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How to Simplify Your Collaborative Design Process

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by Katie Oberthaler

29 September 2020

Delivering a perfect design to your team or a client takes collaboration.

For agencies and brand teams, that means creative directors, designers, writers, and other team members need to work together to make sure the end product they deliver is both functional and up to client expectations.

However, we often overlook the steps it takes to get from A to B. While we focus on building airtight creative briefs and getting client input, the iterative design process also needs a predictable flow.

That's where collaborative design comes into play.

It's a process where everybody involved in a project—from designers to developers to project leads—come together to give real-time feedback and suggestions about a product during its development. Not only does it improve the end design, but it cuts down on the back-and-forth feedback loop that chews up so much time at creative agencies.

In this guide, we're going to look at:

  • What is collaborative design?
  • What are the benefits of collaborative design?
  • When should teams use collaborative design?
  • 6 ways to build a collaborative design process
  • Software to assist collaborate design

Let's dive in.

Read more: Copperwing Agency Fosters Internal Collaboration for Multi-Format Design Campaigns

What is Collaborative Design?

Collaborative design is where teams embrace the entire process of creating an asset, from brainstorming to allocating tasks and team members.

It's a multi-pronged process that involves planning and strategy that revolves around feedback and is delivered collaboratively. Picture collaborative design much like any planning strategy: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Yet 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.

As important as understanding what collaborative design is, it's also crucial to define what it is not. Here's what a design process looks like that's non-collaborative:

 

Look familiar?

It's not unusual for teams to get caught up in their own bubbles when tackling a design project. The problem is that if a designer plows ahead with their vision of an asset without getting feedback or approval from others working on the project at the right interval, it can re-work and brand compliance issues.

Not only does this strategy risk alienating teams from one another, but it can also throw a project completely off course. If an asset moves to the next phase, but it's not in line with the project brief, then your team will have to start over.

This is both a waste of time—and money.

The good news is, by adopting a collaborative design approach, you can avoid these issues and keep everybody on the same page—from start to finish.

What Are The Benefits of Collaborative Design?

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.

Here are the four main benefits of using collaborative design.

1. Unifies the team around a shared goal or vision

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 lands in your client's hands.

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 isn't just good for each project. It's good for your company's culture. It helps to instill a sense of democracy within your creative process and tells your team that their voices matter.

2. 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, they’re not 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, enabling your designers to focus on the creative aspects of the project.

3. Unlocks creativity and innovation

Collaborative design can give your team a chance to unleash their inner creativity.

Instead of restricting them to set tasks and echo chambers within their team, collaborative design allows them to have an approach that's like sitting around a table with the rest of your agency. In turn, they can make comments, suggestions and bring different ideas to each stage of the process and jump in to in-progress projects without disrupting the flow.

By fostering innovation, you can create innovation.

4. Makes it easier to get 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.

When Should Teams Use Collaborative Design?

As we've already talked about, the collaborative design process is a three-pronged approach that takes in the start, middle and end of a project.

Yet there are some parts of a project where collaborative design is especially helpful, like:

  • Deciding on the vision and scope of a project
  • Gathering feedback and context throughout the design process
  • Promoting discussion and brainstorming to boost creativity
  • Solving specific design problems for clients
  • The design review and approval process

IBM's Global VP Design, Arin Bhowmick, says while finding ways to communicate effectively, move projects forward, and keep design creativity fresh and interactive can be challenging, it's possible with collaboration.

"Though collaborating remotely takes work, patience, and perseverance, it doesn’t mean that achievements of co-located teams are out of reach," he says.

The good news is, building a collaborative design process isn't rocket science. Here are 7 steps to get it done.

Read More: The Definitive Guide to Online Proofing

7 Ways to Build a Collaborative Design Process

To build a successful collaborative design process, you should aim to cover a project from start to finish. This means creating a strategy from the research of the design all the way up to getting it approved.

1. Perform design research

Set a Goal

The first step of any project is to figure out what design objectives are the most important aspect of the project.

Research what the design needs to achieve, client needs, how you'll communicate that throughout the process, and what you envision the end result to look like.

Once you can clearly outline what the goal of a design is, it's easier to build a plan around it.

Form a Plan

After you have decided on a goal, you need to formulate a plan to reach it.

It's here where you look at all of your available resources, like how many people you have free to work on the design project, how much time you have, and how much money it's going to cost.

Gather Data

The final step to the research phase requires taking a deeper look at your client's needs and tying them to your goal.

It's here where your team should start to get involved in the process, as it's best to get everybody on the same page as early as possible. Typically, it makes sense to conduct surveys with your clients so you get to know them better and decide which design solution fits their needs best.

2. Analyze your data

Bring together all of the research you did in step one and thoroughly analyze it.

Look for patterns and decide what concepts and designs an asset must have to meet your goal as well as the client's needs. Here, it's important to get input from everyone who will be working on the project and get their feedback early.

Not only will this open up dialogue and get the creative juices flowing, but it will also start to instill a sense of ownership within your team towards the project.

3. Sketch design concepts

Once your team has discussed a design in detail and decided on a path forward, you should start turning data into initial design concepts.

First, it's a good idea to get some creative brainstorm sessions underway. These will give your team a space to talk about what design concepts have been discussed so far as well as involving any developers who will be working on the project.

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 that not only can they bring fresh ideas to the table, but they can also be realistic about any obstacles or limitations they may face before a design progresses too far.

Once your team has discussed options and agreed on a rough concept, your designers should get sketching.

4. Mockup designs

Once designs are approved, your team can create a more polished design for review.

Mockup designs are particularly helpful for once again closing the gap between a designer's creative vision and the realities and constraints of what a developer is capable of.

Once a mockup has been made by your designers and shown to the wider team, your team needs to remember that developers can't make it into a living interface. That's why designers must make their mockup designs so developers can understand them, including any images, typography, textures and colors they want transferred.

Putting each piece of a mockup design in terms that a developer can understand will make the process smoother once it's handed over.

5. Run internal design reviews

Designing is a continual process.

Your team shouldn't aim to simply hand off an asset from the design phase to the development phase without any feedback. Instead, you should run internal reviews as the design progresses and ask your various teams:

  • What’s working and what isn't?
  • Does the design fit our goal?
  • Does it align with the client's vision?
  • Are there any noticeable flaws in the design?

Numerous people must be involved in internal design reviews. While one designer may have been working on the piece for a week and think it's perfect, a fresh set of eyes can easily spot pixel or color palette problems.

It’s also a good idea to hear any negative feedback or iron out any problems before you hand a design back to a client for their review. If your team works through problems before a client sees a design, it'll not only give it a better shot at matching their vision, but it will also fast-track the approval process.

6. Take advantage of user testing

If possible, you should get user feedback and internal feedback once a design hits the testing stage.

Constructive's senior designer, Doug Knapton, says his team relied on user-testing when they were creating The Air Quality Life Index.

 

Knapton says because the website was a complex data visualization tool, road testing it was crucial.

"I did several rounds of user-testing with colleagues early on in the process of developing the information architecture before doing an additional round with target audience members," he says.

"As a result, I was able to streamline controls and make sure there was a solid understanding of how things functioned from our team before asking external people who had no understanding of the product for their feedback."

As you can see, both user-testing and internal feedback was crucial to the overall success of the website launch.

You should aim to take the same approach once you reach this phase of the design process. If possible, test out your design on informal users who haven't been part of the design process. Not only will this open up the feedback process to new sets of eyes, but it can reveal non-technical flaws in a design and its usability before you finalize it and hand it over to your client.

7. Get final approval

If you've reached this step, it means your design has been researched, planned out, built collaboratively through feedback and user-tested.

The only phase left is getting final approval.

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 clearly how the end product meets their needs using your early data, feedback and vigorous user-testing.

Keeping it simple and educating your client is the best way to get that tick of approval ✅

Use Software to Assist the Collaborate Design Process

The way designers collaborate and deliver high-quality work has been revolutionized by software.

Feedback and brainstorming sessions that once relied on lengthy meetings and email chains can now be done in real-time, within the design document itself. However, picking the right software for your team's unique needs is vital. It should help your team communicate easily, give honest feedback, and make it easier for team leaders and clients to approve the final product.

Online proofing software from Ziflow helps agencies and brands improve collaboration and deliver design projects faster by streamlining the entire creative review and approval process.

Here's how.

Centralize Design Briefs from the Start

As noted, the planning and research phase is critical to getting everyone on the same page before designers begin creating comps and mockups.

For true collaborative design, creative teams need to be being able to reference the original approved project goals and design requirements against design comps as they are created and modified throughout the collaborative design process. This helps keep designs on track and protects against the dreaded "scope creep" when new design elements are requested.

With intake forms, design teams can formalize this process by collecting all project requirements and files and transform it into a collaborative design proof that can be commented on and viewed directly alongside all the design files created for the project. 

brief-1

Set Different review groups

Every design project is broken down into different stages involving different groups of stakeholders.

Using online proofing, you can create individual review groups, from management to developers, creatives and product teams so they can each conduct reviews at different stages of the process. As groups can be given predefined roles and access rights, you can also set who can view, comment and make decisions on a design or version.

This also enables you to conduct an entire complex internal review process and then loop in a group for external/client review without having to create two separate project infrastructures for the same design project.

ziflow-review-groups

Not only does this accelerate the feedback process, but it also means you can restrict who is giving feedback at certain stages. As groups can be named, every comment can be traced back to the person who made it.

The best part about creating groups is that if you need clients or vendors to make comments and give feedback in real-time, you don't need to invite them for lengthy meetings. Just add them as a review group at the right time—and they can do it virtually.

Enable real-time collaboration

Email chains are (thankfully) a thing of the past.

Instead of your teams wasting time by searching for feedback in emails, they can now use Ziflow's online proofing solution to see feedback within a document itself.

screencapture-marketingreview-ziflow-io-proof-uhk13ctn62sdt1vmuci1qf342o-2019-11-15-09_10_32

 

ziflow-review


As your team works on a design, creatives can add comments, suggestions and attachments within the document and even give thumbs-up notations if they like what they see.

By working together and giving feedback in real-time, your team can make changes and move a project forward quicker. And as every comment is time-stamped with the person's name, you can keep a record for compliance or auditing purposes.

Pro-tip: With teams going remote, Ziflow's digital feedback process is the perfect solution to keep your projects on track no matter where your creatives are. Ziflow makes it possible to launch a collaborative design process and sign-off on designs from anywhere in the world.

Use markup tools to provide feedback

Finally, your collaborative software must be specific.

As designs sometimes need to be edited down to the pixel, the software you choose should give your team the ability to point out flaws and suggestions as distinctly as possible. With Ziflow’s markup tools, your team can use detailed annotations and comments to give specific and actionable feedback, conduct conversations around those notations, and indicate when requested changes have been addressed or made. 

Manage Iterative Design with Side-by-Side Version Comparison

 

Once feedback has been gathered, it's important to verify with all team members and clients that changes were implemented correctly. It's not just enough to send a new version for review; collaborative design requires detailed visual comparison for complete accuracy.

feature_versioncomparison_hero

 

Version comparison allow both designers and other team members to review many different iterations side-by-side or at the pixel level. This is also helpful for comparing non-sequential versions, so collaboration can occur in one place across design files. With version comparison, everyone can overlay the designs to understand how changes have progressed, confirm that the design team interpreted and incorporated feedback as intended, and continue the collaboration process across design versions. 

Conclusion: A Simple Way to Make Collaborative Design Less Complex

Collaborative design—at its core—makes sense for 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. And that's important not only for your quality work, but also the overall bond within your team.

With more teams going remote and more clients expecting to approve designs faster, the best way to get there is to pick the right design collaboration software to help you meet the moment.

 

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