Designing Together by Dan Brown book cover, effective collaboration

Improving collaboration and design outcomes with empathy

Senior UX Designer Dave Kachman shares his key takeaways from Designing Together, by Dan Brown, including fundamental concepts that are applicable in almost any situation (not just design) to improve collaboration and navigate successful conflict.

I first discovered Dan Brown when I saw him speak at the 2012 IA Summit in New Orleans on “Managing Difficult Situations on Design Projects”. His presentation defined the basis of what contributes to common interpersonal conflicts. For handling difficult situations, he presented a toolbox of strategies that would allow projects to keep moving forward even during moments of interpersonal conflict. His book, Designing Together, pairs these conflict management concepts with the fundamentals of strong collaboration. We, as designers, thrive on collaboration in our day-to-day work, prompting me to add this book to my reading list.

Unlike similar books that only target project leads, managers, or key stakeholders, this book’s focus is on contributors to design projects. But the concepts here are so fundamental and useful that they’re not just for designers. Dan’s recommendations are applicable to almost everyone—from new designers to team leads, small teams to large teams, internal teams to external teams, and co-located teams to remote teams.

Here are several key takeaways from this book.

The mindset of a designer

Brown’s chapter on mindset reinforces the importance of each team member having the right attitude when contributing to projects. Understanding the different types of attitudes encountered in other designers helps motivate them in the right way, and can be the difference between a project being successful or not.

Brown separates mindset into three distinct parts:

  • Perception: interpretation of the things around a person
  • Attitude: reactions to the things around a person
  • Disposition: the thought process a person uses in deciding a course of action

These three parts of an individual’s mindset can help us plan the most effective interaction strategies when conflict arises.

Of course, there are always two sides to every coin and managing our own mindset is half of the battle. The following paragraph struck me the most when understanding my own specific roles in the design process, no matter what background we’re from or experience we’ve had:

Mindset may be driven by deep psychological baggage and personal history. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The mechanisms may be automatic, but they are reactions that can be felt. Because they can be felt, they can be controlled. [You] may never be able to control your immediate perception, attitude, or disposition, but [you] can pause before [you] act. [You] can take a moment to reflect on the situation and evaluate whether [your] perception, attitude, and disposition are productive. [You] can actively change [your] mindset to change the way [you] see and react to the situation.”

I felt much more empowered after reading that paragraph. It set the tone for applying the concepts discussed in the rest of the book.

The fundamentals of active listening

After instilling a sense of empowerment in his readers, Brown goes on to dedicate an entire chapter on developing great listening skills. This is an essential skill for every designer. Practicing active listening can stop negative conflict before it happens (avoiding the “You’re not listening to me!” scenario), and is fundamental in promoting healthy conflict in projects.

As reference, this chapter can act as a reminder of what contributes to active listening and how we as designers can get the most out of our conversations. There aren’t many books written on listening that focus on a designer’s perspective, so it was refreshing to have this skill featured in its own chapter.

The pillars of good collaboration

Collaboration sessions can be very productive if the participants approach the session with the right attitude. Brown describes this in the form of four virtues that highlight the contributing factors for effective collaboration.

Factors are as follows:

  • Clarity and Definition: when team members on a project can articulate their ideas and share the same language when talking about elements of the project.
  • Accountability and Ownership: each team member has well defined responsibilities, a good understanding of their contribution, and has a stake in the project outcome.
  • Awareness and Respect: team members are respectful of their contributions and aware of how their work can affect others.
  • Openness and Honesty: team members are always open and honest with each other because design thrives on meaningful, constructive feedback.

These virtues are very important for maintaining a productive and creative environment for project collaboration. They boil down to being honest with yourself and others, taking ownership for your work, speaking up when you need to speak up, and being transparent with your colleagues. This is good advice no matter where you are in the project.

Healthy versus unhealthy conflict

Brown approaches conflict in a very refreshing way by defining it as follows:

The way design teams come to a shared understanding of each decision made in the design process

In this definition, conflict is a regular part of the process. In many people’s minds, conflict tends to be thought of as a loaded word, suggesting that each conflict needs to have a winner and a loser and is inherently a negative thing. This definitely does not have to be the case. In fact, negative or unhealthy conflict is often healthy conflict in disguise.

Empathy: The key to resolving conflict

Designing Together can help designers learn about their own mindset, improve their listening skills, and explore various approaches to dealing with collaboration and conflict. More importantly, the techniques can help designers increase their empathy for—and understanding of—other team members, which will ensure that projects can focus on solving the problem they’re meant to solve.

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