One of the ways I can tell whether a design team is set up for success is by observing how well the team collaborates. I observe the physical workspace for signs of good collaboration. For instance, if everyone on the team is perched at their cubicles in isolation, with their headphones on while they hammer away at the day’s tasks, they are not setting themselves up for success. A team that sits around a conference room passively listening to the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) is not set up for success. Recently, I listened to an excellent podcast interview with Spotify’s vice president of design, Rochelle King, which underscored the importance of collaboration. And while her ideas are technically about product design as opposed to the design thinking process, her points apply to both.

Rochelle was interviewed by Jared Erondu and Bobby Ghoshal are the hosts of High Resolution, which broadcasts episodes on product design and design thinking. Their hour-long conversation covered a lot of ground. What resonated especially for me was Rochelle’s passion for design through collaboration.

“There is this myth of the genius designer who can go off on their own and just come up with the right answer,” she said. “But in reality, it doesn’t work that way at all. You can never do design in a vacuum. You always have to involve other people and other disciplines.”

But how does a design team foster collaboration? She shared a few pointers:

  • Have a process in place for testing and discussing multiple ideas. Designers at Spotify are expected to develop a number of possible design solutions and collaborate on testing and revising those ideas. By testing more than one design idea, designers are compelled to challenge each other to think through multiple approaches. The more conversations the team has with each other, the more they sharpen each other’s thinking.
  • Encourage debate. Spotify regularly hold debate sessions among designers just to get into the habit of appreciating each other’s ideas from a different point of view. The debates need not have anything to do with design although they could. Teams are given a topic, time to prepare an argument, and then a forum for debating. Their peers vote on their ability to articulate an idea and offer suggestions for improvement. This process gets designers in the habit of challenging each other.
  • Guard against the HIPPO. Although debate encourages a spirited exchange of ideas, Rochelle is careful to mitigate against someone dominating a conversation either because they are especially eloquent or because they are they HIPPO. “I think the biggest danger to design is that the ideas that get built are voiced by the loudest person – or someone who has the most seniority,” she says. Spotify keeps the HIPPO problem in check by testing all ideas with data. Vetting all ideas against data-driven user testing makes it clear which ideas are going to take root and which will get rejected, regardless of who generated the idea.
  • Ensure that designers and data scientists collaborate. At Spotify, designers do not toss their ideas over the wall to data scientists for testing. Designers and data scientists collaborate from the start to ensure that the integrated team understands what they want user experience they want to test and how they will measure it.

Her ideas about design collaboration are right on. In addition, as I discussed in a recent blog post, keeping a team focused on customer wants and needs is a strong way to encourage collaboration. As I wrote, high-performance teams know how to reframe questions around the needs of customers, and they resist letting personal opinion dominate the conversation. They challenge each other to validate their assumptions about customers.

A good idea can originate from someone working alone. But good becomes great through collaboration.

Mike Edmonds

Mike Edmonds

Managing Director, VP Product