Home > User Experience > Why designers are siloed and how to break out of it | by Andra Oprișan | Jan, 2021

Why designers are siloed and how to break out of it | by Andra Oprișan | Jan, 2021

Why designers are siloed and how to break out of it | by Andra Oprișan | Jan, 2021


A case for more collaboration between the different species of designers.
Part of
Designers Trilemma, a series of articles on helping designers grow transversally.

It recently struck me that the reason why Design is still hard to grasp by outsiders is because we are not a cohesive discipline. We understand insufficiently what other design disciplines do and how they add value in relation to what we do. As a result, we collaborate very little intra-disciplinary. That leads to inefficient use of design skills, overlaps at best, misalignment at most, mistrust between teams, slowed down processes, and a general bad vibe when it comes to selling our own discipline to non-designers. Better intra-disciplinary comprehension and collaboration will lead to more impactful work, a stronger more cohesive industry, and more buy-in from non-designers.

Let me unpack it.

Strategies like aggregation and vertical, horizontal and diagonal integration have become the main sources of value creation for many new businesses. That means that most new products or services that disrupt markets are not entirely new ones, but rather mashups of existing services or technologies. A case of 1 + 1 = 3.

For example, a car sharing service is a service that allows people to move around a city by integrating a mobile app, map services, localisation services, payment services, car insurance, maintenance, customer help lines, bank accounts, legal services, and so on. This is what we’ll call a transversal output — a product or service that intersects various other services or technologies.

This fairly new approach to value creation has resulted in a tight interdependence between a multitude of disciplines. Collaboration between departments or teams is the vital factor for creating better, faster and cheaper transversal solutions. Neither an interface designer nor a lawyer nor an engineer can make a car sharing service work on their own. Instead the very fact that the designer and the lawyer and the engineer collaborate for a common output is what generates the new value. You might know this concept by the name of multidisciplinarity. It refers to the input — what goes into creating something.

So, in order to create a transversal output, you need a multidisciplinary input. Obvious enough.

Except it’s not how most organisations work.

Big Corp is often optimised — and incentivised — to work in silos. Meaning each team, department, vertical, division or unit are excellent at delivering a specific piece of the puzzle, but not aware of the other pieces made by other teams. It’s how they’ve managed to be efficient and profitable over time. They all work under the assumption that someone up there will put everything together. As a result the organisation is incapable of creating transversal solutions, even if they posses (all the) outstanding pieces of puzzle.

Ever wondered why weren’t the large automakers the ones who came up with car sharing service? Or why weren’t big banks the ones who came up with fintech solutions?

Now how’s that relevant to designers?

Despite the fact that designers have been advocating for organisational de-siloing ever since they were allowed into boardrooms, the reality is that designers have inadvertently siloed ourselves too.

Much like in any other markets, the offer has been shaped by the demand. The simple fact that each type of designer or design agency is usually called in by a different, often siloed team inside an organisation, means that each type of designer has grown alongside the challenges they were asked to solve. Those pieces of the puzzle that originate from legacy, siloed, organisational structures.

Each type of designer has grown alongside the challenges they were asked to solve.

The result is that Brand designers, working for Brand teams, don’t understand what UX designers do, who work for Digital Product teams. And vice-versa.

Editorial designers, who work for communication teams, don’t know what Service designers do, who work for customer experience teams. And vice-versa.

Industrial product designers, who work in R&D departments, don’t know what Digital product designers do, who work in technology departments. And vice-versa.

(Ok, I’m slightly generalising to make the point)

Unless they get to collaborate on a transversal solution — say a new car sharing service — Brand, UX, service, editorial, industrial or digital product designers don’t get to work with each other. And don’t get to understand how each adds value to the output.

Competition > Collaboration

Now, design collaboration is by no means a new topic (hello co-creation, my old friend), and I’m not pretending to reinvent any wheels here. But I’ve noticed that the emphasis tends to fall on the collaboration between designers and other disciplines or between designers of the same craft. Hardly ever on collaboration between different types of designers.

Design collaboration is mostly between designers and other disciplines or between designers of the same craft. Hardly ever on collaboration between different types of designers.

Best case scenario, the relationship between various design disciplines gravitates towards competition. But more often, it’s a downright fight for supremacy. I’ll spare you the ugly details of the feuds between digital product designers and physical product designers, between service designers and UX designers, between type designers and brand designers, between content designers and copywriters.

Open Twitter on any given launch day of a large corporate rebrand, or a new phone release, or an upgrade of a popular app, and you’ll see the design stoning in full swing. Hierarchy is the obvious power play in this discourse: my design discipline is better than yours and we would have done it so much better than you, had we been given the opportunity.

Fitting in is the new standing out

The more transversal solutions the world will require (another topic for another article), the more we’ll have to figure out how to build value collaboratively — not only between designers and engineers or businesses, but particularly between designers and other designers.

In the long run, those who will prove they are able to integrate into ecosystems and work alongside others are going to stick around, while those who will remain islands, under the pretext of maintaining the integrity of their craft, or for the sake of autonomy, will slowly fade away.

In the long run, those who will integrate into ecosystems and work alongside others are going to stick around, while those who will remain islands will slowly fade away.

Fitting in with fellow designers requires understanding how each and very type of designer adds value. If you’ve also noticed the boundless ways in which one can add designer to their Linkedin headline, you probably agree that’s no easy feat. Every new technology generates its new design niche. So over the recent years we’ve witnessed a proliferation of design disciplines — together with their own jargon, rules, processes and tools.

Designer Mapping

Let’s zoom out.

To understand where the opportunity for collaboration lies, I propose we map all the different design disciplines — the input — against an output. It could be a digital product, a service, a business, a city, whatever you want. The only rule is that it should be something transversal, wide enough in its scope to requiere a multidisciplinary input.

I chose to do this exercise with the lifecycle of a new service, and I’ve included as many design disciplines that could potentially be involved in creating, growing and evolving a new services that creates transversal value for the people who use it.



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