The power of walls

I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively.” – Donald Trump

When these words were uttered, the reaction of many people, myself included, was disbelief. How could someone, especially with the power of running one of the largest nations in the world, believe that building walls was a good use of time, money and resources? The more recent pledge to build a wall in Colorado, which doesn’t border Mexico but rather New Mexico was met with ridicule. So much so that the official response was that it was a joke. Obviously.

What is he thinking, building arbitrary walls that don’t serve any tangible purpose?’, we might think. However, far from the madness that is USA politics and on a much smaller scale, I believe that those of us who work in the tech industry are surrounded by walls of our own.  

Walls by their very nature create division. A consequence of this is that we get very siloed ways of working. Unfortunately, this is something that I’ve come across time and time again in service and product design and delivery. Instead of true collaborative working, we see design being thrown over the wall to development teams; often with barely any handover, just an expectation to get on and build it.

In turn, development teams are often, understandably, disgruntled by designers who don’t take the time to understand the technical requirements and feasibility of their designs. And that’s not taking into account testers, who often are the last quality control check of the usability of the product being released. And then there are the stakeholders; clients or POs who may have no idea whether they should be supporting the designers’ or developers’ perspectives and reasonings.

Not only does this lead to frustrations, but it is often more time-consuming and therefore, costly. The result? It’s all a bit of a mess. Silos too easily create tribes and tribe leaders end up fighting for their own corner of how they think work should be done. Tim Brown of Ideo, in his book Change by Design sums this up with:

“In a multidisciplinary team each individual becomes an advocate for their own technical speciality… likely resulting in a grey compromise. In an interdisciplinary team, there is collective ownership of ideas and everyone takes responsibility for them.”

So how can we move from siloed teams and an ‘it’s always been done this way’ attitude and adopt interdisciplinary team working practices? There’s no silver bullet but there is a way to integrate walls into our work and use them to unite us.

User research and service design walls

At GDS (the Government Digital Service) the use of walls is widely encouraged as a medium for communication. Working on a government service has enabled me to experience the power of walls first-hand.

According to the GDS manual, an up-to-date wall also allows you to:

  • have a physical focal point for the team to look at and comment on during standups and other meetings
  • promote transparency and discussion by showing everyone in your organisation the status of your work
  • make decisions based on an overview of your work
  • manage and measure workflow and spot problems that are delaying you

Through implementing the use of walls for design and research, my team and the teams I collaborate with have found these statements not only to be true but to greatly improve the way we work.

Since we began designing a new feature for the service, the large wall where we sit has been used to document and communicate our work. It is a living form of documentation and communication; changing as designs, technical constraints and user research feedback develop.

The general workflow that we have found to be effective is:

  • Print user journey screen flows as large-format and stick to the wall alongside screen designs printed a screen per page
  • Introduce the wall to your product owner, leadership stakeholders, the development team (including QA testers), and other relevant teams e.g. security or policy. Give them post-it notes and allow them to comment on the designs
  • Have conversations with team members and stakeholders around the wall to iterate the design, gaining technical insights early and often
  • Use the wall to display user research planning and feedback
  • Continue to iterate and define the designs into development
  • Once screen designs are added to sprints, use post-its to highlight story IDs and which sprint the screens are being developed in

Everyone’s workflow will differ depending on their particular needs, so this is guidance rather than a set way of working.

The advantages we have seen with using walls in this way has been above all increased collaboration amongst a multi-supplier and multi-disciplined team. Countless conversations have happened around the wall. By making the process open, designs have been iterated, changed to better reflect technical processes and, on our best day, a number of user journeys scrapped in favour of an alternative approach. These design decisions wouldn’t have been made without the transparency of sharing early ideas.

As well as using walls to communicate designs, walls are a fantastic medium for displaying user research. The feedback medium has changed throughout the process, depending on what needs to be communicated to the teams.

Photo of user journey screen flow with annotations of research participant quotes and post-it notes with comments from developers
Placing user feedback and design recommendations onto the screens enables the teams to see key areas for iteration. My favourite participant quote reads “I didn’t actually read what I was supposed to do.”

As well as iterating designs based on team feedback, we mapped user testing feedback onto screen flows. Showing quotes from research participants in the relevant screens in the flows enables everyone to understand key areas of usability issues or successes. After screens and user journeys became more refined, we were able to display research findings in a more visual way. This Included creating graphics of key findings and pull quotes (my favourite form of communicating the opinions and feelings of participants).

Quote saying "You're spacemen talking to cavemen."

The wall is an ever-changing base of operations, it changes version by version. It evolves to reflect the development of the feature. It encourages open collaboration and discourages side conversations. By making it the focal point, teams and stakeholders gather around the wall for their meetings and discussions. The wall creates a democracy. Everyone is given equal opportunity for their ideas and opinions to be heard. Including, most importantly, the real people who use our service.