Jimmy on 8/21/2015

What is 'designing for collaboration'?

Recently collaboration has been on the go more than ever before. It has always been used to express a working model. “We work hand in hand with the client” sounds like agencies’ statements. Or “we are iterative” we hear creative teams explaining their collaborative way of working. The notable development of collaboration tools and platforms is rising as I am writing now. Slack, inVision, and Dropmark are just 3 of of the many tools that cross my mind when I think of collaboration. This blog post however has nothing to do with this view on collaboration. Instead, it revolves around a digital perspective on “Designing for collaboration”: What if we are creating digital projects that cannot be experienced by a singular user but by 2 or more?

We are not talking about how to collaborate creating a product but how to create products that induce collaborative usage.

Within the context of creating digital experiences, bringing the collaboration topic to the table does not question, shake or replace the user-centred design core. It is still the principle based on which UX designers look at a digital project and its process: innovation, research, design, adaptation and validation. However, we suggest a model with a two-fold objective: it focuses on the process of designing for collaboration providing a guideline on the one hand, and validates whether such an approach is to be taken for a project.

We call it the 'Plus Model’.

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The model is based on three pillars: Ideation, Users and Sustainability. Under each pillar lies the key element of the creative process. This doesn’t mean it’s the only focus, but the most important in adopting a design-for-collaboration approach.

1. Motivation

Collaboration is based on motivation. It sets the groundwork of the creative process’ first phase. Again, this doesn’t mean that the usual practices of the ideation phase (vision definition, strategy, planning, etc.) are skipped or replaced. Motivation here means every user is to be engaged, every user will ask “What am I getting out of taking part?”. This motivation focus is applicable to any type of project; be it an e-commerce project, brand communication or a campaign microsite.

2. Sharing

It’s not the sharing function that is meant here, but the character of the users. “Are the users that we’re designing the experience for ready to share?”. This includes for instance researching social media channels and tracking the engagement rate. In other words, assessing the users’ communication patterns and sharing-readiness before we start designing for them.

3. Commonality

Acknowledging the fact that the targeted users will be brought together into one experience. This has two implications: finding the commonality or creating it. It’s either we find the commonality of these users and base the concept on it, or we create the storyline we want to bring the users into.

4. Diversity

The targeted users have different profiles and come from different backgrounds. This might not sound new. One can ask: isn’t it the case in every digital experience? Well, not really, as those different profiles are not to be targeted singularly but interacting with one another. Thus, in a design-for-collaboration approach diversity prevails as one of the 5 core elements.

5. Expansion

We always think sustainability and long-term strategies. We do think of the so-called ‘Phase 2’ or a relaunch, even before the first launch. But here sustainability manifests itself in expansion. “The platform becomes a grower”. Digital experiences are in constant change, and so are the users. The suggested model suggests thinking of expansion from the very beginning: How the experience we are creating can grow through its own usage.

How to design motivation? We need a “Hook”!

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To best elaborate on motivation within the context of designing for collaboration, we adopt the Hook model from Nir & Far. A great example of how to “manufacture desire”. The model states that creating associations with internal triggers comes from building the four components of what they call “a hook” — A trigger, action, variable reward and investment.

“The predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again.”

So how exactly do we look at users then?

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As the user pillar of our suggested plus model indicates, sharing, commonality and diversity are in focus when we think of and design for users. The practices of user research, interviews, defining personas, user stories, and so on, remain. Yet a little tweak is needed to make sure the experience we’re designing can be based on a design-for-collaboration approach. Thus, these practices aren’t to be dealt with in a linear parallel way but with a intertwined crossing manner. A visual representation of this perspective is the ‘slides & the pool’. This is how we look at it. The slides represent the traditional way of creating personas in a parallel structure. While the top view of the pool symbolises the at-same-time collaborative experience.


Designing for collaboration induces certain emotion, behaviour and interaction.

We’re going for a design-for-collaboration approach, now what?

We’ve defined three interaction types that describe the suggested architecture of the experience. The three types I will talk about in this post aren’t the only ones. They’re more the start of a discussion, or simply examples that allow further types to be added.

Even though the example projects listed in this post might not perfectly reflect the interaction types, but are rather an inspiration and a validation that designing for collaboration might be the new approach to digital experiences.

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The experience is active, yet it functions the moment it is collaboratively used. Thus, the output is clear and doesn’t change. And so is the structure. After usage, the experience is reset. A very close example is ‘Player’, one of 7 interactions from the project ‘Caseture’ that we developed earlier this year. A gesture-based installation where multiple users can interact with a FullHD screen. It tracks every gesture performed, mirrors it on screen in a very realistic manner.

The ‘active’ interactive type in a nutshell:

- Usability and Output are precisely defined
- Interacting with the experience does not alter its format
- After usage the experience is reset to how it was before



Here the output is anticipated but not known. The “semi-active” architecture is when the experience is present even without participation. Yet, it waits for the interaction of the users to fully shape its usage & output. Also a close example to this interaction type is an on-going project we’re developing at demodern; a wall-screen between Cologne & Hamburg offices. The experience aims at bridging both teams. It is designed to preview general information about teams and projects along many other features. However, it is only when a team member from Cologne and another from Hamburg join the screens that the experience reaches its purpose. (we will be sharing more insights about the project as soon as it’s ready)

The ‘semi-active’ interactive type in a nutshell:

- Usability design is defined
- Output is only anticipated
- Interacting with the experience re-shapes its format
- After usage the experience is only partially reset


Going for a more challenging interaction type, the “framework” implies that the experience is majorly shaped by the collaborative usage. So yes, the experience might be at high risk of not coming to life if the users do not use it. It might sound like not much of work, but in contrary it needs the appropriate research, concept and guts to go for it. Edding’s “‘wall of Fame” is a great example of what we’re talking about. A digital canvas on which the website users can immortalise themselves by collaboratively drawing.

The ‘framework’ interactive type in a nutshell:

- Experience design counts fully on users’ interaction
- Output is what the users create in the experience
- Interface is shaped by the users
- After usage the experience is not reset


Output is what the users make of the platform.

What about the users’ profile, the content and the output?

User’s behaviour patterns in different environments is something we’ve learned through working on digital experiences. Anyway we all know how different a public-profile user and an anonymous one interact online. It does make a major difference.

It is indeed a new culture in the digital world since couple of years, where a user creates a social media character which eventually is a major part of who they really are. Within the context of our topic, collaboration, we speak of two types of users: those who are engaged anonymously and those who come with their profile and data in their backpack. We do live in a digital era where users are confronted with connecting via Facebook, authorising social media accounts, pairing mobile devices, just to name a few.

A user’s behaviour differs majorly depending on the environment the user is in and the role they’re playing!


Two ways to go: the user is either in a dark room or in a church. This has a direct impact on two components: The interaction and the output. The interaction itself is very different whether users’ online-profiles data are used or not. The same applies to the output, which is totally dependant on the data the users come with. They can put their data in favour of the experience or can generate the output regardless to their profiles. Each of the two scenarios result with total different experiences hence outputs.

Let’s talk

It is the case that we’re somehow already ‘designing for collaboration’. Maybe not in every project, maybe only in one feature of a project. The question remains whether we are heading more towards such an approach in a more challenging and daring way that bases the experience fully on collaboration. We think we are, and these were our thoughts on that. Let’s talk about it.