Playing Nicely with Others: Thinking Outside the Sandbox: Part 1

By Baruch Sachs

Published: August 20, 2012

“You cannot successfully sell UX if you are unsuccessful in getting along with others at work. Especially when those others are UX people.”

Common wisdom dictates that our interpersonal relationships are interconnected with our overall success and happiness in life. Since we’re spending more and more of our lives working, thinking about work, worrying about something we have to do for work, and in general, staying connected to work, it makes sense to try to make our interpersonal relationships at work positive ones, so we can continue to be happy in life.

You cannot successfully sell UX if you are unsuccessful in getting along with others at work. Especially when those others are UX people. This two-part column focuses on this aspect of selling UX: how you can solve workplace conflicts and build stronger workplace relationships to enable you to sell UX more effectively.

The field of user experience is a vast one. These days, most companies of any significant size have a wide variety of UX roles—some customer facing, others not. There are in-house designers, researchers, prototypers, and testers. Plus, there is the consulting or services arm of user experience. In UX services, we are uniquely positioned as the all-around experts in the vast field of user experience. Not only that, we usually have an ace in the hole that commands instant respect from our coworkers in other disciplines: we actually interact with both customers and users. Unfortunately, that experience can sometimes make us arrogant. While we would never direct this arrogance at our customers, we sometimes do direct it toward our fellow UX comrades in the workplace.

Seeing Things from the Inside Out

When you begin a UX engagement with a client, … you may experience some friction and wariness with customer UX teams, but in general, they’ve also agreed to bring you on board to assist with some sort of issue that they need help solving.

Though I am on the consulting side of user experience, I often get asked to review or help design the next iteration of our products. My having this ability is beneficial to both UX services and product development. I don’t have to try to sell a crappy product and make believe it’s not, and the product gets direct feedback from people who actually use our products every day. Normally, this give-and-take relationship is harmonious and peaceful. Sometimes, however, it can go very wrong. Fixing this problem requires that you swallow some of the medicine I’ll prescribe in this column.

When you begin a UX engagement with a client, you generally start off on the right foot. Your client is already looking at you favorably, for obvious reasons: they have contracted your services, expect you to help them, and look to you as the expert in the field of user experience, with which they’ve been struggling. You may experience some friction and wariness with customer UX teams, but in general, they’ve also agreed to bring you on board to assist with some sort of issue that they need help solving.

Early on in my career, I mistakenly expected that it would actually be easier to work with UX people who are at the same company as me. However, what I have found is that sometimes the exact opposite is true—for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. They have something to prove.
  2. They have different design aesthetics.
  3. They fancy themselves the next Steve Jobs.

It’s the third reason that we’re seeing more and more. These days, everyone wants to be the next Apple—in whatever industry they’re part of. I’ve found that UX people generally fall into one of two camps: those who want to prove either that the way Apple designs products is wrong or that it is exactly right. In other words, either you need to get user input to ensure your products are usable or it is your job as a designer to design something so wonderful that users will just fall in love with it—so their input be damned.

As someone who is immersed in the customer and user communities, I surprise myself sometimes by how I swing between these two schools of thought. I believe strongly in the power of user input—but not always because I believe that users know best. For the most part, users don’t know what they need. However—and this is the part that UX designers who fancy themselves Cupertino-bound forget about—business users are not consumer application users. Business users have loyalties and emotions that consumer application users generally do not. If you’re designing for a business audience, you had better believe it when a person in the field tells you that a design won’t work for the audience for which you’re designing it.

Respect Is Earned, Even Among Equals

Treating everyone as a customer or a user is a pretty effective strategy for building up solid working relationships.

User experience is a great leveler. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a great user interface. If a UX person walks into a room full of development architects or database architects, he probably won’t tell them how their architecture should change or how to configure their database. We don’t generally interfere with such matters, because we don’t know about them and respect that the experts know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, UX professionals are rarely afforded that same level of respect. Everyone believes that he or she knows what would make a user experience great. Although UX professionals are aware of this issue with our peers in other professions—and we’ve almost learned to accept and deal with it—it is especially galling to realize that UX professionals sometimes do the same thing to other UX professionals.

Over the years, I have developed three guiding principles for dealing with this issue. When I get frustrated with my peers in user experience, I try to remember these principles. In fact, I try to apply them universally. These three principles are as follows:

  1. You do not have to agree with people to be able to respect them.
  2. The UX world is a small one. You will run into people again—and next time, you might need them more than they need you.
  3. Don’t just react to what someone is saying. Try to understand why they are saying it and where they are coming from.

None of these three principles is especially ground breaking or unique. However, in UX services, we usually apply them when dealing with a challenging customer or a frustrating user. We almost never think about them or take the time to apply them when dealing with our fellow UX professionals. We spend far too much of our time getting territorial, being demanding, or expecting instant respect because we too are UX professionals. Workplace relationships just don’t grow under those circumstances—at least not in a positive way.

Treating everyone as a customer or a user is a pretty effective strategy for building up solid working relationships. This works whether you willingly seek out a collaboration with someone or management brings you together—that is, forces you to work together—to solve a crisis.

In Part 2 of this column, I’ll describe some effective approaches to relationship building with internal UX team members—highlighting several specific examples—and the overall positive effect they have had on selling user experience to external clients.

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