Building and Managing a Successful User Experience Team

by Christine Perfetti

Producing a usable design takes time, money, and resources. It also requires the User Experience team’s dedication to focus on customer needs throughout the entire design process.

Knowing how to identify and communicate the value of User Experience projects will substantially help them get approved and supported by an organization. Most organizations we work with understand the need for UX efforts, yet they still struggle with how to best incorporate the team into the development process.

UIE’s Christine Perfetti recently interviewed Sarah Bloomer and Susan Wolfe, two premier User Experience experts, to discuss how organizations can make their UX practices a success. Here’s what they had to say:

We’ve worked with many clients who are struggling to sell User Experience (UX) practices within their organization. Do you have an idea why many of these UX initiatives fail?

When User Experience projects fail, it’s often because the UX team took the wrong approach to the project. One common pitfall UX teams make is when they assume that everyone in the organization values UX expertise as much as they do. They won’t – particularly if you describe the benefits simply from the users’ perspective.

Teams need to avoid the role of evangelist for user centered design. For example, let’s just consider the IT folks within an organization. If they’re not familiar with our field, their first reaction will be that this “UX stuff” will delay their projects and hamper their ability to meet their deadlines. These concerns are real because their performance isn’t measured in terms the success of the user interface. Instead, members of the UX team need to demonstrate the value of in terms of outcomes that matter to IT-such as less rework and the ability to develop reusable code. Each stakeholder group has their own set of priorities, which needs to be understood and addressed.

Another common pitfall is when a new UX team promotes yet another methodology on top of all the other methodologies within the organization-a development methodology, a change management system, a quality system, etc. Most organizations we know are weary of the ‘methodology du jour’ and want to get on with churning out what they need to churn out. Therefore, the best approach is to do UX ‘by stealth’. Figure out how to fit in what you need to do within the context of what already happens-that will make it seem much less imposing and more beneficial to all concerned.

When an organization is first thinking about setting up a User Experience (UX) team, where should they start?

There are many parallels between setting up a UX team and designing user interfaces. Just as you can’t design a successful web site or application without understanding the needs and wants of both the business and the users, you can’t simply bring one or more UX professionals into an organization and expect the UX discipline to be embraced.

The best place to start is by understanding your organization. It may seem obvious how a UX team can benefit your organization, but it’s very easy to fail. We recommend starting with an organizational analysis designed to help you understand the most effective way to set up the team.

Once UX teams understand the organization’s goals, they can tie their first activities to those goals and get some quick wins.

The team should look for a high visibility project where a good User Experience will really make a difference, and where tangible results can be seen soon. After all, if you can’t demonstrate your value in the short term, it’s unlikely you’ll have the chance to do it in the long term.

How do you suggest User Experience teams get buy-in from all of the different people (marketing, legal, product developers) who need to have input on the design?

It’s really essential that they collaborate with the product teams and forge strong relationships with these groups. The key is to treat these other groups as stakeholders in the process and keep them involved as the project evolves. That’s the only way to get their buy-in for the results. It never works to simply hand it to them at the end and say, “here you go!”

Stakeholders need to have an ongoing role in the project beyond simply providing input at key milestones. We recommend holding stakeholder workshops to collect their broad range of wants and needs. This allows you to identify the business drivers that can be balanced with those of users.

Another approach is to teach the stakeholders some useful UCD techniques that they can use themselves. For example, at the MathWorks, paper prototyping has proven to be one of their most effective tools. Because of this, the usability professionals train other members of the development team to use the technique. As a result, it’s been incorporated into their development process.

Are there any unique strategies for getting senior management onboard?

Again, it’s all about targeting the message to your specific audience. 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.

Above all, we find it most effective to tie the results to real business objectives, even to what is most important to the senior managers. What is their next bonus tied to? What’s the one thing that’s going to jeopardize the executive’s BMW? It’s that thing that becomes the critical success factor for the project owner! The ‘beemer’ principle is absolutely relevant in our context, too. If you can tie the benefits of UX design to that (which you often can), you’ll certainly get their attention.

Are there any other techniques you recommend for promoting UX work throughout an organization?

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.

We have also found that delivering workshops on user-centered design can help promote an appreciation for its importance among development team members.

Regardless of all of the other techniques that you use, the best advice we can give is not to keep your successes a secret. Find whatever opportunities you can to share your positive outcomes with other people in the organization.

At what point in the development process should usability team members get involved?

The standard line is ‘as early as possible’. However, this is rarely practical when your team is small and trying to service a large number of projects.

For high profile projects, we try to get involved as soon as there is an inkling of an idea. By using upfront analysis techniques, such as contextual inquiries, the UX team can help assess whether the idea is even feasible for the audience.

We also incorporate paper prototyping techniques early on in a project, helping stakeholders better understand and visualize the requirements. Early on, the UX team can help define the project, but we can help squash projects that aren’t satisfying a real need.

What are the best ways to disseminate usability findings throughout an organization?

We’ll first tell you how not to do it! Don’t spend time writing a long document about the subtleties of the usability evaluation that you conducted. The development team won’t care. Instead, provide timely, practical, concrete, and implementable suggestions. Teams should demonstrate with annotated screen shots or paper mock-ups, not just words, and be sure to back up the recommendations with rationale (so it’s not just your opinion).

Teams must also choose their battles wisely. It’s rarely the case that the team can implement every recommendation provided-therefore, it’s important to prioritize the issues, based on severity, frequency and impact. And then these priorities need to be balanced with the cost and effort of making the change. If the list of issues is long with each of seemingly equal importance, and the time is limited, then it’s too easy for all of the recommendations to be dismissed.

Finally, it’s important to take time to emphasize the positives as well as the negatives. Unfortunately, often our job is to tell people that ‘their baby is ugly’. That can be very difficult to take. Therefore, although the suggestions often need to be strong (as opposed to “it would be good if you would consider possibly changing this to…”), you should definitely also provide feedback about things that work well about the design. The last thing you want is for your UX team to be simply seen as the voice of doom and gloom.

Producing a usable design takes time, money, and resources. It also takes a dedication of the organization to focus on customers’ needs in the entire design process. How do the successful UX teams communicate the ROI of producing usable designs?

Because of the silo mentality in most organizations, it is often difficult for people to get their head around the real benefits and ROI. The IT team is typically measured on whether the product launches on time and within budget. But their budget only includes development costs-not the cost of post launch support and maintenance. Therefore, the ROI of good design can only truly be appreciated when looking at it from the perspective of the total cost of ownership.

So, how can we communicate that? One very tangible way is with before and after benchmarks. Not just the results of a usability test, but benchmarks of metrics of value to the organization. One such example is the actual training and support cost to the organization over a period of time (including before and through to sometime well after the application was launched). Another is to set clear goals before the analysis and design phases to focus your efforts. If you are trying to transform customer enquiries from general to specific, capture the current enquiry types in order to compare later.

The key is to get the word out-using whatever techniques make sense.

When hiring, what roles should an organization seek out for a successful UX team?

The specific roles required depend upon the breadth of services that your UX team provides. If you’re delivering the full complement of design services then your shopping list is going to be quite long. It will certainly include interaction designers, usability professionals (people who know a lot about the principles of good design and are good at doing the evaluations), and visual designers (people who can translate wire frames into something that not only looks fantastic, but supports the brand and is highly readable).

Your team should also have a certain level of technical knowledge-even if you don’t deliver any production quality code. Other important roles to consider are content authors-those with a good sense of writing for the online world and project managers, particularly on larger projects.

It’s important to understand that although we describe these as distinct roles, they may not necessarily be separate people. Many interaction designers are good usability professionals. We’ve had plenty of success with visual designers who are also well rounded interaction designers and usability professionals. We often wear different hats, which often works to our advantage when we have too many projects and too little time.

UX team members need to value consistency (but not be a slave to it!), pay attention to detail (yet not dwell on it incessantly), and be pragmatic. Across the board, it’s important to find people who are good listeners and communicators, good facilitators, and excellent team players.

About the Author

Christine Perfetti picked up on these approaches, refined them, and started using them in her daily work at leading companies like Acquia and Carbonite. Not only has she built successful design teams who’ve created business-changing products, but she’s transformed a design team from a siloed group into collaborative partners. Her ability to bridge gaps and fuse product management with engineering will be evident in this talk.

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