Guest Post: Design Challenge – Collaboration across the Miles

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The following guest post was written by Chatree Campiranon and Craig Birchler, who collaborated as a team on Mozilla Labs’ Home Tab Design Challenge (and won the “Best in Class: Innovation” honor). Chatree and Craig collaborated 2000 miles apart – following is an account of their experiences:

 

The challenges of working collaboratively from a distance differ, at times substantially, from those of working closely. But if done properly, the benefits of distance collaboration can out weigh some facets of being face-to-face.

Chatree Campiranon lives in the San Francisco bay area. Craig Birchler lives in Indianapolis, IN. We are interaction designers. Working together at a great distance (2000 miles to be exact), we spent three weeks designing the “Best in class: Innovation” submission for the Mozilla Labs Home Tab Design Challenge.

Some find it a major feat to design effectively without being in the presence of your peers. We recognize that nothing can truly out weigh the experience of discussion, argument, and ideation while standing next to your colleague. But when that experience is not possible, all is not lost. Embracing our constraints, we have learned effective communication skills supported by our dedication and aided by technology.

In design, effective communication of ideas is key. When working from a distance, no one method will suffice. So to express and communicate ideas in a variety of ways, this particular project relied on the familiar Adobe Fireworks, the antiquated telephone, and a new tool – Google Wave – which we will return to shortly.

Our concept, BubbleStacks, could potentially provide Firefox users access to a visual realm of behavioral insights, giving them a window into their browsing habits. This is accomplished by fully utilizing the data trail left by Firefox users to create a series of connections between ideas found along their path. Not unlike this process, collaborating from a distance gave the two of us similar access to the lineage of our ideas for this concept.

Just as a user surfs the web creating tangential paths of discovery, our design insights branched often as part of idea creation. Not every path was useful to the end product, but analysis of all paths created was important in understanding the constraints of our design and the possible strategies to success.

Google Wave provided us the ability to have these branching discussions and ideation that eventually led to the development of our final concept. The most important component in Wave, or any remote collaboration, was our frequent, constant usage. This seems simple but it really is the key. When working from a distance a team must overcome the loss of the benefits of in-person discussions, such as gesture recognition, rapid collaborative diagram creation, side banter and tangent concept generation. We made up for these losses by using a heavily text based framework that supported our branching habits. Wave allowed a natural discussion to occur based on textual expression alone.

Our process gave us a benefit not available during in-person or even telephone based meetings because we had the unique ability to analyze nearly all concepts based on the exact paths of creation. Wave made it possible for us to retrace our steps, rebuild, iterate and improve upon not simply the final product, but how we got there. Bubbles and Stacks were simply two supporting concepts that emerged from the sea of ideas created in this context.

The benefits of live, local collaboration are well tested. They cannot be over stated. However, collaboration from a distance forces us, as designers, to look at the constraints of collaboration in a different manner. Distance and separation are not obstacles to overcome, but rather unique opportunities to find currently unknown solutions.Thanks to the tools and supporting team dedication, distance collaboration holds an important place in the world of design.