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How-to 28 min read April 20, 2022

What is Collaborative Design? The Ultimate Guide

What is Collaborative Design? The Ultimate Guide
What is Collaborative Design? The Ultimate Guide
Design is often thought of as a solitary activity. But more and more, designers realize the power of collaboration.

As technology evolves, designers use collaborative tools and techniques in their workflows to better communicate with stakeholders and users.

Famous industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss once said, “Design is a process - an intimate collaboration between engineers, designers, and clients.”

What is Collaborative Design?

Collaborative design is a term used to describe working with a team of people to design and create a product or service. This work can be done in person or online, and it involves stakeholders from all business areas, from marketing to operations.

The goal of a collaborative design approach is to create a final product or service that meets the needs of everyone involved.

In other words, collaborative design is when people work together to solve a problem. When companies hire designers, they often have different roles in mind, like User Experience (UX) or Interaction Design (IxD) specialists.

But designers can play various other functions on a development team, especially in the collaborative design process.

Companies that emphasize creativity, like advertising agencies and software development, use collaborative design. But it can be helpful in all kinds of contexts. Even if you're only creating something new for your own business, a collaborative design process can help you develop a better idea.

A big part of collaborative design is giving everyone involved the chance to contribute equally. This means that no one person dominates the process, and all ideas receive equal attention. It also means encouraging people to be creative and think outside the box.

Design has been around for centuries, and the designer's role has evolved. The first designers were primarily craftsmen who created functional objects.

With the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, designers began to specialize in different areas, such as architecture, engineering, and advertising. And in the 20th century, designers started using computers to create digital products for clients.

A designer's role can vary greatly depending on the project and the team involved. In collaborative design, designers often play a leadership role, working with other team members to develop solutions and ensure everyone is on the same page.

They also need to communicate effectively with clients and stakeholders to understand the project's specific needs.

What are the Steps of Collaborative Design?

The following are the potential steps and feedback loops in collaborative design:

Perform Design Research

The first step of collaborative design is to perform design research. This research involves understanding the problem you are trying to solve and figuring out your target audience. 

You need to understand your users and what they want from the design before creating anything.

This initial step lays the foundation for the entire project, so spending as much time as you need to gather data and form a plan is a good idea. It’s equally important to include all team members at this point to ensure everyone is on the same page throughout the design process.

Analyze Your Data

Collect all design files, information, and plans from the research phase. You'll use this information to inform your design decisions, so it's essential to see the big picture and how everything functions. 

You must identify patterns and search for potential obstacles or holes in the data at this stage. Fill in as much information as you can to craft a detailed plan for what your team needs to accomplish, including a list of required elements and targets. An affinity diagram might help organize the information.  

It’s also a time for team members to learn each other’s styles and filter into their respective roles. Learning how your teammates across functions work and approach the project makes cross-functional collaboration much easier. 

Keep in mind that each team member can, and should, take unique approaches to analyze data and construct a plan. Some designers create detailed user personas that give background information on their target audience. 

Others strive to understand everything from the users' problems to their pain points, passions, and desires. 

Encourage everyone to participate and provide insights, even if it takes a long time to get everyone on the same page at this stage. Remember, it’s more challenging to return to this phase later in the process, so it's essential to be patient and dig deep for qualitative research.

Sketch Design Concepts

You can think of these sketches as visual blueprints and your team as design architects. 

The design ideas represent the overall structure and layout in its simplest form. 

This step is when you start to think about what's most important to the user and present that information to help them achieve their goals. 

This stage involves open communication and brainstorming. Consider as many concepts as possible and identify any potential roadblocks or design issues involved with each concept. The team should walk away from this stage with rough ideas for the project.

Mockup Designs

The team must flesh out the project’s functionality and design elements with rough design ideas in hand. It begins with creating a wireframe that presents all relevant data in a clean, succinct manner without extensive details.

The wireframe sets out the structure and layout with oversimplified glimpses of the finer design points.

After the team settles on a wireframe, the designers can move on to mockups. The wireframes show more about how everything will function, and the mockups focus on how they will look. Mockups are still frames or snapshots that relay design elements, like fonts and color schemes.

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At this stage, you can use simple wireframing tools like Balsamiq or Keynote to create static mockups of your designs.

You can even work with more advanced prototyping software like Sketch, which allows you to add clickable elements like buttons and links that demonstrate how the design will behave when it's functional.

Run Internal Design Reviews

Once the team agrees on the wireframes and mockups, it's time to bring everything together for another collaborative design session. 

This process is called an internal design review, and it's an excellent way to get feedback from those who will be working closely on the project with you. The team critiques the wireframes and mockups to fine-tune the designs.

Take Advantage of User Testing

Building a prototype is the next step of collaborative design, and it's one that many designers swear by. Prototypes allow you to conduct user testing to understand the user experience better and gauge their reactions to your design solutions. 

It’s important to find several users for the testing and make sure they represent the target audience for the product to get a better idea about how it functions for that demographic. Ask several questions to identify any design flaws or things that don’t work. 

The importance of a good user experience cannot be understated. This approach helps you identify problems early on when they are still relatively easy to change.

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Get Final Approval

The final step of the collaborative design process is getting approval from your client or whoever makes the final changes. This approval may be an internal decision within a company, especially if you're working with research that you've conducted yourself. 

However, it can also involve seeking feedback from a wider audience, whether a focus group or an advisory board of influential people.

How Do You Decide Whose Feedback is Needed?

It depends on what kind of project you're working on. For example, if you're designing a new office space, you'll need feedback from employees and supervisors at the company to make sure that they like it. 

However, if you're creating logos for textiles or even just an app logo design, then maybe you won't need to talk with anyone but your client to get their approval.

The more people are involved in the collaborative design process, including designers, developers, clients, and stakeholders, the better off the end product will be when it's finished. 

Many different types of projects benefit from multiple perspectives during this phase of design methodology; deciding which voices are most worth considering is about meeting everyone's needs as effectively as possible.

Here is a list of steps that designers should follow to ensure that they're creating the best possible work:
Identify all stakeholders at the beginning and throughout the design process to create something tailored for each person involved in your project. It’s also an excellent way to ensure stakeholder buy-in to keep your project moving forward.
Get all feedback early on to make your vision what it should be.
Collaborate with other people to create a shared understanding throughout the project and create an environment where everyone can work together in unison.

Identify Key Stakeholders

Stakeholders are people or groups who have a vested interest in the product or service under review. 

Your team should brainstorm a list of people interested in the project to identify all potential stakeholders. They can be customers, employees, management, other designers, or larger organizations, like companies or communities. 

Additionally, some stakeholders’ opinions matter more than others, so it’s equally necessary to identify how much power each has over the project. Consider your list of stakeholders and assign values to each to designate their level of interest in the project and how much power they have in the process. 

This assessment typically yields four groups of shareholders.
High interest and high power people are those you need to engage at every step of the process and satisfy every concern. Managing the concerns and input from these stakeholders is crucial to the project’s success.
High-power people who might not care as much about the minutiae can impact your project if left unsatisfied. They might not care about the color scheme as much, as long as they don’t hate it.
High-interest stakeholders who don’t have much power over the development or ultimate product can make helpful allies. It’s important to keep them posted on progress.
Low interest and power people essentially know the project is happening and that it matters but require limited communication throughout the process.
Identifying key shareholders is crucial because you want to ensure that all right people are involved in the design process. Keeping the right stakeholders happy and engaged is critical to the project’s success because a high-power player could tank the whole thing if they are dissatisfied.

Get Feedback Early

This is important in collaborative design because you want as much information as possible before finalizing your design phase and potentially waste a lot of time and money by going down the wrong path for your stakeholders. 

Because everyone's goals are different, it is vital to address their needs as soon as possible to determine if your vision fits into that goal or not.

Create a Shared Understanding

Your clients and stakeholders are most likely using various tools to understand what they're buying, whether data, sketches, CAD models, or other design documentation, so the most significant thing to realize is that they are not experts in your field. 

If you can create an environment where everyone can talk openly about their ideas and concerns, then you'll be able to come up with a product that fits both of your needs.

What are the Benefits of Collaborative Design?

Although there are some potential negatives to collaborative design, such as increased complexity and time commitment, the pros of working together often outweigh these cons. The final product will likely be more well-rounded when team members specialize in different design aspects. 

Additionally, by gathering feedback from users who test out your product before it goes to market, you and the team can gain helpful information that will help improve your product.

There are several benefits to collaborative design:
It can reduce the time required to create a product or service. 
By getting feedback early and often, you're able to avoid making unnecessary changes down the road.
It can help improve the quality of the final product. 
When everyone works together, they can share their ideas and develop the best possible solution.
It can help build better relationships with stakeholders. 
By working collaboratively, you can get to know them better and understand their needs. This understanding can lead to a more productive relationship in the future.
Team members can learn from each other and develop new skills. 
When different team members specialize in various design aspects, the final product will likely be more well-rounded.
It can help people feel more involved in the design process. 
By giving everyone a voice and contributing to something meaningful, you're creating an environment where they feel like their opinion matters and have ownership over the product or service.
The results are better because the end goal is to create a product that satisfies everyone. 
By using collaboration, you can get customer feedback early and often, which will help you identify any problems in your design before they become too costly to fix.
When multiple people are working on one product, there's more room for innovation giving you a better chance at creating something original and memorable.
When multiple people are working on one product, there's more room for innovation giving you a better chance at creating something original and memorable.
It can help build relationships with your stakeholders. 
Everyone is encouraged to work together, which creates a bond that will hopefully last throughout the project.
It allows team members to specialize in various skills and work as a cohesive unit. 
Teams can also share equipment, which saves time and money.
There are a few disadvantages to using collaborative design:
It can be more time-consuming. 
You need to gather feedback from everyone involved, which can take time.
It can be challenging to get people to agree. 
Because everyone has different goals and needs, it can be tough to reach a consensus.
It can be challenging to motivate everyone if they're working in competition with one another.
It can be challenging to move forward if you're stuck in a deadlock.
By allowing everyone to contribute, there is a possibility that you'll end up with multiple conflicting decisions and no way of figuring out which one is the best choice.
Collaborative design can cause project scope creep when the product owner gathers more and more user feedback, leading to increased work hours.
If team members are in different places, it may be challenging to communicate effectively.

Is Collaborative Design Only for Designers?

No, collaborative design is not only for designers. 

Anyone who wishes to work more effectively with a team can use collaborative design thinking processes. 

By using collaborative design tools, everyone can share their ideas and feedback in a way that is easy to understand and helps move the project forward. It is helpful in any field where collaboration is needed. 

Some of the most common uses include:
  • Product development
  • Software development
  • Marketing
  • Graphic design
  • Web design
  • In-person meetings
  • Customer service
The collaborative design approach encourages team members to communicate effectively and share ideas for the betterment of the project.
Several real-world examples highlight this method’s importance and effectiveness.

Consider the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit organizations can use collaborative design to accomplish many goals, from educating stakeholders to securing more funding. Multiple nonprofits can work together to reach more people and achieve a common goal.

Collaborative design can also impact government organizations. Adopting a collaborative approach could improve government processes by engaging constituents more closely on civic initiatives and help bridge the divides between parties and issues.

Take things down to a smaller scale by applying them to an office setting. Sharing ideas between teams and departments can expand the company’s scope and offerings to serve more clients. 

It’s also an excellent way for new employees to break the ice and connect with co-workers or team members. 

Even students can use collaborative design at every level. It leads to better group projects and improved communication skills, preparing them for future careers.

Collaborative design works for any project that involves more than one person or department. Keep in mind that it works best with a diverse group with different viewpoints and business goals.

When Should Teams Use Collaborative Design?

Collaborative design can solve issues with any multi-faceted project that requires input from more than one person or group.

It helps teams produce a high-quality product and minimize the chances of making mistakes because there are many sets of eyes on each step, forming a natural system of checks and balances. 

This type of participatory design can also help avoid miscommunications, as it involves all stakeholders from the beginning.

The collaborative design process lends itself to specific points in any project’s development process.
Determining the project’s parameters, including all design requirements.
Bringing all involved parties to the table from the beginning encourages creativity and complete concepts while ensuring everyone starts on the same page.
Gathering data.
Entrusting every team member with collecting and contributing data is a way to encourage open communication, give power to each team member, and gather as much pertinent information as possible.
Brainstorming sessions work best when the entire team can participate and engage in the discussion.
It allows the entire team to examine the project from every angle and typically leads to the best solutions.
Blending diverse team members.
It’s not always easy to bring diverse groups together, but it’s possible in a collaborative design system that values all members equally and encourages open dialogue.
Additionally, collaborative design teams might encounter roadblocks that require circling back to the team with questions and concerns. Aside from the above points, teams should feel free to return to collaborative activities when: 
  • Improve communication
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Develop an improved understanding of their customers and markets
  • Set and meet goals
  • Get honest feedback and ideas from a diverse group of people 
  • Design a holistic product or service that is difficult to break into discrete components
  • Increase collaboration and teamwork across different departments
  • Create a culture of innovation among team members, improving your corporate culture along the way
  • Get input from users early in the actual design process.
The collaborative design method empowers teams while supporting a cohesive and creative environment. It’s often the ideal solution to overcoming obstacles that threaten to delay or derail a project.

Collaborative Design Tips

The first step in using the collaborative design is to gather a team of people working on the project. This group can include designers, engineers, marketers, and other stakeholders. Next, you need to decide on the vision and scope of the project. 

This vision will help set the tone for the rest of the project and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Once you have a clear vision, start gathering feedback and context from your team throughout the design process. This feedback will help you make better decisions and resolve conflicts quickly. 

Generate and discuss ideas in a practical yet fun way.

If your team is struggling with the collaborative design method, you can try a few approaches.
Have open conversations about the design elements and process.
Encourage internal reviews where all members assess the design.
Use a prototype for design testing to allow active participation.
Hold design meetings every week to encourage regular discussion.
Encourage team members to share their inspirations and thought processes.
Finally, make sure all stakeholders are on the same page throughout the process. It’s a building block of the collaborative design process and helps keep people on task. 

Software Tools to Help You

Tools are necessary but are only as good as the person using them. The collaborative design approach allows you to shape your workflow and improve upon it over time to learn new design skills along the way. 

Picking the right software will let you do this effectively. Here are several software tools that can help you when working on collaborative projects:

This tool helps you gather design feedback and context from your team throughout the design process. It also helps to resolve conflicts quickly, and the approval workflow processes available make efficiency easy.

This tool lets you create various illustrations, mockups, and advanced text layouts. A clipboard allows you to save items to use later on, shape scaling tools, symbols for reuse across your project, and more. Plus, it is completely FREE.

This tool allows you to create a collaborative mural that will show your team members' ideas. You can also use it to help you learn new design skills, discuss different aspects of the design and share any breakthroughs or pain points with your team members.

An excellent tool for managing feedback and coordinating a design project. All team members can review your work, and once you get the nod of approval, you know you are good to get going.

Set different review groups, enabling real-time collaboration in a project. You can use virtual sticky notes, chat boxes, and more to collaborate with your team members. Axure software is geared towards the creation of prototypes.
Adobe Illustrator

Features include custom effects, enhanced 3D drawings, cloud collaboration, and vector graphics design. This tool is perfect for any designer already familiar with the other Adobe products.
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Final Thoughts

The design process is collaborative by nature, but many people consider design a solo gig. It might not be easy to switch gears into a team-oriented approach, but there’s no doubt that collaborative design helps people reach business goals more effectively and efficiently.  

By tapping an entire team of stakeholders to address the project from day one, you can streamline the process by keeping everyone on the same page. 

Instead of putting a project together in a piece-meal fashion, a collaborative design allows each party to pool their knowledge and experience from the start to avoid too much backtracking.  

Further, the world is constantly changing with new technology and software. Not everyone on a team needs to learn every new development when several specialties work together to bridge gaps and evolve to address the latest trends. 

Collaborative design highlights creativity and evolution within the business world. 

It applies to nearly any scenario and helps individuals and organizations adapt to challenges while accepting alternative approaches and ideas. 

Consider using a collaborative design approach for your next project to see how your team’s capabilities expand. 
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