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Requisite sports analogy for an article about teamwork: The Huskies women's basketball team are awesome

Good design is a team effort

Is it possible to design in a group without the evil perils of "design by committee"?

We’re using a co-design approach for upgrading the university homepage. Over 20 people from across campus are involved. Their day jobs vary from communications specialist to associate dean. They are, in no particular order:

  • Kieran Kobitz (Pharmacy & Nutrition)
  • Marg Sheridan (Medicine)
  • Mark Tomtene (Nursing)
  • Chris Morin (SENS)
  • Jordan Sherbino (Aboriginal Initiatives)
  • Cat Bonner (SPH)
  • Amanda Davenport (Kinesiology)
  • Jamie Houdek (HR)
  • Sarah Trefiak (Law)
  • Jennifer Drennan (CGSR)
  • Gary Brunet (Arts & Science)
  • Andrea Wasylow-Ducasse (Arts & Science)
  • Benjamin Hoy (Arts & Science)
  • Natasha Katchuk (Edwards)
  • David Burgess (Education)
  • Shannon Lucky (Library)
  • Andy Sargent (University Relations)
  • Kris Foster (University Relations)
  • Terice Coleman (Recruitment)
  • Dave Muench (Student Central)
  • Val Swydski (FMD)
  • Kira Glasscock (Agriculture & Bioresources)

This sounds an awful lot like “design by committee”, which everyone can pretty much agree is the worst. So, what’s the difference?

Design by committee:

  • A group defines a list of requirements
  • A designer makes something to satisfy those requirements
  • The group provides feedback on the design through roundtable debate and email
  • The designer makes changes based on the feedback

 Co-design:

  • A group defines a list of assumptions
  • Everyone in the group designs something based on those assumptions
  • The group votes on the best ideas and distills them into one design
  • The design is tested with users

This can be re-worded into a set of three basic principles:

  1. Start with assumptions, not requirements
  2. Everyone is a designer with good ideas and an equal voice
  3. Users validate

Let’s break that down.

Start with assumptions, not requirements

How do you really know something is required in a design? Because the data says so? Because the business need says so? Because the boss says so?

Requirements are assumptions that we’ve determined are non-negotiable. This interferes with our ability to create a positive user experience. If users tell us something is frustrating, but it was defined as a requirement early on, what do we do?

Starting with assumptions means nothing is set in stone. It means the freedom to find the best solutions for tricky problems.

Requirement:

“There needs to be a search box on the homepage” 

Assumption:

“Users expect the ability to search from a homepage”

Everyone is a designer with good ideas and an equal voice 

“Everyone is a designer” is a phrase typically invoked sarcastically by designers who become frustrated in design-by-committee environments. When a designer says “ugh, everyone’s a designer”, they are bemoaning the opinion wars that are neutralizing and complicating designs. 

Co-design treats “everyone is a designer” as an affirmative statement, not a sarcastic one. Everyone is a designer. Everyone makes design decisions every day regardless of their job title. The best ideas don’t necessarily come from the mind of a single specialist.

Unearthing those good ideas happens when everyone has an equal voice. This means avoiding the roundtable debates that allow the loudest voices to prevail. It means changing the mindset from “meeting” to “design studio”. Group sketching, activities, voting, and critiques are just a few things that can help do that.

Users validate

All the assumptions informing a design need to be tested with actual users. We’re designing something for other people, not for ourselves. It is up to them to validate our work.

Testing assumptions with users early and throughout the design process keeps everyone on the same page about what matters, about what works and what doesn’t, about what’s frustrating and what’s delightful.

Following these three principles in a co-design process will help neutralize the opinion wars rather than the opinion wars neutralizing the design.