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Empowering Teams to Work Better Together

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
December 16, 2019

In this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses how to help teams work more effectively together. UX designers can help empower teams to work better together by developing a positive mindset and soft skills, fostering collaboration, creating an environment of understanding—either within a team or between different teams—and supporting strong communications.

Our experts also consider the importance of aligning on different groups’ shared goals and developing both company-wide and department-level principles and practices that enable teams to work better together. They discuss how to align on design solutions and, thus, avoid the waste that results from unilaterally creating design solutions that stakeholders ultimately reject. The rejection of a UX design likely indicates issues with a company’s culture, a lack of collaboration and communication, or a failed design and development process.

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Each month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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

  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Ritch Macefield—CEO of Ax-Stream
  • Amanda Nugent—UX Visual Design Manager at Staples
  • Andrew Wirtanen—Lead Designer at Citrix

Q: What principles are key to ensuring that teams work better together—both for teams working on similar projects within a large department and for interdepartmental work?—from a UXmatters reader

Cultivating the Right Mindset and Soft Skills

“To work effectively together, all team members must cultivate a positive mindset and highly evolved soft skills,” answers Pabini. “In my UXmatters article ‘13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life,’ I explore the following qualities:

  1. Empathy
  2. Intuition
  3. Creativity
  4. Passion
  5. Life-long learning
  6. Being a good listener
  7. Persuasiveness
  8. Responsibility and kindness
  9. Leadership
  10. Honesty and integrity
  11. Courage
  12. Self-awareness
  13. Wholeheartedness

“Teams that embody these qualities are highly effective and can do great things together!”

“Empathy!” exclaims Cory. “Empathy is not just for our customers. The same considerations are important for teams. Teammates should work to understand each other, socialize, and get to know each other. Break down the silos!”

Fostering Collaboration

“Effective collaboration is essential to creative teamwork—especially for multidisciplinary teams,” advises Pabini. “In a two-part series for my Leadership Matters column, ‘Overcoming Common Barriers to Collaboration,’ I discuss how to overcome the following common barriers to collaboration:

  1. A lack of respect and trust
  2. Different mindsets
  3. Poor listening skills
  4. Knowledge deficits
  5. A lack of alignment around goals
  6. Internal competitiveness
  7. Information hoarding
  8. Organizational silos
  9. Physical separation

“Only by eliminating these counterproductive cultural barriers can an organization foster alignment, collaboration, and information sharing.”

Improving Communications

“Effective communication is the #1 principle to ensure team success—whether within your own team or across departments or projects,” replies Carol. “Being an effective communicator means being strategic about how much and how often you connect with team members or colleagues. No one wants to be inundated with emails or messages. At the same time, no one wants to be left out of the loop for need-to-know information.

“Striking the right balance is critical. For each message you send out, start by planning what you want to communicate. Make sure your main ideas are at the start of a message. Then follow up with details that message recipients might or might not need. Organize your communications, using effective writing techniques. Include headings, bulleted lists, and images where appropriate. If you’re responding to a long email thread, change the subject line to match the current content.

“Choose the right communication channel,” continues Carol. “Does your team prefer handling communications on a Slack channel, a project-management tool such as Trello, or an email group? Whatever channel you choose, provide the chance for people to opt out, depending on their interest in a particular project. Do not assume that everyone wants to be included in every project.

“For interdepartmental projects, reach out to stakeholders to inform them about your project work and determine their level of interest in the communications you and your team members generate. It might be that they would want direct involvement or, in contrast, no involvement. Reaching out to them at the start of a project lets you determine how and whether you should communicate with them about that project. But, for your next project, don’t assume that you understand their interests. Instead, reach out again, so you can learn about their level of interest in your new project.”

At Ax-Stream, we have long recognized that one of the big problems in the software-development lifecycle (SDLC) is communication—particularly between different groups and departments and especially between UX design and development,” says Ritch.

“There are two principles that are key to addressing communications: The first relates to tools. Reduce the number of tools a team uses on a project, particularly when interfacing between groups. For example, we do all our UX design work within an Axure team project, then our development teams use that very same team project as the sole source of specifications from which to develop working code. This increases our SDLC efficiency by massively reducing the development team’s interpretation errors.

“The second principle is to use multiskilled leads—people who have experience working downstream of the group they are leading. For example, all of our UX design leads also have experience in development. Therefore, we advocate that all disciplines get involved much earlier in the SDLC than is normally the case. For example, early in the design process, lead developers validate the technical viability of design concepts, preventing UX designers from wasting time detailing infeasible designs. They also help optimize designs by recommending standard user-interface controls and patterns. This principle is part of a broader philosophy that we call left-shift, which means doing everything as early as possible when it is cheaper to fix problems!

Ritch suggests, “My UXmatters article ‘(Why) Is UXD the Blocker in Your Agile UCD Environment?’ has some relevance here—particularly in relation to working within a UX group.”

“So much of working well together depends on the ability to maintain consistent, open communication between team members,” suggests Amanda. “It is helpful for everyone to be together, get along, and have biweekly design critiques that align everyone on decisions and foster better communication. These design critiques ensure that we’re all in the loop on what each of us is working on and spark discussions that would not otherwise have surfaced. The ability to share information with interdepartmental or outside teams is important. I have found that teams are more effective when upper management supports cross-team collaboration.”

Aligning on Goals and Solutions

“Each organization works differently from other organizations,” acknowledges Andrew. “So you’ll need your own company-wide and department-level principles and practices. Teams that are working toward the same goals, following the same principles, inherently work better together. One of the most helpful resources I’ve found on this topic recently is the podcast Intercom on Product: ‘The Principles Behind How We Build.’”

“One risk of a lack of collaboration and alignment on project goals is that stakeholders might reject a design solution that a UX designer has created unilaterally,” warns Pabini. “Such a design could fail to meet business requirements or might not be implementable by the development team—for example, because the solution is incompatible with a development framework the developers are using or because it’s not possible to implement the design within the necessary timeframe.”

“Having UX designs rejected implies that the designs were tossed over the wall to the powers that be, who review it on their own, then come back with a yes or no decision,” replies Cory. “That’s not the way things should be. Rather, UX design should be collaborative, involve stakeholders as much as possible in initial design decisions, and ensure their continued involvement every step of the way.

“Sure, stakeholders might want to make some changes to designs if there have been miscommunications—or just incorrect assumptions—or they encounter unforeseen politics. However, these should not result in a design’s rejection, but simply suggested revisions as you iterate and improve the design. Then, hopefully, you’ll test the design with representative or actual product users.”

“The root cause of a flat-out rejection of a UX design is likely a process that needs more communication and collaboration,” suggests Andrew. “When you work closely with product managers, engineers, and other stakeholders, the project team marches forward in unison toward an outcome.

“For more tips on improving communications, presenting designs, and achieving agreement, I suggest that you read Tom Greever’s Articulating Design Decisions. You can read a sample chapter on UXmatters.” 

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. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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