Right-Sizing UX

July 18, 2011

UX teams in small organizations face some unique challenges, so industry-standard solutions for large organizations are not always a good fit. Often those solutions are too large scale, costly, scary, and overwhelming for a small organization’s management team. Plus, management may be skeptical about the return on investment (ROI) making a high level of investment in user experience would bring. This poses some interesting challenges for a UX team in a small organization:

  • The UX team is typically small—often only one or two people. We all know that just one or two people can’t do all of the work of a UX team—even if they’re generalists who can work in various UX or user-centered design (UCD) disciplines.
  • The UX team doesn’t typically have control of its own budget. And the budget is teeny! This means the UX team has to be hyper-clear about the ROI for every dime they want to spend.
  • It’s difficult for team members to take advantage of out-of-the-office learning opportunities. Because of budget and time constraints, it’s difficult to get to conferences or classes.
  • The UX team doesn’t always have control over how or when they work. Often the UX team reports into either the Product Management / Marketing organization or the Development organization, and it can be very hard for User Experience to have a voice. Consequently, the UX team must often work according to someone else’s vision and schedule.
  • It’s difficult to make large changes that produce high returns. Because the UX team is working to someone else’s vision and schedule and the organization’s management is skeptical about ROI promises from the UX team, it’s hard to make an impact.

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So what do you do when you’re part of a teeny team—or you’re the only UX person? You probably have dreams of delivering great quality, but sometimes it’s hard to see past the constraints. Best practices for large organizations don’t cover this, so here are a few best practices for small organizations.

Evaluate Your Situation Honestly

First, get a clear understanding of what you think you can and cannot do. It’s easy to fall into the “I can do that!” trap, especially when your role seems to include everything from making sales presentations pop, to creating training materials, to running usability studies and designing user interfaces. It’s easy to underestimate how long it would actually take to do something.

An important responsibility of your role is to sit down and honestly evaluate where you can add the most value to your organization’s work. This includes evaluating what your skills are, what the organization needs, and what you can actually do, then finding the sweet spot that balances all of these factors. Once you’ve done this, having a conversation with your manager about how to focus your efforts is typically relatively easy.

Prioritize Everything

When you’re part of a small UX team, every decision is a priority trade-off. You’re constantly making micro-prioritization decisions as part of your daily task set—because your task set is likely to be fairly ad hoc.

When you prioritize everything, it helps you to frame conversations with stakeholders who come to you with requests. “Sure, I could take that on, but I’d have to drop these other three things.” This guidance for conversations about trade-offs isn’t new, but negotiation is a crucial skill when you’re part of a small UX team.

Get Good at Sales

When you’re part of a small UX team, sales is a really big part of your job. You must lead by persuasion, because you likely have little-to-no actual authority. This includes presenting wherever and whenever you can and turning almost anything and everything into an opportunity to move your UX agenda forward.

This is the part of the job where I most frequently hear “I can’t” or “I’m not allowed.” My viewpoint? In most cases, you can—you just haven’t yet. In cases where you truly can’t—where you truly have no opportunity to own your own work—leave. You can’t succeed at that company.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try

It’s all too easy to avoid doing things you’ve never done before, when you don’t have anyone helping you. You need to drive your own professional growth. Pick something new every quarter, and try it. Don’t spend loads of your teeny budget—in either money or credibility—on it, but try it.

When what you’ve tried works, celebrate your success! This may seem kind of hokey to you at first, but it’s important to take the opportunity to talk about your success. The more you do this, the more people get used to hearing about and believe in the benefits of investing in user experience.

Find Your Tribe

If you don’t have a UX tribe at work, find one outside of work. Social networks are your friends. Connect to people in the larger UX community. Find out what they’re doing, ask stupid questions, use the community as a safe place to learn. I haven’t met a UX professional yet who isn’t willing to help out.

And on that note, find one or more mentors. It can sometimes be hard to find a single person to take on the role of mentor, so try splitting the effort across two or three different people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—the worst that can happen is someone says no. A mentor can help you to make good choices, even out your learning, and understand how to see and take advantage of opportunities.

If you’re in a decent-sized metropolitan area, there’s probably a local UX community, and they probably get together. Find them, and join them. It’s worth investing an evening here and there.

Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re already someone who’s good at finding the tribe. On behalf of those who aren’t, please be open to helping them.

Get Creative with Money

You don’t have much money, so don’t spend much. Do things on the cheap. Do usability testing with friends and family—then present your findings—use some of the many free tools that are available, listen to podcasts, and subscribe to blogs. These are just a few ways of learning and doing without spending any money.

Process Is Your Friend

When you’re part of a small UX group, process helps you make good choices and add value to an organization because it helps you bound your time and tasks. Process also helps you to set expectations and identify opportunities to make positive changes. If you and everyone around you already knows what you’re doing and how, you can start making changes to meet additional needs.

The bottom line is that you can be effective—even if you’re on your own. You can learn, you can be active, you can do great work. Your users will thank you for it, your organization will thank you for it, and your career will move forward in a positive direction. 

Independent UX Architect

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Leslie JohnsonLeslie is a UX generalist with experience in all the disciplines of user-centered design (UCD), which positions her to lead UX teams both large and small. Her past experience includes consulting, as well as providing design, research, and usability solutions to Microsoft, Intuit, and other smaller organizations. Leslie’s two passions are creating outstanding design solutions that satisfy and delight users and teaching and training non-UX professionals in UCD principles. She’s currently consulting in Canada, delivering great user experiences to large and small clients.  Read More

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