The Care and Feeding of a UX Services Team

By Baruch Sachs

Published: June 18, 2012

“Quality means doing it right, when no one else is looking.”—Henry Ford

“Building a quality UX team in any setting is a tough challenge. Trying to build a quality UX team in a services organization presents unique challenges, because a ready pool of qualified applicants simply does not exist.”

This edition of Selling UX is about leadership in our profession. Over the past few months, I have had many conversations about what it means to build and lead a user experience team. While these conversations included a lot of general management themes, there are some specific differences in not only leading a UX team, but in leading a team that exists as part of a larger services organization. I would like to share my experiences with this aspect of UX leadership so others facing similar situations may benefit from my experience, as well as to raise a topic that people don’t often discuss.

Building a quality UX team in any setting is a tough challenge. Trying to build a quality UX team in a services organization presents unique challenges, because a ready pool of qualified applicants simply does not exist. Thankfully, our profession is in demand. The unfortunate side effect is that we can’t easily find the right people to grow our team, even in this challenging economy.

I find myself talking to a lot of people—including internal and external recruiters, people I know professionally, and people I know socially—about the ideal UX person. The one common response from all of them: “That’s tough. Good luck finding one.” I realized that this challenge is as much about the space I work in as my own quality standard as a manager.

Anyone who is responsible for hiring and managing a team of professionals knows the challenges of finding that perfect person. The old adage is constantly in my thoughts: “A players hire A players, while B players hire C players.” Having a team of A players challenges you to step up your own game and be that true A leader that you want to be. Unfortunately, these days, there are a lot of people looking for work—although in user experience that does not seem to be quite the case. However, the large number of people who are looking seems to make it that much more difficult to find the right person to meet your needs.

When you strive to be a great leader, you must think about the type of people you would like to lead.

When you strive to be a great leader, you must think about the type of people you would like to lead. I look for four qualities in a UX person working in services:

  1. A willingness to travel up to 75% of the time
  2. Having a true consultative nature. This means being comfortable talking to an hourly call center employee, then walking into a meeting with the CIO right afterward without skipping a beat.
  3. Deep technical knowledge. In services, you are pretty useless as a UX person unless you not only know how to design a beautiful user experience, but actually know what it takes to build it.
  4. A solid UX background. This can come from formal training or a lot of experience in the design world.

I made a solid UX background the fourth criterion not because it is less important, but really because I expect anyone walking in the door for an interview to have this. I hire UX people after all. To be honest, all four of these qualities are absolutely critical to the success of any UX services consultant.

What UX Hiring Has Taught Me About the Value of Relationships

“It is better to keep a spot open and believe in your leadership vision, than to bow to pressure from others to fill those spots with people who do not meet your criteria.”

Finding all four of these qualities in candidates has proven to be quite the challenge in the field of user experience. We simply do not have enough UX people who possess all of these attributes. I’ve had spots on my team remain empty for long periods of time while I tried to find the right person to fill them. There is a positive outcome from this though. I have learned that it is better to keep a spot open and believe in your leadership vision, than to bow to pressure from others to fill those spots with people who do not meet your criteria.

Why is this? Because the consulting business is very relationship driven. My success in this area stems in no small part from the fact that a client can call me up and be assured that whoever I send from my team is going to do a quality job for them. The first time I fail to deliver on that promise, I will have effectively damaged a relationship and failed to radiate within that client. Deliver poorly on a first project, and any further projects the client is doing will not include you.

This experience has taught me that, as you build your UX team, you need to stay true to your vision and believe in your people—even if they don’t work for you yet.

A Consultant’s Time Truly Is Money

“Everyone working in this type of organization is a billable resource. And the clock starts ticking on a new person’s first day.”

One of the unique challenges facing any services consulting organization is the fact that there is little time to invest in a new person before your organization expects a return on that investment. Everyone working in this type of organization is a billable resource. And the clock starts ticking on a new person’s first day. Even the most enlightened organizations that do take the time to train their people properly soon expect people to be out there, engaged with clients, and racking up billable hours.

This puts extra pressure on anyone who is in charge of such an organization to find the right people and ensure that those people are providing value internally to the organization, as well as providing value that a customer does not mind paying for. Being strict about those four qualities you want to have in a UX person is critical to overcoming this challenge. If I don’t believe in the value and the quality of my people, how can I convince a customer to?

Our Customers Are Numerous

“We have numerous customers—both internal and external—who shape the demands that get put on the team. When working within a larger services organization, the book of business that helps you to grow your team is often not your own.”

A wrinkle that usually crops up when trying to grow a services UX team is the fact that we have numerous customers—both internal and external—who shape the demands that get put on the team. When working within a larger services organization, the book of business that helps you to grow your team is often not your own. This means that you don’t have as much control over where and when you’ll need to place your people.

When running a global team, geography and language skills are just as important as the four quality attributes I described earlier. The trade-off comes when you need to find local resources in areas where the profession of user experience is not as robust. While there are UX people in almost all markets, quality UX people are often difficult to find. I am often asked to consider geography and language to be a fifth quality attribute. If you face these types of pressures to add ancillary quality attributes to your requirements, resist. They cloud your ability to find the right people, and while you may not own the book of business, you do own the responsibility for managing your people properly. Remember, ultimately, it is your hire, and you need to be able to feel good about the people you bring in.

Once You Get Them, How Do You Keep Them?

“The job of the leader of a UX services team also includes ensuring that your team is happy and challenged, both emotionally and professionally.”

The challenges don’t stop once you find these magical people. In fact, the challenges have just begun. Working in services can be draining for some people. The travel, the long hours away from home, being in the field, and feeling that you are in a solely tactical rather than a strategic position is not for everyone. The job of the leader of a UX services team also includes ensuring that your team is happy and challenged, both emotionally and professionally. In services consulting, you might be helping a customer envision long-term strategic design plans one day and writing a CSS to make an application look pretty the next.

While variety is good, you want to be sure that you are providing the right blend of UX assignments to your team members. Otherwise, those people you looked high and low for can easily disappear.

Next Steps…

“Opportunities for engaging in a meaningful dialogue on how to apply this approach to hiring in the UX services field [are] hard to come by….”

I readily admit that I don’t have all the answers. I face this challenge on a daily basis as my team grows. I’ve found opportunities for engaging in a meaningful dialogue on how to apply this approach to hiring in the UX services field just as hard to come by as great UX resources. As I continue this journey of discovery, I will periodically share updates with you in this column. Hopefully, next time, I’ll be able to share solutions for the challenges that I’ve identified in this installment.

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