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ITX Product Momentum Podcast – Episode 19: The Significance of Contributive Design

Posted by Peter Sullivan on January 29, 2020 5 min read

As organizations move inexorably to a team-based, agile methodology, how do individual contributors effectively demonstrate what they're working on or what they’ve accomplished? If performance is measured based solely on the team’s deliverables, how do team leaders appropriately acknowledge each member’s contribution or target their professional development? Enter the concept of contributive design, in which involvement of the individual is made clear. Contributive design fosters an environment in which team members collaborate as one, but also where they're not necessarily dependent on others for their own outcomes.

In this episode of ITX’s Product Momentum Podcast, hosts Sean and Paul welcome Miguel Cardona, professor of design, artist, and keynote speaker at ITX’s 2nd annual ITX UX 2019: Beyond the Pixels design conference. Miguel introduces us to contributive design and its far-reaching impact – not only in the classroom, where contributive tools help him evaluate the performance of project teams and isolate the contributions of each student. Contributive design applies with equal significance in the workplace as we consider the modular nature of teams, design systems, and the user experience.

Roles, Silos, and Modularity

Years ago, “Many hands make light the work” was an oft-used phrase that spoke to the benefits of sharing the workload to get jobs done.  Today, we synthesize that sentiment with words like collaboration, teamwork, and harmony. The gist remains the same: individuals coming together to complete tasks that would be far more difficult if done alone.

Miguel explains this everyday experience with another even more recognizable mantra: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is true mostly because skill specialization lets one team member be really good at “their thing” while teammates excel at others.

It's not so much that everybody's making these super bespoke bits; they're adding in and building upon something that's better as a whole. – Miguel Cardona

What follows, though, is the unwitting codification of roles and their definitions. The finer we hone them, the higher the walls between roles and teams become. It’s not an insurmountable problem, Miguel points out. And it may not even be a bad thing. Without clearly defined roles, team members are more likely to step on each other’s toes.

We reach the diminishing return when our walls – our silos – limit communication and interaction. “Not my job” replaces others as the new phrase of the day. Incomplete hand-offs contribute delay, frustration, and animosity. Conflict, competition, and discord among teams and their members convert those “many hands” into unworkable disharmony and waste.

Designs that Balance the Whole and Its Parts

Product people build software products that impact human behavior in the real world. Devising a framework that encourages interaction and facilitates that greater whole is a big lift.

We seek solutions that are testable, Miguel says. Our world is frequently shrouded in ambiguity that renders us rudderless, even paralyzed. Like Dorothy’s Tin Man in search of his oil can, we need access to the tools and systems and processes that will release the friction that stymies our progress.

Miguel uses collaborative software to give his students the opportunity to experience broad-scope projects where they can “get a sense of the larger outcome as well as the individual contribution that is very evident in that outcome.”

We’re not treading unplowed ground here. In fact, as Miguel points out, if you look at some of the older modernist designers – he cites Massimo Vignelli specifically – they came up with systems to streamline their approach to work and to connect disparate components into the greater whole.

Within those tools, he adds, “we're seeing a lot [of those connections] and we're seeing a lot of modularity. And with that modularity, that whole notion of contribution is really important. It's not so much that everybody's making these super bespoke bits; they're adding in and building upon something that's better as a whole.”

Contributive Design and Collaboration

With contributive design, a team member’s value-add may stand out more; at the very least, their contributions are distinguishable from others. They’re more clearly identified.

That's not to say that collaboration is dismissed, or that team members put on their blinders and work in isolation.

“We still have instances of brainstorming,” Miguel says. “We still have activities we run … that inform the constraints or identify what [teams are] going to be building. So we're still benefiting from the group collaborative aspects.”

Clarifying product requirements, identifying the technologies to be utilized, and prototype development provide lots of opportunity to engage, interact, and collaborate. “But I still want their work contributing to those desired outcomes,” Miguel adds.

Modularity of Design Systems

It's not merely a function of the team-based collaboration that speaks to contributive design, but also the way that software products themselves come together – the modularity of design systems.

Today’s systems apply a structured format to their own creativity, Miguel says. They outline how an organization’s product looks, feels, and works. Indeed, these systems drive how the product is experienced by users.

A product’s consistent feel and function play a huge role in driving the trust, loyalty, and advocacy we seek from our clients and their users. A critical component in delivering that modularity is the way in which designers, developers, and product people can interlock different aspects into it.

“Memory is Malleable, Glossy, and Prone to Failure”

How do humans recognize things and come to understand them? How do we relate these things with life events that happen around us?

Humans perceive contrast. We identify hierarchy in the same way that you might navigate a memory. We engage with these things in a spatial way, so it's important to understand when things kind of happen. – Miguel Cardona

"Humans perceive contrast," Miguel says. "We identify hierarchy in the same way that you might navigate a memory. We engage with these things in a spatial way, so it's important to understand when things kind of happen."

And that very much applies to designing an experience for an individual. What are those key or signature moments individuals will remember, Miguel asks. What are the contrast points that are going to take place for them?

The designer’s role is to manage contrast and hierarchy in the same way.

So what is our takeaway? Perhaps it’s this concept of cognitive load.

A manageable cognitive load, researchers say, includes 7 plus or minus 2 items. Miguel says that when designers are creating an experience, they need to ask themselves: What are my users able to take in? What are they remembering? What are they holding on to as they move through that experience?

To be effective, designers must consider memory and accessibility as modular components within our designs – what UK designer Andrew Duckworth discussed in his blog, One thing per page.


Have a Listen!

Tune in to ITX’s Product Momentum Podcast and catch all of Professor Miguel Cardona's thought-provoking insights.




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