and techniques aren’t collaboration

This process where everything unfolds simultaneously means that we have to share decision making and bridge departmental silos to do it. And in order to make that possible, we’ll need to hone the soft skills that aren’t taught in school.

“Collaboration is about creating the environment where our own magic can emerge.”

Some of the brightest minds in our industry have developed amazing tools and techniques that are revolutionizing the design process: HTML wireframes, atomic design, style tiles, slick prototyping platforms, and more. Yet why is it is that despite of all our fancy tricks, here we are, still struggling to deliver the unified digital experiences we set out to create?

To overcome the complex challenges we all face and deliver work that stands the test of time, we need more than great tools. And to harness the power of those tools, we need open, collaborative cultures that encourage working together and set the new standard for design in the 21st century.

Collaboration is not simply gathering a group of people to meet or brainstorm. It’s not latching on to someone else’s process or finding the next shiny tool that’ll save the day. Much like Ed Catmull found with Pixar, collaboration is about creating the environment where our own magic can emerge.

The value of effective collaboration

This magic does more than just make us feel good about the work we produce—it creates real business benefits, too. Effective collaboration:

  • Creates alignment so we can deliver better outcomes
  • Removes politics so we can launch faster
  • Reduces rework so we can decrease costs
  • Boosts morale so we can increase productivity

Realizing these benefits of effective collaboration doesn’t come easily or automatically. Nor are we entitled to this type of working environment. We have to earn it. With practice and intention, we can develop cultures of openness that give way to next-level collaboration and future-ready design.

The unspoken prerequisite for next-level collaboration is a culture of openness

2 years ago, I became slightly obsessed with discovering what makes this kind of next-level collaboration possible. I experimented with my team, relentlessly retrospected, and searched for insights that might lead to better results. I took note of any digital experience I saw that felt truly remarkable and then called up the people who made them to see what I could learn from their process, too.

“The beauty of unpacking a culture of openness means we can set out to create one for ourselves.”

When I looked at what each exceptional project or team had in common, I discovered a spectrum of openness that made the collaborative process possible.

The beauty of unpacking a culture of openness means we can set out to create one for ourselves. Companies like Pixar have created a culture of openness by design. As digital workers we’re natural connectors—it’s our right and responsibility to foster openness within ourselves and champion it within our organizations.

Unpacking a culture of openness

In the spectrum of a openness, each level builds on the one before it. Let’s start from the center and work our way out.

Image 3 - Levels of Openness

Personal openness

Personal openness means having an open mindset and personal belief system grounded in equality and respect for our teammates. This approach sends a signal to your co-workers and clients (both internal and external) that you’re willing to collaborate.

People who exhibit personal openness are:

  • Welcoming of others’ ideas
  • Aware of and comfortable with not knowing all the answers
  • Curious and ask lots of questions
  • Respectful of the skills, strengths, and humanity of their fellow collaborators

Personal openness sounds a lot like humility, right? Recent research has proven humility to be more of a business advantage than we once thought. In fact, one study reported, “Including humility and competitiveness in the same sentence may seem an oxymoron to many business leaders … [but] in fact, we propose that humility is a critical strength for leaders and organizations possessing it, and a dangerous weakness for those lacking it.”

Some easy ways you can practice personal openness:

  • Invite someone you normally wouldn’t into your next project meeting—someone who you don’t always agree with but would add value to the meeting
  • Use a faucet/funnel brainstorm method to make sure you suspend judgment when hearing new ideas, and build in time to think freely before narrowing down options as a team. (Thanks to IdeaFarm for this tip.)
  • Image 4 - Faucet vs Funnel Brainstorming
  • Next time something comes up that you don’t understand, ask about it instead of Googling or pretending you know, which shuts down the possibility to collaborate in real-time and can make you look a bit silly

Active openness

Active openness puts personal openness to good use. It’s when we channel our open mindset into courage, curiosity, and concern for the whole outcome.

For example, a common obstacle to collaboration in the design process is concern about stepping on toes. We often have ideas about how something could be done or how to improve a project. But we hesitate to jump in because that decision or deliverable “belongs” to another group or is managed by another person.

“Design, content, and code aren’t experienced separately. We’re all equally responsible for the end outcome.”

If we’re going to build beautifully connected user experiences, we need to acknowledge that the lines between our disciplines are blurred. Nicole Fenton, co-author of Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose, says, “Content doesn’t belong to content. Design doesn’t belong to design. Code doesn’t belong to dev.” Design, content, and code aren’t experienced separately, so we’re all equally responsible for the end outcome.

People who exhibit active openness embrace this ambiguity and just jump in (with personal openness and humility, of course) wherever they can help and add value. They try to understand the whole experience and learn as much as they can about other disciplines.

Because of this genuine concern for the whole experience, they choose outcomes over ego, don’t expect collaboration to just happen, and do the hard work it takes to make a business case for more connected workflows—clearly tying their idea to the people, metrics, and goals it will impact.

Some easy ways you can practice active openness:

  • Talk to or shadow people in other disciplines who are working on the same thing you are. Ask about their process, challenges, and workflows.
  • Build a business case for collaboration and find ways to communicate the value of what your idea will add to the process (saved time, less rework, etc.)

Essential ingredients for your business case:

Image 5 - Building a Business Case

Read articles from other disciplines that complement or overlap with your work, and follow a diverse set of industry leaders.

Outward openness

Outward openness is an exercise in empathy. It’s when we work to understand the needs of those we are designing for and create solutions that are right for their context.

People who practice outward openness balance business goals with user needs, do research as a team (and actually talk to real users), and consider the immediate needs of internal teams responsible for keeping digital experiences alive long after the launch date.

“Allowing content needs to inform your design is critical to setting up a client for long-term success.”

When I interviewed Aura Seltzer, a designer at Happy Cog, she recounted the most important lesson she’d learned during the website redesign for a well-known university. She said, “I think what sets your client up for success is actually taking into account content needs early on. One of the biggest testaments to the success of a site is: once the client puts all their content in, does the design system that you built still function the way you intended?”

She went on to explain that allowing content needs to inform your design is critical to setting up a client for long-term success.

Her outward openness was obvious. Not only was Aura practicing empathy for the site’s users, but she also was considering the needs of the university staff responsible for managing the site and allowing those needs to direct the design system she was creating.

“Once the client puts all their content in, does the design system you built still function the way you intended?”

Some easy ways you can practice outward openness:

  • Do research as a team. Walk through the user’s context with an empathy map before discussing solutions.
  • Talk to the people you’re designing for to discover latent needs (internal users count, too). Consider inviting your users to co-design or define the problem with you.
  • Take your best idea off the table before collaboratively seeking the strongest option with your team. This trick could help you let go of preconceived ideas of what will work best, allowing truly user-centered options to emerge.

Exponential openness

Exponential openness happens when cross-discipline teams—made up of people practicing personal, active, and outward openness—come together to co-create something greater than any one person could have made on their own. This is where the benefits of collaboration increase rapidly.

The Virgin America website is a prime example of the strong user experiences cross-discipline collaboration can deliver. Designer Joe Stewart and his team at Work & Co not only co-designed the whole site, but they also temporarily moved into the client’s offices to collaborate side-by-side with their team, too.

Dean Cook, the VP CIO of Virgin America shared, “Part of why we were actually able to undertake such a big process so successfully is that we didn’t have a wall that we tossed things back and forth over. It was really very tight feedback loops. Very collaborative.”

“For it to be effective, collaboration takes careful planning and clear expectations.”

Before designing together, the Work & Co team first defined and prioritized measurable business goals, objectives, and user tasks together. These steps laid the building blocks for an aligned design process where everyone’s work mapped back to the same information, whether they were working on individual tasks or joining forces for a working session.

They also asked a diverse set of internal stakeholders to join the design process with them. As Joe put it, “We invited everyone who knew what it would take to make that site successful. So we were all there arguing it out, all together.”

The result of their collaborative approach? An impressive site that produced real business results, created a user-driven experience, and raised the bar for the entire airline industry.

Exponential openness isn’t something you can achieve overnight. It’s not even something that the most collaborative teams can expect to experience on every project. But you can develop and increase it over time.

Some practical ways you can encourage exponential openness with your team:

Designing digital experiences of the future… together

By exploring our own levels of openness in our day-to-day work, we can contribute to building a culture of collaboration. This is the only way we’ll design better experiences for our users and deliver bottom-line benefits that are hard for anyone to deny. Beyond that, it’s the only way we can light the spark that ignites powerful, lasting change within our organizations.

It’s going to be hard work. It’s going to be worth it. Now get out there and make stuff that matters.

If you’re interested in cross-discipline collaboration and want to learn more about it, check out Togetherly, a hands-on workshop coming up on September 19, 2015, or browse our list of must-read resources.

Note: this article is based on a talk I gave at Confab earlier this year. Though I’ve included all the most important aspects here, you might prefer to watch the recording of it instead.

Author

Rebekah Cancino
Rebekah is a content strategy and UX consultant who has spent the last decade helping people develop clear communication and human-centered digital experiences. She’s committed to making cross-discipline collaboration possible, and is co-founder of Togetherly. In her spare time, Rebekah likes to make friends with designers and developers, ardently advocates use of the Oxford comma, and tries her best to avoid all kinds of cacti.

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