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Applied UX Strategy, Part 4.2: From Design Team to Design Culture

October 10, 2016

In Part 1 of this two-parter within my larger series on applied UX strategy, I wrote about the composition and structure of UX design teams. Now, in Part 2, I’ll cover two other areas of focus that are essential in making UX design an integral part of the development process and achieving success in a highly competitive marketplace:

  • leaders
  • culture

Leaders

When thinking about UX leaders, many people might imagine somebody like Jony Ive. But having a lone regent of design is usually neither possible nor necessary. As an organization grows, a single UX leader is rarely able to deal with the massive number and broad variety of projects and tasks. A UX leader must be deeply engaged in ongoing projects to make smart decisions. This is hard to do when a company makes many products. Plus, someone outside a product team would have limited influence on that team. When a UX leader is spread thin, day-to-day project tasks often take higher priority over long-term strategy.

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One possible solution is to have separate design-manager and creative-director roles. The design manager manages and grows the team, while the creative director is responsible for scaling a common design language across actual products. This leverages their unique skills to handle the workload and lets them focus better. However, this approach is insufficient for big companies, for which it’s better to have local leaders, who are responsible for their product or product line, coordinate with each other.

Qualities of UX Leaders

Let’s start by discussing the qualities of UX leaders.

Vision

To inspire the team, a UX leader must have a vision of great design for a company’s products and be able to execute the vision. The vision should imagine how the company will function over the next few years, without fear all of the challenges the organization must confront in achieving it. The vision could encompass specific patterns and guidelines, as well as methods, practices, and processes. It’s not necessary for anyone to assign a UX leader this envisioning task. A UX leader sees problems in processes and products and embraces the opportunity to focus on and fix them.

The Ability to Remain Above the Political Fray

Complex organizational changes create long-lasting legacies. Often, even when a company has desired change for a long time, there is nobody to take the lead and solve the thousands of little problems that exist. Many leaders burn out along the way, but we have to bite the bullet and go forward.

You can make some enemies by acting as a change agent, even if you don’t want to create conflicts. There are politics in any company. But if you approach change carefully—by being empathetic and understanding your colleagues’ work and problems—it will be easier to find allies.

Design Competency

This may seem like an obvious requirement, but some design leaders lack design competency. Sometimes a company assigns somebody to lead design who has operational skills, but no expertise in design. In other cases, a former designer’s skills may have degraded through lack of practice or have become obsolete because their professional development as a designer was in the distant past. Without design competency, it is hard to gain the respect of your team or achieve great product design. It’s not necessary and rarely possible to be the best of the best in every design skill. You should hire people who are better designers than you are. But as a UX design leader, you still need basic design competency.

Management Maturity

When a company changes for better, the work and challenges of a design team and the overall organization also change. There are fortunate times and those that are not; calm periods and others that are full of uncertainty. So, as a UX leader, you must sustain professional growth in your management skills to stay relevant.

The Ability to Build and Grow a Design Team

UX leaders should build a professional team that solves business problems. They should help designers to grow and maintain interest in their work, refreshing their skills and motivation. When designers remain on a team longer than a minimum one and a half or two years and continue to grow, this demonstrates the success of the UX leader.

Facilitation and Mentorship Skills

A UX leader’s facilitation and mentorship skills ensure that product managers and developers can collaborate with designers successfully. They also help a design team to make ideas and solutions come to life. Once User Experience becomes an integral part of a company’s culture, it’s impossible for a UX leader to be part of every task, meeting, or discussion. So it’s important for UX leaders to transfer their skills to members of their design team to ensure good results even when a UX leader with a strong vision and deep experience isn’t involved in a project.

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Valuing and Honoring the Team

In product development, there are successes, failures, and routine work. It is critically important to highlight the successes of your team members—motivating them to make the same level of effort again—as well as to analyze their mistakes so they can avoid them in the future. Moreover, because leaders are often more vocal than their designers, others’ achievements may often be attributed to them, even though they don’t want that to happen. When UX leaders highlight the successes of specific designers, others perceive their team as stronger overall.

Being a Leader, Not a Boss

UX leaders envision and execute great design, create a healthy environment and effective processes, inspire change, and resolve problems and conflicts. Effective UX leaders avoid micromanagement and give their design team autonomy, resources, and opportunities to realize the vision. When everybody else on their team is busy or somebody falls ill, UX leaders can do hands-on work themselves. The way to assess a UX leader’s level of success is not the number of orders they give, but the power, independence, and success of their team. UX leaders are on the front line, not in a private office.

Soft Skills

Of course, there are basic soft-skills requirements for UX leaders such as responsibility, systems thinking, social skills, effectiveness, and stress resistance. Jim Nieters and Pabini Gabriel-Petit have written a good series of articles on soft skills for UX leaders—“UX Leadership, Part 1: The Nature of Great Leaders” and “UX Leadership, Part 2: What Great Leaders Must Do.”

Immature managers sometimes think they are indispensable—that a company will fall apart if they leave. Someone who is emotionally unbalanced might even go so far as sabotage when his relationship with a company ends. Such unprofessional thinking is shortsighted and feeble minded. When UX leaders truly believe in what they are doing, they build processes and teams in a way that will bring their vision to life—even after they’ve left the organization. Otherwise, they would have wasted a couple of years of their professional life.

Leading Cross-Product Workgroups

One UX leader is unlikely to be effective on all three levels—operational, tactical, and strategic. Each requires deep commitment to achieve solid results. Plus, they conflict with each other a little. For example, on a tactical level, a designer would want to make a mockup perfect. But, on a strategic level, the designer may question whether a feature could be implemented anytime soon, so would just create a rough sketch to test the waters. One UX leader could balance the operational, tactical, and strategic levels, but probably not function equally effectively on all three.

We need UX leaders who are responsible for design at three different levels of scope, as follows:

  1. Company or product lines—A leader determines how to align either all products or a range of products.
  2. Products—A leader determines how to evolve a specific product.
  3. Cross-product patterns—A leader determines how to unify different products by using a common visual language and components.

Ichak Adizes, who is a famous management guru, proposed the PAEI model for manager roles. Whether managing a company or a product, a manager could fill one or more of the following roles:

  • Producer
  • Administrator
  • Entrepreneur
  • Integrator

A specific manager may excel in several of these roles, but likely not all of them. Thus, an organization needs multiple managers to fully cover the PAEI model and grow sustainably.

By thinking about leadership as a function rather than a position, we can avoid complex, hierarchical organizational structures and fulfill all three levels of design scope by creating an effective, cross-product workgroup. Everybody knows it’s important to avoid silos on a functional level. But product silos are equally bad for a company that wants to create an integrated product portfolio. A cross-product workgroup can help you to envision and implement unified design guidelines across all products. We need effective collaboration models not only for teams, but also across teams.

Culture

Building a healthy design culture that has the right values can bring product quality to a new level. Your entire company effectively becomes the design team, moving design to a higher level with all its mass. Creating a design culture should be a shared vision that everybody implements at their own level.

To build a design culture, you need to get through to every product manager, engineer, tester, and marketer. You need to describe what a design culture is and why it’s so important, what goals you want to achieve and to what end, what people should take into account, and what points of leverage exist. Everyone should understand what you’re doing and why, so you can get them on your side, and they’ll support you.

As the integration of the design team with other disciplines progresses, designers must develop empathy for those working in other disciplines. This will result in tighter connections inside a company and greater efficiency. Engineers will be eager to share information about technologies and their limitations; product managers will share product roadmaps; and designers will respect other designers more, too. Transparency will increase, and people will trust each other more. Fewer small screw-ups will occur, so everybody will be able to focus on solving higher-level problems.

Cultural Issues

Regardless of whether it’s consciously developed, a culture of collaboration is always at the root of successful product work. Figure 1 depicts various examples of corporate cultures. Some are inspiring; others, ludicrous.

Figure 1—Corporate cultures
Corporate cultures

Collaboration is easier in startups, where there’s no legacy of dysfunction, and they can implement healthy values right from the start. But startups often lack time to focus on culture, too, so most organizations—regardless of their size—have to make an effort achieve healthy collaboration. Conway’s law tells us organizations that design systems often produce designs that are copies of the communication structures within those organizations. These often result from chaotic growth, reorgs, conflicting trade-offs, crises, and forced decisions, all of which lead to organizational debt.

Although it’s not possible for a UX design manager to change a company’s structure, many organizational problems influence product design, including the team dysfunctions that Patrick Lencioni has identified, which I’ll outline here and are shown in Figure 2:

  • absence of trust—The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents building trust within a team.
  • fear of conflict—The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles productive ideological conflict.
  • lack of commitment—Lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will actually implement.
  • avoidance of accountability—The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.
  • inattention to results—People’s pursuit of their own goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.
Figure 2—Patrick Lencioni’s dysfunctions of teams
Patrick Lencioni's dysfunctions of teams

Knowing all of this helps us to understand why designers often get a cold reception from colleagues when they try to push complex, but important solutions. Understanding the problem is half the solution.

What problems can a design team solve by creating a healthy design culture? Let’s look at some of the benefits of a design culture.

Better Product Quality

If UX designers teach professionals in other disciplines—such as product managers, engineers, testers, and marketers—the basic principles of good design, they’ll be able to distinguish good solutions from bad ones and, in their own role, act in our stead; they’ll make fewer mistakes themselves and can pinpoint our missteps.

Design-implementation bugs are a curse of any development process. How can we reduce their number? By instituting

  • design systems—I wrote about design system in Part 3 of this series.
  • design process—A good design process should leverage quality-assurance techniques and include mandatory implementation reviews by designers.
  • expert reviews—Although we’ve never considered them designers, we should welcome feedback from developers, our colleagues who are next in the development lifecycle. This works in a design culture.

The roles and specialties on a product team intersect. For example, a front-end engineer could remedy a designer’s mistake or a designer could remedy a product manager’s omission of an important requirement. To do this successfully, people need to understand the specialties of adjacent roles on a product team. We need be mentors and sources of knowledge to one another. Even more important is the need to be less authoritative in making design decisions and allow our colleagues in other disciplines to cross over into our professional territory. On a weakly integrated team, the intersections between team members could be a source of showstopper issues. But we can instead derive benefit from these overlaps. With everybody enhancing the quality of their colleagues’ work, the result is better-quality products.

Better Idea Generation

A design culture is especially helpful when you’re working on new features or products. Effective collaboration during work sessions, proposals of higher-quality solutions, and an awareness of technology trends, all make non-designers valuable contributors.

It’s important to organize knowledge exchanges. As UX professionals, we know a lot about users, their tasks, and how they work with user interfaces. That’s one of the key reasons we’re valued by product managers and engineers. We must share design patterns and best practices, methods and techniques, guidelines and standards, knowledge of successful and failed case studies, research insights, and facts with our colleagues—or even better, collect them for teams’ future use. Aaron Walter has described the approach they use at MailChimp to systematize their knowledge about users and design.

If teammates participate in user-research sessions together, all can cultivate empathy for users and share responsibility for design solutions. Usability testing can vividly demonstrate how controversial design ideas have led to real problems for users and help us learn how to fix them—often right in the UX research lab. User exposure hours is a great metric that Jared Spool has proposed. He recommends a bare minimum of a two-hour dose of user exposure every six weeks for every employee.

Of course, product managers and engineers won’t and need not know everything about design. But the higher their level of design knowledge, the better you’ll be able to speak a common language. It will also help colleagues to agree on solutions to complex issues. The more our colleagues understand about design, the more they’ll value good designers, too.

Less Resistance

A UX design team wants to have authority and credibility; to earn trust and always be heard. All design decisions should come through the design team up front. Experts in other disciplines such as engineering, quality assurance, and marketing should trust designers. They often need to contact designers directly to solve problems that arise, bypassing their managers. This strengthens the horizontal connections that are critical for sustainable success in product development.

Of course, it’s impossible to avoid all conflicts. Our colleagues will always seek simpler and cheaper ways of implementing our designs, and technology constraints and time limitations will often force us to simplify our perfect product vision. But the frequency and intensity with which such conflicts arise will decrease.

Healthy Habits

To transform an organization’s culture into a design culture, we must change people’s attitudes and behaviors in relation to UX design. To enable an organization to develop an appreciation of new values, it’s best to start by implementing proper practices and healthy habits. Formulate a list of these habits and start cultivating them. Our company will want to see results from us, not just a huge organizational tempest, so we should act to achieve small wins early. The values you’re trying to cultivate should be adopted within the UX team first. It’s hard for a UX team to evangelize values they don’t believe in.

What healthy habits could help people to appreciate and accept new values?

  • Share knowledge. This knowledge might relate to a professional specialty, product launch results, or analytics or research insights. Always continue learning and growing professionally.
  • Make product decisions together. When a product manager, designer, and engineering work closely together, they’ll make better decisions.
  • Don’t criticize colleagues. Learn from mistakes, draw the right conclusions from problem situations, and avoid repeating them.
  • Give balanced feedback. Point out both the strengths and weaknesses of proposed solutions and approaches.
  • Be transparent. Explain the logic of your professional decisions. Make the results of your work visible and always available.
  • Communicate. Swiftly respond to your colleagues’ questions. Help them to solve implementation problems by evolving your designs.
  • Collaborate. Build horizontal connections with colleagues to support direct collaboration between specialists, bypassing managers.
  • Work in pairs. Pairing a designer and another specialist for work sessions at a computer helps them to solve problems efficiently and effectively.
  • Evangelize your successes. Frequently discuss successful designs and implementations and highlight positive inputs from designers. Motivate corporate leaders who support design to talk about it more. Other managers will copy this practice.
  • Capture decisions you make during meetings. Describe the logic behind each decision. Then, adhere to the decisions the team has agreed on. Ideally, you should document the ideas you’ve rejected, too.

You could add habits that are important specifically for your company to this list. The design team should constantly remind colleagues about these good practices, until they become automatic behaviors.

The process of inculcating new habits into a culture takes time. Cultural transformation does not happen quickly. So we have to deliver results, here and now, not wait for our work environment to become healthier. Unfortunately, during the early stages of creating a design culture, you may lose part of the design team. Not everyone is patient enough to weather the difficult, chaotic times at the beginning. But the healthier a culture gets, the better designers you’ll be able to hire and the more motivated the whole design team will be.

Look at the habits and values of some well-known design teams. For example, here are ustwo’s seven principles:

  • Happiness over stress.
  • Flexibility over structure.
  • Us over me.
  • Silly over serious.
  • Collaboration over hierarchy.
  • Courage over comfort.
  • Principles over output.

Spotify believes that a healthy culture can fix a broken process. It requires a proper balance between chaos and bureaucracy.

Co-Design Sessions

One of the best ways of creating a design culture is to do co-design sessions. My team employs co-design sessions when working on any important feature or on a new product. We bring together a small workgroup, with a product manager, a product designer, a lead engineer. In these mini-workshops, we do the following:

  • Discuss requirements. It’s important to be sure we consider everything. We also look at business goals and metrics.
  • Think of different usage scenarios. What types of users will use a particular feature and in what usage scenarios.
  • Look at competitors. Explore the problem and solution spaces for a product.
  • Sketch. Create sketches of interaction flows and screens.

We may leave a workshop with a half-completed solution, which considers all requirements and constraints, or several alternative solutions that we want to explore more deeply. This works way better than engaging in a dull game of telephone, in which the designer, product manager, and lead engineer communicate through a task manager and that typically leads to misunderstandings and tons of unnecessary comments and deliverables.

With co-design sessions, product managers and engineers feel that they’re co-authors of a design solution. They have a sense of ownership and will fight for a design rather than trying to change it right off the bat. They experience the entire flow of design decisions, understand the reasons for rejected ideas, can propose their own solutions, and iteratively improve solutions over time. They’ll better understand how designers work and think. There is no more a lonely hero who comes down from the clouds to deliver a solution that magically works to a product team. The team creates the design.

Designers will also stop fighting for ideas they’ve fallen in love with for no logical reason. They no longer feel a need to demonstrate their cleverness to their colleagues—no matter what the consequences. Everyone will focus on the overall success of the product, not the success of specific design patterns or people.

Note that co-design and design by committee are very different things. It’s important to minimize the number of participants in a workshop, limiting the size of the workgroup to three to five people. While large meetings can work well for idea generation, requirements gathering, or concept presentations, you can’t work on a design concept productively with a huge group of people.

More and more companies are practicing co-design with users. This is a great way to get instant feedback and improve empathy with users. Lean research approaches have evangelized similar ideas—since the 1960s in Scandinavian countries.

There are several defined co-design formats that are practiced by product companies and agencies that engage clients in their work process:

  • design sprints
  • design studios
  • variants of a design-thinking process

Design Sprints

The design sprint is Google Ventures’s five-day, intensive team workshop for conceptual product design. It’s their version of design thinking for that specific task. This approach works perfectly for the young startups the fund invests in. In a design sprint, each day is devoted to a specific task, as follows:

  • Day 1: Unpack. A team unpacks everything they know. The facilitator helps the team draw insights from what they know, create a simple user story, set the scope for the week, and take useful notes.
  • Day 2: Sketch. Participants explore all possible solutions to their user’s problem, putting aside critical thinking and generating a large number of ideas to sort through later.
  • Day 3: Decide. A team narrows down the possible solutions and chooses what to prototype.
  • Day 4: Prototype. Participants prototype a solution.
  • Day 5: Test. A team tests the prototype with users to validate or discard the ideas it embodies.

Figure 3 illustrates Google Ventures’s design-sprint process.

Figure 3—Google Ventures’ design sprint
Google Ventures's design sprint

Unlike in Stanford’s design thinking process, user research is a separate process: the research sprint, which comprises four days:

  • Day 1: Start recruiting participants.
  • Day 2: Schedule participants and draft the interview guide.
  • Day 3: Finalize the schedule and complete the interview guide.
  • Day 4: Interview participants and summarize the findings.

Design Studios

A design studio is a one- or two-day workshop in which a larger team is divided into several workgroups, each of which solves a particular design challenge. At UIE, a design studio comprises seven key steps:

  • Step 1: This is a warm-up session in which everyone taps into their memory of how to draw simple pictures using pens and paper.
  • Step 2: Participants divide into small workgroups to solve an assigned design challenge. Then, participants each draw as many small designs as they can think of, using a 6-up page template. Finally, participants share their ideas with their workgroup. They may repeat this process several times.
  • Step 3: Participants each choose an idea to flesh out more. Using a 1-up page template, they draw their idea in greater detail, then share it, and iterate. Each workgroup critiques their own ideas.
  • Step 4: The larger team sorts all of the ideas according to a user journey’s timeline.
  • Step 5: Each workgroup presents their ideas to everyone in the workshop, again discussing what’s good and bad about the ideas they’ve worked on.
  • Step 6: Returning to their workgroups, participants continue fleshing out their ideas with more 6-up and 1-up sketches, incorporating ideas from the larger team.
  • Step 7: All workshop participants vote for the best ideas, often using a KJ method.

Branded Design-Thinking Processes

A well-known, design-thinking process is Stanford d.School’s five-step process, which comprises the following steps:

  • Empathy
  • Problem definition
  • Ideation
  • Prototyping
  • Testing

Figure 4 represents one key idea of this process: the double-diamond model, with alternating cycles of divergence—exploring problems and solutions—and convergence—to choose the best solution. Many companies practice this design-thinking process—either fully or partially—and it’s a widely popular way of involving non-designers in the design process.

Figure 4—Double-diamond model
Double-diamond model

Some companies have reconceived and even branded the design-thinking process for their own use. One of the best examples is IBM, whose overall workflow is similar—observation, reflection, and making. But the way IBM integrates design thinking into their actual work process is distinctive. (This is the point at which many companies lose interest in design thinking because it’s often difficult to practice fully.) IBM has three key concepts that form a scalable framework for team alignment:

  1. Hills—The team frames a problem in terms of the intended outcomes for users.
  2. Playbacks—The team meets regularly with stakeholders to ensure they understand the current work and can voice their input. With each iteration, a solution becomes more and more refined.
  3. Sponsor users—The team invites users to participate in the work, by observing, reflecting, and helping to make decisions.

Implementing Co-Design Practices

All of these methods require an understanding of the co-design process and facilitation skills. Extending these approaches across a whole company is difficult. But, for huge organizations—such as IBM, with its 350,000 employees—this is one of the few tools that is capable of distributing design culture across the entire organization, enabling many thousands to influence design.

In transforming design at Intuit, a design leadership team launched the innovation catalysts program. The design leadership team regularly held work and training sessions for people from other parts of the company. Eventually, participants became evangelists of the ideas in their own departments and were able to teach many more people about design thinking. Now, the company has about 1,200 innovation catalysts, who have had a significant impact on the quality of design and decision making overall. Immersion has a similar initiative called Sparks, in which 10% of their employees have already participated.

What About a Design Process?

I’ve spent most of this article talking about issues relating to agility and the avoidance of bureaucracy. Some design process is a necessary requirement for a design team to work productively. However, a design process alone is not sufficient. Defining key work stages for typical types of design tasks—from designing new-product concepts to supporting current releases—acts as a guide in planning work on specific projects.

Planning

A centralized team needs short-term, mid-term, and long-term planning, as follows:

  • iteration—This short-term plan defines what you’re doing in the coming weeks and your priorities. It helps to create a to-do list. Measures of success: accomplishing all tasks on time, with the necessary level of quality.
  • quarter—This mid-term plan defines the results you need to achieve over the next three months. Measures of success: the launch of features, products, or infrastructure projects.
  • year—This long-term plan defines where you’re going as a team and helps you to plan team growth. Measures of success: achieving changes in the company’s processes and products that are necessary to strengthen its market position.

For a distributed team, a product manager may make these plans, but they still may have three levels. Design managers should consider adding product portfolio–unification tasks to these plans.

Design Quality Assurance

We need standard techniques to assess the quality of launched products—for example, design reviews to assess implementation quality, usability assessments, and analytics to validate that a product achieves its business goals. In an ideal world, designers should be able to postpone a release if a product’s design and implementation quality are not sufficient. Some useful methods of ensuring the quality of a product include the following:

  • checklists—Use checklists for expert evaluation of different aspects of a design such as usability and accessibility. My company has built an integral quality metric based on our checklists, which I’ll cover in my next article in this series.
  • design-implementation bug list—Prioritize this bug list by criticality. Be realistic and make smart trade-offs. It’s often possible to fix many bugs after launch, so don’t just defer them. A product can have some minor glitches in the first couple of weeks after launch. This would mean nothing for its long-term outlook. Anyway, if the UX team did its job well, the new design would be much better even with some glitches.
  • product ideas and enhancements list—Prioritize this list according to their value to the business and users. This list could include infrastructure efforts that simplify the support or development of a product line. Some of these may be obvious; others, hypotheses that have yet to be proven through experimentation.

The way you organize UX research and analytics is highly important, but dependent on how a specific company works. This is a broad topic that other publications have already covered.

A Design Toolkit

Choose and refine an optimal toolkit for

  • creating deliverables such as wireframes, mockups, and prototypes of screens; diagrams; and other ways of defining a user experience
  • storing and exchanging information and project deliverables
  • planning and measuring efficiency
  • collaborating with product teams and transferring assets between them

If you create guidelines for the standard naming of files, layers, and other things, this will help a team to work faster and spend less time on operational things.

Outsourcing Talent

You need a trusted pool of talent outsourcers to start new tasks quickly. Hiring outsourced talent is a well-known challenge. It takes some time to find an outsourcer, make all necessary arrangements, have lawyers sign off on hiring agreements, and get people up and running.

For many companies, the problem with working with outsourcers is that they don’t know how to use outsourced talent effectively. This leads to bad results and mutual antipathies. It’s risky for a product company to outsource tasks that involve product definition, which can lead to endless cycles of contracts and result in mutual grudges. (However, some modern agencies are trying to deal with such tasks more effectively.) There are three significant problems that you can solve by relying on collaboration with outsourced talent, as follows:

  1. No available staffing resources—Assign your in-house staff to key tasks. Outsource tasks that don’t involve product definition such as the design of icons, banners, and less-important landing pages and the creation of illustrations.
  2. Gaps in niche specialties—Outsource work if there’s no reason to keep certain expertise in house—for example, type design or brand identity. An agency could create graphic elements that a product team would use in product design.
  3. A need for fresh ideas and approaches—You can use collective brainstorming, in which several outsourcers work on a complex concept, to gather diverse ideas or you might learn about new approaches from people outside your organization to overcome the limitations of your team.

Professional Growth

A UX team constantly needs to grow and evolve. Designers can take on new challenges and solve more complex tasks to become stronger and gain wisdom. Growing your team’s skills requires

  • a professional environment—On a strong team, there is a healthy exchange of knowledge such as design patterns, best practices, case studies, articles, and books—including participation in book clubs. Designers should regularly discuss each other’s latest work in collective design reviews.
  • additional education—Teams should take advantage of offline and online conferences, courses, workshops, and Webinars.
  • challenging product work—UX professionals need new professional challenges such as solving atypical tasks, participating in new projects, improving weak skills, and taking on management or other specialized roles.
  • mentorship and feedback—Design managers should help the people on their team to choose the right direction for their professional and career growth and track their progress by looking at a retrospective of their successes and failures.

A Wide Range of Tasks

To ensure designers don’t become apathetic because of overly routine work, keep looking into different approaches and switch people off their main product tasks at intervals. There are three types of tasks:

  • product tasks—This work focuses on products and their features.
  • infrastructure tasks—Examples include work on product-portfolio unification and related tasks such as the development of icons, animations, typography, typical patterns, screen templates, and grids.
  • visionary tasks—The focus of this work is on answering questions such as: How will products look in a couple of years? What uncommon design patterns can we glean from the market that we could apply to our products? Such patterns and concepts are rarely implemented as is, but can introduce a lot of important, small changes to existing products. These play a role that is somewhat similar to that of concept cars, as opposed to auto brands. They let product teams try out new ideas for the future of a brand.

On my team, the ratio for these three types of tasks is 70:20:10. My team’s primary focus is on product work, but there are also a lot of new professional challenges that move my people forward professionally and help them to love their job. Visionary tasks often explore the boundaries of what we know about a problem, our current skills and knowledge, and time and resources.

Good Meetings

While people often demonize meetings and say they take the life out of work, there are useful meetings.

When you gather ten or more people for a meeting, they may have trouble getting a word in edgewise, shout each other down, or disengage and get distracted by their phone because there are too many people trying to talk. Plus, even though everybody tries to be helpful and propose useful ideas, some may lack an adequate understanding of the problems, so their ideas won’t be relevant. You may have invited people who have no reason to be there.

However, when you decrease the number of participants to a minimum—about three to five people—and have a facilitator, you can form a truly useful workgroup that can quickly solve problems and come to agreement with each other. They’ll be too engaged to get distracted, and everyone will be able to contribute.

While there are meetings where having more people is helpful—such as for presentations and initial brainstorms—it’s important to understand the limits of any method of collaboration.

Conclusion

Management guru Peter Drucker once said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and time and time again, life experience has shown the truth of this statement.

We need a change of discourse and to think and talk about values rather than procedures. It’s impossible to create an ideal team or process. Real-world limitations will always hinder and restrain any effort to do so. However, with a proper design culture, UX achievements are sustainable. Your whole company can become your design team. This results not only in great products, but in a great organization. 

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Head of Portal UX at Mail.Ru

Moscow, Russia

Yury VetrovYury leads a team comprising UX and visual designers at one of the largest Russian Internet companies, Mail.Ru, which is part of the Mail.Ru Group. His team works on communications, content-centric, and mobile products, as well as cross-portal user experiences. Both Yury and his team are doing a lot to grow their professional community in Russia.  Read More

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