How we use design thinking to support collaborative writing

By Jason Tham and Joe Moses

In our previous articles, we described a framework for collaborative writing that confronts the traditional writing process, focuses on cross-functional engagement, and creates specific roles and tasks that support effective collaboration. We continue this series by sharing in this entry a philosophy of thinking in teams that we adopt in our collaborative writing framework.

Our approach to collaboration is inspired by a human-centered creative problem-solving methodology known as design thinking.

Great question. We love this concise definition by Nate Balwin on Medium:

“Design thinking is a fluid, research and data-driven approach to identifying a problem, the people it affects, exploring solutions with users, and continually integrating and improving the solution with the end users. In the industry, design thinking is typically used in software or product design, but the implications of this process reach farther beyond tech design.”

While conventional use of design thinking is in entrepreneurial contexts, such as product and service development, or technical applications like software engineering and user-experience design, design thinking is becoming popular in social innovation. You may have heard of initiatives like design thinking for social change, where “social entrepreneurs” employ design thinking processes and methods to cultivate grassroot movements and enable large-scale change in particular communities.

“The core of design thinking is getting actionable and knowing your questions. It’s about simple mindset shifts or ways of asking questions differently — a new way to look at problems.” — IDEO U

Substitute “problem” with “collaboration.” In businesses, design thinking has been adopted by executives and managers to enhance workflow and project management. Practices like Lean and Agile are signature examples powered by design thinking values. In Agile, for instance, the project management approach emphasizes frequent review or testing of ideas. Both design thinking and Agile include problem-solving strategies for situations in which complexity and frequent change commonly occur. Collaborative writing is almost always such a situation.

Our collaborative writing framework draws on decades of work in organizational development that emphasizes shared leadership, iterative processes, prototyping, and human-centered problem solving. We’ve spent the last three years mapping parallels between Agile and design thinking values of transparency, inspection, and adaptation to classroom practices of sharing drafts, holding peer reviews, and supporting meaningful revision. Most significantly, we have been designing learning activities for teams to cultivate design thinking mindsets and employ its guiding principles to support collaboration.

Collaborative writing begins with empathy. Team members should learn what teammates, instructor, and external audiences think and feel. Our collaborative writing framework facilitates empathy building in teams before any team tasks. We encourage teammates to share their hopes and fears about working in a team, and articulate strategies for anticipating them. The paired empathy interviewing exercise, for instance, prompts teammates to discuss their past experiences and aspirations.

Successful collaborations often boil down to how well a team can articulate the problem at hand. We encourage teams to define personal needs, project terms, potential problems, and constraints they may need to work against. Modeled after a classic activity of design thinking/user experience design, the user story exercise, our framework asks each team member to articulate their collaboration needs using the user story structure.

Research has shown that prior experiences have a huge impact on individuals’ learning behaviors and attitude toward team based tasks. To create a conducive team process, we promote creative confidence in individuals through guided ideation. A subprocess in this step involves generating multiple solutions and crafting an increment of a project (a prototype in design thinking speak).

Even in writing processes where peer reviews and instructor feedback are included, they are often scheduled late in the process when a project is near completion. This creates high stakes for all parties involved, since time and material resources are often limited in regular learning environments. Our framework uses early and frequent reviews of increments instead. Teammates engage in activities for discussing how increments do and do not meet project requirements.

We believe a meaningful collaboration is one that is reflective of its process. Our collaborative writing framework builds in regular team retrospective activities where teammates reflect and evaluate as a team on the effectiveness of their practices. The Four L’s exercise, inspired by Ben Linders Consulting, prompts teammates to share what they perceive to be enjoyable in the team process, what they have learned so far from one another, and what could be added to enhance the collaboration.

Collaborative writing is an inherently human activity. Design thinking is appropriate for supporting collaboration through human-centered principles like empathy, definition, ideation, and reviews that promote attitudes and practices that attend to human needs.



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Joe Moses

Senior Lecturer, Writing Studies, University of Minnesota. Collaborative writer.