Collaborating in UX design: don’t be afraid to share

Sometimes, for some strange reason, the thought of sharing ideas and learning from each others practices and design patterns is a sentiment met with negativity and resentment. At times in my career, no matter how much I pitched an idea for a non-critical review session to colleagues, there was a resistance and an overwhelming feeling that they thought I wanted to encroach on their territory and tell them how things should be done.

In reality, collaborating is just as much about learning about the work at hand as it is working out how to design it.

The real issue, of course, is that 1) as designers, we have difficulty in letting go of “our baby”, and 2) sometimes we don’t always see eye to eye and find it hard to come to the realisation that maybe our designs need to change.

There’s a 3rd one too, when someone comes along and expresses concern about a design and goes on to share an idea that’s been discussed a few times before, it’s not long before it starts to cause a stir.

Only in recent years, have we started to break down those barriers and we’re learning to accept that working together as designers is a good thing.

For the last year, I’ve been working as an Interaction Designer on a cross-government project that brings together the ability to register a company with Companies House and register for corporation tax with HMRC at the same time.

With Companies House based in Cardiff and HMRC in Telford, there are obvious hurdles to jump; not least the difficulty of getting the policies of two separate organisations aligned in a way that allows us to do our job effectively.

Early on, we found it difficult to communicate our ideas and to get consistency in style and language across what is literally two separate government transactions in one single user journey. We treated ‘HMRC screens’ as theirs and ‘Companies House screens’ as ours. It wasn’t long until we realised that this was counterintuitive for our users. In order to design a great journey, we needed to be a great team that worked on things together. Mutual understanding from both sides, is key. The only way to understand the problem is by talking to each other and the users.

In my time as a designer in government I’ve learned that there’s nothing that keeps you on your toes more, or makes you re-evaluate yourself and your work, than a new designer on the team. A new content designer recently joined the team and like the many new people who have joined the team before him, myself included, he shook things up a little. He brought a set of fresh eyes and helped us see that we still have a lot to improve upon — users still need that voice.

It’s sometimes hard to take when someone comes along and says that they can see that users are still struggling with something that you feel you’ve taken as far as you can.

Don’t be afraid to embrace it though. Because no matter how much you resent the advice at first, it almost always works out for the best for the design and ultimately, the user.

It should be encouraging to have someone else’s take on it. Someone to make those little tweaks that make a design that little bit better. You may never have had that opportunity to improve it without their input. Users will be thankful for it.

As a group of designers, we decided to put together a better style guide for content, lay down some rules that had relaxed in recent months and tackle some big parts of the journey that we felt that we wanted to improve.

That last bit is important. We took time to stop working on what we were doing in order to concentrate on something that hadn’t been discussed with anyone else apart from us, a group of designers wanting to make things better.

The culmination of two days work with some very talented HMRC colleagues has given me a new outlook on the project, a revitalised enthusiasm for the work at hand. It’s allowed me to work on some big parts of the journey that I’ve wanted to tackle for a while. Importantly, being face to face has also given us the opportunity to learn from each other and input into things we wouldn’t usually feel confident doing on a video conference call.

Author: Jonathan Thomas

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