stack of oranges next to a stack of apples
PHOTO: frankieleon

As customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) models evolve, the definition of “collaboration” has become blurry and inconsistent. We might all agree that collaboration means “working together,” given the Latin origin of the word. But how do we define collaboration versus “design by committee” or “democratization,” and what are the differences between them?

Who Is Doing Your Job?

Whether it’s research by committee, design by committee, or some other work by committee, the distinction between these and “collaboration” centers around two key questions:

  1. Who is doing the tasks you were hired to do? If the answer is “only you are doing your job,” then it’s probably collaboration. If the answer is “non-CX/UX roles are doing CX/UX work or tasks that are my job,” then it’s probably “work by committee.”
  2. Who has decision-making power over your CX/UX domain? If we bring the cross-functional team together for a group exercise, and everybody has mostly or completely equal say in the product design or UX work, it’s “work by committee.”

Related Article: Design Thinking Isn't User Experience

Collaboration vs. Design by Committee: Clear to Freelancers, Muddier at Full-Time Jobs

design price list

We tend to have a pretty clear definition that separates collaboration and design by committee when we work for ourselves or in agencies. It’s reflected in viral photos and memes like the one to the right (source unknown).

The sign shows how the price gets higher the more the client wants to be involved in the design project. Agencies and freelancers know that the more cooks you put in the kitchen, the longer the project can get drawn out, the more work it might be, and the higher potential for going in directions that don’t deliver value to customers.

Somehow, the siren song of wonderful team building through design workshops and “democratization” has cast many a workplace under its spell. Is that what we really want, or are we trying to make others happy by giving up our specialty and autonomy?

Related Article: User Experience Design Shouldn't Happen in Isolation

True Collaboration Is Like a Sports Team

A baseball team has to be a collaborative unit moving together towards a common goal. They practice together, they play together, they strategize together, and they are often all accountable for wins and losses. But the team has one pitcher, one catcher and one player in each position. You need a great pitcher, but a team full of pitchers probably wouldn’t win games. If a pitcher can’t pitch, you don’t throw the second baseman in as the pitcher (unless that person is a great pitcher).

Same for our cross-functional teams. We must align our goals, collaborate on initiatives that support those goals, and all be accountable for the final products and outcomes. But the team is not improved if we’re all coding, all trying to manage the project, or interpret observational studies. Baseball teams, soccer teams and other sports teams work because each person sticks to their role with minimal or no overlap.

Related Article: Productivity Potholes: Bad Behavior Is Crushing Collaboration's Potential

Incorrect Definition of Collaboration

In "Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to User Experience," Jeff Gothelf wrote: “Making sense of [UX research] can be time-consuming and frustrating — so the process is often handed over to specialists who are asked to synthesize research findings. You shouldn’t do this. Instead, work as hard as you can to make sense of the data as a team.” He also wrote, “Research activities and responsibilities are distributed and shared across the entire team.” 

Collaboration does not mean, “Assuming or hoping that everybody on the team has talent, skill, experience, understanding and good reasoning when it comes to executing a task normally given to a specialist.” Lean UX claims its model is “collaboration” and not “design by committee.” However, its overreliance on having cross-functional teammates work on every task with UX pros fits the definition of “design by committee.” If we have specialized CX or UX researchers, it would be the Lean sin of “underutilized talent” to block them from doing their work themselves or how they want that work done.

Among other problems, “work by committee” creates workplace co-dependency. Non-UX roles called in for frequent meetings to plan our work, do our work, interpret our work, etc. are likely to assume we can’t do our work ourselves or that we’re incompetent without constant assistance. There are reasons you don’t hang CX or UX architecture or design concepts at your desk and invite others in the building to vote on their favorites.

Our co-workers are busy and have their own work to do. We must respect their time by calling fewer meetings and group activities, plus drawing healthier boundaries between “collaboration” and “work by committee.”

Related Article: Want to Boost Team Collaboration? It Takes More Than Technology

Be Careful of the Term “Democratizing”

Another term gaining traction has been “democratizing,” whether that’s democratizing CX research, UX design, or some other area that has traditionally been our domain. On the surface, it’s suggested as a way to make CX and UX work “accessible” to everybody.

If CX or UX workers were siloed and not making their work “accessible” to others, this is easily solved through improved processes, communication and collaboration. As CX or UX practitioners are working on or finalizing research, architecture, design, testing, or another part of our process, we share this with cross-functional teammates. We share it in the spirit of collaboration and to get feedback, but not to get teammates’ approval or to be given orders of what to do next.

The term “democratizing” also implies that it has been a dictatorship, with one person or role being an evil ruler. “Democratizing” demands we share decision-making power with people in other roles. This hurts our autonomy. Many of us already work in an environment that prefers to exclude, circumvent, overrule us, or try to turn us into order takers. Many of us struggle to raise the CX and UX maturity at our companies, and are desperate to get that “seat at the table” or at least more respect for our industry. We should not support any effort aimed at reducing our strength or autonomy. Therefore, we must be wary when others request or demand “democratizing” CX or UX work, or anything that looks like “work by committee.”

CX and UX Are too Quick to Give up Their Power

Product management is not a “democracy.” Product does their own work and makes their own decisions. They collaborate where they want to, and they ask for input where they're open to cross-functional team ideas. Engineering keeps tight control over their domain and will be quick to tell you that you lack the knowledge, training, or expertise required to try to make strategic engineering decisions.

No other role or department at our company rushes to give up its power, decision-making ability, or strength the way CX and UX does. Then we wonder why nobody understands us and co-workers think that anybody can do what we do. We believe that we need to evangelize more without noticing everything else we’re doing to make that evangelism impossible.

Focusing on Collaboration

It’s great to show our work as we go to cross-functional teammates, not for their approval but for collaboration and feedback. “Hey, product manager, here’s my work so far. Does it match the requirements? Did I miss a user story?” That’s collaboration because you’re doing your CX/UX job and the product manager is doing their job in looking at your work through the PM lens.

When you show engineering your wireframes or prototype, you’re checking that the concept is something they can build given time and resources. Part of the collaboration is for you to get feedback on anything that could become an engineering issue so that you can architect and design around potential problems before they happen. You’re doing your job, engineering is doing their job.

This is collaboration without “work by committee,” and makes our artifacts and concepts accessible and available to others. You can collaborate, collect ideas, receive feedback, share insights and discoveries, and your work. Watch out for anything you’re doing and terms you are using that teach others that CX or UX is a “democracy” where every opinion is equal to our unique expertise, and we’ll all make decisions together. Our work can be accessible to all, but that doesn’t mean everybody does our jobs or makes decisions in our domain.