Playing well with others: How to create effective design teams

Tolstoy said it about families, but it’s true of teams as well: Every happy team is alike, but each unhappy team is unhappy in its own way. Where Tolstoy and I differ is that I think that there is much to be said for happiness.

In the design world, the idea of working in a “team” often provokes dread. Teams introduce overhead; they require communication; members often battle to see their ideas implemented. The end result of teamwork is often seen as compromise, i.e. as a “taco pizza,” i.e. a situation in which everyone (including the customer) loses.

On the other hand, there are many examples of highly functioning creative teams, and my own experience tells me that a team approach can be vastly more efficient and effective than working solo. Who doesn’t want a well-matched partner to ensure that the ideas flow, the problem is considered from all angles, and dead-ends are avoided? And lets face it — some of the most interesting and important problems are too big to solve alone.

At Cooper, we’ve spent a lot of time noodling on this problem, and we’ve got some ideas.

Wrestling at the whiteboard

Early Cooper design teams were born of necessity. Alan Cooper and Wayne Greenwood confronted big, complicated design problems, and together they pummeled the problems into submission. This pummeling, however, was not always reserved for the design problems. Both Alan and Wayne are prodigious generators of ideas, and this kinship sometimes led to conflict: Alan talked over Wayne; Wayne wrestled the whiteboard marker from Alan’s hand. (One of the old design spaces was christened “The Yelling Room” for this reason).

Alan and Wayne have great energy for debate, but this sparring — though entertaining and productive for them — was unsustainable as the foundation of a consulting practice. They could never quite remember what they had agreed upon in previous meetings and needed help sifting through their ideas to make ready to present to clients.

Finding a thought partner

Alan and Wayne addressed their dilemma by hiring a person with a different skill set and disposition. As they explored various directions to find the perfect manifestation of interactivity, they needed someone who could capture the essence of the design to communicate it in a way that made sense to clients. So they hired a detail-oriented person with a tech-writing background, and they called this person the “Design Communicator” (DC).

As it turned out, the DC’s narrative ability was an indicator of a deeper complement to the skills and disposition of the Interaction Designer (IxD). In order to compellingly tell the story of the design, DCs gravitated toward clarifying and synthesizing ideas and directions during design meetings, asking “What does this do?” and “How is this different?” and “Why?” and “Why is this good?”

The introduction of the DC initiated a Socratic dialogue within the team. The DC’s questions exposed gaps and flaws, drew connections between concepts and ideas, and in doing so honed the designs, revealed opportunities for additional exploration, and ensured cohesion within the ultimate solution.

As the role has evolved in the 10 years since its inception, Cooper as an organization has continued to define the characteristics of the ideal thought partnership within the Cooper teams, seeking to support and encourage leaps of imagination while maintaining cohesion and rationality. (As Cooper grew and as the practice of interaction design expanded, three additional, equally critical specialties have evolved. As I’m trying to keep this discussion relatively simple, I’ll save that story for another day.1)

Naming the roles

Inside Cooper, the role names — IxD and DC — served as convenient shorthand for talking among ourselves about the nuanced, subtle qualities of potential hires and team pairings. We’d often ask things like, “Would this person be able to do the DC clarifying thing like Steve does?” or “Would that person be able to be the generative IxD in the way that Robert is?” We knew that both approaches and perspectives were essential to the practice of interaction design, and the role names simply stood for a host of intangibles shared by the individuals who exemplified the roles.

Still, this inside language got in the way of explaining our team structure to people outside of Cooper — candidates, students, clients, and even recruiters. Many people incorrectly assumed that the DC was the IxD’s trusty scribe. (One recruiter told us that she never used the term “Design Communicator” when trying to find the kinds of people we wanted for the DC role; she always described it as a different kind of interaction designer.)

So, not long ago, we decided to find a more accurate way of referring to our interaction design pair.2

After much internal soul searching, and many deep, detailed discussions, we settled on a construction that exposed the similarity of the roles and a critical distinction. Because both are fundamentally concerned with interaction design (and because it is usually impossible to attribute the source of a design idea to one or the other), we used that term as the foundation for each role; because each has a distinct perspective, disposition and responsibility, we applied a primary difference as a modifier.

  • The IxD role became “IxD: Generation”
  • The DC role became “IxD: Synthesis”

We prepared the table below as part of the renaming effort; it lays out the axes of distinction in more detail. The two roles are as much about disposition and personality as they are about skills, as each Gen/Synth pairing brings a variety of complementary approaches to any given design problem.

Caveat: For the sake of keeping the table simple, I left out the other Cooper roles — the Visual Designer, the Industrial Designer, and the Engagement Lead.

Focuses on Establishing the interactive structure and flow between a human and a product, service or environment. Articulating and synthesizing the overall experience users have with the product, service, or environment.
Takes responsibility for Driving the concept direction Ensuring that the concept is coherent and satisfies user needs and goals
during design meetings
Generating ideas toward a solution Synthesis of ideas, defining the problem, clarifying the solution, explicating rationale
Expertise Concept, visualization Analysis, communication
Disposition toward creativity Generative Methodical, synthetic
Comfort zone Invention Evaluation, clarification
Approach to problems Draw a picture, top-down Tell a story, top-down
Advocates Structure, flow (interface) Cohesiveness, context
Thinks in terms of Concepts, models, experience (screen flow) Anatomy, relationships, experience (scenario)

Finding the right people

Still, how do you ensure that people with similar skills and interests will work well together?

You make sure that each team member knows and understands their responsibilities, that they enjoy giving up a little personal ownership for the benefit of others’ perspectives and skills, and that they deeply trust the other team members to play their parts. Without those fundamental qualities, the team is likely to go the way of Tolstoy’s unhappy families — division, mistrust, high drama. Good material for a novel, but bad for designing compelling products and growing a business.


1 We’ve since supplemented the twin interaction designers with other equally critical roles. We’ve added the Engagement Lead, a senior designer who handles the business relationship, as well helping to keep an eye on the big picture of the design solution, kind of like a Socratic creative director. We’ve also added visual designers and industrial designers to the mix; consequently, a Cooper design team can consist of five people (or more).
2 You’ll notice that our websites still uses the old titles; we’re working on this.

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