Collaboration is an imperative thing to get right in product management. In this guest post, Odette Colyer, Managing Partner, Experience Research and Strategy at Super User Studio delves into her take on effective collaboration and communication.
In this piece, I’ll explain why it’s important to make the distinction early on between divergent and convergent thinking and utilise the right approach at the right time in collaboration and communication in product teams.
There are multiple cross-business and interrelated benefits to using the type of structured processes and considerations we have shaped over our 20 years in the industry.
Of course, much of the time we advocate for an open collaborative approach, especially in earlier strategic phases of the project. However, if the same level of ‘free-for-all’ iteration is applied to the later delivery phases, common pitfalls can include:
- Work becomes uninterpretable by others
- Paralysis and lack of clarity
- Easy to lose sight of business vision or strategy
- Impact on efficient and effective working for Product, Technology & Design teams
It all comes down to effective and timely communication styles working alongside the shared roadmap. That’s why so much of what we do at Super User Studio is about upskilling and enabling our client partners to collaborate efficiently. Tools such as Figma, Mural or Miro and all the benefits they offer for remote, asynchronous, visual collaboration have greatly facilitated this. Using these tools effectively also enables our clients to experience unprecedented insight into the design process. Hours of unactionable discussion in meetings are saved. Brilliant ideas are co-created and planned out.. Business and user requirements can be iteratively fed into the design process, and solutions are easier to adopt when everyone has had an opportunity to influence them.
This latter point really is the key to achieving rapid and lasting design maturity too. These highly visual ways of working establish a shared language understood across functions and unite everyone around the business goal. The forward momentum gained through this alignment enables teams to realise their goals at pace.
But, there is a dark side to this collaboration. It can slowly, but surely become unstructured. What once would have been a clearly communicated workflow becomes a working document, crammed with notes, edits, adjustments, comments. This is particularly problematic when the team transitions from strategic-level collaboration spaces, for example ideation of a Future Journey, to more granular specifications during the delivery phase, such as an Experience Language & UI Design System. In organisations that have not scaled Product or Design functions to manage the governance of these things, the user experience is at risk of deterioration or inconsistency. We have seen this happen often in larger, engineering strong organisations in particular, a context which has historically favoured business-driven feature development over best product or user-centred design practices.
To address this, we have created thoughtfully-structured frameworks that support effective collaboration with cross-functional teams. These frameworks rely on the three key considerations below, to ensure teams remain aligned and avoid veering into the ‘dark side.’ As a result of using these structured processes, we’ve seen an enormous increase in our partners’ ability to continuously deliver in line with their roadmap, all while maintaining the quality and communication of their user experience. This not only fosters an efficient and empowered product team, but also provides a pathway to rapid realisation of business goals.
Prioritise design communication
Collaborative and co-creative work is really only effective when the purpose of that session is clearly defined. While ideation requires thinking beyond the boundaries and constraints of your existing context, it does still require structure to be effective.
We have learned to be advocates for clear communication boundaries. One client’s recent enthusiasm to collaborate through Miro started positively but eventually led to a blurred boundary between strategic and tactical delivery in their collaborative spaces. This made it difficult for them as a team to be clear to the business about what could be achieved and by when, as well as leading to a messy set of specifications for their development team.
The key to avoiding this is to visualise and communicate the holistic design and research process first, and be clear on expectations for each stage. For example, when we are ‘diverging and exploring’ new ideas versus ‘converging and executing’.
Summarisation of decisions made in each phase also allows for speed of interpretation and preempts any questions that other functions may have about the decisions made. Finally, some of the basics around naming conventions and clear versioning systems really help if teams are working on design artefacts like IA, wireframes, prototypes for example..
Make a code of conduct and keep it visible
Create a ‘Rules’ section at the top of any Miro, Figma, or your shared workspace. It’s a quick and constant reference to remind collaborators of guidelines and expectations, including communication and feedback etiquette. For example, some work may happen asynchronously and it’s important to bear in mind the context of any colleagues who may be reviewing feedback at a later stage. Keep language positive and track everything back to your shared goals and the needs of your users. This feedback process should also be carefully scheduled and built into the wider process to ensure teams remain efficient.
While different perspectives and inputs will be needed throughout the life of the collaborative workspace, one person on the team should also take responsibility and ownership of the shared space. Not only will they ensure the code of conduct and format are respected, but they’ll also have governance over the design system or similar. You wouldn’t want anyone to be able to make fundamental changes to your design tokens, for example.
It’s important that everyone understands their role and the collaborative process — let designers design and product managers manage.
Create a distinction between spaces for active collaboration and delivery workspaces
Although they will likely still be iterated upon in the future, end-of-phase presentations and deliverables are considered more ‘final’ — so it’s important that these spaces have no ambiguity or live commentary. This facilitates understanding among stakeholders of the key phases of iteration and provides an intact artefact which might simply document key decisions, provide a test-ready set of screens or a clear specification for development. Be sure everyone on the team is clear on hand-over points to support keeping exploration areas separate from end of phase artefacts.
Summarisation of decisions made in each phase also allows for speed of interpretation and preempts any questions that other functions may have about the decisions made. Finally, some of the basics around naming conventions and clear versioning systems really help if teams are working on design artefacts like IA, wireframes, prototypes for example.
Effective communication and collaboration might seem like a given for effective product teams. However, we have demonstrated how easily the ‘dark side’ of collaboration can come into play, risking derailing the project and directly impacting the ability to deliver maximum value and retain consistency.
Using frameworks and considerations such as those put forward by Super User Studio will help reduce ambiguity and foster effective communication, resulting in empowered teams and greater operational efficiency.