Effective Communication for Design Teams

Jenn Winter by

This post originally appeared on the UserTesting blog.

A few days ago someone asked me to reach out to our visual designer to follow up on a current design project. Did I:

A) Log in to my email client and send an email

B) Get up and walk to their desk for a chat

C) Pick up the phone

D) Ping them on Asana

If you chose “A” you’d be way off. And if you chose “B” you’re underestimating my laziness. Option “C”…phone? What’s a phone? That leaves us with “D”. Which makes perfect sense. The original request came in through that channel, so why wouldn’t I follow through with it in the same manner?

We live in an age of countless options when it comes to communication solutions. Companies struggle every day to find ways to effectively communicate beyond cubicle walls, time zones, and hemispheres. And design and UX teams face unique challenges that traditional methods (ahem, I’m looking at you, email) just can’t handle. So how do you keep your UX and design teams aligned in a sea of software solutions?

Communicate where the work happens

One of the biggest complaints about email is that it’s usually separated from the task at hand. Imagine spending all day working on a design in your favorite application, then being required to extract, convert, and share all your work via some other application. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly not efficient or intuitive.

And it turns out it’s not great for productivity, either. Studies have shown that switching from one task to another can reduce a person’s productivity by as much as 40%—the cognitive equivalent of losing a full night’s sleep. One study even suggests multitasking impacts emotional intelligence—an important skill for anyone working in user experience.

For a better, more efficient communication experience, try having your team interact right where the work happens. The most efficient teams choose tools that allow them to share feedback directly in the project without having to switch back and forth between applications. (Think Google Docs, Invision, and Github.) By removing unnecessary steps and allowing everything related to the project to happen where the work happens, you’ll reduce the amount of switching and help improve productivity, not to mention the overall experience.

Think about where your team spends most of its time, and seek out applications and processes that enable communication directly from those platforms.

Communicate when the work happens

But just providing an avenue for communicating in the context of the work isn’t enough. Immediacy is important, too. Part of what made email so tantalizing years ago was its speed.

That same principle still applies today. Integrate your communication with tools that enable your teams to interact in-the-moment, as they create. While it’s not the same as sitting down with your entire team, it’s the next best thing. We’re all trained at this point to text and type as if we were in a face-to-face conversation, so integrating your communication tools with the programs and services your team already uses can help foster faster, more effective communication.

But don’t assume every form of communication needs to be instant. There are still some situations when a good old fashioned email will do just fine. For example, you probably don’t need to get an immediate response from your team about a meeting request that’s two weeks away. Sending an email invitation doesn’t demand a response right away, and gives your invitees the freedom to handle that task when they have the time.

Also, be sure to set aside time where your team is allowed go offline for a bit. While being instantly accessible is fantastic for collaboration, it can also be a tempting distraction that pulls your team away from other tasks. To help ease the urge to respond to every instant message, encourage your team to plan their day to include blocks of time where they can focus on work uninterrupted. Managers can do this too.

This can come in the form of an after-lunch “power hour” where everyone goes offline and focuses on a project, or even a “meeting-free” day every week. Online moving service, Moveline designated Tuesdays as “Maker Days” to enable folks on its creative team the time and space they needed to immerse themselves in their projects, without the distraction of meetings, emails, and instant messages. The company notes that email traffic drops, and productivity increases as a result of the weekly moratorium on meetings.

Strive for meaningful interactions

While much of what’s discussed surrounding communication tools is about speed and efficiency, none of that will matter if your communication isn’t meaningful.

When technology makes it faster and easier to communicate, sometimes we can become a bit more informal in our discussions. While informality might be great for your office situation, be sure empathy is still a strong focus. It can be easy to forget there’s another human being at the other end of that instant message, so make sure you’re encouraging your team to practice emotional intelligence in their communications, regardless of the medium.

Be sure to encourage participation from everyone on the team, too. While it may be easier for some to be outspoken via electronic channels, others may be afraid to speak up. Encourage constructive, actionable feedback, and your team will enjoy more meaningful conversations that build trust and camaraderie within the team.

Conclusion

While every design team will be different, structuring their tools and schedules for effective communication will remain important. Do your own ethnographic research on your team and observe them interacting with the tools they use during the workday. How many steps does it take them to perform typical communications? Are there ways to incorporate additional or new tools that would streamline that process?

There are a lot of options out there to help your team communicate more effectively. Find out where and when the work gets done, and integrate the tools that work best in those situations, while encouraging meaningful, empathetic communication.

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