Tripnotes: “Prototype” vs “Prototype”—Breaking Down and Rebuilding Our Understanding of What We Do

Saara Kamppari-Miller, User Experience Design Leader, Intel

Saara considers herself an expert on prototyping – for example, she has done low fidelity prototypes for AR and VR with paper, clay, and Legos. But her manager came from industrial design, and prototyping in that world is very different. She realized that they were defending the meaning of words rather than discussing the work; a communication breakdown was slowing down their work.

She was also having an identity crisis – if she is a prototyper and her manager doesn’t agree that she’s built a prototype, could she have a career development discussion with her manager?

They had two design teams merge together – industrial design and the UX team. Their team also includes researchers and product designers. There are lots of talented designers, with the potential to do really amazing work. But people got defensive early on, creating a false dichotomy between designers and UXers, for example. People left an early meeting feeling like they would be pigeon-holed, misunderstood. Everyone (individuals and management) was frustrated.

Forgetting about the labels is the same as telling people to ignore the pain. The thing is that words matter. They are how we explain the mental models for how we work, and how we express our values.

There were really only two options – complain about it, or do something about it. They needed to break down and rebuild our understanding of what we do. She proposed to do an affinity diagram for what they did. Instead of top level categories, with affinity diagrams you work bottoms-up, agreeing on categorization later, and labels last.

They provided a cheat-sheet on how to do affinity diagramming, and established a goal of creating a common language to understand each other better and avoid miscommunication.

In the affinity diagramming exercise, they never got to the tidying up. They also banned certain words. They had a really robust conversation – what they do today, what they want to do better, and how to lead by example as a small design team in a large engineering organization. People were not getting defensive.

The feedback in the photo above (“I took a photo, because the team is all facing in the same direction working together”) was from their team manager, about the impact of the exercise on team dynamics. So, the affinity diagram became a token of the conversation we had in the room.

The affinity diagram was an object of discourse. The impact of those conversations fade over time, and sticky notes fall off the wall. She wanted to preserve that, so she tidied it up and digitized it – and found their team framework in the data they generated together:

Now that we knew what we did, how do we assess the skills in the team? She created a worksheet that was inspired by Jason Mesut’s presentation from last year.

In completing the worksheet they filled out where they are today, and where they want to grow. The team exercise thus evolved into individual reflection, using a tool she created from this emerging framework:

People used different colors and drew in between the lines, created new categories:

She put them all into one poster to represent their team. She was able to do some analysis and show the roles – but the visual is a red herring.

It’s not about the diagram, it’s about the dialog.

As a result of that process, they had really vulnerable conversations that we rarely have with colleagues, regarding their own strength, limitations, and self-perceptions. And they were used with managers to talk about career growth.

Why did this work? Pulling something off the shelf would have resulted in critique – but by doing something homegrown and from the bottom up together.