As brands and partner agencies become more invested in the discipline of user experience, building the right UX team will also require significant commitment and investment. UX is no longer just a nice-to-have niche, but is now at the core of how brands are built offline and online. As user expectations and the field of UX continue to grow, it is critical for companies to change their approach to how they build teams.
Today’s UX teams, whether focused on enterprise or consumer products, must be strategic to understand the business opportunities while still being tactically focused to execute pixels with precision. This requires a new cross-disciplinary approach, bringing together business strategy, content strategy, interaction design, market research, data analysis, and technical expertise, among other skill sets.
The risks of not evolving UX teams to meet these needs will become quickly obvious for organizations. Brands that get it will break out of the pack with richer and more engaging experiences, proven business results, and design efficiencies that will inherently make them more successful. Brands that don’t adapt will fall behind, under serving their brands, their users, and ultimately their bottom lines.
Creating a Culture of Experience
Experiences have become a competitive differentiator that can make or break a product or a campaign. The same rules should apply to how we manage our internal resources: the experience matters. Whether you’re a CMO, a product owner, or a project manager, the following are four key ways to build a team culture focused on creating unique, compelling experiences inside and out.
1. Collaboration is Key
In an optimized culture, input should come from across the organization. Product marketing, UX, and engineering need to work together. And on the agency side, client services, technology, UX and creative should be well connected. All of these functions may have different goals and ways they are measured, but they must keep the full and integrated user experience front-and-center in what they are trying to accomplish.
To get there, start by observing how people are working now and understand how decisions are made. This is especially important for teams working across offices where office dynamics, processes, and leadership styles may vary. Ultimately, it’s important to determine how teams should be working and then find the people—internally or externally—who can facilitate that type of change in culture. The ideal hires are those who can adapt, contribute to, and grow with the culture, as opposed to people who can just serve a function or fill a box on an org chart.
When leaders are in an urgent crunch to throw bodies at a problem, the result is often high turnover because those people aren’t the right cultural fit. If you are wondering why you are continually recruiting, that may be the reason.
2. Be Flexible
While processes are important to support how things get done, relying too heavily on rigorous process can cut off creative conversations and can be an excuse for avoiding critical decision-making. Getting caught up in process is also a sign that your team may not be in sync. Let’s be realistic—today, the goal of any process should be to do more with less, and if your process is only complicating matters and creating arbitrary overhead, you shouldn’t be using it.
An optimal working environment must support openness, trust, and transparency. At the beginning of every engagement, it is important to define what success looks like and how to get from concept to code as quickly as possible.
When smart people come together to focus on a real-world problem worth solving, they will always come up with a good solution.
3. Challenge Assumptions
As UX leaders, our role is to be evangelists for the user and continually ask “Why?” Just taking the time to ask the question is a simple and effective way to get valuable insight from our people and our clients so we are very clear about what we are trying to accomplish.
I believe the best experience design comes from a triangulated approach that incorporates solid quantitative and qualitative data, supported by experienced and well-informed intuition. While the overriding business impact for a particular product or feature drives the degree of risk a team should be willing to take, opportunities that reveal themselves in the process as truly inspired with an immediate “gut instinct” appeal should always be considered as well. The key is to fail fast, but not to give up easily. This philosophy is usually the difference between designing a “good enough” solution or a home run.
A leader’s role is to play negotiator and referee at some level. Uninformed opinions (the ones that can’t answer the question, “Why”) can be the enemy of innovation. It is our job to keep a maniacal focus on what problems we are trying to solve and what success looks like. When we do that, we create environments that allow for the most creative and collaborative outcomes.
4. Continually Learn and Optimize
To build a culture of experience, we’ve got to be adaptive and utilize a variety of tools in the proverbial toolbox for project management and team building. Whether we are working on a small tweak, creating a new feature, or developing an entirely new product, we need to experiment with what brings out the best in our unique teams.
It is also important that we don’t start from scratch every time we begin an engagement. We need to establish baselines for our teams and for our clients to make it easy to scope and estimate projects, and predict ROI for design.
Signs of a Dysfunctional UX Team
You will know your team is not engaged or invested in the outcome when you see some of these important warning signs:
Nobody is using the product or putting themselves in the user’s shoes to solve real problems. When a product isn’t built yet, a team should be prototyping it to model a day-in-the-life of a user. The difference is obvious to see; when a team is not fully immersed in the product, you’ll get designs done at arm’s length versus more intuitive solutions.
Your engineering team doesn’t understand what to build and nothing meaningful is being produced.
Designers can’t explain the decisions they’ve made in their designs and how they benefit the user and/or solve a problem.
Best practices are thrown out or ignored without clear justification or rationalization.
All of these are important issues and are the difference between creating a limited-capability production shop instead of a high functioning, integrated culture of experience and thoughtful product development.
A sign that a team is engaged and working well together is when they are speaking a common language and are keeping the problem they are trying to solve and the user’s goals in the center of the conversation. Designers by nature are problem-solvers, and the designers who look for unique ways to solve problems can be the key difference between delivering passable experiences and game-changers.
Lastly, when experiencing turnover of good people from your team, you’ve got to look hard at the culture. Where is it broken and what—or who—needs to change? Particularly as the economy continues to improve and jobs become more plentiful, culture at work is very likely the intangible thing that keeps employees happy and inspired. And you can’t put a price on that.