The Secret Ingredient for Innovation

Mark Steinruck, Former User Experience Designer

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

The idea of working from home every day sounds awesome, doesn't it? No commute. No office politics. No chance of someone taking your stapler. That was my life for the past four years, and it definitely had a lot of perks. I walked to work (upstairs), the dress code was always casual because I said so, and I often had office visits from my kids. But it wasn't long before I started to feel a little off my game. Ideas weren't flowing, I seemed to have designer-block more often, and my level of frustration was growing.

I soon realized that my lack of collaborating with other people was hindering my ability to generate good, innovative ideas. I don't care if you're a designer, developer, UX designer or in a completely different field, collaboration is important. The all-knowing Wikipedia says it like this:

"Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals - for example, an intellectual endeavor that is creative in nature-by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus." (Wikipedia)

In less formal terms, put a group of kindred spirits together, give them the freedom to learn from each other and create ideas together, and the result will be something that is far greater than what each individual could produce alone. Simple, yet amazing.

I was first captivated by the importance of collaboration to the design process after watching an episode of ABC's Nightline from 1999. During this particular episode they profiled the product development company IDEO. The challenge: redesign the standard shopping cart in just five days. Nightline followed the team at IDEO each step of the way through the process that they use on almost every product they create. The end result wasn't perfect, but it was a stunning picture of what a team of people could do by putting their heads together and feeding off of the collaborative ideas of each individual.

Maybe you're working alone like I was, or you might be in an office environment where collaboration only happens around the water cooler or in the kitchen. Here are a few ideas that will help you, or your team, on the path to greener collaborative pastures.

Crazy Ideas Wanted

You'll be shocked at the ideas that a few people, a common goal, and a whiteboard can produce. IDEO uses a brainstorming technique where the team throws out every idea that comes to mind. Allow yourself to be innovative and think outside of your cubical walls. No idea is too crazy. Write them all down on a whiteboard and let everyone on the team vote by putting sticky-notes (possibly with comments) next to the ideas that they think will work the best. You might be surprised at the potential that even the wackiest idea has to lead to the best result. Craziness can be the birthplace of innovation.

Sharing is Caring

Every Tuesday over lunch, the designers at Viget get together to share what we've been working on with the rest of the team. Once a month we have something called Design Share where two designers spend a few minutes sharing everything from design techniques to best practices in front-end build out. This is a great way to take off the blinders from your own little world to learn from the people around you. Everybody has to eat, so there's almost no excuse not to take a few minutes out of your week to recharge your creative batteries like this. If you're a freelancer, find another designer (or group of designers) who you can meet with on a regular basis, set a time, and stick to it.

Comfort Zones are for Mattress Stores

Designers can't stay in comfort zones for long without smacking directly into a creative wall. There are a lot of brilliant people who are doing groundbreaking work, and sharing their knowledge...sometimes for free. You'll find a lot of those people willing to share that knowledge at Refresh groups, Meet-Ups, and AIGA events. If you have money burning a hole in your pocket, put it to good use and go to a conference like SXSW or An Event Apart. Conferences were created to give you the chance to meet and collaborate with other people, and learn from panels of seasoned veterans. It's easy to fall into an established, comfortable routine that doesn't allow for creative outlets. Forcing yourself to step out into something new could open a completely new world of ideas and interests if you're wiling to take the risk.

Crossing Boundaries

The web has quickly grown into a multi-disciplinary medium where development, visual design, user experience design, and marketing all inter-mingle. Whichever category you fit into, learn how to work closely with the people around you. You don't need to be great in every area, and that's really the point. Work hard to develop strong skills in your own area of concentration first. By working with other people who have expertise in other areas, you will begin to learn just enough of what they know to be dangerous. This helps to facilitate knowledge sharing, and it creates an environment where a healthy level of analysis and questioning across disciplines ensures that each project task is handled in the best way possible. Building a system of checks and balances like this is how innovation through collaboration begins to take flight.

On the surface the concept of collaboration almost seems too simple to write about. That may be the reason that so many people and organizations generally don't practice it despite the benefits. At the speed with which things are changing in the web industry, we all have a lot to learn. It's impossible for any one person to know it all, so we need to rely on each other to share the knowledge that we have. Everyone has something to share. There's really no better time to start.

Additional Resources

Below are links to the complete episode of the Nightline IDEO program.

  1. IDEO Part 1
  2. IDEO Part 2
  3. IDEO Part 3


Related Articles