What to Do When You’re the Only UX Designer on a Project?

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A column by Janet M. Six
July 24, 2017

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel considers whether UX designers should use the same methods a UX team would use when they’re the lone UX designer on a project. The panel also explores whether a designer can save time and money working alone.

In discussing this topic, panelists also examine the benefits of using the same techniques regardless of whether a UX designer is part of a team. The panel also considers how UX methods fit into company environments that applaud agile, Lean, or creative approaches. Our expert panel reminds UX designers always to keep the user at the center of the design process—despite the temptation of lone designers’ feeling they’re finally getting to design their own way without much interference. Plus, the panelists discuss how to obtain feedback from other designers outside their team or even their entire organization. Finally, the panel addresses the importance of understanding why you’re the only UX designer on a project.

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Every month in my column, Ask UXmatters, experts answer our readers’ questions about user experience matters. To read their answers to your question in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, just send your question to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Jordan Julien—Founder of Hostile Sheep Research & Design
  • Jim Ross—Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: As the lone UX designer working on a project, should I still use the same methods I would if I were part of a UX team? Are there areas in which I can save time and money?—from a UXmatters reader

“Over the years, when working as a UX design consultant, more often than not, I’ve been the sole designer on a product team,” replies Pabini. “Occasionally, there’s been another UX designer within the organization with whom I could collaborate on ideation or design reviews. But, usually, there were no other designers or UX professionals with whom I could collaborate. Instead, my UX design collaborators have often been people working in other disciplines on a product team—typically, product managers and developers.

To find out more about how you can collaborate effectively with people in other disciplines, see my UXmatters article, “Sharing Ownership of UX.” A highly collaborative product team can create great experience outcomes by leveraging everyone’s unique skills. When you enable the product manager and developers on your product team to participate fully in user research and design, they’re much more likely to involve you in the process of defining and prioritizing product requirements and figuring out how to overcome technical constraints. Nothing creates better alignment on what an experience outcome should be than a product team’s working closely together throughout the entire product-development lifecycle.

“When you’re the lone designer on a product team, I encourage you to use the same user-centered design (UCD) methods you would when working with a UX team whenever possible. But, to be realistic, depending on the time constraints your project imposes, you may not always be able to do that to the extent you would prefer.

“The most important user-centered design activity for you to pursue is generative user research—to ensure you don’t create beautiful designs that nobody wants to use. If you’re able to do user research at all, you’ll likely need to take a Lean approach and limit the number of participants. I’ve often paired up with product managers to do user interviews—conducting individual interviews either alone or together. Analysis of your research findings is essential, but creating reports is usually redundant because the team already shares a common perspective and is aligned on UCD goals. Creating formal documentation such as personas often goes by the wayside. However, if the various user roles for a product are complex, it’s helpful and quick to create simple, text-only user profiles. The analysis that goes into writing usage scenarios is always helpful in understanding users’ tasks.

“Don’t waste time creating gorgeous deliverables,” continues Pabini. “This is an ideal situation in which to collaborate closely with a front-end developer to do prototyping in code, which can save you a lot of wasted effort. Having an interactive prototype facilitates doing usability testing and lets you quickly iterate on your designs. However, depending on the design problems you’re trying to solve, you may not need to do much usability testing. To the extent to which you’re able to employ standard, well-tested design patterns and known design principles and guidelines, you can create user-centered designs without testing. But do try to test a product’s primary workflows. To work within an aggressive schedule, you may need to do family-and-friends testing or test with participants within the company. If you’re designing an enterprise application, those participants may be actual users of the solution you’re designing. You can also learn a lot from analyzing competitors’ design solutions.

“The key thing is to do everything you need to do to create a great experience outcome, but avoid all of the busy work and redundant effort that can sometimes creep into projects.”

“It depends,” responds Warren. “I’m assuming by methods you mean standard practices such as team collaboration sessions, sketching, wireframing, and user research. Realistically, you may not be able to do everything to the same degree of detail that a UX team might achieve, but in the spirit of being Lean and moving fast, you can still cover the important bases. For example, you may not have the time to do in-person, moderated usability studies, but using a remote testing tool such as UserTesting or UserZoom might suffice.”

Yes! Use the Same Methods

“You absolutely, 100%, no question, should use the same methods you would if you were on a UX team,” asserts Jordan. “In fact, you should recognize that you may need to assemble a UX team if a project warrants it. While it is extremely tempting to cut corners, trying become more Lean or agile when you’re a team of one, this is a huge rabbit hole you don’t want to fall down.

Many organizations argue that they can save money by eliminating the UX design process altogether and skipping directly to development. Nevertheless, the UX industry had made major headway in combating this line of thinking. After witnessing dozens—or even hundreds—of examples of user experience failures, organizations are taking UX design more seriously than ever. As a sole UX designer, you won’t have the checks and balances you’d have with a larger UX team, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be focused on doing the right thing. You may not have anyone with whom you can do peer reviews, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore different design patterns, then take a step back to evaluate them on your own. Being the sole UX designer is unquestionably more challenging than working with a UX team. Keep that in mind before you accept jobs or contracts that with companies that are asking you to do it all by yourself.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have a lot of meetings with the UX team, but otherwise, yes, you should use the same methods,” answers Steven. “Methods that encourage good design are helpful, so when I’ve been sad and lonely, I force myself to employ many of the same processes I would with a UX team. For example, I don’t start sketching right away, but first make a point of doing analysis steps, reading background information, and writing down the goals, needs, audience details, data and functions defined so far, and design and analyze anything else important. Doing each step is maybe more important when working alone because it forces me to analyze the design decisions I’m making, instead of letting me fall in love with my first solution.”

Focus on a User-Centered Design Process

“If you’re running solo, you should use the methods you are most comfortable with to get answers to the questions you’ve identified with your client, product team, or boss,” says Ben. “As long as the methods are leading to useful conversations about the product, its users, and its context of use, I think you’re going to be in good shape. I also want to add that following a user-centered design process is more important than the specific methods you use—no matter whether you’re a team of one or working with a hundred UX professionals.”

“Even as a lone UX designer, you should embrace, follow, and enforce user-centered design methods, because establishing a user-centered foundation for your design is critical on any project,” replies Mark. “Much of our process is about communicating to non-designers, so being the only UX designer doesn’t mean you should skimp on process.

“However, there are some things—namely, formal, nice-looking deliverables or outputs—that you can skip. You want to document your decisions along the way, but you don’t need to worry about formatting. For example, a user-research report in a Google Doc is just as effective as a PowerPoint. As long as you can communicate your work and decisions to non-designers, you can cut corners here and there. But once you are designing the user interface itself, you cannot skip steps.”

Being the Lone Designer Requires More Time

“Yes, the methods are the same whether you’re part of a team or you’re doing everything yourself,” replies Jim. “However, it takes more time when you have to perform all of the activities yourself, because you can’t divide them up between two or more people.

“When you’re the lone UX designer on a project, the company is saving money by having fewer people on the project. However, when one person is performing all of the UX activities, they take more time than when you can divide UX tasks between two or more people. In contrast, a project could save time by having one person planning, recruiting, and preparing for usability testing, while a second person designs and creates a prototype. When you’re a UX team of one, you have to do all of that yourself, so it takes more time.

“You may be very busy if you’re trying to do all of the UX activities yourself. One of the most time-consuming tasks is recruiting and scheduling participants for user research and usability testing. You can save time by getting someone else to help you with that. That could be a client, an administrative assistant, a business analyst, an intern, or the project manager. You can prepare the email text for them to use, but they can handle emailing people, coordinating schedules, and sending meeting invitations. That frees you up to focus on planning and preparing for the actual research or on design.

“Another option is to use a recruiting company to recruit and schedule study participants,” continues Jim. “You’ll need to create a screener questionnaire, which the recruiting company would use in recruiting and scheduling participants. This can save you a lot of time, but it does cost more than your doing the recruiting and scheduling yourself. When analyzing user-research and usability-testing data, you can save time by having your recordings transcribed, so you don’t have to review the recordings or type up your notes. However, transcription can be expensive.”

“What’s your goal? Saving time and money? Whether you’ll be able to follow a UX team’s usual methods depends on what your current process is,” advises Steven. “It has been a long, long time since anyone has let me iterate on design and research for months, so my large-team methods already result in completing deliverables in weeks and doing revisions in days. However, for a lone designer, actually having a little more time is important.

“Take breaks. Even if it’s just to take a walk around the block, stepping away from your work helps you see the flaws and problems. The other thing I like to do to refresh myself is to shift my focus between different projects. If you don’t have another project you can work on, take some time out to do something else—for example, read professional books every day or write up your thoughts and share them with friends or on your blog. These breaks reset your brain and enable you to re-analyze your decisions from a new point of view.

“Try to share your ideas,” concludes Steven. “Can you bring them to a local Meetup group or create one that lets you meet other independents? NDAs are a pain, but often you can obscure a design enough to share the core problem and solution and get some feedback. I get a lot of questions about design problems when I speak, and I know that simply asking questions or presenting options helps you do what you can to simulate a virtual design team.”

Why Are You Working Alone?

A common thread in this column is that lone UX designers should use a good, user-centered design process. However, it is also important to ask: why are you working alone?

  • Because a company does not have the funds for a UX design team?
  • Because, although a company wants good UX design, they don’t understand that it often takes a team to design a good product?
  • Because a company does not want to devote many resources to User Experience?
  • Or is it something else?

If a company won’t allocate the funds to hire a UX design team, it is important that you both provide a solid design and demonstrate the value of User Experience throughout the development process. Be sure to communicate that a strong design leads to greater profits. Thus, increased funding for User Experience would likely lead to even better designs and even higher profits. Hopefully, the outcome will be more UX funding for the next project.

If a company wants a good user experience, but does not understand that employing a larger UX team could lead to better results, it is very important to make the case that a team-based design approach could greatly improve a product. Do a very quick, first design iteration, so management understands the type of product design you can produce on your own. Then, be sure to communicate where you expect you could strengthen the design and reduce the time that would be necessary to complete the work if additional members were on the team.

If you are unlucky enough to be working for a company that does not value User Experience, it might be time to start looking for another job. As the saying goes, “Don’t stay where you are tolerated; go where you are celebrated.” As long as you are at a company though, do the best you can with the time and resources you have. Hopefully, this will strengthen the connections between UX professionals and those within the company who are working in other disciplines. The people who do understand the value of good UX design may be able to influence leadership’s future allocation of resources to a UX team and make User Experience part of the company’s strategic direction. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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