The magic of collaborating across disciplines

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Four colleagues working together, gathered around a coffee table covered in paper and notes.
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst.

How I work with developers and product teams to ship faster

What’s behind creating the best experience for your user? After over 4 years as a product designer for large tech companies, I’ve learned where the magic really comes from: it happens when teams collaborate across disciplines.

There are many reasons why working collaboratively can be beneficial. I’ll share a few of the biggest ones, as well as a few practical methods I’ve found most useful.

Save time scoping

By working through a problem together early on in the project’s life, teams can eliminate a lot of back and forth conversations about scope. Instead of each discipline working through a problem individually then bringing it to the others for feedback, only then finding out limitations or scope constraints, collaborating early and often reduces that back and forth.

So much time can be saved when you don’t have to keep going back to the drawing board to make revisions based on new information that another team member had. Collaboration reduces the emotional toll and frustration a team can experience by going in circles.

Create a sense of ownership

When designers involve other disciplines like product and engineering in the design process, it gives those people more ownership over the solution. It can sometimes be hard to get buy-in on an experience where it requires a lot of effort and time to build.

When all parties understand the rationale behind a decision and have the chance to weigh in, it gives everyone ownership of the solution. With better alignment over a solution and the reason for a decision, you are more likely to create a better product where quality doesn’t have to be compromised because everyone understands the value.

In my experience, I’ve worked on projects where being able to speak to — and advocate for — a solution across multiple disciplines has helped convince stakeholders with concerns that the solution is the correct and best one for the user, too.

Encourage regular communication

Working cross-discipline is extremely important to ensure communication is active between all parties. Different disciplines can have different ways of communicating, or tools that they use. It may feel hard at first to get used to communicating, or learning to communicate, in a style that is unfamiliar to you, but, as with anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets, and the better the relationships get.

I’ve gone from little communication with developers, and not understanding much about how solutions are technically executed, to gaining better trust and having a much better understanding of how development works. I did it by simply talking more frequently over Slack, asking about how feasible something is, or by sharing my UX explorations to get feedback and thoughts.

The more you work together, the more natural the back-and-forth communication will become, and the more familiar with each other’s jargon, tools, style of communication, and craft, you will get. This will help ensure that communication is visible to everyone on a team resulting in a better collective understanding and faster communication loops.

Align points of view quickly

It’s easy for disciplines to unconsciously work in silos where different points of view can result in a team working toward different goals. I’ve definitely experienced this on projects in the past, resulting in frustration and a lot of wasted time.

Designers are often the voice of the user and need to make sure they advocate for the best experience possible. Product management needs to make sure that business and vision of the project are communicated to make sure priorities are correct and aligned with the big picture vision, and developers bring a technical perspective on how best to build the product and identify scenarios that may occur which need to be considered. By working together in identifying the problem and contributing to a solution, a team can be confident that everyone is working in unison to achieve the same goal which can save a lot of time spent aligning and re-aligning.

I’m very intentional on projects I work on now to make sure that this alignment happens. It’s resulted in better team morale and more efficient time management, and we have even been able to ship work before expected because of it.

At Shopify, I work on one of the teams that’s building the Shopify Fulfillment Network (SFN) app. Recently, there was a project to improve the way SFN merchants reach out to support to submit issues, or claims. For this problem, I spent several sessions with the developer where we brainstormed solutions together. As Shopify is now Digital by Design, and fully remote, we used Google Meet for these sessions.

By having conversations and talking through the problem together we aligned quickly on what we needed to design and build, and the work was completed and ready to ship much faster then if we hadn’t worked so closely together right away.

Utilize divergent perspectives

Two minds are better than one — and two perspectives even better than that. When two minds of the same discipline work together it can be beneficial for generating ideas, but there is often a similar perspective and approach to solving a problem. Bringing in different disciplines adds new perspectives, new ways of thinking, and new approaches to problems.

I’ve had several great opportunities to work through problems 1:1 with developers on my team and we’ve been able to come up with solutions that I would’ve struggled to come up with on my own. It’s taught me how to think about problems and solutions from different angles, too, for future projects. If we all have a collective goal of making a better product or service for our users we will reach the best solution by bringing all our great minds together.

How to work cross-discipline

Here are a few practical ways you can start implementing these cross-discipline ways of working into your day-to-day routine.

1:1 pairing

I’ve found 1:1 pairing with members of other disciplines to be extremely productive in my working career.

Working 1:1 allows you to build better trust, and grow a relationship that’s conducive to being able to share feedback and ideas comfortably. It also provides an opportunity to learn how to think about a problem from a different perspective and challenge your own assumptions.

There isn’t only one way to pair. 1:1 sessions can be conversations to work through a problem verbally together. It can be a chance to have your work reviewed and receive feedback, and it can be a way to design together.

In this digital world we live in, where a lot of us work remotely, 1:1 sessions can also be a more comfortable way to share opinions since a larger remote meeting can be more intimidating, or provide less opportunity for everyone to contribute.

The stage of work should sometimes dictate who leads the session. For example, in the project I mentioned earlier in this article, the work was more development heavy, so, in most of our meetings, my coworker would share her screen and we would test out ideas we came up with for copy or layout in the code instead of working in a design file, and then building it.

Pairing is also contagious! Because I started this pattern of collaboration and formed the relationship early, it led to the rest of the team feeling comfortable reciprocating and asking to pair. This kind of pairing can apply to any combination of disciplines; the purpose being to work on the solution together with openness to the other person’s perspective.

Group workshops

Gathering a group of people all with different areas of expertise together in workshops is another way to collaborate very effectively because, once again, it brings many perspectives and approaches together. There are many techniques and methods for effective workshops, and many great resources available. The focus of this article isn’t on different types of workshops, but there are some things to keep specifically in mind when including people of multiple disciplines:

  • Be conscious of people’s experience with different activities. A developer can absolutely contribute to UX ideas and sketches, but activities that may be common knowledge for some disciplines may not be for others. I always make sure to give clear instructions and expectations for any activities I include in a workshop.
  • As a facilitator, be aware of tools or knowledge limitations that could limit contributions. For example, if the goal is to generate quick, scrappy layout designs, have everyone use pen and paper instead of a tool like Figma that caters more to a single discipline’s knowledge and skills. Simply put, try and level the field so that no one feels like they are at a disadvantage or unable to contribute. This will help generate more willingness to participate and better ideation.

There really is no prescription, and no right or wrong way to collaborate across disciplines. My hope is that this article and my experience has sparked some inspiration for you to try new things in your teams. The most important thing is: give it a try, keep doing it, and keep trying new methods.

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