How DockYard Uses Design Thinking to Boost Collaborative Communication

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Brad Sarro


Brad Sarro

When we practice design at DockYard, communication is a big factor in the grand goal of solving problems. The ability to relay a problem’s context, opportunities, and reasoning behind recommendations has the potential to streamline big-picture success.

Product teams are capable of driving fast and meaningful output when there is trust in collaboration and an ongoing awareness of communication. The ability to convey a solid idea across a diverse range of personalities without diluting its meaning and intent is a skill that we should all continue to build on.

Why is team communication important?

When a team doesn’t value collaborative communication, it is only a matter of time before it starts producing misguided solutions completely detached from timeframe and technical constraints. As work builds up in the backlog—and product direction veers off track—teamwork degrades and delays become commonplace.

Design values improvement. I value team collaboration and want to continue its improvement through design thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Coined by designer Tim Brown, design thinking is a circular approach to understanding a problem and searching for the most viable solution. Since its debut, it has evolved into a defined, five-stage cycle:

  • Empathize: Observing behaviors and gathering information for insight
  • Define: Drafting clear definitions of scenarios and identifying problem statements
  • Ideate: Rapidly exploring ideas and narrowing down potential solutions
  • Prototype: Building ideas and hypotheses into tangible concepts
  • Proof: Testing solutions to find outcomes and feedback

Throughout this process, your findings will feed iteration in a continuous cycle of learning, understanding, and improving. And we can apply these same steps and principles to team communication to foster better collaboration and problem solving.


As a practice, all product teams should maintain a ritual of ongoing open discussions. I find them to be a great opportunity to discover who the team is, how its members prefer to work, and what motivates us.

To boost participation, turn these discussions into engaging workshops or informal whiteboard activities. Some questions to ask (and be prepared to openly answer) are:

  • Who are you and what do you do?
  • What lets you produce your best work?
  • What holds you back?
  • How do you like to think through problems?
  • How do you prefer to coordinate as a team?
  • What are your top three team values?


Similar to defining user personas and use cases, I unpack and identify the team’s preferences. Knowing our communication preferences informs the best methods when presenting and working together. Defining team values also unearths unique mental models each team member has when solving problems (e.g. user behaviors vs. system behaviors).

![Cards showing hypothetical team member personas]( Thinking Illustration_1.png)


Just like product ideation, thinking about the different components involved in communication is crucial. I ideate around different types of narrative flows and storytelling tools that will help me deliver meaning. Contrasting ideas with the defined audience helps me hone in on tangible areas to commit to. Eliminated ideas are always kept in my back pocket, they may not be perfect now but they could lead to inspiration later on. In my ideation I always want to include a hypothesis of probable audience questions to anticipate the unknown.


Turning ideas into a real thing shapes the work so far. The tool doesn’t matter—I may choose to draft a crude storyboard in Figma, build out talking points in an Excel spreadsheet, or index Q&A items with an agenda document.

A prototype’s importance is based on the direction it takes. Building out items that align with my ideation and team understanding will help me come prepared for collaborative conversations and keep communication clear and on topic.


Testing is baked right into conversations if you make the effort to include it. I like keeping conversations a safe and inclusive space where people are free to ask for clarification. If I need to take a step back to clarify a thought, that shows me there’s something I need to take a step back and analyze.

Asking for audience feedback after a presentation or collaborative effort is another must to validate communication tactics. Three questions that I like to send out for feedback are:

  1. Did the discussion feel organized and relevant?
  2. Do you feel your input was clearly received and considered?
  3. What suggestions do you have to improve conversations?

With feedback in hand, I am empowered to cycle back to Empathize, where I can gain insights from validation.

![Abstract illustration of five icons]( Thinking Illustration 2.png)


Using this method, I have become aware of the bad communication habits we pick up in product work. Improving collaborative communication means teams have the ability to discuss user flows while cleanly translating the impact to data dependencies. Interface improvements are advocated for with an understanding of system architecture.

DockYard’s ability to achieve this doesn’t come from each individual being an expert on all things. Instead it comes from a unique value to teamwork and a trusted capability to learn how we work best together.

For more info about DockYard and how our teams function, follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter, check out what we are up to on Dribbble, and subscribe to our newsletter!


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