I recently led the design of a new product feature that enables Windows to be re-skinned as an iOS style app. Sounds cool, right? But what’s really cool isn’t the just the UI–which is pretty nifty–but a team collaboration model we affectionately refer to internally as “3-in-a-box”. Getting Product Management, Engineering, and Design all in the room together to identify the issues, explore alternatives, make decisions, and refine the final release…And I do mean literally “all in the room” together, for a few intensive, dedicated days, face-to-face. Not using remote web conferencing tools or writing tedious passive-aggressive emails ;-)

This is a model we are strongly advocating at Citrix internally. While it sounds like basic common sense (we’ve all heard the chants about a “3-legged stool” and seen many Venn diagrams than we care to count) but actually doing it and making it work…that’s a different story! Some personal thoughts around “3-in-a-box” below:

* Many (traditional) software cultures can become quite comfortable with “doing it the usual way”, with lots of “throwing over the wall” and waiting for someone to take ownership with next steps. Getting lead folks together in a room to make decisions together is a big cultural, habitual shift…and that’s kinda scary for folks! No more hiding behind emails or multi-tasking on conf calls, silently inattentive.

* Face-to-face interaction forces everyone to commit. The physicality and locality of presence in the same room requires attention, focus, engagement, etc. Especially when everyone is encouraged to take a whiteboard marker and sketch out ideas!

* To make this collaboration work requires executive support from your respective VP’s/GM’s. I don’t mean a dictatorial “you must do this” command, but truly enrolling their trust, making sure they recognize the benefits, and acknowledge its value to the overall product development process and strategy for the business unit and/or company. Showing this exec support to the teams lends additional credibility and motivation, which is vital.

* Kicking off the engagement requires the lead designer to set a strong posture from the get go. Show conviction and authority and willingness to explore, fail, iterate TOGETHER. Set the agenda of what will be and what won’t be discussed. Clarify roles of who does what, and who doesn’t do what. Don’t assume anything and be firmly direct. This helps develop healthy respect and credibility for the rest of the sprint’s duration.

* The designer should use this as a great opportunity to educate others about design methods, how to evaluate alternatives, open the kimono on design decision-making, justifiable explanations for why something may or may not work, etc. Really making efforts to include PM and Dev to be a part of that dialogue, so they too are contributing and actually “designing the product” collectively.

For this particular project, we completed two valuable design “sprints” (for lack of a better phrase, as it was not strictly Agile):

The first sprint was about overall UI design direction setting, addressing the core requirements (already defined by prior research and PM tasks), per known (or yet to be investigated) technical limitations. Whiteboarding, pixel comping, real-time coding of modules/elements all occurred during that week. Lotsa late nights! We itemized the issues and powered through them one by one, taking breaks as needed.

Our second sprint was several weeks later as the Dev team was finalizing their front-end code, towards UI freeze. This was the prime moment to try out builds, slice up final tweaked assets, generate last minute alternatives per technical hiccups, and do any “over the shoulder” art directing with the developers. Fit & finish! It all matters and really requires face-to-face direct interaction to succeed.

The result: a much better product overall we could all be proud of and truly call a version 1 (rather than a tech preview). Also, a positive team rapport and strong desire to improve things further for v2, both in terms of the product and our team dynamics. This has become a positive example that we hope to shepherd across the rest of the company…