The Importance of Collaborative UX Design

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A column by Janet M. Six
October 21, 2013

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss the best ways to collaborate with stakeholders—whether internal or external—and customers—and why collaboration is so important.

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; coauthor of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist

This time in Ask UXmatters, our experts answer two closely related questions.

Q: In your experience, when is it a good idea to do collaborative design workshops with clients? And when is it preferable to design by yourself, then present or do a walkthrough of your design solution with clients?—from a UXmatters reader

Q: Why is it important to involve both stakeholders and customers in improving product designs?—from a UXmatters reader

“Perhaps the simplest answer to the question of why it’s important to involve customers and stakeholders in the design process is that, without them, you are designing without understanding the whole picture,” replies Whitney Quesenbery. “Even if you know the context well, there’s always more to learn—and there are always ways to make a design even more delightful. Design starts with storytelling, and creating a story starts with listening. 

“Whitney Hess said it clearly—if a bit provocatively—in ‘You’re Not a User Experience Designer If….’ Her list of warning signs is all about making sure that you know the audience for a design and what their goals are, that you talk with users, and above all, that you not work in a vacuum when defining the problem that your design will solve.

“So, if the question is whether you can just sit down and design from what’s in your own head, the answer is: ‘No, you can’t.’ That's the bad old way of working, where the final product represents only one perspective. We know better now. We know that we need to make sure that our process includes a way to hear all perspectives, to understand context, and to work both with and for the real people who must use what we create.

“Now, working with users and other stakeholders in a collaborative way does’t mean handing over the crayon, then building whatever they draw. The purpose of participatory design and design studio techniques is to draw out information, understand different—even competing—points of view, and get input and feedback from users. It means creating a meeting place where everyone can work together. 

“I work with some clients for whom design workshop means that we all get messy sketching out ideas. In other situations, where people are less familiar with the process, we walk through scenarios to get the exercise started, using design materials that the UX team has created. The goal isn’t to make everyone into a designer, who uses the same kind of approach to solve design problems. It’s to open up the design process and let everyone in on the discussion. To give everyone a place at the table.

“Have a look at my presentation ‘Giving Users a Place at the (Design) Table: Techniques for Participatory Design.’ “I created it for a client whose team was interested in learning how to make their design process more open and participatory. It provides a survey and history of the techniques in use today.”

Why Is Collaborative Design So Important?

“Because of three interrelated factors: ownership, alignment, and knowledge,” responds Adrian Howard.


“If you work separately from customers and stakeholders, they don’t have any direct investment in what you produce. You have to sell your design because you need to communicate all of the factors that went into the design process.

“Contrast that with a more collaborative process where you involve customers and stakeholders from the beginning. In that case, everybody is involved in the decisions that produce the final designs. You no longer have to sell the result—because the clients and stakeholders own that design as much as you do.


“One of the biggest problems we all face in product development is getting everybody on the same page regarding the vision for the product under development. A sure-fire method for getting everybody to understand a project in the same way is to have everybody working together throughout the project.


“You cannot design in a vacuum. You need to understand the business needs of the client and stakeholders as much as you need to understand how people will use a product. Relying on requirements documents is a poor substitute for having the relevant people available and involved throughout product design and development.”

UX Design Is Problem Solving

“These questions both touch on the same issue,” answers Steve Baty. “To what extent can a designer or design team understand a problem and formulate a solution in the absence of broader input—both from within the business or external to it? To address that question, I think it’s important to appreciate what it is that we’re trying to achieve throughout the design process and how receiving broader input might make for a better outcome.

“During the design process, we’re trying to understand a problem—and ideally, that understanding is borne of empathy with the people for whom we’re solving the problem. Though empathy is a key component, it’s not only about empathy. We can conduct primary and secondary research, using various techniques, to arrive at an understanding of users. Engaging users, customers, and internal stakeholders in the design process allows us to quickly check our understanding with the people we’re trying to understand. 

“What we simply cannot do is expect these people to have a nuanced understanding of themselves. For a whole host of reasons, people are ill-equipped to objectively describe the motivators driving their behavior. As a result, we need to go through the effort of developing our own understanding of users and their needs, not simply hope that a group of people understands themselves and can convey their understanding to us.”

Getting Off to a Good Start Is Important

“If at all possible, you should always do collaborative design work with clients,” asserts Adrian. “You need to understand the problem as they see it. They need to understand how you are solving the problem. Otherwise, you’ll end up designing a solution to the wrong problem, then have to spend an inordinate amount of effort selling that solution to the client.

“It’s never preferable to work by yourself, then present your work. Sometimes it may be necessary—because the client is not willing to invest the time to work with you. But those are going to be your problem clients. The ones who will question every design decision you make. The ones who will try to enforce their own vision of the solution after the main design work is complete. The ones who will constantly feed you a trickle of changes that will derail whatever initial vision you started out with.

“To be honest, these days, if a client isn’t willing to work with us collaboratively, I’d rather fire the client than go off and design by myself.”

“The best time for collaboration with stakeholders and clients is when an idea is a twinkle in their eye,” says Steven Hoober. “UX design is about creating experiences, about building ecosystems and engagement with your brand, not just producing user-interface designs. So the earlier that collaboration occurs, the better. Early engagement can help ensure that you build the right product—often, simply because you’re asking the right questions and helping the product team to understand and verbalize their assumptions and intents.”

Bridging Two Perspectives

“User Experience works at the intersection between the organization and the user, the business and customer, or whatever terms work for you,” adds Steven. “Each has different needs and goals and speaks a different language, so your job is making sure that you can find the overlap between them and push them toward each other. It’s impossible to do this well if you’re paying attention to only one side of the conversation.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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