Design as a team sport

SOFTWARE DESIGN PIONEER LARRY CONSTANTINE

Creative collaboration can be one of the most disruptive forces in a design process, but using it as a force for good requires many skills of us. Software design pioneer Larry Constantine generously shares with us the insights he has gained from his extensive experience of leading teams to excel beyond expectations.

The telephone call was a mix of persuasion, flattery – and pleading. A friend and colleague in Germany wanted me to join his team for a desperate sprint to the finish on an almost insane design challenge. He had told his boss that the project was virtually impossible, that he wouldn’t even attempt it without pulling me in as a design consultant. I told him I wouldn’t even attempt it unless the deadline was extended by at least half. And I outlined a set of non-negotiable preconditions.

For the following six weeks, I was commuting back and forth between Portugal, where I
was teaching the next generation of designers at the University of Madeira, and Germany, where I was part of the team that was charged with the complete design and working prototype for a radically new center-console infotainment system for one of the big auto companies. The schedule was so aggressive that we adopted the code name ‘Mission Impossible’ for the project.

Design is driven by creativity, something often seen as some sort of magic of the mind,
an ingredient within the individual, but design in the real world is more typically a team sport. Sports teams – from Aussie Rules to Rugby League and soccer – may have their stars, but it is the team that wins or loses the game. True, the design world is also sprinkled with its own superstars – think Jony Ive or Michael Graves – but most real-world design is collaborative work played out in small groups with professionals of varied persuasions and diverse skill sets.

As a consultant, I have had the great fortune of working with many design teams in various companies, among them were some designers I would consider to be among the best in the business. Together, we have designed award-winning tools and ground-breaking consumer products. Although I am generally recognized as an industrial designer, I have flexed my fingers in diverse design disciplines, from graphic design to product design. Along the way, I’ve designed everything from industrial control software and websites to company logos and book covers. The cover design shown here for The Intaglio Imprint, the tenth novel under my pen name, Lior Samson, is my most recent graphic design work but I did my first book design nearly a half-century ago.

In recent years, the bulk of my consulting has been in interaction design for complex safety-critical applications, such as medical informatics, in-vehicle automotive systems, and industrial automation. My elevator speech for this work is that I specialize in designing the relationship between people and those complicated hardware and software systems where incorrect or inept action is costly, where clicking on the wrong item in a drop-down box can mean a patient could die, where taking too long to make a touch-screen selection can result in a car crash, or where twisting the wrong handle on a control board can cut off the electricity in the Sydney CBD.

One thing that marks this kind of design work is that it takes a team; the problems are too big and too complicated to be tackled by a lone designer, even a genius. The control room of a nuclear power plant cannot be designed without the involvement of many kinds of expertise in design, construction, science, and engineering. But much the same is true even for a fairly simple consumer product, such as a kitchen appliance, which involves mechanical, electrical, and materials factors, as well as aesthetics and human factors. Working on so many different projects with many teams, I’ve come to recognize some critical commonalities in successful design collaboration, insights that I want to share here.

Being the outside paladin brought in to lead the charge may seem more glamorous than it is. One gotcha in my own career stems from my reputation for pulling rabbits out of hats on short notice. If I get the phone call, chances are the project is already in trouble. Another downside of the peripatetic lifestyle is that you rarely get to choose your own team. On the upside, I get to work with lots of different people, in varied organizational settings, and on a  wide variety of projects. When I do have the choice or the ability to influence the makeup of a team, I vote for diversity. The teamwork and group problem-solving literature is consistent in showing the advantages of teams of mixed gender, varied backgrounds, assorted personality, and differing interpersonal style.

The ‘Mission Impossible’ team was able to deliver its innovative automotive design on time thanks to many factors, not the least through teamwork and talent abetted by no small amount of good fortune. (If you want to know more about the design process and technical details see Safety, Speed, and Style: Interaction Design of an In-Vehicle User Interface, Proceedings CHI 2009.)One of the rules I laid down before coming aboard was that we pull together an interdisciplinary team. Our full-time team included a product design lead, an interaction designer (me), a graphic designer, and a mechanical engineer. We were also joined frequently by software engineers charged with prototyping. I also insisted the team do the bulk of its work in a face-to-face setting dedicated exclusively to the project – no crowding into somebody’s office or shifting from one conference room to another. A dedicated project space with full-time, face-to-face collaboration is one of the ‘hygiene factors’ that can give a design team that extra edge needed to achieve a breakthrough or meet a near-impossible deadline.

Graphic designers who are used to working off in their own little cubicles can find this sort of setting unsettling at first, especially as they may have become accustomed to being looked at as fulfilling a service function. In our case, we wanted the visual style to be fully integrated with technical design in a way that all the design elements complemented each other. Our graphic designer did not have the same deep insights into interaction design and industrial design that others on the team possessed, but neither did the rest of the team have her fine-tuned facility with color, space, and proportion – nor her mastery of PhotoShop. We not only turned to each other for differing expertise, but along the way, we learned from each other.

RULE 1 VALUE AND EXPLOIT DIVERSITY 

Diversity in the design team only pays off to the extent that the team is able to draw on it productively. This requires a willingness on the part of everyone to share insight and perspectives, to let teammates in on the mindset and jargon of particular specialties. This does not mean that everyone is going to end up as a Web wonk or software engineer or graphic designer, but it does mean that the very process of teamwork can soften the boundaries between disciplines and specialties. At the same time, everyone on the team must be ready to defer to the experience and expertise of others when this is needed.

It’s a fine balance. The best teams will vigorously explore and debate key issues, with all contributors strongly representing their distinct views and perspectives to the best of their abilities. On the other hand, the game must not be about any one member winning an argument or making the point or getting their way. It’s a team sport, and the final outcome is what counts.

This is an excerpt from Ligature Journal, to read all of Larry’s 6 rules pick up a copy of Ligature Journal Issue Four 


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