Why Can’t We(bbies) Be Friends?

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The Web industry is loaded with some of the globe’s brightest minds and revolutionary technologies. Yet, designers, developers, copywriters and other Web types repeatedly fail to reach their full collective capacities. The blame is typically put on big egos or lack of understanding, which is in line with such generalizations as the following: Designers care only about a website’s looks and have no regard for business objectives or user experience. Developers just want a website to work right, and will kill the design to make it happen. Copywriters want to show off their flashy vocabulary—and cause countless rounds of revisions.

These are widespread stereotypes, chiefly shaped within the industry. But what’s the true culprit that hinders teamwork in the Web industry? The famous line from Cool Hand Luke1 says it best: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Communication Is Key

Good communication is one of the keys to successfully planning, building, launching and maintaining a project, especially on the Web, where people could be scattered across continents. Yet, we’re all guilty of taking communication for granted, thinking: “Talking to people isn’t that hard.”

Communication is Key - Website Collaboration article2

Whether you’re conversing in a cubicle, updating in BaseCamp or Skyping across the ocean, certain communication essentials will help you:

  • Increase productivity,
  • Avoid and solve problems,
  • Enhance working relationships,
  • Promote personal satisfaction,
  • Complete projects on time and on budget,
  • Create better results and happier clients.

Build Mutual Respect

Whether you’re a designer, developer, copywriter, information architect or SEO specialist, a little knowledge and appreciation of what others bring to the table goes a long way to fostering productive group efforts.

The following are some common Web trades and their usual roles:

Web designers solve problems and create online experiences through the thoughtful, deliberate application of design. Tapping into the right side of the brain, they take into consideration how a website will look and be used.

Web developers program a website’s functionality. These left-brain analytical thinkers consider what a website has to do and how it will do it, and then they choose software and write the necessary code.

Web copywriters craft copy to convey key messages, attract and engage visitors and entice them to take action.

Information architects analyze and organize functionality and content into a structure that allows users to navigate and find relevant information quickly and intuitively.

SEO specialists arrange and manipulate on- and off-site elements—from servers to software to content, and including keywords and links—to help a website get high search engine rankings.

Recognize Break-Down Points

Mutual respect fosters mutual benefit. Lack of knowledge of or consideration for others’ roles, objectives and requirements, on the other hand, can lead to significant frustration, delays and even clashes.

For example, a traditionally trained graphic artist might not take the basic usability or navigation of the website they are designing into consideration, which can cause grief for the developer and subpar results.

A developer who isn’t aware of the importance of design might overlook certain visual details, thus breaking the design’s integrity.

Likewise, a traditional copywriter who has limited knowledge of information architecture, navigation, link strategies or the Web in general could hinder search engine ranking, usability and conversions.

Learn to Listen

When discussing a project with colleagues, are you really listening? Coincidentally, Are You Really Listening? is the title of a book by Dr. Paul Donoghue and Dr. Mary Siegel, in which they note, “We hear not what is important to the speaker, but what matters most to us.”

They go on to explain that we become effective listeners only when we acknowledge that we have a lot to learn. This is valuable, practical advice, especially when you’re collaborating with specialists who could give you a wealth of insight into different views, trends and technologies.

What else can one do to become a good listener? Health Resource Network’s Dr. Morton Orman suggests that we need to listen without thinking about how we’re going to respond:

Much of the time when people are speaking to us, our heads become filled with our own personal thoughts and agendas… [we’re] thinking how we’re going to respond. But to listen well, you must put these thoughts aside and “be with” the other person. You’ve got to fully attend to their words and inner emotions. You’ve got to actively work to “put yourself in their shoes” and listen to them speak. And you’ve got to keep your mind open to discover the value or merit in whatever the other person says.

Intel Corporation CEO Andrew Grove sums it up well: “How well we communicate is determined not by how well we say things, but by how well we understand.” This understanding can give us a deeper appreciation for how co-workers approach issues—whether they’re right- or left-brain dominant—and for how our decisions and actions might affect them.

Left brain, right brain cartoon - Website collaboration article3

Put Goals And Expectations On The Table

Never assume that your expectations are self-evident or that they’re clearly understood and shared by your colleagues. Doing so could come back to bite you, your team and your project. Whatever the level of expertise among your co-workers, defining, stating and managing expectations is important. This way, everyone begins on the same page and understands where the project is going. So, from the start:

  1. Articulate points clearly,
  2. Find common ground,
  3. Agree on goals.

These steps will help identify technological and personal limitations, allowing you to make special arrangements if necessary. To achieve your objectives, for example, you might find that you need to bring in a JavaScript specialist for part of the project, or a copywriter with advanced SEO knowledge.

Define Roles and Responsibilities

Web projects run best when everyone clearly understands their duties. To help individuals focus on their roles and secure commitments, ensure that each player has a clear-cut definition of their responsibilities, both individually and relative to the rest of the group.

When employees feel a sense of responsibility and ownership, they recognize that they’re making a valuable contribution to the team, and productivity soars. By contrast, failing to define roles and responsibilities creates confusion over who is accountable for what, in turn killing coordination and leading to turmoil and delays.

For example, you, your developer and your copywriter might each have sufficient knowledge to plan and build the website’s information architecture, but that responsibility must be clearly assigned. Otherwise, you could waste valuable time and resources duplicating work or waiting for a ball that dropped a week ago.

Sitemap cartoon - Website collaboration article4

Mind Details and Keep Commitments

Teamwork is often seen as a warm, blissful, abstract concept. But it’s actually a bunch of concrete individual actions that are carried out for the greater good of the project.

When team players don’t hold themselves accountable, the outcome is usually sloppy work and late product deliveries, which means angry clients and lost profit. When each player instead pays careful attention to and acts on details of the project, deadlines are met and the outcome is almost always satisfying.

“A strong and balanced performance ethic spells the difference between widespread team performance versus random team success,” note Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith in The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization.

They suggest that high-performance teams are deeply committed to their purpose, goals and approach. Team members are also highly committed to one another and demonstrate this through disciplined action.

Accordingly, you must set and maintain schedules and high performance standards and encourage team members to hold each other accountable. Peer pressure can be a greater motivator than policies and systems.

Build Trust

Build an “emotional bank account” with your peers to bring up the trust level and avoid conflict. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean giving the programmer morning hugs or Valentine’s cards, but rather “deposits” of courtesy, kindness, honesty and keeping commitments. This creates a “reserve,” says best-selling author Stephen Covey, that promotes “easy, instant and effective communication.”

If you have a habit of being discourteous, showing disrespect, cutting people off, overreacting, ignoring others or betraying trust, Covey says the emotional bank account will overdraw and trust will run very low. At this point, he explains, “I’m walking on mine fields. I have to be very careful of everything I say. I measure every word. It’s tension city… protecting my backside, politicking.”

Building trust and rapport creates room to challenge yourself and others, to help produce good answers, fast. When you allow everyone to openly debate and disagree on important ideas, you’re more likely to establish sound solutions and deter backstabbing and dissatisfaction. If someone feels that a wireframe is flawed or that Web copy misses the mark on a certain page, they should state their case in a specific, constructive and civil manner. You’ll help your team uncover and resolve issues and become stronger overall.

Whenever possible, involve team players in the decision-making process, particularly when their roles are affected. If you have to make decisions that don’t jive with their points of view, take time to explain your rationale.

When you have to criticize someone, balance it with praise. Share your concerns, noting the individual’s successes or strengths as well as the areas that need attention. Be direct and honest, and do it privately.

In the event that you screw up, simply acknowledge it, say sorry and move on. Chances are the others will, too.

Keep Meetings Productive

When an email just won’t do, a well-planned and executed online or face-to-face meeting can yield exceptional results. Whether the meeting includes the client, the following rules (courtesy of Canadian business advisor and author Mark Wardell) invariably apply:

  1. Begin with the end in mind. Your meeting’s purpose will determine the meeting’s focus, agenda and participants.
  2. Distribute the agenda and any relevant information in advance of a meeting to foster more in-depth discussion and swifter decisions.
  3. Start and finish on time. Don’t wait for late-comers. And if you absolutely must go into OT, at least acknowledge it, so that you can wrap it up more quickly.
  4. Conclude the meeting with a brief recap of key points, decisions and assignments, and ask participants, “Did we achieve our purpose?” This fosters commitment to what was discussed.
  5. If another meeting is required, quickly outline the topics for it. Planning ahead while the information is fresh makes preparing the agenda easier. You can even take the opportunity to schedule the meeting.

Remember, meetings usually require lively discussion, with diverse perspectives, to be productive and for participants to reach consensus. So, to motivate people to contribute, treat everyone’s ideas and concerns equally, regardless of position or status.

Show Gratitude

When your project reaches a milestone or concludes successfully, you don’t have to throw rose petals at your teammates, but do recognize their efforts and achievements. Kudos, thank you’s and high fives5 take little effort and cost nothing, but they can make a world of difference to someone’s day.

Research shows that caring, supportive words increase chemicals such as serotonin in the brain, which calms and soothes people and generates a feeling of contentment. Just keep it real. The more genuinely positive the message, the more neurochemicals are released, creating that tranquility. A forced “Awesome!” or “You’re the best!” doesn’t have the same effect.

Rest assured, when you make people feel special, you get in their good books and, if you’re a freelancer, remain top of mind for any future projects.

Website developer gratitude - Website collaboration article6

Start Making Your World a Better Place Today

With every project and opportunity, do what you can to encourage a team-oriented atmosphere, so that you can achieve more as a cohesive unit, capitalizing on each player’s skills, experience and strengths.

And always lead by example. In the words of Stephen Covey (in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), “Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

You’ll attract a higher caliber of colleagues, clients and projects, and you’ll make your world a better, happier, more rewarding place.

Further Resources

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Footnotes

  1. 1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cool_Hand_Luke
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Website-collaboration-photo-5.jpg
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Website-collaboration-photo-6.jpg
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Website-collaboration-photo-7.jpg
  5. 5 http://ridingabuttertub.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/internet-high-five.jpg
  6. 6 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Website-collaboration-photo-9.jpg
  7. 7 http://www.methodsandtools.com/archive/archive.php?id=17
  8. 8 http://www.julieboyd.com.au/ILF/pages/members/cats/bkovervus/leadrship_pdfs/wisdom_of_teams.pdf
  9. 9 http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro99/web3/Ho.html

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Rick is a Senior Web Copywriter and Content Strategist at Webcopyplus, which helps designers and businesses boost online traffic, leads and sales with optimized Web content. His clients range from independent retailers to some of the world’s largest service providers, including AT&T, Bell Mobile, Tim Hortons and Scotia Bank. He advocates clear, concise and objective website content that promotes readability and usability, and conducts Web content studies with organizations in Europe and the U.S., including Yale University.

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  1. 1

    Really good read, quite enjoyed that for a morning browse! Thanks :)

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  2. 2

    Incredible article, glad to see new posts on this site!

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  3. 3

    Everytime I go to this website I always find something interesting and this
    article is no different.

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  4. 4

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. I can tell a lot of effort went into this, and agree with everything you said completely. Keep up the great work!

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  5. 5

    Very nice article, easy to read through – and it makes so much sense.
    A lot of freelancers might just say “i made a button in photoshop, I am now a web designer” .. writing it out in this manner puts people in their place in a friendly way, while informing and learning everybody to consider points to improve their productivity and be aware who the other players on the field are.

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  6. 6

    My everyday story.. can very relate to this post :)
    Very nice article! good job!

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  7. 7

    An excellent and thoughtful read. I’m surprised to see project managers left out of the equation. When part of a team structure they can facilitate all these things on an ongoing basis, and allow the discipline-specific experts more time for hands-on work. In fact, this practically reads like a project manager job description! Of course, meeting these goals and criteria are everyone on the team’s responsibilities, so good to see them approached from that angle too.

    Film + Art + Interactive
    quadraticmedia.com

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  8. 8

    “Designers care only about a website’s looks and have no regard for business objectives or user experience.”

    I believe such a description can only characterize a designer who has forgot his purpose and the meaning of the word “designer”. A designer can’t just care for a great pallette and cool graphics. A designer should care for making the product (whatever that might be) work effectively, besides making it look visually appealing.

    But that’s that. I, however, salute your call to take interest in what other people, like copywriters, developers and SEO specialists have to deal with and what are their roles in building a product. It is extremely important to know how others around you work.

    Well done!

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  9. 9

    What do you do if you have to work with people who are lazy, or not very good/skilled/experienced?

    It de-motivates me.

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  10. 10

    Thanks for your comments!

    @Laura To be sure, project managers are an important art of the equation, as are other roles, surrounding everything from research to photography. I could have included several other positions on the list.

    @Silver Sova I agree; talented designers can solve complex problems and help create opportunities through good design.

    @Ben That’s a tough one. If you’re stuck working with lazy or non-skilled people, you could perhaps train them, guide them to some useful resources, or attempt to hook them up with a worthy mentor. If they’re not open to self-improvement, I suppose it would be wise to steer clear of them in the future.

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  11. 11

    Back after a long time? Where were you man?

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  12. 12

    This was a great read for sure. I find that the best people to work with in ANY of the above mentioned groups are those that blur the traditional lines and have solid understanding of concepts outside of their comfort zone. That said, it’s also critical to be effective communicators so that “hand-off” point of a project is clear and well defined. Having a specialty is totally fine, but the “holistic” knowledge base is really a desirable trait in freelancers/employees.
    Thanks again!

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  13. 13

    This is my first visit to this site and I immediately fell in love with it. I am also a freelancer and I shall be visiting it again for new information on a regular basis.

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  14. 14

    Been through this almost in every project. Nice article man!

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  15. 15

    I definitely think that communication is the key as well. It’s also the most difficult thing to get right, whether its between web professionals or just friends. However, the tech industry is an even more challenging landscape. This is because we spend more time communicating with machines than we do people. This really makes our people skills suffer. It’s easy to conclude that we have to work even harder at this whole interpersonal communication idea.

    Just my two cents.

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  16. 16

    This is a great article! I was just discussing with a friend yesterday how important is communication between designers and developers and also with clients.

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  17. 17

    great article! thanks for your time and effort Rick, keep up the good work man!

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