When I started designing for the web nine years ago, the process looked a lot like this: Designer designed. Designer passed comp to developer. Developer developed. Project done.
Things have gotten dramatically more complex over the past nine years, but interestingly enough, our process has stayed fairly static as an industry. We still tend to work in silos, where one discipline takes care of their part and passes it along to the next.
At Pixo, a digital consulting company where I work as creative director, it took getting badly burned by outdated processes to start experimenting with new tools and techniques. This happened two years ago, while I was part of team working on a complete overhaul of a large university’s website. We were accustomed to using waterfall methodology, but at that point responsive design added a layer of complexity that took us over the edge. As we found out, the larger the waterfall gets, the more dangerous it becomes. And this project turned out to be the Niagara Falls of web projects.
Beyond Waterfall Methodology: Exploring Collaborative Workflows
We’ve learned a ton since that “epic waterfall adventure,” and we’ve found that collaborative workflows, aside from being a lot more fun, can dramatically increase the efficiency, quality and profitability of a project. There’s so much magic that can happen when the walls between disciplines are torn down.
Ideate Together with Collaborative Sketching
My favorite technique to get the full team invested in a project is collaborative sketching. This technique helps build a shared understanding of everyone’s points of view and expectations, and it speeds up the process of reaching the final design.
To run an effective sketch session, identify the feature you will work on and clearly spell out the feature’s goals. If possible, bring examples of similar interfaces for discussion/inspiration. Teams of 3-4 are ideal. While I generally like smaller sessions to be free-form, setting a structured timeline for larger groups helps to keep everyone on task.
Typically, interface sketching is done by the UX team with occasional input from designers. Collaborative sketching really becomes powerful when a broader team is involved. Some of the best design decisions I’ve seen come out of collaborative sketch sessions are from developers. Since they’re going to build whatever we design, they have a strong incentive to make sure that every aspect of the design makes sense for implementation.
By inviting clients, project managers, developers and QA folk into the sketching session, you’ll have access to perspectives you may not have gained otherwise. This creates a culture of shared ownership around the project.
Maintain Cohesive Teams
Extending the idea of project ownership, it’s critical to keep a cohesive team intact throughout the process. Massive knowledge loss occurs when you pull someone off of a project and spinup cost when you add a new person to the team during the process. It takes time for new team members to get up to speed, and time is expensive.
Identify the full team at the beginning of the project and keep them on the project from the beginning to the very end. Cohesive teams that stay together throughout the life of the project are more efficient, have greater ownership of the product they’re working on, and capitalize on the sense of teamwork and trust that builds as the project progresses.
Work in Parallel
The traditional waterfall model is like a relay race. Each team completes its work and passes the baton, in the form of knowledge and deliverables, to the next. The problem with this model is that if an issue or opportunity is uncovered during the later phases of the process, there’s no time left to properly address it. We recently worked with a startup that needed a marketing site designed and developed from scratch in seven weeks. Our typical timeline for a website is 5 to 12 months. To speed up our workflow, we decided to do an experiment—instead of waiting until each piece of the project was done before moving to the next, we’d have UX, design, development and QA all start as soon as possible. We found that working in parallel allowed us to iterate on the site incredibly quickly.
At about two weeks into the project it became clear that we needed to animate the client’s interface to effectively communicate how it worked. We’d explicitly stated in our contract that we would not do any animation in Phase I because of time constraints, but it was clear static images just weren’t going to cut it.
Because we’d made excellent progress at this point, we asked a developer to create a proof of a small animation to see how long it would take. It came together surprisingly quickly, and the developer confirmed that he was comfortable implementing the full animation within our time frame.
This animation was only possible because development started well before UX or design were complete. It gave us the buffer time necessary to add something that became the client’s favorite piece of the site, and escalated the success of the project by providing a bonus feature that went above and beyond the expectations we had set.
Communicate: A Lot
I can’t stress enough how important regular, consistent communication is to both to client and the internal team. Because the startup project was produced on such a tight timeline, we asked the client to commit to a one-hour meeting every day. That may sound excessive, but it was one of the reasons this project was so successful. When you’re working on a tight timeline, the most important thing is to keep moving.
One of the hardest things for us to stomach as we shifted towards collaborative workflows was the increase in the number of meetings we were having. There’s no question—meetings take a lot of time. But we also noticed that the projects where we allowed for more working meetings tended to stay within the budget constraints. While it’s a large (and potentially scary) commitment to make up-front, especially in a consulting environment, it’s paid off for us in the long run.
Not only do we keep the project moving at a snappy pace, meeting frequently allows our teams to really gel. There’s a greater sense of accountability, of momentum, and of excitement about the project.
At this point, we budget about 25-30% of our project for meetings.
Use Task Boards: JIRA Agile
Task boards are a project management tool that allows the team to see, at a glance, the status of any given task on a project. There was an audible sigh of relief throughout the company when we adopted them at Pixo. We use a tool called JIRA Agile for our boards, but there are plenty of options for online tools that you can use instead.
What I love about this view of tasks is the transparency. You know where your team is at at any given time and can address bottlenecks immediately. It’s also a wonderful way to capture and organize your team’s issues, and prioritize and take action on what’s important. As the complexity of our projects increases and the amount of stuff to keep track of grows, task boards have been a life-saver for us. I’m never doing a project again without using a tool like this to manage it.
Embrace Change + Collaboration
At Pixo we’re constantly working to improve our processes, techniques, and ways of being more collaborative and efficient on our projects. It’s taken experimentation, but the results have been well worth the effort. While we’ve become faster and projects are going more smoothly, the real value for me has been the joy of working as a team, and the camaraderie that’s emerged through working collaboratively.
Use these techniques as a starting point and experiment with your own. See what works for your team and your environment. It’s an exciting time in our industry because no one has it all figured out quite yet. We get to be a part of shaping what’s beyond the waterfall.