Inspiration Through Collaboration
People find inspiration in all sorts of places, but for us, it nearly always comes from an interesting collaboration. Not a collaboration of similar people with similar backgrounds and ideas, which sadly is all too common in digital projects, but real collaboration. Real collaboration achieved through developing a deep understanding between users with different perspectives and different needs.
Digital projects often pay lip service to collaboration or focus user groups, not just because they are difficult to organise and manage, but also because there are downsides. What these projects miss, however, are the inspirational upsides to real user engagement. When you get it right it shines through in a finished product.
The cons that organisations often quote include:
- Time consuming to organise
- Can be difficult to manage
- The worry that users may take the project off the perceived ‘right’ track
- Managing user ambitions, which can often be greater than the project budget
- The challenge that users default to suggesting ideas that are familiar to them as they don’t always know what is possible
There are many pros as well, these include:
- Real user insight
- Testing, refining and validation of concepts
- A group of true critical friends who will be vocal in rejecting flawed ideas
- Stopping the project being led by the ‘technical deliverable’ (i.e. the end technical product) and instead enabling the users’ needs and behaviours to come first
- Gives the project a soul
So this last pro may be a bit woolly, but it is also the most crucial. How many websites look like every other website? How many ‘about’ pages do you read and still not know what the organisation actually does? How many websites do you revisit because they are actually useful or interesting? A digital project must be driven first by need, by usefulness, by passion; then the design and technical delivery can follow. If design and tech lead, then you get a soulless experience that no graphics, logos or copywriting can repair. Better a simple website driven by soul and heart and enticing content than a fancy one driven only by a paid commission.
We work with cultural and heritage organisations, as well as in the education and health sectors. A very recent example of true collaboration for us comes from a project we worked on in the health sector.
It’s a great example of a project with soul.
myTube: A Collaborative, User-Focused Project
myTube is not a project stemming from the arts, but the principles of collaboration are the same. We often find it useful to demonstrate a project outside of the sector to really tease out the learning points.
Back in Spring 2016, we were asked to work with a Motor Neurone Disease (MND) patient and carer group on a project called myTube. It was a project being led by a partnership of filmmakers who we often work with – Optical Jukebox. The full collaboration included filmmakers, clinicians, technologists, digital designers and at the very heart of it, patients and carers living with MND.
MND is a debilitating illness that affects the nervous system, causing weakness to muscles. To improve quality of life, a feeding tube can be fitted. Even the idea of having a feeding tube fitted, let alone actually having it done, can understandably cause anxiety and confusion, and people often have many questions about its use. The aim of the project was to find a way to answer those questions and address people’s concerns.
We ran several participatory workshops, where the patient and carer group led the process of design and development of a website. First and foremost they told us that they’d wished they had met someone who had already been through the process and could give them first-hand advice. This became our driving aim – to provide a resource to help others unfortunate enough to be in the position of deciding whether or not to have a feeding tube fitted, to make an informed decision. Everyone felt they never had the chance to meet someone with a tube before they had their own fitted. They wanted the website to be a way to ‘meet’ people, hear about their experiences and see their feeding tubes in use.
At its heart, the myTube website captures stories and reflections from our patient and carer group, discussing the many aspects of life with a feeding tube and putting this in the context of their daily lives. A series of short films are supported by brief sections of text and a list of carefully selected resources from trusted organisations, such as the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA’s) range of fact sheets.
Launched in March 2017, myTube received international usage and interest from the beginning. In its first week, many of the videos received over 1,000 views and it continues to grow.
The site is simple in design, because that is what the users asked for, but it is clear, concise and leaves any user in no doubt what the site is for. It is a site that has a voice and reassures users through its content. I will be honest, that when we started the project, we had in mind what we thought the site would look like and it was very different. Looking back at some of the early concepts we shared with the group, the site design and functionality has evolved a lot and definitely for the better. What this site shows is how real collaboration works when the user is genuinely given a voice in the project and put at the very centre of the collaborative process. The use and feedback we have had from the site is wonderful and the people that feature on it, as well as those that have gone on to use it, are truly inspiring.
Top Tips: Enabling True Collaboration to Shape and Drive a Project
- Establish an atmosphere of trust from the beginning, set ground rules that are developed by the working group
- You act as a facilitator to guide the group, but they are very much in control
- Be prepared for things to change course – things will change during the development including layouts, design, navigation, functionality – you name it, it’s all up for grabs
- Set regular meetings that naturally tie in with key phases of any digital project – wireframing, design, build, test, review… build, test, review again, then release
- Translate – the digital dictionary is not immediately understandable – strip out the jargon
Rebecca is Director at Ammba, working with organisations that are eager to explore new ways of delivering digital content and developing audiences. A content curator and strategist at heart, she works as a translator between technologists and organisations, guiding them through the cultural change that often comes when adopting digital.
Rebecca has worked with a range of organisations including The British Council, The Library of Birmingham, Yorkshire Film Archive, North East Film Archive, Imperial War Museum, The Royal Pharmaceutical Society and Royal Observatory Greenwich. Rebecca has over 16 years experience working within the cultural heritage and education sectors, including a BAFTA award-winning multimedia company. She is director of 2 sister companies Nymbol and ReelLearning.