Work Together by Design

Hilary Hoeber, public sector lead at IDEO from 2004 to 2013, talked with Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about how designers work through the creative process as a team.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What do you think is the most common misunderstanding of the design process?

Hilary Hoeber: When people look at singular, visionary organizations, they think that there is just one person who has some incredible vision of what design should be. But the process of design is collaborative. It’s based in understanding the stories and needs of your user, then using that as inspiration to inform your own design. It should be approached as an ecosystem, rather than thinking that it depends on a singular idea or individual or product or organization. It’s actually much more dynamic, collaborative, and open than people think.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’re right that the lone genius is probably the greatest myth. However, I wonder if once you tell people that the design process is collaborative, they just come up with a new myth of ten geniuses working together, going off in a room and coming up with some brilliant drawing. So what are some of the events that happen in the design process that people might not expect?

Hilary Hoeber: People overemphasize the role of the great idea. Whether it’s an individual or a team, they think that a single great idea is what leads to great design. But there are so many other things that need to be in place for design to happen. The team has to trust each other. They have to respect each other’s disciplines. I’d say that in a good design, by the time you get to the end of the process, no one on the team should be able to say, “That was all my work” or “That was all my idea.” It should be clear that there were many moving parts.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s say that we had a design team working on something for ten weeks. We have a first-rate photographer documenting their work, and we pick a really striking image from each week. Then we mix them all up on a table. Do you think the average person you pull off the street will be able to put them in the right order?

Hilary Hoeber: It depends on the design team. If you were doing this with a team at IDEO, they probably would, because those teams work with three or four people in the same room and there is a clear aggregation of stories and ideas as time progresses.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That word aggregation is interesting, though. I feel like in the life of most designs, “winning” is usually not the point when all the white walls are filled with writing. It may be the point where you’ve erased everything but one idea, then completely focus on it.

Hilary Hoeber: We would very rarely erase anything, though, because we wanted to see the evolution of ideas over time. A designer may have one idea or perspective when they go into a project that isn’t used at first, but they keep it in the back of their mind. You’re testing different hypotheses over time, but you always retain your point of view.

But you’re right that it’s always really messy. Another question might be whether you could tell from the moods or emotions of the designers where they were in that 10-week process. And I would say definitely not. … The end isn’t always the best moment. Oftentimes it’s in the process of research and discovery. But it is certainly a process where you are putting who you are out there for other people to judge.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That seems like a significant reason to keep all the writing on the walls. In a design process, you don’t all just need to be nice to each other. You need to get the best ideas out of each other, even the ones we may not think are important.

Hilary Hoeber: Yes, that’s one reason. Another reason is to ground you. A really pithy insight that you arrive at four iterations into the design process might seem really basic. But it might have gotten its start in really extensive research you did with a family of five in Arkansas. If you can tell the backstory, you can ground it in all of your research and the context and texture of your project. It gives you a holistic picture. People tend to understand that great design ideas are extremely simple. But they’re missing the abundance of information and inspiration that went into that.

So it’s nice to have a reminder of where you’re coming from. Otherwise you can go into a kind of mindswirl. Everything is interesting. Everything could be a new direction in which to go. It’s nice to have some kind of history to ground you.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I know just what you mean. Even as an observer of a design process, I can feel how easy it is to get obsessed with perfecting some aspect of the final product, coming up with the perfect color or the perfect interface. Grounding yourself in the history of the project can give you a nice internal set of priorities.

Hilary Hoeber: Yes.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You used a word that I think every designer I’ve ever met has used, which is “iterations.” Can you tell me what that means in the design process?

Hilary Hoeber: It’s a word that’s somewhat overused. But one way of thinking about it is when you find a really solid idea and then see all the different places you could go with it. Prototyping is a good example. You could do a lot of user research on an early version of an idea that would lead you to go back and change your design framework. That would be an iteration. It usually means that there is something new or something outside from your process involved. You don’t just sit in your room and iterate away.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That seems significant, because it seems to me that another common misconception is that you start a project with a totally creative ideation phase and then get closer and closer to execution over time. It seems more complicated than that.

Hilary Hoeber: I don’t know, I think It depends on your design discipline. Some people start with a lot of user research and then design. Others come up with ideas and then test them.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But I think there is still a basic distinction that is important. Let me give you an example. My wife is a great cook. I am not. Sometimes she gives me a grocery list and tells me to go to the store. One of the most annoying things I can do is to call her up and suggest a change, because most of the time I don’t actually understand her plan. It’s a simple progression from idea to execution.

But designers are different. Designers seem to have this ability to go back and forth between idea and execution all the time and not go insane.

Hilary Hoeber: To use your grocery shopping example, I think that designers always have in mind the question “What are we going to cook?” They may change that depending on what’s available on the store or what they have learned about who they’re cooking for. It’s not a linear path. You have to be open to the environment as well as having a grounded point of view. That’s how you don’t go insane.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It also seems important that there is a community of skill and trust. If my wife and her mother were at the grocery store together, for example, they probably could suggest various items to each other, because they’re equally skilled in the design of the meal.

Hilary Hoeber: Yes, that makes sense. Though people who execute are also really important to the design process. There are times when you just need to buy all the items on the list quickly, and some people are particularly skilled at that. I think that surprises people who think that design is just thinking all the time.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s say that you were taking your average white-collar professional and wanted to add one day of design a week to their schedule. How would you tell them to adjust their calendar or their work-life balance for that one particular day?

Hilary Hoeber: I don’t know if you can design for one day a week. It’s a re-framing of how you look at the world. It’s not a thing you can just turn on and off.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Sure. But once you start including design in your life, what are some of the differences you can expect?

Hilary Hoeber: You’ll start questioning everything.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seeps back into everything else, doesn’t it?

Hilary Hoeber: Yes. You’ll ask different questions and notice different things. You’ll start noticing all of the things that could be better for all different types of users.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So how do you question everything and still stick to deadlines?

Hilary Hoeber: Well, there are some things in life that are really well thought-through. Not everything is chaotic. But you have to accept that you are going to be going through an internal, intrinsic shift.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Could you tell me about a time when you saw non-designers come to understand the power of design?

Hilary Hoeber: As a consultant, I won’t name names, but I would say while working behind the walls of large, bureaucracies in government, it was fascinating to use design as a tool to connect the public service workforce to the people for whom they are serving and designing. By bringing the stories so close to home that people said, “Wow, we could be talking about my family, or my own mom” when sharing the user research stories, design enabled people to see beyond the data and demographics of the population to better understand individuals and their needs. That’s inspirational and an example of a powerful moment where we used design to act as a bridge or translator to connect people, services, and their needs.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.