Good collaboration goes beyond being able to complete tasks together. Good collaboration is fluency; it is a language of partnership and co-creation. It is mastery shaped by deliberate effort and thoughtful systems. Within good collaborations, one should feel curious and empowered. Good collaborators are strong independent workers and inspiring partners; they are empathetic people who understand the difference between having a point of view and judgement. They are amazing at what they do but recognize that the power of the team is greater than their individual self.
But gathering the right people in the team isn’t enough to guarantee better collaboration. How do we nurture collaboration dynamics or even more so, scale them? Over the past few years I have worked on a range of cross-functional teams — both large and small (at one point I was the only designer on a team of 20+ engineers) — and what follows are the key observations I have made in that time.
1. Break out of arrested development
Many teams operate on autopilot and fail to reflect on the day-to-day work of their peers; sometimes a problem happens so often it becomes part of the operation. Team members need to help their peers get through the day and only then will they build confidence towards purposeful collaboration.
On a project at Connected delivering a cloud-connected app experience for an audio-electronics company, our engineers encountered downtimes due to limited design resources in a just-in-time delivery model — a type of agile cadence where all design and engineering work is done within a single sprint. While this would have ideally been rectified through process and allocation changes, these solutions take time and can introduce new issues to the project. To ensure forward momentum, our engineers, QA, and designers came together to devise a simple protocol for assessing design layouts and component behaviours. These assessment principles were then embedded into our hand-off tools — Zeplin and Jira — allowing for seamless access. This empowered team members to get involved in creating solutions and prevent them from being blocked during the sprint.
Although these types of project problems are common and easy to ignore, they should never be brushed aside. Consider implementing a mechanism for identifying and escalating repeated problems. (Retros are very good for this!) These nuisances can accumulate over time, instill distrust, and keep the team in a state of arrested development — fighting to get tasks completed instead of pushing solutions to new heights.
2. Build empathy from everyday interactions
When team members do not understand each other, complex discussions can easily spiral out of control. Fostering an open and safe culture is crucial to building mutual understanding. However, time is always short in our industry and teams do not always have the luxury for yet another calendar event.
On my last project with one of the world’s largest automotive and mobility companies, we worked with the client’s in-house team on a project that would improve the system of delivering vehicle data to their fleet customers. During our research phase, rather than having our engineers separated from the conversation, they eagerly participated in our usability test session. They brought insights from the session back to their work and began proactively pushing the technology for better user experience. In addition to this, our client product owner was attentive and present in all our interview and test sessions as a way to vouch for and evolve our findings within the organization — another inspiring example of a team member advocating for empathy.
In addition to showing up for your team, another way to build empathy is to make sure you are understood. Be mindful of our diverse ways of thinking and being, and embrace universally known mental models, analogies, and stories. A picture is worth a thousand words after all.
To make for a more compelling argument, deliver your point of view in a prototype or as photos, videos, or data. The same can be said for communication formats. Using long, short, slow, and fast in the right moment allows your team to adopt a diverse set of tools for different types of work.
Small moments with the right people are also critical. “Say no more,” says one of my colleagues during one of our design desk checks. There is magic to working with people who understand that putting a big, authentic smile on people’s faces is as important as anything else you can do for your team members.
3. Direction over destination
I had a friend who once told me he stuck a (steel) chopstick in an outlet when he was a child, and his mom kicked him loose so he wouldn’t get electrocuted. I asked him why he did it and he explained that he needs to learn the hard way because he finds it difficult to follow orders without clear reasoning.
Okay, okay. I know we are all adults here. But we can probably all agree that mandating rules doesn’t help anyone’s understanding of the problem at hand. During crunch times, it can be tempting to prescribe comments to your teammates and walk away. If your comment turns out to be wrong or unhelpful, your teammate will end up without direction again. In those situations, if you must, pair terse exchanges with takeaway sticky notes at the very least. Sometimes the few seconds you save from skipping a discussion are not worth the cost of mistakes.
I find great joy in being embedded in teams with engineers. At my last company, I worked on a project designing an online shop with over 60,000 posters. One of our goals was to help customers find and curate posters collections. Although designers tend to own design solutions, our engineer took note of our customer profiles and experimented with colour-sorting mechanisms that would allow interior decorators to curate collections for a specific palette. This mix of expertise elevated product potential.
Instead of sending your designs away hoping it will come out right, align on the direction and let solutions manifest. In product delivery, there are often no right or wrong executions, only those that create the most meaningful impact.
4. Promote curiosity
Curiosity urges us to rise from the routine to explore alternatives. (I don’t need to go into details of the benefits of curiosity as there have already been tons of research and articles on the impact of curiosity on performance. Here is a fantastic one by Harvard Business Review.) Most of these articles highlight how curiosity fuels exploration, motivation, experimentation, and even empathy. They point out that while most leaders acknowledge the contribution of an inquisitive mind, many still favour efficiency over experimentation.
Many young companies and teams lump exploratory work into collateral creation (the “actual work”). This is not only irresponsible towards time estimation, it also reduces transparency to what it truly takes to create something proven and thoughtful. Whether it is design research or engineering spike (research required to pursue an engineering task), these efforts need to be recognized as progress and contributions to solving the problem.
To work through this challenge at Connected, we describe our work through stages of identify, make, release, and evolve. At each stage, we outline the functions of research in guiding ideation, insights, validation, and optimization. This meticulous planning helps to facilitate buy-in from clients and ensures time is allocated for creative work to happen.
Curiosity is crucial to reducing risks and sparking new ideas, which thereby transforms team members into proactive problem solvers, equipping them with the autonomy to undertake even grander challenges.
5. Radical changes are rare, pivot smartly in small increments
“Nudge” is a concept coined by Noble prize-winning economist Richard Thaler. It describes the impact of subtle, yet intentional changes have on influencing people’s behavior.
People Management wrote about an example of nudge theory in action where a company tried to change its core working hours from 9 to 5 into one of flexible working. Understanding that people are vulnerable to peer pressure and habits, the company enlisted managers as advocates, then changed the core hours on the company calendar so people get a pop-up when they book meetings outside of core hours. The result was an increase in employees converting to flexible work.
Radical changes are risky and can be difficult to overcome without a considerable amount of determination. In client relationships, buy-ins are tricky without physical proof. Instead of glorifying grand strategies, teams can learn from behavioural science and leverage incremental changes for better team collaboration.
6. Champions, not celebrities
Whereas celebrities are promoted for their unique charm and influence, champions are promoted for their expertise and resilience. Champions are individuals who lead by doing and work in the trenches challenging the team to evolve their work. They are not recognized for their gifts but their integrity and knowledge in their craft. They are effective at disseminating information among peers and are crucial to driving product impact.
On my last project exploring the VoiceOver feature on iOS, a champion engineer on my team shared his explorations to create a micro-learn session for the entire team on voice accessibility best practices. The content of the session continues to live on the company knowledge database for everyone to access. Through pairing, this engineer continues to develop best practices with his peers. Not only does this work positively impact projects, it also increases institutional IQ.
When you have a large team, consistency in quality and approach can be difficult to manage. The making of a champion involves recognizing small accomplishments and providing a platform for sharing and growth. (Drop-in workshops, round-tables are great for that). People who learn together tend to work in similar ways. Amplify the importance of being a good teacher and learner. Everyone has the power to make a difference!
Products are complex, epic problems. Solving them can get messy, and no process in the world can prevent the unexpected. Good collaboration provides team flexibility and resilience to overcome hurdles.
“While completing tasks will get you somewhere, it does not always translate to impact.”
In the worst cases, mindless tasks can distract from finding the right solutions. It’s time to think beyond the SoW (or your Jira ticket) and unlock the collective power of a curious and compassionate team.
Little Green Guide: The Kind and Curious Mindset
Being kind to our planet takes small incremental changes. (Not that radical changes aren’t good, they are just rare.) Here are some helpful tips towards being more green. You are encouraged to interpret these tips however you like and figure out what works for your lifestyle. Being green is not just kind, but cheap (I will explain why)!
Before you acquire something, think about how you will use it to its full potential and responsibly dispose of (or better yet, compost). If you do not have a way to get rid of it responsibly, look for alternatives. Is this something you can get second-hand? Do-It-Myself? Are there recycling depots for this product? Do you need it at all? Thinking end-to-end allows you to look at your effort more holistically and focus on areas you can contribute the most.
Like moving into a new home and starting a basic kitchen pantry, having a basic set of versatile household ingredients can help you be more green. Look up the many cleaning uses of vinegar, lemon, baking soda, oils, and herbs. You will find that many household products can be replaced by a simple recipe of natural ingredients. Not only is it cheap to buy these ingredients in bulk, it reduces packaging waste. Apply the same thinking to your closet, office, and rest of the home. You may find that one shawl of yours double up as a beach towel or wrapper.
Make, Grow, Eat Your Own
Gardening is a great hobby that compliments many green initiatives. Start with growing from your veggie scraps or herbs. It may seem like you can only garnish your soup or have an occasional salad but let it slowly blossom into a garden that suits your lifestyle. Composting is also a great way to get rid of food residue and paper packaging. If gardening is not your thing, it’s ok! Visit a local market and buy seasonal produce that has a lower carbon footprint.
Be Creative and Resourceful
To be green is to be creative! Be it Do-It-Yourself, cooking, gardening, or woodworking. Exercise your creativity to experiment and try new things. You may find out that your old shirts make for amazing cleaning cloths, a broken door can become a tabletop or wine cocks become a floor mat. Think beyond what an item is advertised to do and you may find that you need less than you think.
Education comes in many forms. Whether it’s picking up a skill from a friend, borrowing a tool book, or listening to a podcast, getting educated keeps you inspired and in tune with the world around you. To be green is to be aware. You don’t need to scan through stacks of research papers to know how to be kind to the earth. Take a moment to look at what’s happening around you. Stay curious, and don’t be shy about asking questions.
Go Along Your Lifestyle, Not Against
Being green is not about making life difficult or less enjoyable. We have to acknowledge there are privileges in being able to afford time and money for green practices and products. Don’t measure your success against another person. Start with practices that are easy to incorporate into your life and grow from there. It can be bringing your own cup to a coffee shop or growing green onion from scraps. Create small successes that will lead you to bigger endeavours.
From Decolonization to Dolls for All
Inclusive Design has become a much-talked-about topic as of late. From the flurry of Medium articles to the plethora of Sketch plug-ins, practicing design in a way that is inclusive of all—no matter their age or background, perceived gender or culture, abilities, etc.—is gaining mainstream traction.
For us, as designers, this is very exciting. When we’re designing, we push hard for edge-case-less products; everyone should be included from Day 0. At Connected, we try to push for an ethical and accessible approach to product building, which is why we were thrilled when Inclusive Design TO was announced, a one-day conference exploring how we can live, work, and design for inclusion. The roundup of speakers was fantastic—from Dori Tunstall, the Dean of OCADU’s Faculty of Design, to Antonia Garcia, the VP of Diversity & Inclusion for AIGA Chicago. So a small team of us purchased tickets and headed to the Globe and Mail Centre on February 12th. Here are our thoughts and takeaways.
Taking ownership for the past, and inciting radical change
Many of the talks we listened to talked about the importance of taking responsibility for how things were done in the past—even if it wasn’t you who had done things unethically. This is critical because keeping our heads in the sand as to how things were previously done would prevent us learning from our collective mistakes.
Building on this, Dave Dame (Innovation is the new wheelchair) spoke about how saying sorry in and of itself is not inclusive. It’s not enough to pardon past behaviour with an apology, action is needed in order to take full ownership and change the ways things are done. For Dave (who is in a wheelchair), if people simply said sorry for the lack of accessibility in their environments, things would never change and he would never be included in experiences.
After owning up to past mistakes, exploring radical new approaches to problems can be the right antidote. In Dori Tunstall’s talk, Decolonizing Design: How Diversity and Inclusion is Not Enough, she spoke about how while the hiring practices of OCAD University may have been exclusionary in the past, she is owning this past injustice and taking a 180 approach: OCAD U is currently actively hiring for visible minorities so that the faculty is representative of the student body, and so that students can learn from both learned experiences and lived experiences. By decolonizing this approach, Dori is firmly taking ownership of the past and going beyond sorry.
Inciting radical change can also mean disrupting long-held standards and norms. Linda Jiang (A Doll for All) talked about her challenges in engaging with ideals of beauty in the doll industry. Because so many companies and people widely accept entrenched beauty standards, it can be an uphill battle to try and take responsibility for the problems in the industry and shift people’s perspectives. Mattel’s Creatable World—the product that Linda works on—is tackling this head-on, with a customizable doll line offering endless gender-neutral combinations. This disruptive product is a striking example of what it means to recognize when past standards are just not enough, and how we can shift a dialogue around an entire industry to be celebratory, and inclusive.
Creating an environment in which people can thrive
Listening to the speakers at IDTO made one thing extremely clear: accessible/inclusive does not mean enjoyable, and that needs to change. When designing and building products, it is easy to ask yourself the question, “is my product accessible/inclusive?” and leave it at that. Not often do we sit back and ask ourselves “is my product both accessible and enjoyable? Does my product create a positive environment in which all users can prosper?”
Dave Dame—who suffers from cerebral palsy—asked the audience several questions in his talk that opened our eyes to his world in which the products he uses deem themselves inclusive. “It takes you five hours to go out for lunch, right? It takes you an hour and a half to wait for your uber ride, right?”. He didn’t ask these questions to make us feel guilty, he asked them to expose the missing in the accessibility and inclusivity world.
“I just want the same experience you have when you get to do the simplest thing.”
At the end of Dave’s talk, a member of the audience asked him “How can designers be great listeners?”…and after a bit of a pause, Dave responded “I think you just gotta care” and that is what we should all aim to do. To be able to design something in which all users have the same emotional experience when using the product or moving through an environment, you must have empathy.
In Dori Tunstall’s talk, she used the metaphor of being asked to dance for inclusion. She went on to explain that although we may be inviting others to dance, we are asking them to dance our own dance, rather than their own. This imposoition ultimately is, in Dori’s words, the “genocide to their spirits”, holding people back from unleashing their full potential and true abilities.
It is our responsibility as product builders to care for all of our users and ensure that the experience and environment we are providing them is not only accessible and inclusive, but one in which they can operate without a second thought.
Seeing yourself in the product/company
“If I exist in this world I deserve to be represented.” Linda Jiang began her talk with a powerful quote that speaks to the importance of representation—the responsibility and genuineness to depict and portray a snapshot of our society and the people in it.
People discover themselves through the world around them. If these signals are available to them, they will be able to place themselves and participate in our society. The highly customizable Creatable World Doll, with its diverse hair, skin colour, and clothing parts, is a celebration of the human spectrum. In a collage of children smiling with their lookalike dolls, Linda captured a tender moment of little humans thriving through play. From questioning beauty standards to someone who shapes them, Linda’s story is one that inspires people to not simply fight to be visible, but to live with flourish and pride.
In Antonio’s talk, Complex: Navigating Life, Design, and Identity, a company calibrated equipment for professional portraits of people with underrepresented skin tones. (Did you know that early photography often calibrates imagery to light skin models, causing people with darker skin tones to look unflattering in their pictures?) This project goes beyond acceptance and helps affirm each individual’s beauty through thoughtful and appropriate lenses.
When people are not represented, they are excluded from contributing to society. Representation is at the root of cross-pollination. When we fail to acknowledge the unique contributions of different lived experiences, it is us as a society that is missing out on chances of affirmation and growth.
Creating seamless experiences universally
Inclusion is not optional: this was a recurring theme throughout the tracks of the conference. As Pamela Hilborn, SVP Global Head of Design at Scotiabank, opened the day she really made everyone feel responsible for the craft of design by saying that by not practicing inclusive design you might as well do nothing, and it doesn’t matter what kind of designer you are. This thought leadership which is both provoking and inspiring begs every practitioner to consider applying mental models that focus on “you” rather than on “I”.
Every time we miss, ignore, or forget to bring different perspectives into our work we miss out on understanding how others see and feel in the same situation. Even more so, we risk missing out on including those voices in the final design of products, which ultimately leads to the creation of systems that cause users who require accessibility adjustments to feel excluded or tokenized.
Earl Cousins, Senior Digital Accessibility Specialist at Scotiabank, showed us an example of inclusion designed into the code and interface of a video game from the very beginning of its onboarding sequence. In his talk, he talked about how giving control back to the users makes for a truly inclusive digital space where everyone feels like a respected and seen user. The accessibility menu set up front doesn’t call out anyone’s requirements and needs but rather makes it a part of natural flow of the onboarding. Through this design, no user is shamed into using accessibility functions, yet those who need to adjust their settings can do so without too much effort, thought, or strain. This achieves one of the key principles of creating inclusion by design: seamless and effortless design.
Such examples as the one presented by Earl, is a reminder of how big an impact we have on designing and building digital communities. What’s more important is that these communities should be and feel inclusive for all. There is a well-known line in the a11y (accessibility) community that says “nothing about us without us.” In practice this means bringing a diverse spectrum of experiences, reactions, and feelings into the product/service/experience. As Antonio Garcia, boldly stated: “If people feel this, that’s the truth.”
It’s better to design with than to only design for.
We often take for granted how important it is to immerse ourselves deeply in the world of the people that we are designing for. An example of how effective this immersion can be was given by Phil Terry while working on a redesign of a community park. Only when the stakeholders got a chance to walk in the park and see for themselves how people actually used it could they understand the importance of their proposal for making it better.
After all, it’s essential to create environments where people can fully immerse themselves in the experience. However, in the case of designing with accessibility in mind, designers must often answer the question:
“How can I design for this disability if I don’t have it?”
The answer is: Don’t.
Instead, design alongside someone that has that disability. Even better, hire a designer with a disability to work on the project.
Currently, the use of disability simulations is a common occurrence among product builders, but this only serves to reinforce the perceptions of people who don’t live with a condition. Whereas, utilizing the expertise of someone who actually lives with a disability means that products can be designed through the lens of their lived experience. This is because their disability is their reality, causing them to continually come up with innovative techniques to navigate the world.
Too often, accessibility conversations happen without people living with a disability. Ultimately, it’s better to design WITH than to only design FOR.
 Liz Jackson has created The Disabled List, a disability design self-advocacy organization, and WITH, a fellowship that helps match creative disabled people with design studios and other organizations.