UX
December 3, 2020

Product design collaboration process – what should it look like?

Jagoda Barankiewicz
UX Designer

We have been collaborating on numerous projects with different clients for a few years now – from startups through scaleup companies to corporations. The cumulative conclusion that we’ve been able to draw from all those partnerships is that your clients should always be treated as true creative partners in the product design collaboration process. The close collaboration between a client and their product design team is essential to the product's success.

Why? Because – in general – whenever UX designers collaborate closely with their clients and share common goals, things move faster and better end-products are built. And there are some battle-tested tactics and tools to help make the process go as smoothly and effectively as possible, which we happily share later in this article.

However, before we move forward, you may want to clarify what product design really is and how we use it at intent. You can check out our last article to answer any questions that you have on this topic. But if you’ve already got it covered – then let’s cut to the chase.

Collaborative design - the definition

Collaborative design is a straightforward approach to the product design process that connects the design team with their client, so they can work together towards a common goal. When each entity communicates regularly and openly, it creates an environment that ensures mutual trust and helps keep the focus on developing the best possible product and user experience that seamlessly connects business and user needs

And there are a number of benefits related to the collaborative design approach.

Benefits of product design collaboration

  • Continuous and open communication prevents misunderstandings, costly revisions and unpleasant surprises from occurring. 
  • Close cooperation also brings different perspectives to the table and gives UX designers more information that helps them develop creative solutions.
  • Maintaining a continuous dialogue with the client ensures that all team members are always kept in the loop and are as well-informed as possible.
  • Involving clients in the project makes it possible to utilize their specialized expertise and results in finding better solutions that suit their needs.
  • Whenever clients get involved in a UX design process that they have never been part of before, they also gain a better understanding of what it takes to build a great product and become more invested in the outcome.
  • Efficient collaboration with clients usually saves both sides many hours that would otherwise be spent on unnecessary iterations and brings the product to the development stage sooner.

Seems like a beneficial way of working for both sides of the product design project, doesn’t it? Now, let’s take a closer look at what the collaboration process looks like between the client and the designers.

Design collaboration process

Product design collaboration process

The particular activities that are undertaken by the client and the UX designers vary per project, depending on complexity, specific goals, challenges and priorities, the project budget and the personal preferences of the team members. The way that we shape the cooperation between the client and the UX team is constantly evolving, too. It’s fuelled by feedback from clients, as well as new tools and techniques that are discovered during the product design cooperation process. The most vital techniques that we implement daily at intent to make sure the client-UX design team collaboration is a success, include: project kick-off meetings, the efficient transfer of knowledge, regular contact and communication, and finding solutions together.

1. Project kick-off

Each client and each project is different. Still, we begin every project with a “kick-off” as a proven tactic. This might be a half-hour phone call or a half-day session. During the kick-off, a client meets the team that is going to work on their project. This is the first opportunity that both the client and the agency have to get to know each team member.

What does it look like in our case, exactly?

  • We usually start by going over the project briefing and requirements, and then we talk timelines and go into details about the desired product. 
  • We also explain the design process step-by-step to clarify areas of confusion, flag potential issues, and address any outstanding unknowns. We do this in order to significantly de-risk the whole undertaking.
  • Plus, this is when the project manager usually identifies the client's points of contact and fixes up details of task ownership on each side. 

And that’s what our kick-off meetings (or calls) look like. But before any UX designer is ready to dive into the deep waters of product design, she/he needs to be sure that he has all the knowledge about the product, the business and its users.

2. Knowledge transfer

So, we put a big emphasis on effective knowledge transfer, in order to make a viable blueprint for the end-product. During a knowledge transfer session, the people responsible for the user experience ask the clients lots of questions related to their target audience, business goals, and the existing research and technology constraints. More often than not, a UX designer will also ask for all the available documentation describing the product, the results of any user research, a style guide and all the design assets to be provided.

In order to manage this process, we use a few helpful tools:

  • For most of our new projects, we create a dedicated Slack channel along with a Dropbox or Google Drive folder, where we share all the project-related materials. These tools serve as collaborative spaces where both our clients and our team members can quickly find answers to all their questions and issues, and where ideas can be shared and discussed regularly.
  • A workshop is also a great tool to fill in the knowledge gaps. It is an intensive process that makes it possible to effectively align the whole team and often results in creative outcomes that can change the final product for the better. (link to the article about workshops).

Only after the essential knowledge has been transferred can the design team begin the product design phase. 

3. Regular contact and communication between a client and a product designer

Too many meetings and too many designs to choose from might be confusing and painful for the client. But too little communication can also result in the loss of vital information and a lack of direction for the designers. So, a collaborative design approach must find the right balance between “too much” and “too little” communication. This is why, depending on the project, we usually organize weekly or bi-weekly design-oriented meetings, during which the experts present their work and gather feedback from the client.

And we have to admit that our “happy medium” really works well in practice: 

  • By maintaining regular communication, we are able to make sure that everyone is as well-informed as possible. The clients are always kept in the loop about what is actually happening, what has been done and the next steps to come, and they can also actively participate in the problem-solving processes, brainstorm with us and make suggestions for improvements. 
  • Designers, as a result of this, can make informed decisions based on client feedback as they work on the product. 
  • Constant communication, through these meetings (and other channels), is also important because it strengthens the relationship and team-spirit among designers and clients. The client sees the hard work (that they are paying for!) and the reasoning behind the solutions, and the designers begin to understand the challenges and pressures through which the client must navigate.

However, this collaboration is not limited to regular contact and communication between these two parties… Actually, it goes way beyond that because it just so happens that our designers often invite clients to participate in co-designing activities. 

4. Finding solutions together

Sometimes this turns out to be a quick consulting session or just a chance to run an idea by the client, while other times, it can result in design work itself. We may even ask clients to literally sketch some solutions. Does it make sense to involve non-designers in the design process? The answer is “yes” because when everyone contributes and demonstrates their personal skills, knowledge and expertise, each individual adds value to the greater whole. Through these collaborative activities, we have a chance to explore the diverse range of ideas that come from people with different perspectives and roles, and then discuss them to come up with the best possible solution together.

Of course, this kind of approach requires some effort from both sides. Much less from the client, but still — and the final outcome is really worth it.

What is expected from the client?

What is expected from a client in product design process

  • Engagement. Since the product design team is building products for the client, it’s obvious that their input is more than expected. Especially since it’s the client who knows their business best and has tons of insights that may help in the development of creative solutions. The client should at least provide the design team with all the necessary information about the product, its users, and the project requirements, etc. Ideally, as we mentioned above, the client should also demonstrate engagement in the design process by: reserving time to review the design work, make suggestions for improvements and do some brainstorming together with the experts. 
  • Trust. Our designers know how to design and have all the skills and experience needed to build excellent products. However, building great products takes time and the designers need periods during which they simply put their heads down and dig into their sketches, flows and wireframes. During these times, we expect that the client will trust that our specialists are doing their best to progress toward a great outcome.
  • Straightforward communication. Designing a great product that fulfills client expectations without proper communication is almost impossible. Our designers really want to know how their work and process are perceived, so that they can design accordingly. This is why we expect our clients to express their concerns and frustrations, but also to tell us if they are excited and happy.
  • Flexibility. More often than not, as the project progresses, you may encounter surprises and hiccups that weren’t part of the initial plan. Sometimes, they turn out to be great. Other times, it’s the opposite and a gap emerges between what’s possible and what the client had hoped for. In these cases, we expect our clients to demonstrate flexibility and be open to modifying their plans in order to create the best final product. 

What is expected from product designers?

Client expectations in product design process

  • Proactive approach. During the collaboration with the client, it’s obviously the designer who takes the lead. They are responsible for establishing the most suitable process, selecting the most useful research and design tools, and deciding to what extent they want to involve the client in the workflow. Every designer has a unique style of working, but our ground rule at intent is that the designer should be at the helm, and be proactive in putting forward ideas and implementing them, rather than relying only on the client’s creativity and engagement.
  • Curiosity and humility. A good designer should be constantly learning and always curious. However, we never assume (and neither should you!) that they have all the answers. A designer who can admit that they don’t have expertise in their client’s field shows maturity. Rather than making assumptions or claiming knowledge, a good specialist does whatever it takes to identify the people who can fill all the knowledge gaps. So, consulting with the client during the design process is not a sign of weakness, it’s the opposite – it’s proof that the designer is mature enough to acknowledge the fact that they are not always infallible.
  • Ability to receive and accept feedback. At intent, we strongly promote “feedback culture”, where designers are expected to actively encourage clients to give their opinions on their work and progress. Feedback, whether positive or negative, brings a lot of value to the process as it provides alternative perspectives, especially in the form of any critique or advice that could help improve a design and ultimately build a better product.
  • Justifying their decisions. Design, to some degree, is subjective because it is the result of a number of decisions made by a specific designer. That’s okay, as long as the expert can clearly justify their solution. We expect that the designer should always be able to explain the reasoning behind their designs and have answers ready if the client questions them. They should defend their point of view, but at the same time, they should also empathize with the client's point of view and do their best to understand their worries. 

Now you may be wondering what happens when the client and the team can’t come to an agreement?

Well, in this case we recommend testing solutions with users – you can learn more about this in our article about the advantages of UX research. This doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive or time-consuming as we can do some quick guerilla testing or test the product internally with our employees who have not been engaged with the product. Testing the solution with just 5 users is usually sufficient to decide what will work best.

And what happens if the client doesn’t want to be involved in the creative process at all?

We totally understand that some clients prefer to be rather distant observers, who step in only when we need them to give the final word. Nevertheless, we want the client to have a basic understanding of what the design process looks like and the reasons behind our design decisions. And the designers always take the time to educate our clients on why their involvement leads to building better products. Also, we use a certain set of tools created to make the collaborative process go as smoothly and as flawlessly as possible for our clients.

Collaboration tools – our selection

Product design collaboration tools

We always bet on quick and effective collaboration, which is why we use a set of tried-and-tested tools. Since sharing deliverables is a significant part of how we communicate with our clients, we only use tools that offer easy access to what we do and that support pleasant interactions, removing all barriers in collaboration for all the parties involved. And this is what we leverage: 

Figma

Figma is our everyday design tool that has revolutionized the way we collaborate in the design process with our clients. This is a collaboration-first, shared workspace tool that we use to prepare flows, wireframes, low and high-fidelity designs and even interactive prototypes. Figma comes with some great collaboration features:

  • You can watch teammates design or work together on the same design in real time. It works flawlessly, even when there are multiple people in the same file.
  • Figma’s great commenting feature allows clients to leave their comments next to a  specific element on the screen so they can discuss it in more detail. Hence, clients are given the chance to provide feedback and ask questions along the way, instead of only at the very end. 

This tool provides an effective way for stakeholders to be kept up to date with project progress – even if they don’t have time to have a call, they can always peek inside Figma to check on the latest updates.

Slack

Slack has been on the raise for years as one of the major players in the team collaboration field and its numbers has further increased during the ongoing pandemic, since most of us work from home now. This has resulted in the recent record breaking acquisition of Slack by Salesforce. At intent, we have a solid communication structure built on Slack. Whenever we start a new project, we usually create a private channel just for our clients. This way, we have a space in which all the team members can follow the conversation and see all the documents related to that project:

  • As project conversations progress, certain comments, links, or conversations always prove noteworthy and the search function makes it easy to find what we need. 
  • We also pin every piece of valuable documentation that needs to be accessible at all times to the top of the Slack channel, such as links to Figma prototypes, links to Google Drive, and personae built in Miro, etc. 

Based on our experiences, we feel that Slack has made us more efficient than by just using email, mostly because both the client and the designers are more responsive and all the communication is more transparent. However, we haven’t given up on emails totally – we just use Slack much more often.

Google Drive or Dropbox

Clients come to us with complex challenges and goals, so we need to make sure that all the knowledge is stored in one place and that every piece of information can be easily found by each member of the team. So, we usually keep all the project files within Google Drive or Dropbox, depending on the client's preferences. Apart from all the different documents and resources brought by the client, we also create more documentation as we progress with the project. We strongly believe that:

  • We need documentation, but not sky-high piles of files. Incorporating Agile principles in our work, we create documentation by following the rule “just enough, just in time”. No more than we actually need.
  • Having one shared space that holds all the product resources that work as a “single source of truth” for the whole team is especially important for our long-term clients. We’ve worked with some of them for months, or even years, and during this time we’ve accumulated tons of knowledge: user flows, user stories, and different kinds of user research. This provides us with extremely valuable context that we need to store and make accessible. 

Miro

This is a tool that we re-discovered during the pandemic. It’s an online whiteboard, where you can easily build beautiful collaborative boards full of sticky notes, boxes and arrows. The tool is designed to support collaborative work and it’s very helpful – we use it heavily to organize research, build user flows, map customer journeys, as a business model canvas, and to outline different personae. Our designers often have video calls with clients where they will both be working on the same Miro board at the same time. Highly recommended.

Calls

Even though we try to make the best of the possibilities that modern tech tools offer us in terms of communication, we try to maintain a balance between technology and a good, old conversation. Sometimes there is just nothing better than picking up the phone and having a quick chat. Talking on the phone (or mostly Zoom nowadays) can be much better, especially if we need to clarify a confusing matter – it’s so much quicker than exchanging tons of messages back and forth for 20 minutes.

Wrap-up

Hopefully, at this point, you see all the benefits that the client-designer collaboration process has to offer. 

Speaking from our own experience we can say that client involvement is essential to success in design because when it comes to designing great products, even the best specialist can’t do it alone. At intent, our greatest pieces of work do not come from showing off our design skills and trying to impress clients. They come from hours of discussions, gathering lots of feedback and considering diverse perspectives – all of which are invaluable when building awesome products, together. 

If you need any assistance in refining your cooperation with the design team – don’t hesitate to contact us. We will be happy to hear about the challenges that you are facing and help you come up with a solution together.

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Written by
Jagoda Barankiewicz
UX Designer

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