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Collaborative design—not just for user experience

Jess Eddy - articles and writing

Collaborative design is a great facilitation tool that helps get the best ideas on the table by engaging various stakeholders with different perspectives. When I do a collaborative design on a UX project, it involves a series of time-based sketching exercises. In other industries, the process might be a little different, but the outcome is the same.

What I love about user experience and collaborative design is that it’s really a set of tools that allow you to problem solve in different contexts. Once you learn the tools and methodologies, you can apply it to literally anything. I’ve seen it work so often, and each time it feels like magic because it’s so useful and relatively fast. As a designer, this is a massive win because anytime I can get to a solution faster with buy-in from the team or client and eventually the customer, it’s a good day.

In this post, I’ll explore collaborative design in three different environments — enjoy!

Example #1: Urban Planning

In this example, Firm Foundation, a company aiming to reduce environmental vulnerability in riverfront settlements in Banjarmasin, Indonesia, worked with Solo Kota Kita. This Indonesia-based non-governmental organization helps citizens and government officials alike to understand the complexities of the built environment. Together, they organized and facilitated workshops with three riverfront communities in Banjarmasin, Indonesia, to envision, design, and create a sustainable community space at the Martapura River and Andai Canal’s confluence. The city’s planning department, public works department, and local leaders were also invited to join.

During the collaborative (or “participatory”) design process, residents got a chance to vocalize ideas for improving their neighborhoods. Firm Foundation utilized different tools and activities throughout the process to get the best information and feedback from the group. This process and these tools eventually allowed Firm Foundation to develop a design for one of the ideas in partnership with the local Banjarmasin government.

I can imagine that, much like in my experience for using collaborative design methods to design digital experiences, the process almost allows urban designs to unfold naturally. This type of facilitation and structure provides space for solution thinking to occur and thrive. Designers and Urban Planners still have an essential job to do, which is to execute the actual design while using the valuable information produced by the group. Nevertheless, solutions are much more readily available, and much of the guesswork is removed. Especially considering that the feedback is coming from people living in the environment that is being designed.

It’s worth highlighting a few activities, so you can start to see how involved residents and other stakeholders were in the design process.

Activity: Transect Walk

Physical models are powerful tools for getting residents to understand relationships between different neighborhood areas and across scales such as house, street, and district. Large models also provide a gathering area for participants during workshop breaks and a reference point for questions about the neighborhood.

Activity: Neighborhood Model

Physical models are powerful tools for getting residents to understand relationships between different neighborhood areas and across scales such as house, street, and district. Large models also provide a gathering area for participants during workshop breaks and a reference point for questions about the neighborhood.

Activity: Problem Tree

A problem tree is a facilitation tool that enables residents to analyze problems in their neighborhoods through visualization. During the exercise, participants agree on the issues facing their community and then identify causes and effects. An aim is to understand underlying factors that create a problem with a focus on its “root causes.” Problem trees also illustrate relationships between causes and effects when they may not be evident and reference whether a specific action can address multiple neighborhoods’ adverse conditions.

Example #2: Community Building

This example is about the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) and its collaborative design process called “Neighborhood Engagement Workshop” (NEW).

“The NEW process empowers neighborhood residents to renew their communities through collaboration and coalition building. Workshops bring a mix of stakeholders including community residents, youth, business owners, local government representatives, etc. to the same table to discuss neighborhood assets and needs. These diverse stakeholders often bring separate goals to the table, but through the workshop process they achieve a common strategic vision that positively impacts each individual goal.”

Wow, it doesn’t get any better than this! I love this example because of its focus on community building. We start to see a common theme that is core to collaborative design no matter the industry, environment, process, or activities involved: it’s about people with different perspectives and a shared vision. This is what makes collaborative design so effective and efficient. When you can obtain feedback in a structured process from all these different people simultaneously, magic literally happens. It’s a beautiful thing.

Imagine if our own government could apply collaborative design to policy making! (But really, use your imagination).

“Approximately twenty to thirty people attend each workshop. Each participant is asked to gather input from the larger community and to spread the capacity gained during the workshops to the community. The process also includes larger community engagement strategies such as community surveys, comment boxes, public events, etc. to gain input and feedback on the design.”

Example #3: Architecture

This example focuses on architecture and a couple different participatory methods called EDP and IDP. EDP stands for “Equal Design Partners,” and IDP stands for “Integrated Project Delivery.” Much like in a good software design and development process, IDP aims to involve all main project stakeholders early in the design and decision-making process. If you work in design and development, you know how valuable this is. How do you design something without understanding the technical implications? You can’t really, and architecture also realizes this.

“To bridge the divide between design and construction, improve communication, better coordinate documents, and increase collaboration, firms have started to prepare for Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). IPD requires the participation of all project stakeholders early in the design and decision-making process.”

IDP is more about how tightly integrated communication can improve the overall process, maybe not as much focused on getting different stakeholders designing together, but that is EDP's focus. I’m not sure how widely adopted EDT practices are because, as this article states,

“Architects didn’t become an architect to be a designer among designers. They became architects to design. Period.”

Just as designers can collaboratively design together, so can architects. Imagine the type of progress you can make when you’re not the only architect designing in the room, but instead, you’re an architect amongst architects. Everyone is building on everyone else’s good ideas. It’s compelling.

Until I started collaboratively designing — I didn’t see the value in it. It’s the sort of thing you really have to experience to believe in. It can create a slippery slope when designing with your client or other stakeholders as your role as a designer can feel diminished, and facilitation techniques and the success they bring can go unnoticed. However, I’d leave behind the glory for a better outcome any day.

“Founder and president of Nissan Design International, Jerry Hirshberg, in The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World, describes a scene where, in a workplace safe for people to provide input and express their ideas, the receptionist — participating in a design review — provides the idea for the direction for their new line of automobiles. That, in a nutshell, is the future of architecture.” —Source

While I do love the spirit of the phrase “Equal Partners in Design” or “EDP,” it still takes a great designer to put all the pieces together and create a cohesive and usable experience (or building, community, or landscape).

It’s important to note that the collaborative design process is not about having someone else create the entire design solution. It’s about putting a process in place and creating a space where different people, with different perspectives that are valuable to the outcome, can participate in the process. It also allows a group of people to create and buy into a shared vision. All of these things ultimately produce a better design solution than could not have been made in a silo or individually.

Go design together! 😀