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A Method for Embedding HCD Principles and Practices on Cross-Functional Teams

Cross-functional teams often experience a phenomenon akin to the game of operator. In this game, a message is passed through multiple people and gradually distorts, mirroring the communication challenges in product development. While each team member’s unique perspective is essential, this diversity can also lead to increasing “noise” that obscures the original vision, resulting in products that may not address the initial problems or questions.
When I began managing design for federal projects at Bixal I developed a product workflow that addressed this problem of mission drift by appropriating an established practice in software development called code review.

Signals and Noise

Misinterpretation or miscommunication can significantly impact the project, especially when these issues arise early in the workflow. A real-world example of this was a project my team took on for the DEA. The relationship with the client was tense, and during a casual conversation, the client mentioned wanting to “see the menu” for the new site. The account owner, eager to improve relations, redirected the team’s focus to delivering the navigation system.
Creating an effective navigation system is a complex process that begins with user research to understand needs and expectations. Information architects then strategically structure content based on these insights. Designers create responsive designs, and researchers ensure these designs are user-friendly. Developers write the necessary code, and experts review the product to meet federal accessibility requirements.
However, the directive was clear: “Stop what you’re doing and build the menu.” This led to halting work on other features, skipping key research steps, and rushing through design and development without proper testing or accessibility considerations. The result was a subpar product, born from a misunderstanding. The client actually wanted reassurance about the information architecture’s coherence, not just a visual menu.

The Value of Peer Review

A robust peer review process could have prevented this issue. Peer review allows for:
Clarification: Ensuring that client requests are thoroughly understood and accurately interpreted.
Alignment: Maintaining the original vision and objectives throughout the project.
Quality Assurance: Catching potential issues early in the process before they compound.
Collaboration: Leveraging diverse perspectives constructively, rather than allowing them to create noise.
By incorporating peer reviews, creative directors and business managers can significantly reduce the risk of the “operator effect,” ensuring that digital products and services remain aligned with the initial vision and effectively solve the problems they were designed to address. This approach not only enhances the final product but also fosters better client relationships and more efficient workflows.

A Proposal

Because I am a big process nerd, I have developed a collection of strategies and tactics that cross-functional teams can apply to maintain their alignment towards a single north star. They define a workflow that begins when new direction or insight is received by a cross-functional team and continues through production.


Work begins with the project manager receiving input from the client or stakeholders. They first gather any existing information or insights from the project’s knowledge base and any tickets for possibly related work. This material is collected into a new user story and the story gets assigned an owner.

The Definition Sprint


Work begins with the Definition sprint. At this stage in the lifecycle of a story the core responsibility of the owner is to facilitate cross-functional collaboration by gathering information and resources… They pick up scheduled tickets and work to add complete descriptions with clear acceptance criteria. They collaborate with team members from across the team designated as “coaches” to define the role of their respective practice area in the story. The outcome is a shared understanding of each person’s role and responsibilities for completing the story:.


When the owner determines that a story is sufficiently defined, the team schedules the story. The entire team works together to identify a time to begin work on implementation. While the aim is for the story to be scheduled for the next sprint, the team may decide that the story should be bounced to the backlog.

The Realization Sprint


During the Definition sprint, the coaches and the story owner worked together to develop a plan for completing the story. In the Realization Sprint, they put that plan into play, with the state of the story reflecting one of seven main phases of work:.

1. Ready for Work

The story has been defined and scheduled for work. A defined story that is ready for work has a subtask (Action) for each of the core practice areas of the team.

2. Ideating

The story owner is exploring ideas for solutions to the problem addressed by the story.

3. Proposed

A proposed story is one for which the owner has defined a potential solution for the story. They have identified a direction and outcome. They are prepared to communicate the solution to the coaches and begin the process of collaboration.

4. Collaboration

During their collaboration the team may determine that the proposed solution cannot be implemented successfully. When this happens, the story returns to the ideation state and the owner continues the process of iteration.

5. Synthesis

In Synthesis, team has signed off on the proposal and the story owner produces the solution to the problem. The coaches have completed their actions. The owner synthesizes the outcomes of the actions and develops the solution.
For an owner who is a developer, the outcome of Synthesis might be a completed feature. For an owner who is a content strategist, the outcome might be a site map or content inventory, and so on.
AS the work evolves during Synthesis, the owner may encounter blockers that were not anticipated by the team. When this happens, the story returns to the Ideation state.

6. QAT & UAT == BFF

Everyone assigned to the story and its actions contributes to quality assurance and user acceptance. The entire story team works together to review the outcomes of Synthesis. Their aim is to catch any differences between the story owner’s understanding of the requirements and what is actually needed or appropriate.


The project manager determines if additional review is needed. The project manager is likely to be the team member with the closest relationship with key stakeholders. Their responsibility is to determine if the story’s outcome needs to to be reviewed by the stakeholders before it can be called done.

7. Documentation & Lessons Learned

The story team updates the project documentation when a story is marked as solved. They update their respective material to reflect the current state of the product. They include descriptions of any lessons learned during the course of completing the story…

The Value

The process defined by the article brings significant value to teams delivering digital products and services in several key ways:

Enhanced Clarity and Communication

The structured workflow begins with a clear understanding of client needs and expectations. By collecting and documenting all relevant information from the outset, teams can ensure that everyone is on the same page, reducing the risk of misinterpretations and ensuring that the project’s vision remains intact throughout its lifecycle.

Improved Collaboration

By facilitating cross-functional collaboration early and often, the process ensures that diverse perspectives are integrated constructively. This collaboration fosters a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities, enabling team members to contribute their expertise effectively and ensuring that all aspects of the project are considered.

Efficient Problem-Solving

The iterative nature of the process, with defined stages for ideation, proposal, collaboration, and synthesis, allows teams to address and resolve issues as they arise. This flexibility ensures that solutions are refined through continuous feedback and adjustments, leading to more robust and effective outcomes.

Quality Assurance

The peer review mechanism embedded in the process helps catch potential issues early, before they become compounded. This step is crucial for maintaining high standards of quality and ensuring that the final product meets all requirements and expectations.

Client Alignment

Regular checkpoints and a clear communication pathway with stakeholders ensure that the project remains aligned with the client’s vision. This ongoing engagement helps build trust and strengthens the relationship between the team and the client.

Documentation and Continuous Improvement

The emphasis on documenting lessons learned and updating project materials ensures that valuable insights are captured and applied to future projects. This practice promotes a culture of continuous improvement, enabling teams to build on past successes and avoid repeating mistakes.

Adaptability

By defining clear stages and allowing for iterative feedback, the process is adaptable to various project types and complexities. This adaptability ensures that the team can respond effectively to changing requirements or unexpected challenges, maintaining project momentum and delivering high-quality results.

Conclusion

Fostering effective communication within cross-functional teams is essential to prevent the distortion of project objectives akin to the “operator effect.” By implementing a structured workflow that emphasizes clear communication, comprehensive peer review, and iterative processes, creative directors and business managers can ensure alignment with the original vision. These strategies not only mitigate misunderstandings but also enhance the quality and coherence of the final product. Embracing such methodologies will lead to more successful project outcomes, improved client relationships, and a more efficient, collaborative work environment. Investing in these practices is a step toward consistently delivering products that precisely address client needs and expectations, ultimately driving innovation and success in your projects.