Multidisciplinary approaches to design open us to the ability to look at old problems through new perspectives. Bringing different expertise to the table, we can approach problems holistically, viewing every possible path to a great solution, better outcomes and impactful change.

If you’re new to working in multidisciplinary teams, it can be challenging to get used to. Drawing from my own experiences, and the experiences of my colleagues at FutureGov, I’d like to share some tips to help you do this well.

1. Spend time building relationships

Get to know the value of what each practice brings to the table, to develop shared goals and successes. This is critical to all teams, whether using design or not. In our work with Camden Council, bringing together an ecosystem of employment services, we started by asking everyone to list their strengths on a board. We all had an opportunity to share our expertise and be honest about limitations and the value we hoped to receive from others.

people within the Camden employment ecosystem plotting out what they could offer to the group and what they needed, in order to support people to employment

2. Find ways to ‘level out’ the expertise

Dr Lucy Kimbell makes the point that design is great at bringing disciplines together because it acts as a leveller. In 2016, she convened a ‘data studio’ at UAL with the Trussell Trust, bringing different disciplines together around food poverty. She provided physical artefacts — reduced price supermarket purchases — as a way of extracting varying insight. As no one was used to working in this way, no individual could be more expert than the other.

3. Be visual

Using visual communication can help everyone see and understand the problem and potential solutions quickly. Using storyboarding and physical diagrams with teams in Kyrgyzstan, visualising proposed ideas in a model was a great way to share outside of the team and gather feedback, even with the added language barrier. Making sure there’s a shared sense of the problem means that everyone is generating solutions to the right issue.

prototyping our blood transfusion drone while blockchain linking was taking place in the background

4. Recognise that others might feel uncomfortable

We use prototyping a lot. But making things out of cardboard can be a very new approach for many. Remembering that agile methods are new to many, allow time for different activities. Find opportunities for people to shine and encourage people when they feel uncomfortable. Remember, it doesn’t have to look perfect, it just has to convey a message.

5. Experience rather than explain

I always find it easier to get people understanding by experiencing. This is another reason prototyping and exploring the user journey is so important. Showing the user’s journey against a curve of emotions as part of our Adult Services Review with North East Lincolnshire Council, we highlighted the different priorities between the service provider and the citizen using the service. It was a pivotal, lightbulb moment, where their journey became an emotional journey, and one everyone could easily relate to.

6. Think carefully about the language

Sometimes design language can feel jargony; prototype, service blueprint, ethnography. And different disciplines have different connotations of words. We try to remove jargon whenever possible. Working in multidisciplinary teams, this might mean simplifying words shaping shared working definitions. Even more so, we find that it means asking questions when someone uses a term we don’t know or that we know to mean something different. Never feel afraid to ask questions.

7. Adapt to the context

We use an agile approach. There are ‘sprints’ and ‘show and tells’. If no one is coming, what if you framed its context as an emerging insights session? Sometimes, success relies on how we frame our needs.

8. Be humble and be open

In multidisciplinary teams, everyone brings their own experiences, expertise, views and assumptions to the table. We’re bound to experience moments where someone's assumption is wrong. That’s okay and it’s part of the process. Be humble and remember that individually, we don’t have all the answers, and we’re a lot closer when working together.

9. Recognise there are different ways of knowing

When different disciplines are working together, they need to go back and forth and iterate over and over. On a health and work project, we used data science and ethnography to reveal what was happening at scale and why. Together, they revealed new things we hadn’t thought about, so we had to go back to look at further datasets.

data science and ethnography used to understand the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ in our health and work project

10. Bring the right people in at the right time

As well as iterating throughout, you might need to bring people together at different points. In this same health and work project, we needed to create a digital three-way conversation between employers, people with health conditions and their work coach. So the ethnographer and data scientist left and the digital team joined. It’s useful to think about tapering in and out, as these disciplines can provide fresh perspectives at all stages.

A lot of these tips require being open and curious about new methods and other disciplines. An open mindset is important for working in interdisciplinary teams. Hopefully, these ten tips will help you get started.

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