I’ve written a bit about collaborative design and how I use it in my practice ← (consider reading this post first). It’s a great facilitation tool that helps get the best ideas from various different stakeholders with different perspectives and ultimately, unifies a team with a similar, shared vision. When I do it, 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 specifically is: once you learn it, you can apply it to literally anything. I’ve seen it work so many times and each time it feels like magic, mainly because it’s so effective and so quick. As a designer, this is a huge win because anytime I can get to a solution faster with buy-in from the client and eventually the customer, it’s a good day. In this post I’ll explore collaborative design in different environments. If you’d like to share any collaborative design stories that you might have, please do so in the comments!
Example #1: Urban Planning
In this example, Firm Foundation, a company that aims to reduce environmental vulnerability in riverfront settlements in Banjarmasin, Indonesia worked with Solo Kota Kita an Indonesia-based non-governmental organization that 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 build a sustainable community space at the confluence of the Martapura River and Andai Canal. The city’s planning department, public works department as well as 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 since this type of facilitation and structure allows a space for solution thinking to occur and thrive. Designers and Urban Planners still have an important job to do, which is to execute on the actual design while using the valuable information produced by the group, but 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.
They do an amazing job of documenting the entire process on their Website and in this case study (PDF) but 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
A transect walk is an activity for observing and documenting a neighborhood in collaboration with residents, and carrying out interviews. Typically, you start by working with residents to make a simple line drawing of the area on a sheet of paper. Develop a set of easy-to-draw symbols for features you plan to observe. Agree on a route to follow, and annotate the map with notes and symbols as you walk. Take photos along the way as well, if you’re in an area where it’s appropriate to do so.
Activity: Neighborhood Model
Physical models are powerful tools for getting residents to understand relationships between different areas of their neighborhood and across scales such as house, street, and district. Large models also provide a gathering area for participants during workshop breaks and a point of reference for questions about the neighborhood.
Activity: Problem Tree
A problem tree is a facilitation tool that enables residents to analyze problems in their neighborhood through visualization. During the exercise, participants agree on the problems facing their community and then identify causes and effects. An aim is to understand underlying factors that are creating 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 are references for whether a specific action can address multiple negative conditions in a neighborhood.
Example #2: Community Building
This example is about the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) and their 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 what the industry, environment, process or activities involved are: it’s about people and a shared vision. Not only people but people with different perspectives. This is what makes collaborative design so effective and efficient. When you are able to obtain feedback in a structured process from all these different people at the same time, magic literally happens. It’s a beautiful thing.
Imagine if our own government could apply collaborative design to policy making!
“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.” - Source
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 the focus of EDP. 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 rather you’re an architect amongst architects and everyone is building on everyone else’s good ideas. It’s very powerful.
I’m sure there are plenty of UX/UI designers who can relate to the above statement about not becoming an architect to be a designer amongst designers. 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 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 and quicker 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 more about putting a process in place and creating a space where different people, with different perspectives that are valuable to the outcome can take part in the process. It’s also allows a group of people to create and buy into a shared vision. All of these things ultimately create a better design solution than could have been created in a silo or individually.