Tuesday, October 19, 2010

collaboration: win/win or win/lose?

While looking back on the last six months at my new job, it occurred to me that along with the rise in the level of collaboration with my Marketing, and Engineering coworkers came a feeling of having less control over the design. I was sharing very rough wireframes with the engineers and they were giving me very clear feedback. The engineers had been quite frustrated by the process prior to my arrival on the scene. They felt they were being dictated to and had little say in the design direction. I've always tried to be collaborative but bigger companies have bigger silos so collaboration often means collaborating with your immediate team (in my case among my fellow designers) and then reviewing the design with the engineering and product teams. Design reviews are not the same thing as collaboration.

Now that I have worked on two separate startups and several small product teams, I've experienced what it is like to be part of a small, truly cross-functional team. The benefit to me is that I am often able to see my designs implemented before I've even finished specifying them. Once there is consensus on the direction, the engineers start working on the code even though some details remain open. This was different from my last couple of jobs. But these  small team meetings mean I'm discussing rough designs with engineers and marketers instead of my fellow designers. It also means that I was the only voice representing the interests of design. The bulk of the feedback was technical and marketing. Their feedback also includes thoughts on what they think would most benefit the user but it is still a different type of input than a typical internal design review.

It reminds me of something Tim Barber told me in the early days of forming his design firm Odopod. I was considering hiring Odopod to work on a project for Sony (where I was design director). Tim had just come off a challenging demise to Rare Medium Inc., the web design firm that had grown from its start by three design freelancers in New York City to a firm comparable in size and influence to Razorfish and Sapient. The company gobled up smaller studios in cities where it wanted a presence, (including the San Francisco firm where Tim worked). It was then bought by a company with no presence in the web design space and proceeded to implode. It was a trying time for several amazing creative minds who were there at the time. After a classic Silicon Valley "sabatical," Tim started Odopod with two like minds. They wanted to start from scratch and do things differently. They sought to eliminate the tendancy among design consultancies to "toss it over the fence"... taking elegant but impractical designs and handing them off to the company as "fait accompli". By the time I hired Odopod, they had already worked on several successful partnerships with early Web2.0 companies. What Tim relayed to me about his experience made a lot of sense and cemented my decision to hire Odopod. For Tim, close collaboration meant sharing designs before they really wanted to. It was fine to talk about true collaborations but this was testing their comfort levels. Showing incomplete ideas makes you feel uncomfortable. But doing so inevitably confirms that you're understanding the client's intent (or misunderstanding it) earlier than you would when you work on a design until you feel it's airtight.

So, here I am, six months in and wondering if collaboration is win/lose where you win on collaboration but lose on design control or win/win where the ultimate design will be stronger because of the closer collaboration. Of course I know the answer but we'll have to wait till launch to see what the market has to say.

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