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Collaboration in Silence

The recent UXBristol event was packed with a dozen workshops to learn hands-on UX techniques. As sponsors, we took the opportunity to catch up with some of the speakers, to ask them about their career journeys so far as well as the topic of their UX Bristol session.

Next up, Ajara Pfannenschmidt who has been designing and developing digital products for 20 years. At UX Bristol she held a workshop about Collaborating in Silence.

ADLIB: In a nutshell, what has been your career journey so far, leading you to where you are right now?

Ajara Pfannenschmidt: Coming from a therapeutic work background the transition into computers seemed like a big turnaround but I always loved problem solving – no matter the circumstances. When I started designing and coding websites there was no formal education or courses available. I am pretty much self-taught and I still keep up to date with the ever-changing digital world by self-motivated learning.

Having graduated with a degree in pedagogics I also began creating and teaching courses to enable others to move into digital design. Teaching has always been a valuable way to give back to the community and it keeps me on top of my game. Being able to explain structures and content in simple terms also comes in handy when dealing with clients. I am still a visiting lecturer at Freiburg University.

Creating user-centered digital experiences has expanded the role of web design in all directions. I enjoy the continuous learning and growing within the industry. Somebody told me calling myself a ‘web designer’ sounds very 90’s so I settled on ‘web craftswoman’ for now.

ADLIB: On topic ‘Silent Collaboration’, who do you think should read on to find out about this and consider it for their next Design Sprints or Discovery Sessions?

Ajara Pfannenschmidt: Silence is for everyone! We live in such a noisy world. It is all talk and rarely listening. Inviting silence and contemplative structures into our work culture is a first step to acknowledge the power of the quiet aspects of collaboration.

We are striving for diverse teams and demand inclusive thinking but how can we make sure that we are able to hear all these different voices – that we create an atmosphere where all types of minds have the space to share their thoughts? This is the real challenge for all collaborations.

Working within a well-established team leads to well-established speaking roles. Usually the more extrovert and louder team members take most of the talking time. The quieter members of the team stay in the background and with them stay their ideas and opinions.

As a result the more introvert people often disengage with the on-going discussions and are quietly waiting for the meeting to be over – sounds familiar?

ADLIB: On to “Why”, What difference could it make to the outcome?

Ajara Pfannenschmidt: Silence opens up space for everyone. It is an invitation to step in and take responsibility.

During the silent collaboration workshop everybody found some way of contributing to the task. Team roles were more fluid and interchangeable according to the state of the product. No verbal rules were laid down and no spaces were claimed.

All the particpants felt relaxed and refreshed after the silent session. They noticed an increase in empathy and respect in the room. People were looking at each other – hand gestures and facial expression became a thing. Quiet people shared that they did more than they usual do and stayed engaged. Most of the people took bolder and more adventurous actions especially when customising the product. Nobody waited for ‘permission’ to do anything.

Silent scenarios open up a whole new perspective on discovery and problem-solving simply by offering a blank space. In silence we have the opportunity to overcome our usual bias and prejudices, which are often anchored in our ways of communication. The outcome is a more diverse and inclusive take on any task.

Quiet time and silent rooms in work environments are an integral part of the creative process and promote personal well-being of the people.

ADLIB: For those that missed your session and also for those there as a follow up, can you share some of your wisdom about Where to start and How to Collaborate in Silence as a team?

Ajara Pfannenschmidt: Being comfortable with silence needs practice. The integration of quiet time into our general work schedule is a first step. Regular quiet sessions of prototyping, designing and programming will help to relax and to open our minds. To collaborate in silence creates a strong connection. The participants of the workshop experienced this as ‘trust’, ‘everybody is equal’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘empowering’. The observation of when the urge to talk arises and the reflection on the actual necessity is a vital part of the self-inquiry during the process.

I also think we need to re-visit the current office layouts. The open plan office provides no quiet space – it actually does exactly the opposite. There is always something going on – people moving around, talking, meeting at a wall of post-its etc. The exposure to continuous motions is adding to our sensory intake, which is mostly on overload anyway. I am a strong advocate for quiet rooms in offices and smaller work units for pods. We need more spacial boundaries to focus and listen to each other.

Practising silence will lead to a deeper understanding that we don’t need to make ourselves heard all the time. Being able to listen is a key collaborative skill – wether you are with your team or with your clients.

Thank You for sharing Ajara!


UX Bristol 2018 was a memorable day of UX workshops to learn hands-on UX techniques from leading practitioners in a friendly and sociable setting.