Collaboration Part 4: Design

Interpersonal relationships are the building block of all human organizations, including (and especially) businesses. The way people treat one another individually, on teams, and in the organization as a whole are directly correlated to the overall performance level of the organization and the quality of the work that it produces. Most businesses operate as multiple overlapping sets of teams, and those teams can include designers, engineers, executives, product designers, marketers, technical specialists, finance, and people filling many other roles. It is vital that designers learn to communicate and work with the people who fill all of these roles.

The basic approach to collaborating with people from different disciplines is fairly simple, and has three key elements:

1. Know what is important to people in this discipline — i.e., what are their values

2. Know how to communicate with people from this discipline — i.e., how do they explain themselves, and how can you make yourself understood

3. Know how to work closely with people from this discipline — i.e., how to get things done effectively and productively together

In part, you gain this knowledge through doing — it is by interacting with people on the engineering team that we come to understand how to better interact with people on the engineering team. Practice makes perfect. However, it isn’t a Catch-22 — there are things you can understand from the beginning that will make your interactions flow more smoothly and more productively.

(A cautionary note — remember that although we are talking about groups of people, each individual is unique and has their own style — so while you may start out with certain assumptions about a person, what they value, and how to communicate and work with them based on what kind of work they do, be sure that you let your experience with that specific person inform you as time goes on.)


Design teams are the team that you as a designer have the most insight into but structuring their tools and schedules for effective communication will remain important. Do your own ethnographic research on your team and observe them interacting with the tools they use during the workday. How many steps does it take them to perform typical communications? Are there ways to incorporate additional or new tools that would streamline that process? There are a lot of options out there to help your team communicate more effectively. Find out where and when the work gets done and integrate the tools that work best in those situations, while encouraging meaningful, empathetic communication. How do we as designers communicate with and manage all these disparate people and teams on our projects?

One key step is to develop a shared knowledge framework. Economists talk about an “economy” as a shorthand for a system of transactions where there is a scarcity of some good, compared with the total demand for that good. We say we ‘economize’ on a good when we are using that good as efficiently as we can, given that there isn’t enough of it to go around. Knowledge and information, however, are so easy to copy and to share that there really is no excuse for there to be a shortage within your team. Rather than an economy of knowledge, then, you want to create a “shareconomy” — a system of transactions based on sharing information freely within the group.

This approach relies on sharing rather than hoarding both content and feedback. For example, your sales people are on the front-line, talking to prospects and customers on a daily basis, gaining insight into pain points, challenges, and customer needs. That collected information is priceless to your organization’s future, and it should be shared with marketing, so that they can create relevant content. Marketing in turn is discovering information about customer preferences that the design team really needs to have. The customers said they wanted this expensive feature, but marketing surveys reveal that they don’t ever use it and resent paying for it. The design team needs that information to intelligently formulate the next generation of the product’s evolution. Engineering needs to know what design needs to see in the next product version, while management needs to keep a finger on the pulse of the whole operation. And so on. The bottom line is that great business teams are based on effective communication. If business team members cannot communicate among themselves, they will not effectively communicate with clients and outside entities.