29 March 2013
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What makes a successful UX team?

Last week we looked at the role of UX managers and the important responsibility they shoulder within organizations. Now lets step back from that single role and look at the UX team itself. What can be learned about how it is composed, and what criteria determine its success?

The team itself

The makeup of the team itself is important, and it’s driven primarily by the types of UX work that must be carried out. Small- and medium-sized organizations, and especially those that are more product-focused, might succeed with a tightly-skilled team of several people, or even a “jack of all trades” individual. However, as soon as the organization itself is larger – and especially if it’s service-oriented, and delivers this service across multiple touchpoints – the UX team needs to step up to the challenge with more people and more role differentiation.

A level of technical know-how is important as well. Although the team might not get their hands busy writing code (and might only go so far as prototyping), their understanding of what it takes to deliver products and services from a technical point of view will pay dividends in the long run.

Ranjith Kumar – in a post entitled “How to Build a Killer User Experience Team” – not only shares his advice, but gets into specific detail about the roles and job titles that he sees as being the important building blocks. His proposes the following mix: user experience architect, information architect, visual designer, UX “all-rounder”, front-end engineer, content strategist and usability expert.

Advice for managing the team

Once the bodies are on board, it’s still no guarantee of success. As last week’s post showed, a manager has the challenge of getting everyone together to deliver the best UX possible for customers or end users. In “How to Successfully Manage a UX Team“, Joseph Dickerson shares his advice in the form of fourteen specific recommendations.

Two which stand out are:

“Set Up Peer Designing: There’s a practice in software development called peer programming, where two developers partner to code a particular project. It allows for each developer to play to his or her strengths and to “cross-train” with a colleague. The same practice can and should be used whenever possible in UX design teams. Having two or more people working together allows for the generation of more ideas. It also gives one designer the ability to support and encourage the other when he or she needs it.

‘You are not the Work': This is one of the most important points I can make. Designers have to separate themselves from their work, because what they have designed will change before it’s finally implemented. You might also find through usability testing that some ideas and designs don’t work at all. Continuously reinforce these points to your team (especially to less experienced members who may have trouble with objectivity).”

Building (and earning) support from above

Even a well-oiled, productive UX team isn’t guaranteed to smoothly align with the rest of an organization. The team needs to not only defend its territory, but also work for recognition by management and other departments.

User Interface Engineering’s Christine Perfetti interviewed two people who have been responsible for UX teams, and asked them to share advice on integrating them within organizations. Here are some extracts:

  • “It’s really essential that they collaborate with the product teams… treat these other groups as stakeholders in the process and keep them involved as the project evolves.
  • Stakeholders need to have an ongoing role in the project beyond simply providing input at key milestones.
  • Teach the stakeholders some useful UCD techniques that they can use themselves.
  • Usability testing is still one of the most effective ways to demonstrate the value of UX work. We recommend all stakeholders observe a usability test.
  • Delivering workshops on user-centered design can help promote an appreciation for its importance among development team members.”

And, crucially, managers working above the team need to buy into it: “Senior managers typically look at the bottom line of any investment. They’re ultimately interested in how UX will improve costs. UX teams must demonstrate the value – not just talk about it. It’s critical to demonstrate how the UX practices will lead to organizational improvements, whether it be selling more products, increased productivity, lower support costs, etc.”

Source: “Building and Managing a Successful User Experience Team” (Christine Perfetti, UIE)

UX teams in the Agile world

Lastly, it’s interesting to look at how UX teams need to behave when they’re operating within an Agile development environment. The workstyle, terminology and teamwork is often completely unfamiliar, and requires some adjustment by UX’ers. Jeff Gothelf has looked at just these issues in a three-part series. In the third part – “How To Build An Agile UX Team: Integration“, he says:

“For many designers, coming into an agile environment feels like settling in a new country. There are different dialects and new rituals. Furthermore, design is treated very differently than they are used to. It is, in fact, through ritual that a UX designer is able to integrate in their agile team. In addition, it is incumbent on the designer to open up the design process for collaboration and critique from other members of the team. Together, these tactics have the potential to yield a successful agile team.”

User-centered design (12), UX management (10)

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