Designing the supertanker: a UX workshop about scale ​at Frontiers of Interaction

Collaboration, Design, Experience, Interaction Design, UX



The taste of Milanese aperitivo is long gone, but after our recent trip to Milan to run a UX workshop, we’re still buzzing from running a design workshop on designing large scale systems with nothing but Lego, post-its and a big tub of water. Yes, you heard that right. Let us explain…

Frontiers of InteractionRMA has joined the audience at the Frontiers of Interaction conference for several years now, and this year had the pleasure of being invited to run a UX workshop session. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it focuses on bringing experts in the design, technology and pretty much everything interactive together to present on the latest trends and generally provide valuable insight into this space. Designers, developers and a mixture of business professionals make up the majority of the audience, and we got some of them roped into a really hands-on exercise aimed at illustrating the crucial part communication plays in the UX design and build process for the sorts of gnarly, big, projects that RMA loves to tackle.

The strange looks at customs in Milano Airport were worth it; the mountain of Lego we brought with us,was to play a key part in our “designing the supertanker” workshop. We were simulating the challenges faced by people working on large scale design projects. In particular, we wanted to highlight issues that arise from teams being distributed across geographies and different cultures.

Here’s how it worked:

  1. We split people up into teams: analysts, designers and builders. We encouraged people to put a on new hat.  e.g. the designer became the builder and vice versa.
  2. To simulate the complexity in dealing with different disciplines, teams were not allowed to talk to each other for most of the exercise. Instead, each team could communicate based on rules specifically designed to simulate the reality of the multi-cultural, geographically distributed teams we so often work with.
  3. With their feet firmly planted in someone else’s shoes we gave them the task of designing a super tanker, made of Lego – which had to float on water, based from a requirements that were drip fed to the Analysts .

We saw both ends of the spectrum during our exercise. Success:

Supertanker workshop - floating tanker success

And Titanic-style failure

Supertanker workshop fail: sinking tanker

As with real life, the lack of direct communication, and the different working practices generated a “Chinese whispers” effect. e saw initial requirements get lost in translation, we saw people innovating, iterating to overcome barriers.

It’s an incredibly valuable exercise in that it makes people feel and understand the pain of peers working on the same design project – but in a playful way. It’s learning by doing it but in a fun context. All the difficulties that people live through during the workshop related directly to valuable lessons about how to effectively work on large scale design projects.  Here some examples:

1# Start with a shared vision

2# Understanding the why, helps the team get to the what  and figure out the how.

3# Communication channels will fail. Build resilience – empower sub-teams & share the vision.

4# When design is blocked, developers get creative. For better or worse.

5# A common purpose grows from a profoundly shared vocabulary.

6# Understanding degrades across cultures and organisational layers. Chinese whispers in design.

A big thank you to our friends at Frontiers in Interaction for inviting us along and thanks to the enthusiastic participants for getting stuck into our exercise with such gusto.  And most of all thank you to our Fabulous Dario for being creative force behind the workshop.

A wise person called Confucius already knew this when he shared these wise words, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” An approach our UX, technology and design teams derive great value from here at RMA. 

Confucius saying