A Tale of Two UX Teams
In the sprawling suburbs of Chicago, there existed two organizations devoted to making life better for humankind. Each one developed products and provided services intended to improve the health of its customers. But their products were not always widely adopted, their services were seldom used, and they often fell short of their missions.
Those who donned business suits and bore lofty titles spent many hours contemplating this dilemma in meetings. They spoke of new features and marketing campaigns, and tossed around words like “innovative” and “seamless” while stewing in their quandary. They renamed their meetings “workshops” to induce creative brainstorming. This, they thought, would enable them to address their dilemmas.
After many workshops (which were just really long meetings) and much discussion, they concluded that they should employ a team of professionals devoted to the user experience of their products. And thus, in each organization, a user experience (UX) team was born.
The teams were very different. Both started small. They were scrappy and nimble, with only a few able bodies to handle an immense amount of work.But one team grew while the other remained small. The team that grew—Team L—employed all sorts of experts, including content strategists, UX copywriters, UX producers, and devoted teams of researchers and visual designers. They even hired specialists to handle the design system.
The team that remained small—Team S—focused on efficiency and relationships. This was mostly out of necessity. Good relationships not only helped them build better products, but also helped them sell their designs to stakeholders and, thus, become more efficient.
Team S was more inclusive. In some sense, they ceased to be a team unto themselves. Instead, they were part of a larger team building a product and creating an experience. Team L, however, built up walls. They didn’t realize that teams, through their very existence, exclude. As the French philosopherJacques Derrida noted, to include is also to exclude.
Team L saw developers, product managers, and business analysts as something akin to enemies. They believed the other teams would sacrifice the usability and experience of a product if the UX team did not adequately monitor them. Their insecurities were obvious, and their relationships with other teams suffered.
Team S, on the other hand, struggled to keep up with their work. Some weeks were busier than others. Their small size allowed them to adapt quickly to new situations and adjust as needed. This also allowed them to develop closer relationships, which ultimately enabled them to negotiate timelines and mitigate disagreements over design decisions more efficiently.
Team L struggled to keep their employees busy and, paradoxically, made more work for themselves as a result of having more hands on deck. Every tiny design feature became a candidate for testing. The design system, so granular and large, became an albatross in the bureaucracy surrounding its governance. Communicating and presenting designs turned into a burden that required design reviews to prepare for design reviews to prepare for design reviews with stakeholders. The size of the team also required an added management layer. These team members spent significant time managing what didn’t need to be managed.
Team S seemed to thrive despite their challenges, occasionally striking a balance between the amount of work and their resources, while Team L struggled with inertia. Creation, for Team L, became a process similar to swimming through oatmeal. The right hand clearly did not have any knowledge of the left hand’s activities, and every project took no less than three times as long as it should have.
Strong leadership and a desire to nurture a creative culture, as well as the ability to build bridges through collaboration, will make all the difference.
The leadership and direction for each team couldn’t have been more different. The director of Team S valued his team’s input and gave them free rein. He spent a great deal of time working with his product managers to understand the market while also presenting research findings to product managers and executives. This allowed executives and stakeholders to collaboratively determine future direction for the organization. He was a strategist, but also a leader who valued those he led. Leadership, to him, was servitude. He saw his team as his boss and spent no time managing up. He wanted his team to enjoy coming to work and worked hard to nurture a creative environment. His primary motivation was to create the best experience possible with the resources available. In order to do that, he understood he needed to create the right environment for the UX team.
Team L had a very different director. She ruled with an iron fist and believed she had to control nearly every aspect of the team’s activity and monitor all projects. As a result, she did a lot but did none of it very well. She routinely subjugated her leaders, negating the need for their existence as she made decisions that reflected her lack of trust. Her leadership set the tone for the culture and sent a clear message that permeated throughout the team. She inadvertently created a culture of fear, which only added to the team’s inertia. Soon the organization became a revolving door for UX employees, and the frequent departure of team members created a perpetual hiring cycle. This impeded the team’s progress on projects, and the trickle-down effect impacted the entire organization.
Team S approached design in an inclusive manner while Team L took an exclusive approach. Team L built barriers through their social interaction with other teams — product managers, business units, and engineers. Everything was a battle, and if you were not UX, you were an enemy against good design.Team S, in contrast, built bridges, nurtured relationships, and used the perspectives of different teams to create better experiences.
Creating the right culture is key to designing great experiences, and it is a multifaceted process.
Were this a story with a happy ending, our design heroes would conquer their seemingly insurmountable challenges and live happily ever after. But this is a tale, not a fairy tale. Each team continued to struggle. Team S always longed for more designers or more time to complete their projects. They routinely missed deadlines, worked longer hours, and struggled to create the best experiences within short windows of time. Team L struggled in a toxic culture where employee turnover resulted in knowledge gaps and their exclusive approach led to poorly designed experiences.
The moral of the tale is that every team will have its struggles and challenges. It is how we approach those challenges that truly makes the difference. Strong leadership and a desire to nurture a creative culture, as well as the ability to build bridges through collaboration, will make all the difference. Both small and large teams can surmount challenges to create great experiences. I have experienced both wide-scale failure and success with teams of all sizes. The key? We must ensure our teams have a degree of permeability; other teams must be allowed to play our reindeer games.
I have made the case that many design failures are the result of organizational behavioral problems. Creating the right culture is key to designing great experiences, and it is a multifaceted process. There is the culture within a specific team and the culture beyond the team. Improving the culture requires actively working on both facets.
Leadership has the power to positively or negatively influence the culture of a team and the entire organization. A single person can lift an entire team up or bring them down. This can be very frustrating for those who work under poor leadership.
A few weeks ago, I was at a going-away party for a former colleague. Attendants included employees from varying disciplines within the organization, people I had worked with for a number of years. When my colleague and I came to the organization, fresh-faced and wide-eyed, UX had a poor reputation and lousy relationships with other teams. The animosity between the other teams and UX stopped just short of knife fights in the parking lot.
We both worked hard to improve the relations between teams and to build bridges. My colleague routinely had lunch with members of the other teams. We ate, drank, and worked together for four years. My colleague stayed on for another three. It was a good culture where everyone had a voice.
At the party, everyone was happy to see everyone else. Several people asked if I was coming back or if I would like to come back. With my colleague leaving, they noted, the organization needed a UX designer. As I left that evening I thought about how they’d used the word need. Seven years earlier, these teams might have gladly purged UX from their projects.
We didn’t have all the fancy tools, the big teams, or the specialist positions, but we built a fantastic new platform that received praise across the globe. I don’t think we could have done it without the right leadership and culture. I suppose it is something of a happy ending, but not necessarily a happily-ever-after one.
We often think we could get the job done if we just had the right tools, the right positions, or the right methods, or if those other teams would stop being so stubborn and work with us (i.e., do things our way). In reality, many teams and their leaders never stop to consider what they could achieve with the existing team if they address the cultural issues within and between teams.
Typically, you build a foundation before the house. Culture and leadership are foundational and integral to creating great experiences by design. Worry about the tools, the methods, and the positions only after you get culture and leadership right.