Pattern: Show your work
Expose other members of the team to the design process. While designers and other creative people are generally tempted to show only the result of their labor, pulling back the curtain early in the process can be helpful. Besides involving people in the creative process, showing work can help explain the challenges and justify the decisions made. Showing work might entail revealing early sketches...
Pattern: Assert your process
Set the tone, rhythm, and sequence for your process. When embarking on a project, the team may discount the importance of the creative process in problem solving. Other factors — stakeholder schedule and expectations, business milestones, or technical deployment schedules — may influence the approach more than the creative process. Be clear about what the team needs to solve the...
Pattern: Sneak peek
Offer a sneak peek of your work to a lynchpin stakeholder or team member. By holding an informal, one-on-one conversation you can cultivate an ally for subsequent discussions. Incorporating the feedback of a trusted stakeholder creates a sense of ownership, which can help with facilitating large-group discussions. Use when: You’re building toward a potentially controversial or surprising...
Pattern: Call the bluff (or Logical conclusions)
Take a challenge to its inevitable conclusion. For example, when a project manager asks for faster delivery cycles, you can ask whether the stakeholders will be able to assemble their feedback in reasonable time. In these situations, the person making the request does not usually anticipate subsequent impacts of their request. Use when: Faced with a situation which puts unnecessary pressure...
Situation: Uncoordinated collaboration
“So, which one of us is doing this?” Some projects have no plan, no overall direction of where it’s going long-term and the activities required take to get there. Other projects may understand the objectives, have a general sense of the activities and outputs, but have no structure for how people will work together: how often are we meeting? how are we using those meeting times?...
Situation: Efforts ignored
“This stuff doesn’t really matter because we’re working on a separate track.” Members of the team choose to ignore outputs, recommendations, and solutions provided by team members assigned those activities. The quintessential example here is a disenfranchised design team — where some team members discount the value of their contributions. The effect: Without...
Situation: Lack of context
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes here…” Teams do not have insight into the organizational, business, or operational context surrounding a project. Context is crucial to the success of a design project because it allows designers to gauge what approach, process, and solution will be the best fit. Context establishes constraints, not only for the project, but for...
Situation: Excluded from planning
“It’s a shame she’s not in the meeting. All these action items are for her.” The people responsible for delivering and executing are not included in the planning process. The effect: Project teams spend more time reconciling plans (or easing the anxiety of the producers) than necessary. The challenge: Collaborative environments tend to favor the path of least resistance,...
Situation: Poorly planned presentation or...
“I hate to put you on the spot, but…” Project stakeholders do not understand the design work because the design team hasn’t assembled a meaningful narrative. Designers may have been asked to present concepts without sufficient notice, or the design team neglected to anticipate questions from the stakeholders. The effect: Progress on the design work may be held back until...
Situation: No Time to Design
“Just get some rough ideas down by tomorrow, OK?” Forces outside the design team establish an unreasonable schedule for producing design ideas. The effect: Designers confronted with this situation will resent the project team if forced to prepare outputs without sufficient time. If they comply with the unreasonable request, they may find themselves committed to a design concept that...
Situation: False Consensus
“I think we all agree here.” The team comes to some agreement (on direction or approach, for example) but doesn’t really understand the underlying assumptions or the downstream implications. If they understood those, they might not agree. The effect: A false consensus may move the project forward, leading to more challenging conflicts later when the underlying assumptions come...
Pattern: Small Victory
Do a small project (a pilot or proof of concept) to help other teams or organizations understand the value or the purpose of a larger program. Like the “Make it Real” pattern, by doing a pilot project, the team has an opportunity to experience the execution of a particular strategy or direction. By implementing at a small scale, the team can extract lessons learned to set them up for a...
Surviving Design Projects - The Game
The little game I made based on Surviving Design Projects is now for sale. You can buy it at print-on-demand vendor TheGameCrafter.com. I’m very pleased with the quality of materials from TheGameCrafter. While the box is a little flimsy, the cards are very high quality, comparable with any commercial board game. (I play a LOT of board games.) So, go and get a deck now!
Pattern: Change the metaphor
Employ a different metaphor for exploring the situation. People typically use war as a metaphor for talking about conflict. Through this metaphor, we come to expect winners and losers, offense and defense, and strategies of shock and awe. The anticipation of conflict, when positioned akin to war, makes it inevitably unproductive. Resolving Conflicts at Work offers two other metaphors: Conflict...
Force yourself to look at a situation from both a macro and micro view. It can be hard to consider a situation from multiple perspectives. Through these lenses, however, nuances of the situation reveal themselves. New and different perspective on a situation gives you an opportunity to re-evaluate the conflict, and determine whether the conflict is truly stalling a project. Use when: ...
Realize how much your trust of someone (or something) is driven by faith, not by experience. We are wired to believe things we want to be true, and aren’t always “rescued” by our rational side. That is, the bullsh*t detector doesn’t always ring loud enough to overwhelm our desire to believe in our colleagues. Decisions driven by faith can lead to conflict when performance...
Pattern: Pick one thing
Unpack a conflict by picking one aspect and focusing only on that. Sometimes, conflict is caused because the situation consists of many overlapping aspects. Layered agendas, objectives, problems, and requirements can lead to conflict when team members don’t have clear priorities. By picking one thing to focus on, you can eliminate some of the noise, and use that to drive other problems. Use...
Pattern: List assumptions
Create a list of assumptions behind the situation. Sometimes, different people are making different assumptions about responsibilities, parameters, constraints, objectives, or anything driving creative work. Writing a list of assumptions brings them into focus, and encourages team members to ask questions, validate the assumptions. Use when: Team members are not performing as expected,...
Pattern: Draw pictures
Use pictures to communicate situations and solutions. Countless books describe the power of communicating visually, so there’s no need to validate it yet again here. You can use that power to bridge the gap between people who aren’t communicating effectively. Use when you need to: Define the problem Validate constraints or parameters Highlight specific issues Establish a design...
Pattern: Offer alternatives
Prepare several options for moving forward with an easy way to compare and contrast. It’s easier for people to select from a small number of options than it is for them to zero-in on an approach without a starting point. You might want to compare approaches for: Design directions Models for explaining users or site structures Next steps on a project Project plans The important part of...
Pattern: Treat it like a project
Apply a project framework to a situation. Looking at the conflict through the rigid structure of a project lens, you can identify what you need to solve the problem. Projects consist of goals, parameters, requirements, activities, and outputs. Defining elements yield schedules and assignments and risks and dependencies. Projects establish a framework for working together. Using a lens to look at...
Self-Awareness: Elements of default style
Know what aspects of design are hallmarks of your style. Some design challenges will respond favorably to your style, but others will demand breaking the mould. For most designers, “style” is their go-to concept, the collection of patterns, tricks, and licks that they apply immediately to any design problem. Leaning on your go-to concept as a way to break the ice makes sense, but...
Situation: Distracted by shiny objects
Team members lose focus of project objectives because they see something novel, and wonder how it might fit into their project. ”Shiny objects” is the favored term for ideas that have captured the imagination of the public or the industry. These ideas get a lot of play in industry press, and quickly make their way into design conversations: “Why can’t our site be more...
Situation: Distracted by the competition
Members of the project team lose focus on project objectives because they are distracted by a competitor. This competitor may be outside the company, but is often inside the organization — a separate team working toward the same, overlapping, or competing objectives. The effect: Project teams can’t operate efficiently because resources are diverted to “deal with” the...
Self-Awareness: Your agenda for peer reviews
Know what format and structure for peer reviews helps you the most. For some designers, the peer review is a great opportunity to get feedback on initial concepts and ideas. In these conversations, the designers hash out the design direction, ignoring details and ensuring they’ve solved the core problem. For others, designers lean on peer reviews to help flesh out the details of a...
Self-Awareness: Your trigger
Know what it takes to bring out your best design work. For some designers, the trigger is a relatively low bar: simply putting a design challenge in front of them is enough to start the creative process. For others, they need to reach a tipping point. The higher that point, the more energy it will take to get to get the best design work. One high bar is total project failure. In this case, the...
Product teams may create early mock-ups to frame the problem, which locks them into a particular mindset. In design, too much preparation leaves no room for innovation. By over-preparation, I mean walking into a situation where the design team has thought so much about the problem, and relied so much on pre-existing assets, they can’t think about the problem independently of their initial...
Situation: Don't know what we need
Despite their best efforts, project teams may not be able to articulate a single clear design problem. While it’s unnecessary for a client to have a fully-fledged assignment at the outset, the design team should be able to state the design problem confidently after at least one discussion. By the time the project is underway, every member of the design team should be able to summarize the...
Self-Awareness: Defining the Challenge
Know how good you are at hearing the need and defining the core design problem. Design problems come in translucent packages: sometimes it’s hard to see what the real challenge is. Product owners surround the design problem with extraneous and distracting data that may not directly contribute to the solution. Sometimes the package is plastered with too much relevant information, which also...
Self-Awareness: Desired Cadence
Know how quickly you like to work. Designers work to a rhythm. Some are moderate, where designers appreciate the distinct swings between doing design and doing reviews. Their unit of choice for measuring time is the week, giving themselves time to noodle on a concept and zero-in on an approach. A week gives reviewers enough time to balance their responsibilities between this project and others. ...
Self-Awareness: Perception of Control
Know how much you feel in control of a project. Some designers walk into a project and understand they have control over all the parameters. Not just the logistical ones like time and budget and resources, but also the foundational ones like objectives and scope. Indeed, some designers believe they control the project top to bottom. Others perceive themselves as a pawn in the game, doing their...
Know how comfortable you are with major changes in philosophy, approach, or management. Regardless of ability, people have a willingness to adapt. Some see the direction of their organization’s culture or process and adapt their skills to fit in. Others see such changes as incompatible with their career (or worse, an affront).
Reflections on A List Apart #335: Mystery and... →
Issue 335 of A List Apart deals with some of the softer issues facing web designers. Jeff Gothelf treats us to some advice on making design less opaque to clients, and Denise Jacobs deconstructs the inner critic. It’s nice to see web design magazines deal with the dynamics of the team rather than just typography, HTML, architecture, and other technical matters. While these articles...
Dealing with Difficult Clients (The 99 Percent) →
The 99 Percent (the blog of the Behance network) offers four personas characterizing “difficult clients”. In addition to a description, each persona includes underlying motivation and a technique for dealing with those kind of people. Why no personas? Surviving Design Projects doesn’t include “client personas,” because: Not just clients: Conflict in creative...
Give Negative Feedback Positively →
(via @harvest) I disagree with a few points in this article, but it generally offers some good basic patterns for providing feedback. The article takes a broad position, dealing with all kinds of feedback, but the patterns apply to designers as well. Always start with the positive? The article suggests avoiding starting with positive feedback. I appreciate the position: if the news is bad, give...
Pattern: "Last time we spoke..."
Gently remind team members about the outcome of previous conversations. Use when: Confronted with a team member with short-term memory loss, and presenting you with conflicting feedback or direction. Considerations: Capture action items and outcomes in real-time for every meeting to ensure YOU don’t suffer from short-term memory loss.
Thanks for checking out Surviving Design Projects! If you’re anything like me, you respect that the best design work happens collaboratively, the collective effort of lots of different people. For me, these relationships create a complex dynamic that define the design team’s overall satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong: dysfunctional teams can be effective, and the most harmonious...
Self-awareness: Your preferred feedback
Know what kind of feedback on your work makes you the most productive and what kind of feedback makes you defensive. Providing feedback on design work is a delicate art. Too much, and the designer feels a loss of control. Not enough, and the designer may not get a strong sense of direction. But feedback efficacy also depends on the packaging (delivery channel, tone) and the scope. You may get...
Pattern: Make assumptions
Allow yourself to move forward in the design process by making assumptions about missing inputs. Even if you don’t have every requirement captured, every interview complete, or every piece of content inventoried, you can still make progress in solving the design problem. Make some assumptions about the missing inputs, document your assumptions, and prepare a design around them. Discussing...
Situation: Reluctant participation in...
Some members of the team may not actively participate in creative games and brainstorming activities. Collaborative sessions to generate lots of ideas or validate an approach have become a staple of the design process. Since designing products (web sites or otherwise) touches so many people in the organization, these sessions typically involve lots of different kinds of people. Some of them may...
Situation: "Have you seen this site?"
Someone contributes comparative examples with little or no practical relevance to the design problem. Bringing content-heavy sites to a brainstorming meeting about a highly transactional application, for example, distracts the team from the core problem. The effect: Every design process is well-served by examples and inspiration from outside the immediate problem. While incorporating examples...
Situation: "I did some mock-ups"
A non-designer on the project team prepares screen designs, concepts, or other artifacts attempting to establish a creative direction. The motivation for creating these designs varies. It sometimes indicates a dissatisfaction with the approach of the design team. Sometimes other members of the team are eager to share and promote their ideas. The effect: When a non-designer shows up with design...
Situation: Disintermediation from key stakeholders
Designers find themselves separated from the true client or customer through layers of bureaucracy. The effect: The “telephone effect” hampers the designer’s ability to communicate ideas, solicit input, and understand feedback. Members of the team (especially those part of the bureaucratic layers separating the designer from the client) may perceive performance issues. The...
Situation: Misinterpretation of tone
The recipient of your message reads hostility or disrespect into your communications. Their responses are positioned relative to the perceived tone, not to the actual content of your message. The effect: Communication on a project comes to a halt because the recipient can’t get past the perceived tone of the message. The challenge: Some people are wired to read the worst into even the...
Situation: Responses not timely
You’re not receiving responses to your inquiries about feedback, next steps, required inputs or other dependencies for forward progress. The effect: This could lead to operational issues if you fail to make progress because you aren’t getting the responses you need. It could impact your performance. The challenge: You could proceed without the requested responses, but perform...
Idea: Choose your own adventure
In workshops where people might find role-playing awkward, this approach can encourage discussion of conflict management techniques. You’re dealt 10 cards, 5 with different patterns and 5 with different situations. Put the situations face-down in front of you. Keep the patterns visible to you. Turn over the first situation card, and choose the best pattern to deal with the situation....
Anti-Pattern: Playing the victim
The designer blames everyone but himself for the problems occurring on a project.
Pattern: What's your first step?
Ask colleagues what their immediate activity will be upon receiving a new assignment. Use when: Employing a new methodology or technique, and you’re not sure how your team will proceed. Team members can’t offer specific answers about how they’ll contribute to the overall project or how they’ll address the project’s objectives.
Anti-Pattern: Insult colleagues' intelligence
By speaking in lofty terms or abstractions, without getting specific to the project or work at hand, you make your colleagues feel dumb. This happens when: You feel defensive about your work. You rely on idealistic methodologies and avoid getting concrete.
Anti-Pattern: Black box
You go off to your desk and work on the solution to a problem, unveiling your work on the deadline itself. You don’t invite critique of the work in progress, ask clarifying questions throughout your process, and get defensive about your methodology.