07th November 2013

Collaboration is a science – DART of PHYSICS

Brian Herron

Principal UX Designer

We’re experts at becoming experts, quickly.

We have to be. Our job is to understand where our clients – and our clients’ customers – feel the pain. Then we create great digital products to make that pain go away. We’ve helped telecoms multinationals, energy companies and countries to get their messages across online.

But what if your client wants to communicate the scientific principles that influence everything in the universe – from the atomic, to the cosmic – and put it on a website.

DART of PHYSICS is a science outreach project initiated by some great people in Trinity College Dublin. Think, Poems on the Underground. Except it’s science on the DART (Dublin’s urban rail system).

Each & Other came on board as a partner to create the digital components, and we were really excited about what we could do with such a great idea. There was a problem though. All the in-depth knowledge, critical to the project’s success, was on the client side, and all the digital communication expertise were on ours. Obviously, we couldn't squeeze a lifetime’s worth of scientific learning into a project research phase so the project would succeed or fail based on one thing:

How we collaborated with the DART of PHYSICS team.

With DART of PHYSICS, we brought in the client to work with us as closely as possible, to create the best product possible.

 

With DART of PHYSICS, we brought in the client to work with us as closely as possible, to create the best product possible. Specialist knowledge, behavioural research, design, and strategy all working together to make something really cool.

Good collaborations are based on trust, honesty, openness and hard graft. But how do you actually get to that point? Based on DART of PHYSICS, here’s our guiding principles to collaboration.

 

1) Listen to each other

There are times when a job is a job. Something like: 'paint a wall blue'. It’s clear what needs to be done. At other times, there’s a request that’s more like: ‘Paint it blue, because I want the room to feel fun.’

The request to paint it blue is important. But wanting the room to feel fun might be more important. Because it leads you to ask if there  might be another colour that feels fun-er.

We listen not only with our ears, but also with post-its.

Listening to the client helps you shape an idea about what they really want. And once you have that, you have their trust.

Listening to the client helps you shape an idea about what they really want. And once you have that, you have their trust.

Of course, there are more ways to listen than using your ears.

For instance, we brought the DART of PHYSICS team with us out on an ethnographic field research trip to get them into the commuter’s environment and we got them talking to DART passengers. And on two occasions, we held full day workshops, parsing out ideas and questioning each other’s thought processes using sketching, brainstorming and user experience mapping.

That approach – bringing the client into the creative and research process –  allowed the Trinity crew to get hands on with design decisions, and find ways to communicate complex ideas on digital platforms. And for the iQubers, it was a crash course in physics and a pretty amazing adventure.

 

2) Everyone has ideas (and they might be better than yours)

When you’re dealing with complex problems, it’s not just the creatives on the team who have the answer. Especially when the sum of the designers and developers knowledge about science could be measured on the nanoscale (which is something we learned about).

The trick is to get the right answer out of someone’s, anyone’s head.

The combined ideas that tumbled out of the heads of physicists and UX Designers

By involving everyone in the early stages of ideation and research, there was a real sense of deciding as a group in what directions we could take the digital elements. And how they could relate to the real world components, which would be appearing on the DART.

Its wasn’t so much about dismantling preconceptions about what the site would be, but rather placing the end goal – starting a city-wide conversation about physics – at the centre of all the ideas.

3) Respect for skill goes both ways

No individual on this project would have been capable of creating the DART of Physics site on their own – the skills and knowledge needed just wasn’t there in one person. And was important to acknowledge that at the outset.

 Making physics  accessible and simple as well as factually correct is a challenge. The solution was to continually propose, edit and refine, taking contributions from both sides of the divide.

 

Skills can be in competition at times. It’s tough to take, when PhD looks over a few thousand words worth of perfectly judged, readable, fun content about science (in my view at least, because I'd written it), and rejects it because the science is completely wrong.

Making physics accessible and simple as well as factually correct is a challenge. The solution was to continually propose, edit and refine, taking contributions from both sides of the divide.

Returning to the drawing board (or keyboard) to incorporate a lot of red pen can be painful. Respecting the skills that individuals bring to the project, and keeping the end goal is kept at the centre of the decision making process, ultimately makes the finished project stronger.

 

 

4) Be honest about your own work

Of course, the other side of that is that if you’re working on a team where you’re the sole expert in your field, you have to hold yourself to account.

There was a great example, when the project already nearing completion, we decided to scrap a navigation element and start afresh with a new concept. Although, the original version was working fine, we felt that we hadn’t tried hard enough, and pushed to change it.

A last minute, but much nicer, change to the page navigation

 

With limited time and limited development resources, it’s choices like this that are the tough ones to make. We may not all be afforded Kubrickian levels of indulgence, but paying attention to the nagging voice that says, ‘I can do better,’ is critical.

 

5) Get it done

In the early parts of the project we tried to foster an explosive ideation process, bringing in everything from mind-bending scientific breakthroughs to cutting edge technologies to 'experimental' ideas for digital design. People drew from their own field of expertise and then tried to figure out how it could combine with some else’s. It was all pretty exciting.

A group with different skill sets means that people can at different times act as idea generators, sometimes as idea executors, and sometimes as editors re-focusing flights of fancy.

The tough part came afterwards, when we were asking: ‘how will this work?’ or ‘why should be doing this, instead of investing that time and budget in that?’.

A group with different skill sets means that people can at different times act as idea generators, sometimes as idea executors, and sometimes as editors re-focusing flights of fancy. Of course, that means that you leave the project with some regrets – that killer idea that never quite made it from the whiteboard to the screen.

But it also means that, if the 'idea-editing' process has gone well, we’ll have a great site, with engaging content, with exciting design, that works well for users and that we can ship on time.

At that point, it’s just hard graft until it’s out the door.