Playing Nicely with Others: Thinking Outside the Sandbox: Part 2
Published: October 22, 2012
Part 1 of “Playing Nicely with Others” focused on working with clients and earning our colleagues’ respect. In Part 2 of this series, I want to share some specific advice that has worked well for me when trying to build stronger workplace relationships among internal UX people, in the various companies at which I’ve been employed.
Actually Work Together
When I think of some of the strongest workplace relationships I have had, they were almost all due to our having been, at some point in our relationship, stuck in a room together, working well past a reasonable hour. In an age of real-time, yet remote collaboration possibilities, nothing really beats working side by side to build a relationship. Most of the time, UX designers sling wireframes back and forth with each other. It’s clean, it’s productive, and it’s a modern way to work. However, it is also completely sanitized of the human element. You really see a person’s character shine through when it is late, and you are both tired and frustrated. You leave that experience either really wanting to work with that person again or never again.
Too often, I find myself in a workplace situation where I provide information about a particular product need, then an internal UX designer goes away to come up with a design for me to review a few weeks later. That’s not really working together, and it doesn’t give us a chance to develop a strong interpersonal relationship. Even though it can be more work, getting in a conference room or design space together and really working collaboratively on a design not only produces a much cleaner, more coherent design from the beginning, but also helps us to build a stronger relationship.
Recognize Other Peoples’ Strengths and Enable Them to Use Them
When you have a large group of UX professionals working for your company or for a client, it stands to reason that there will be strengths and weaknesses among the team members. However, in the eyes of internal and external customers, it is just the UX team. This sometimes means that stakeholders ask people on the team to undertake projects or tasks for which they are not really suited.
When working with internal UX people, I always try to learn a little more about their background in user experience. What are the aspects of the profession with which they feel most comfortable; what really gets them jazzed about our profession? I once worked with an internal UX designer who was asked to support me in doing research in the field. I would go out to work with clients and bring back product design requirements, then we would come up with designs and take them to customers for review. I found that, although this person was a talented designer, his heart was not really into the design tasks. When I finally mentioned as much to him and asked why, he replied that he would really prefer to do user research instead of user interface design.
Now, this person did not work for me directly, but I was able to convince his management that I really needed this person’s research skills in the field, to be able to pinpoint the different user groups that would be good targets for our products. So, I was able to borrow this person for six months, and he accompanied me into the field. This person’s output was so favorably received that, eventually, I was able to transition him to the user research team.
What this experience taught me is that it always pays to find out a little bit more about people’s true strengths and competencies rather than just accepting what their role dictates that they should be doing. In the case I’ve just described, had I not asked, I might have walked away from our time working together with the belief that this person was merely a competent UX professional instead of the rock star user researcher I later realized he was.
Don’t Expect That Your Common Profession Will Necessarily Breed Camaraderie
I cannot help but feel a sense of camaraderie when someone introduces me to another UX professional—especially in a meeting filled with business and technical folks. However, experience has taught me that I should not have any expectations based merely on our shared profession. It might be naiveté, but I still feel a sort of kinship when I know that another person has made the same career choice that I have.
Unfortunately, it is important to recognize that, just because two people are both UX professionals, that does not necessarily mean that you share the same values, work ethic, or philosophy. There are still relatively few people in the field of user experience, but there are so many different subdisciplines—all fighting for recognition—that it is sometimes difficult to find commonality with other UX professionals.
When you’re trying to forge a strong workplace relationship with a fellow UX person, it is important to recognize that he or she may feel threatened by you instead of empowered. The hardest work I ever have to do is critiquing the designs of other UX professionals. When I do design reviews, I try to make sure that the person whose work I am critiquing knows that I am doing it to make his or her design stronger, not just chipping away at it.
Although UX professionals have a lot in common, we also need to recognize that there are some differences, and we need to work extra hard to ensure that we work well together.
Don’t Expect That You Will Like or Be Liked by Everyone
Amazingly simple advice right? However, it is also incredibly hard advice to follow. At some level, everyone wants to be liked. In the workplace, people judge your effectiveness, in part, by how well you are able to work with others. But the truth is that you won’t like everyone you must work with. Sometimes, it is sufficient for you to able to work together just well enough to accomplish the task at hand. When you are able to do at least that, it means you are professional in your work relationships. Unfortunately, these days, this kind of professionalism seems to be getting rarer and rarer in the workplace.
Relationship building in the workplace is hard enough when you’re working with non-UX people. But as professionals in the specialized discipline of user experience, it is critical that we be able to work together effectively, so we can collaboratively create designs, products, and services that delight and excite our customers and users.