Discover how visual collaboration benefits your teams and company, with specific examples. Then, learn how to apply it to boost productivity.
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When creating Nintendo's legendary Super Mario video game, teams of designers, programmers, and artists came together to work on the game's visual components. Visual collaboration ensured that game design elements aligned consistently with character and level design, as well as the overall mechanics of the game.
Whether you're designing video games or programming your next application, some ideas need to be sketched out visually instead of using words. This makes it easier to work together on complex or cross-functional projects. Leaders of highly collaborative teams need to understand what visual collaboration is–and how to do it effectively–so they can improve teamwork and productivity.
In this article, you'll learn what visual collaboration is, how it compares to traditional collaboration, and how it benefits your teams. Then, we'll dive into how you can implement visual collaboration for your team, and how platforms like Switchboard can make teamwork the best part of work.
Think and work differently.
Switchboard’s persistent rooms bring all your people and tools together in one place, so you can do more in real time or async.
What is visual collaboration?
Visual collaboration is when individuals or teams work together using visual elements, tools, and platforms to communicate, share ideas, and solve problems. By using visuals, such as diagrams, charts, images, and interactive media, it can be easier to communicate and retain complex concepts and information.
Visual collaboration vs traditional collaboration
Unlike visual collaboration, traditional collaboration relies on verbal or written communication like emails, meetings, and documents, without using visual aids. For example, using Google Meet for synchronous team meetings is a traditional type of collaboration because you can talk about work but you can’t actually work side-by-side on the same file. Instead, you’re likely to be looking at a one-sided presentation, which can create challenges when you need to be more hands-on.
5 benefits of visual collaboration
From enhancing creativity and decision-making to being more inclusive of different learning styles, visual collaboration has many benefits. Let's dive in.
1. Easier to share ideas
Visual mediums make it easier to break down language barriers and can be a more inclusive approach that caters to different thinking and learning styles. With the ability to convey concepts through images, diagrams, and charts, team members can express complex thoughts more effectively, ensuring there's less miscommunication when it comes to project work.
Visual collaboration also democratizes things. As Startup Marketing Consultant Elliott Brown says, “It decentralizes the conversation somewhat… when you don't have that visual element in a shared space, one person is driving. One person is presenting, one person is leading the conversation. When you're in more of a visual environment, everyone can be exploring simultaneously. So it can be more collaborative….everyone can be more involved and have more of a stake in what's going on at any given time.”
2. Better brainstorming sessions
Whether through virtual whiteboards or collaborative drawing tools, teams can collectively sketch out concepts, iterate on ideas, and build on each other's contributions. This interactive and visual approach can ultimately lead to better brainstorming and more refined solutions.
Brown says, “It saves time, too. Because it pulls everything together in one place. You don't have to have to gather materials or get your 20 tabs open; it's already there. That makes it easier for everyone to feedback, iterate as you go, and comment, because it pulls everything together into one place.
3. Enhances creativity, problem-solving, and engagement
Visual collaboration provides a canvas for teams to visually map out strategies, identify challenges, and come up with innovative ideas. The engaging nature of visual collaboration tools promotes active participation and involvement, inspiring you to contribute more freely and think outside conventional boundaries.
As Brown says, it can also increase mental bandwidth and productivity: “Because it's less context switching. You go to one place where you can digest everything, rather than having to jump around and try and remember where things were…. You can just jump right into the work part of work, as opposed to spending a lot of time trying to recall what happened and where things are.”
4. Leaves a visual paper trail
Using visual collaboration tools creates a visual record of the entire collaborative process, leaving a comprehensive and easily accessible visual paper trail. This helps you track the evolution of ideas and also serves as a valuable reference for future discussions and decision-making.
5. Inclusive of different learning styles
Sixty-five percent of employees prefer visual learning and aids to other types of learning—so it's generally a more inclusive approach. Since more people respond to it, introducing visual collaboration to your team can improve engagement and productivity.
Also, because you have everything documented visually, it’s great for knowledge sharing, onboarding new team members, and referencing past decisions and discussions for better project management.
Visual collaboration examples
Now that you know the benefits of collaborating visually, let's see how you can apply it.
When a product team is in the initial stages of conceptualizing a new feature or product, visual collaboration tools can play a crucial role in brainstorming sessions. For instance, a team might useSwitchboard's built-in virtual whiteboard to collectively sketch out design concepts, feature ideas, and user interactions. This helps the team spark creative discussions and refine concepts in real time and async.
Visualizing the user journey
User experience (UX) teams use visual collaboration tools like Notion to map the user journey. They create visual representations of user interactions, pain points, and touchpoints throughout the product life cycle. This lets them spot potential friction points and areas for improvement and get a comprehensive view of the user experience. Plus, it serves as a reference for subsequent design iterations, resulting in a more streamlined and user-centric product.
Planning complex projects
A product manager could use Gantt charts in a project management platform like Asana to create a visual roadmap for the entire project. Detailing each task, its timeline, and dependencies and seeing how it all comes together visually lets the team identify potential bottlenecks and effectively allocate resources.
Hosting more productive meetings
During a code review, programmers can open GitHub in their persistent Switchboard room. They review code async and leave feedback in the room via memos, sticky notes, or comment threads. This way, when they do need to meet, which they can also do in Switchboard, everyone’s up to speed and ready to work.
How to implement visual collaboration for your team
According to Wharton psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Adam Grant: "It's better to learn from complex thinkers than smooth talkers."
Here's how to implement visual collaboration for your teams, so you can do just that.
1. Make visual collaboration part of your culture
This means you need to make visual collaboration part of your culture so everyone knows how to move projects and ideas forward without burnout and overwhelm. Otherwise, people are stuck dealing with too many meetings and notifications from ineffective written or verbal collaboration.
You can do this by familiarizing your team with visual thinking, its benefits, and the specific parts of your workflow you want to adapt. For example, you might encourage people to use visuals or visual collaboration tools for the design review process. Or, you might make it standard practice to start status meetings with a visual overview rather than talking.
2. Use the right visual collaboration tools
Traditional collaborative platforms often encourage you to operate in silos. They allow you to collaborate at file, but not project, level. It’s up to you to draw connections, attempt to integrate every tool, wade through notifications, and make sure everyone is on the same page.
By contrast, the right visual collaboration platforms let you work side-by-side and async and let you find people and project work easily. They also act as a single source of truth and let you incorporate visual aids and tools into your meetings.
Here's our shortlist of the best tools for visual collaboration:
- Switchboard for visual async-first teamwork
- Asana for visual project management
- Notion for document collaboration
- Mural for creative visual collaboration
- Figma for design and prototyping
- GitHub for collaborative software development
Pro tip: Use Switchboard to unify all your visual collaboration tools and organize them by project. For example, your design team can pull Figma prototypes, Notion diagrams, and Asana Gantt charts into a single project room and make sure everyone's working and communicating in context.
3. Encourage cross-functional teamwork
When people from different departments collaborate visually, it helps build a shared understanding of complex information. Visual elements can serve as a common language, bridging gaps between different areas of expertise and reducing team and information silos.
Visual collaboration encourages the sharing of ideas, rapid prototyping, and iteration, which also feeds into cross-functional innovation. With diverse perspectives and expertise contributing to the refinement of visual ideas, you get well-rounded and innovative outcomes.
Here's how you can encourage cross-team collaboration:
- Create cross-functional teams. Form teams consisting of members from different departments or disciplines to bring together diverse skills and perspectives. This provides opportunities for them to learn from each other through teamwork.
- Align teams with shared goals and objectives. When everyone understands the common purpose, it fosters a sense of unity and encourages teamwork.
- Open communication channels. Ensure that information flows freely, and team members have easy access to relevant updates, insights, and tools.
- Lead by example. Leaders should actively support and model cross-team collaboration. When leadership demonstrates the value of working together across departments, it sets a positive example for your teams.
- Rotate team members. If appropriate, periodically rotate team members between different projects or teams. This can broaden their skill sets and enable cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge across the organization.
4. Offer training and onboarding
For those team members who aren't visual learners, you need to take time to train employees how to think visually. For instance, encouraging employees to incorporate sketching and doodling into their note-taking and brainstorming sessions. On top of that, everyone–visually inclined or not–needs to know how to use the tools, and when.
Here's what you need to do:
- Establish communication guidelines. Define which tools to use, when to use them, and how they contribute to the overall goals of the organization. For example, use Switchboard for everything async or project related, and Mural for synchronous brainstorming.
- Offer training and skills development. Provide training sessions and resources to familiarize employees with visual collaboration tools and techniques. This can include short pre-recorded video demonstrations, interactive demos, and user guides and documentation—including visuals, of course.
- Integrate tool training into employee onboarding. This ensures everyone's introduced to these tools early on and can incorporate them into their daily workflows from the start.
- Try peer-to-peer learning. Encourage experienced users to mentor or share their knowledge with their colleagues. This informal exchange of tips and tricks can complement formal training.
5. Balance real time with async collaboration
Visual collaboration doesn't only have to happen in real time. Knowing which meetings can be taken async frees up more time for focus work instead of just talking about it.
Here's a framework you can use:
- Share async—like docs, images, slides, or code
- Review async—add comments or make video walkthroughs
- Discuss and decide async or together—either converse in comments or meet to talk as a group
In Switchboard, you get an async-first collaboration platform where people can come together and collaborate on ideas visually, no matter when they're online. Add browser-based apps, images, videos, charts, and virtual whiteboards, to your room’s canvas so people can hop in and make progress together or on their own schedule. This lets you cancel more meetings and makes the ones you do have more productive, especially if you share updates in the room beforehand for people to get up to speed async.
6. Gather feedback and iterate
It's crucial to gather feedback and keep improving your workflow based on what makes the most sense for your team. For example, you might discover your product team is facing challenges integrating a specific tool into their workflow, or that certain features aren't aligning with their needs.
Here's what you can do:
- Administer surveys. Develop surveys to gather feedback from team members about their experiences with visual collaboration. Ask specific questions about tool usability, challenges faced, and suggestions for improvement.
- Foster a culture of continuous improvement. Emphasize that feedback is valued and show how it directly contributes to refining workflows and enhancing everyone's ability to collaborate visually.
- Keep documentation up to date. Keep user guides and documentation updated based on the feedback received. Make sure any common issues or questions are addressed in the documentation to serve as a resource for users.
- Track key performance metrics. Key performance indicators (KPIs) like employee engagement, quality of collaborative output, number of iterations, and frequency of cross-functional collaboration, among others, can help you measure and stay on top of progress.
Visual collaboration: The way forward for top-performing teams
That most iconic duo, Mario and Luigi, was made possible by a team of designers that was able to come together to collaborate on a shared vision. You see, ideas like the Mushroom Kingdom really need to be sketched out visually instead of using words.
You can also help your teams achieve more by understanding what visual collaboration is and how to do it effectively to improve teamwork and productivity. You can start by making visual collaboration part of your culture, offering training and onboarding, and balancing real time with async collaboration before gathering feedback so you can iterate.
Then, unify all your browser-based apps and files in persistent Switchboard rooms that save everything by project. This lets you come together to collaborate visually in real time or async on your own time. Either way, you’ll always be able to find the person, droid, or visual diagram you're looking for.
Think and work differently.
Switchboard’s persistent rooms bring all your people and tools together in one place, so you can do more in real time or async.
Frequently asked questions about visual collaboration
Why is visual collaboration so important to teamwork and project planning?
Visual collaboration is important for teamwork and project planning because it lets you engage in creative ideation using online whiteboards, mind maps, flowcharts, and more. This caters to different learning styles and lets you share complex ideas visually faster than you could in words. Depending on your digital workspace or digital whiteboard, you should have a variety of templates to choose from to do this.
What is the biggest advantage of visual communication?
The biggest advantage of visual communication is that it gives you the flexibility to work on complex projects in a way that makes sense for your teams. Whether you prioritize real-time collaboration or remote work, visual communication helps promote cross-team collaboration initiatives.
What are the pros and cons of visual communication?
The pros of visual communication include:
- Visuals often convey information more clearly and quickly than text alone, like Kanban boards
- for visualizing task progress through a workflow
- It's easier to capture attention and improve engagement, making information more memorable
- It lets you present complex ideas in a simplified way
- Caters to different learning styles
Meanwhile, the cons of visual communication are:
- Creating and understanding certain visual elements may require specific skills or tools
- Visuals may oversimplify complex concepts
- It’s not as suitable when you want to focus attention on one element