Collaborative solution design

The problems designers need to solve are often complex, and so they require input from other skill sets to overcome them efficiently and effectively.

For example, a UX design team might spend months designing a perfectly user-focused website, but without an understanding of coding, how do they know if what they're trying to achieve will actually be possible to execute? It'd be a bit like drawing a picture of a humungous cake and then asking a baker to create it without any understanding of the ingredients or the amount of time involved, i.e. pretty pointless.

Design is about hybrid thinking, and designers need to be able to connect the dots between what's culturally desirable and technically feasible. Importantly, this thinking also needs to be viable from a business point of view.

Here at Code, we believe that the best way to achieve this is to work collaboratively throughout a project, and solution design sessions -- which bring stakeholders from the clients business together with multi-disciplinary team members from Code -- play an important role in this.

Solution design sessions can be used to solve larger problems, like a section of a website, or something smaller like a piece of functionality. The purpose is to get the team in a room together for a few hours, or even a whole day, to really focus on the task at hand.

Time pressure = top performance

One of the reasons solution design sessions work so well is that they mean the team has to work to a set deadline, which encourages bursts of productive creativity.

I often find that the more time design teams have to mull over a problem, the more they question insignificant issues and get caught up in debates that don't really matter; in short, they overthink things.

A solution design session structure means team members don't have too much time to think, as they simply can't afford to; as a result, they focus on the key issues and don't get caught up in the less important ones.

This is where the magic happens; when a multidisciplinary team focuses completely on the outcome.

The five steps in an effective solution design process

Step 1: Define your problem

What is the problem the team is trying to solve? Solution design sessions are most effective when the facilitator (the session leader) clearly defines what you're trying to address.

Step 2: Make sure the right people are involved

It's important that a range of different skill sets are represented in solution design process. We find it best to try and involve the following team members:

  • Designers
  • Client -- solution design sessions are especially effective if the client is involved; they know the product in detail and, by seeing how ideas evolve, they'll gain a greater understanding of the thought process behind design decisions.
  • User Experience team
  • Front end developers
  • Back end developers
  • Project manager -- as they'll be responsible for delivering what actually comes out of the session,it's important to get project managers involved from the very beginning.

Step 3: Prepare

Preparation is key when it comes to running a successful solution design session. Some of the things we try to prepare beforehand are:

  • A clear definition of the problem
  • Persuasion strategy
  • Content requirements
  • Initial user journeys
  • Competitor analysis

These are introduced at the beginning of the sessions to ensure that the whole team is on board with what we were trying to achieve. Essentially, they set the stage, and the more refined these documents are, the more focus points your team will have.

It's a good idea to send these documents around the team a few days before the session itself so that they have time to immerse themselves in the project.

Step 4: Solution design session / ideation

For me, this is the most exciting part: once the facilitator has everyone in the team on board, it's time to come up with some kick ass ideas. I'll be discussing techniques for ideation in a future blog post.

Step 5: Refine ideas

This is a very important stage of a solution design process. The team will have some awesome ideas at this point, and it's highly likely these ideas will need refining.

Innovation is the aim of these sessions, but the team ultimately needs to make sure these ideas are realistic and fit the budget and time scales of the project; you certainly don't want to come out of a session with a plan that can never actually be implemented on a practical level.

Remember:

  • It can be easy for conversations to wander off course during ideation. One method to get participants to focus on the task in hand is to have a 'parking lot' sheet of paper where you can 'park' ideas that aren't directly related to what you're discussing so you can return to them later.

  • As a solution design session involves so many people, planning ahead in terms of availability, time and budget is important.

The next steps

At Code we're constantly striving to evolve and improve the way we work. As such, this is by no means a finalised process. One element in particular that we're still working on is how best to incorporate user feedback and testing into these sessions -- watch this space for further developments.


An interview with Umbraco founder Niels Hartvig