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Collaborative design: A quick-start guide for product design teams

8 min read
Katie Oberthaler

Powerful and effective product design doesn’t just happen out of thin air. By its very nature, product and UX design brings together elements of graphic design, motion design and video, copy, creative direction, web design and more. 

Yet, these creative processes often exist as completely separate work streams. That’s where collaborative design comes into play.

An intentional collaborative design process brings all creators and stakeholders together throughout the creation process, ensuring the end product is both functional and meets expectations. 

In this guide, we're cover:

  • What is a collaborative design process?
  • Benefits of collaborative design for product and UX teams
  • How to build a collaborative design process
  • The best tools for managing a collaborative design process

What is the collaborative design process?

With collaborative design, design teams embrace the entire process of creating an asset, from brainstorming to allocating tasks and team members, alongside stakeholders and other creative teams.

Collaborative design is a multi-pronged process that involves planning and strategy and revolves around delivering iterative feedback and revisions. With this approach, each stage involves real-time review and approval that's tied to the asset itself.

If a team lead or a designer thinks a color on an asset needs to be darker or a video should be shorter, feedback is left inside the asset, so it's communicated clearly and helps meet the end project goal.

Collaborative design helps with:

  • Defining the vision and scope of a project
  • Gathering feedback and context throughout product/UX design and development
  • Promoting discussion and brainstorming to boost creativity
  • Solving specific design problems for clients
  • Facilitating the design review and approval process
  • Working and collaborating remotely

Benefits of collaborative design for UX teams

Collaboration within different teams is arguably the most challenging part of any design process.

Each team and creative will have their own ideas and opinions about what the best way to move forward with a project is. By using a collaborative approach, you can make sure ideas are heard while keeping a project flowing and everybody on the same page.

It unifies the creative direction

Arguably the main benefit of using collaborative design is keeping your team on the same page from the moment a project kicks off right until the finished product launches.

Because the collaborative design process begins with a detailed creative brief, UX teams can start every project with a clear direction. That means they’ll spend less time seeking additional information from stakeholders or struggling to understand vague instructions.   

Rather than spending time in endless meetings, disjointed email threads and disagreements, collaborative design helps your team focus on granular issues within a project.

You can give feedback on design mock-ups and assign them to certain team members, while maintaining a shared goal around the project.

This unified approach helps to instill a sense of democracy within your creative process and tells your team that their voices matter.

It creates actionable feedback

Collaborative design isn’t just an internal process. It also requires stakeholders to be actively involved throughout the project and to provide timely feedback that helps UX teams move forward as projects move from mock-up into design production. 

UX teams appreciate specific feedback—and that’s a point project managers can explain to stakeholders when kicking off a project.

It creates clear responsibilities 

A collaborative design process ensures that everyone knows their roles—and their deadlines. That’s beneficial for UX teams, as well as project managers. When everyone touches 

It provides more time for innovation

Collaborative workflows help UX designers brainstorm with each other, with writers, and with developers. That means UX teams are likely to come up with fresh ideas and features and ensure ideas align with needed functionality and brand standards from the start. 

Also, innovation thrives when a standard process is in place. UX teams can focus on being creative, instead of wading through administrative tasks, waiting on approvals, or seeking clarification on feedback as UX version progress.

It creates a sense of ownership

Have you been looking for ways to make your team really care about the work they're doing?

Collaborative design can help. By injecting creatives into the right stage of the design process and asking them for ideas and feedback, you can give them a sense of ownership around the finished product.

Doing this gets your team invested in the outcome of each project and encourages them to deliver their best work.

More importantly, designers and developers aren't bogged down with the administrative work around simply tracking down design feedback or clarifying change requests on designs. With collaborative design, feedback is centralized and gathered directly on the design file itself. This enables designers to focus on the creative aspects of the project.

It accelerates stakeholder buy-in 

If you create a design process where everybody has greater agency in contributing designs and input, it makes it harder for team members to walk away, miss deadlines, or become disillusioned with a project.

By keeping everybody on the same page and involved in a project, it makes it easier to have collaborative decision-making, and most importantly, agreement on the final product when it's ready to sign-off on it.

6 phases of a collaborative design process

Now that we’ve covered the importance of developing a collaborative design process, let’s look at how to do that.

Research 

The first step of any project is to figure out what design objectives are the most important. Then you can start your research.

Take a look at what competitors are doing and how that compares to your client’s efforts. Consult a go-to authority on UX design to determine what’s new or trending. This is also the time to explore any limitations of your client’s website or CMS, which you may need to do with the dev team.   

Sketch design concepts

Once you’ve decided on a path forward, you can start on design concepts.

First, it's a good idea to plan some creative brainstorm sessions and invite the project team. Use these sessions to talk about your ideas, and start discussing project timelines. 

Here is where the collaborative design process differs from other forms of project management. Involving technical, QA, and backend engineers and designers this early in the process (if needed) means they can think about any obstacles or limitations they may face before a design progresses too far.

Once your team has discussed options, agreed on a rough concept, and evaluated whether you could complete the project on schedule, you can move on to the next step. 

Create mockups

Designers make mockups so developers can see what the finished project should look like, and clients can understand how the piece will function. While you may not be able to show animation or responsive content at this point, a mockup can at least explain how those features will work. 

Get stakeholder approval

Getting approval on mockups is essential, because it helps you move forward on the final design with confidence. For UX projects

Take advantage of user testing

Before presenting the finished design to the client, you need to make sure it functions as intended. That’s why user testing is important. 

If possible, ask internal colleagues who weren’t involved in the project to help test your design. Their unbiased opinions should help you evaluate whether you need to make adjustments. 

Get final approval

Once user testing is complete, and you’ve made any necessary changes, it’s time to present the design to the client.

The best way to do this is to clearly explain to your client why you created the design the way you did and how you did it. Try not to overwhelm them with technical jargon, but instead show them how the end product meets their needs.

5 ways to optimize the collaborative design process

Once you've put the main Feedback and brainstorming sessions that once occurred in lengthy meetings and email chains can now happen in real-time, within the design document itself—if you have the right software. 

Creative collaboration software gives you the tools you need to manage every step of the collaborative design process. Here's how:

Centralize design briefs from the start

For true collaborative design, creative teams need to be able to reference the original approved project goals and design requirements as they work on a project. This helps keep designs on track and prevent the dreaded "scope creep," should clients request new design elements.

With intake forms, UX design teams can collect all project requirements and files to create a detailed design brief that they can refer to at any time.

3 Proof briefs_1-thumb-1

Set different review groups

Every UX design project involves different groups of stakeholders. Those stakeholders may change based on each phase of design a project is in. For example, the mockup phase may require detailed collaboration just within your UX team, with some input from developers 

For efficient collaborative design, we recommend creating individual review groups for management, developers, creatives, so they can each conduct reviews at different stages of the process. You can also invite set permissions about who can view, comment on, and make decisions on a design.

This functionality accelerates the UX feedback process and keeps a log of every comment on every asset. 

ziflow-review-groups-1

Enable real-time collaboration

Email chains are—thankfully—a thing of the past.

Instead of searching for (and potentially missing) feedback in emails, UX teams can find all feedback within a creative collaboration software environment.

As your team works on a design, creatives can add comments, suggestions, and attachments within a document or asset and share those design comps (and their related comments) to other collaboration software spaces.

With more teams going remote, digital feedback process is the perfect solution to keep product design on track no matter where your creatives are. 

Use markup tools to provide feedback.

The software you choose should give your team and clients the ability to be specific when providing feedback. With markup tools, users can highlight a specific area in an image or document when making annotations and comments, and other users can respond in real time. 

making website ada compliant

Manage iterative design with side-by-side version comparison

Version comparison feature allows users to review many different design iterations side-by-side or at the pixel level. That means everyone can see whether the design team interpreted and incorporated feedback as intended. 

Versions comparison of online proofs and commenting 5

Simplify the collaborative design process

Collaborative design powers modern design teams.

From a productivity perspective, collaborative design allows your team to work together and fastens up the feedback and testing process. The early research phase ensures everybody is on the same page, while the later stages of the process means each person working on a design can give feedback before it's handed over to your client.

However, using a collaborative design process also instills something deeper within a team. It gives everybody a chance to get involved and feel a sense of ownership with every product they work on. That's important not only for your quality work, but also the overall bond within your team.

Creating a collaborative design process is much easier when you have the right tools. With Ziflow, you can manage every part of that process—from gathering details for the creative brief to final client approval. 

Learn more about how Ziflow makes the design process more efficient.

 

Katie Oberthaler

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