Active Collaboration: The Fix for Unpleasant Surprises

When you engage clients in the process, there are no surprises. They know the details of the work. They support the outcome and can speak with passion about it.

Have you ever heard your client say, “that is not exactly what I expected”? That is so frustrating! You started the project with a high-energy kick-off, you reviewed progress regularly. So, what happened? Your client was, most likely, not an engaged member of your team.

With active collaboration, client's participation and expertise you add value to the process. Unlike weekly progress reviews, you meet 2 – 3 times per week. These meetings aren’t a presentation monologue, they truly are joint working sessions. Clients are guided through the process while you get the most out of each interaction.

But above all, it’s about challenging client’s traditional mindset. It is about moving from the traditional “keep me informed” perspective, to an “I’m part of the team” one. It is a way of engagement that opens the design process black-box and welcomes clients to become members of the team.

Moving From the Traditional

So, how do you set up a structure for successful collaboration?

  • Frame the collaboration from the start
  • Make clients feel part of the team
  • Plan for active and guided moments of collaboration
  • Keep clients involved through research and synthesis
  • Apply client’s expertise to ideate and prototype

Frame The Collaboration From The Start

As the project starts, we use the built energy to frame the course of interactions: “We want you to be part of the team, not just our client”. We are all together. That creates commitment and sets the expectation of collaboration. We define a clear project vision, approach and goals. By showing control over the process and the way activities feed to the outcome, we generate trust in clients.

Frame the Collaboration from the Start

One of our latest clients wasn’t initially up to participate actively. On the contrary, she expected minimal engagement. We invited her to be an active member of the team and set the expectation at the start. Through active and guided collaboration, she got interested, learned from a different discipline and became crucial to the success of the project. She brought valuable expert input at each step.

Make Clients Feel Part of The Team

Words are powerful, so we refer to clients as team members. On a recent project where we developed a product vision for sales enablement, we called our group of clients our extended team. They worked as a group of subject matter experts that was always available to give great input to the team. It may seem small or simple. Addressing your clients as team members generates a sense of belonging on client and team side, and this is a huge motivation for a great collaboration.

Plan for Active and Guided Moments of Collaboration

Once the expectation has been set, we plan moments of active work. These are activities that aim to: discover and synthesize information, review progress, ask for specific feedback, ideate, and prototype.

Multiple client and stakeholders add complexity to the process. They bring different points of view, making alignment and agreement challenging. It is important to understand the different dynamics and roles, to identify the most efficient way of making decisions.

We ask clients to join our stand-ups twice a week, so they have a fixed time to get involved. The structure is slightly different, we want them to add value through their feedback. We need to come prepared for these sessions, but not with final work. We go over work in progress or draft versions. We are specific on our questions; this is important to get the right feedback and to assess whether progress meets the expectations. Having your client's input during stand-ups will make them feel their opinions are heard and their time is valued.

Share, Co-create and Prototype with Clients

Keep Clients Involved Through Research and Synthesis

While we ran stakeholder interviews during the discovery phase of a project, we decided not to include our main client. We had many conversations with him, so we didn't want to make him repeat the information we already heard. While listening to the results of the initial exploratory research, he didn't feel his opinion was included nor that it reflected his beliefs. He didn't feel involved. Winning back his trust was a big challenge.

Formal ways of communication like stakeholder interviews and informal conversations are necessary to get to know clients and other stakeholder's expectations. We schedule 1 on 1 interviews, ask them to join problem framing workshops, and run them through initial findings often. We take the data from exploratory research and analyze the input using digital collaboration tools like Miro or Mural. We are active listeners. This way, we make sure client's opinions are heard and included in findings and proposed ideas.

While exploring pet parents' struggles to interpret pet feeding guidelines, we asked clients to conduct qualitative research with us. We empowered them with guidelines and field booklets to run, on their own, interviews and observation. For some, they got to follow the research and synthesis process for the first time. It was often confusing, but they all felt more empathy for the users at the end. We had an important role as facilitators in guiding and reassuring them through the process to overcome their uncertainty. We needed to show how each step serves as input for the next one. Their participation was guided.

Booklet

Apply Client’s Expertise in Ideation and Prototyping

Client’s expertise often reveals opportunities that are not immediately obvious. We plan for feedback and brainstorm sessions so they can react to ideas and build on top of them. It is important to draft out some ideas in advance. A blank template may cause discomfort and uncertainty about the approach. Having a defined set of ideas allows us to keep creative direction and scope.

Once concepts are defined, we like to ask clients to help too. While working on a video to define the product vision for our extended team, we asked one of the members to do the voice-over. Her voice was a great fit for it. The result was a recognizable and passionate message for the audience that was able to bring the product vision across.

It is the end of your project, and even though your client knows every detail, you can feel the excitement of a successful wrap-up. In an odd way, you can also feel the nostalgia of what is the end of a great collaboration. Satisfaction is your reward.

If you any questions or just want to share thoughts about this article, please contact our Experience Designer and Strategist Gustavo Ostos Rios.