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Understanding Cultures

March 9, 2020

The term culture describes the behaviors of people in organizations. Sometimes, as UX professionals, we are outsiders and organizations invite us in to observe their organizational culture. In other cases, we are insiders who work within organizations and experience their culture daily. An organization’s culture can influence any of us, depending on our interactions with it.

The challenge is that we never fully understand cultures because they are constantly in flux—whether because of the movements of people or the changing times, places, and practices that are at play. Who is responsible for explicitly fostering and leading a culture to ensure that people not only deliver their transactional work outputs but also attend to achieving meaningful outcomes and nurturing the cultures within which people work?

In this article, we’ll describe how well placed UX professionals are to become cultural leaders, by helping to track people’s potential, defining behavioral outcomes, and influencing organizational culture, strategy, and direction.

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The UX Professional as a Cultural Leader

Understanding organizational culture implies our being aware of and playing an active role in influencing the cultures within which we interact on a routine basis. We believe that understanding culture is an equally critical role for UX professionals to play within an organization as doing the actual UX research and design work on products or services. In fact, UX professionals already implicitly influence culture because fulfilling our role implies our having regular interactions with people in other roles, including—but not limited to—product managers, developers, content writers, and others who make up product teams.

A significant part of culture is creating a learning experience so people realize that learning is an explicit part of their job function. This implies that a UX professional’s role is also to lead by teaching and to teach by leading. Creating a learning experience is not primarily about teaching methods and tools that are specific to our UX toolkit or methodology, but about understanding the critical practices that help individuals, teams, and organizational cultures accomplish meaningful work together.

The critical practices through which a UX professional can lead to influence culture include the following:

  • encouraging curiosity to appreciate different perspectives
  • solving problems to give clarity
  • listening to offer respect
  • confronting constructively to share ownership
  • prioritizing to achieve focus

To understand each of these critical practices, we must answer some important questions. Let’s take curiosity as an example and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What encourages you to be more curious?
  • What stops you from being more curious?
  • What are the positives and negatives of being curious?
  • What are examples of people, places, or periods of time when curiosity would be useful?
  • What are the qualities of being curious?
  • Have you experienced curiosity? In receiving and giving?
  • Can you relate a story in which curiosity was a factor or a missing element and show why?

Each of these critical practices should connect to a value that you seek and a behavioral outcome you want to see in your work culture.

Building Trust and Safety Between People

Understanding an organizational culture means understanding its people, so taking the time to chat with people is a good place to start. Depending on your relationships with the people within an organization, there are times and places where you need to create a sense of trust and safety between yourself and the people you are getting to know. You should also try to get an idea of what problems people face in their current environment and what matters to them going forward.

In building trust and safety, you may also discover what connections people have with other people and what helps or hinders their ability to be successful in their role. To build trust and safety, you should consider the language you bring to a conversation and whether your goal is to be more businesslike or more human, be part of an organization or consultative, or a mix of these.

As you begin the journey of understanding an organization’s culture, it is important that you are ready to listen and consciously avoid judging. Consider the following questions:

  • Who is it important that you meet with and learn from and why?
  • What communication style should you use as you begin reaching out to people and meeting with them?
  • What problems do you need to discover?
  • Whose voices are illustrative of the culture you need to describe?
  • What knowledge do you need to share to encourage a learning environment?
  • In what environment do you want to meet people?
  • Do you have whatever supporting equipment you would need to be able to describe concepts visually—for example, a whiteboard?
  • Are you aware of the lenses through which you need to assess these conversations?
  • Do you have a sense of the vision, values, and practices that might be important to the people with whom you’ll be meeting?
  • What programmatic or longer-term view of continuous learning are you considering? How is that different from the day-to-day transactional, delivery work?

The Four Lenses That Enable Culture

As you go into a culture, having an explicit understanding of your own lenses is critical to enable deeper, more reflective, more meaningful conversations. There are four lenses that are helpful in doing this, as follows:

  1. Mindset and attitude
  2. Perspectives and opportunities
  3. Communication and intent
  4. Impact and time

1. Mindset and Attitude

As you begin listening to people, it is essential that you go into conversations wanting to learn and being open to challenging your own assumptions. Depending on your experience, you’ll have reflections and stories to share, but ultimately, your mindset and attitude are primarily about listening and asking probing questions to uncover dimensions of the stories that the people you’re speaking with might not see. You’ll also look for patterns in language, stories, behaviors, reactions, and questions that give indications of the culture you’re trying to understand.

2. Perspectives and Opportunities

As you listen to people, it is important to ask them to share their stories—specifically, project stories. Project stories reveal the interactions between the people on a project, outside a project, and outside the organization. You want to get a sense of how well people are able to get outside a vertical, siloed view of their work and their practice, expand their perspective to other projects, and gain a broader perspective beyond their own. This helps in discovering opportunities for individuals, teams, and the entire organization—and also for clients.

3. Communication and Intent

As you listen to people, you should ensure the clarity of your communication and your intention to discover what you need to learn. Consider the language you are using and whether this language is consistent with that of the people from whom you are learning. Of course, you might also challenge the language in use as part of understanding a culture. Clarity of intention is important not just for you but also for the people with whom you are having conversations. You need to understand how their intention connects to yours and that of the organization. Organizations often capture their intention in pitch decks, values, practices, and behavioral outcomes. These outcomes are distinct from outputs.

4. Impact and Time

As you listen to people, you can gain a better understanding of what is meaningful to them in the work they do and how they want to impact the people with whom they interact in their work. It is important for people to recognize that their time is valuable and that the way they use their time in interacting with people says something about the overall impact they want to have.

Understanding Your Lenses

To gain a deeper understanding of your lenses, consider the following questions:

  • What mindset and attitude are you taking into every session and conversation you have with people?
  • How open are you to challenging your own assumptions and views about the people within the culture to whom you’re listening and who you’re observing?
  • What other lenses might be helpful in better understanding a culture?
  • What impact do you want to have in the environment within which you’re working? What would that look and feel like?
  • Who do you see as advocates or champions of the kind of culture you want to encourage?
  • What people are already taking on mentoring roles?
  • As you listen to people, how can you reflect back your understanding of what they’re communicating?
  • What vision do you have for a healthy culture? What does that look and feel like?
  • What time of day and amount of time do you want to allocate to listening sessions?
  • What perspectives of the people to whom you’re listening should you consider in understanding a culture? How might these perspectives inform the organization’s current and future states?

Performance Versus Potential

In trying to understand organizations, it is common to focus on people’s performance of their roles—what they do during the transactions that are part of their work and what outputs, or deliverables, they create. Organizations often describe these as the key performance indicators (KPIs) that they use to measure productivity. However, we suggest that this language—which organizations have borrowed from industrial-age ways of working—tends to dehumanize the people who do the work. It can also create nasty situations in which people game their numbers when competing with others. This encourages an unhealthy culture and, in some cases, actually works against the merits of a performance-based system.

We choose not to focus on performance, but also not to ignore it. Instead, we choose to focus on people’s potential.

We frame potential as looking at the past, current, and future potential of individuals and teams and place the responsibility for tracking potential in the hands of those individuals and teams. If people want to improve, they need to take responsibility for their own learning over time. You should consider what you know, what you think you know, and what gaps exist in your knowledge. Record these gaps as potential opportunities, then look for people and resources that can help you supplement your knowledge.

We also use potential trackers as a way of explicitly influencing culture, using the following three behaviors—for which we’ll provide examples:

  1. Trust-building behaviors that gain people’s hearts

I encourage others to turn to me for transparent, credible advice.

  1. Purpose-instilling behaviors that enable grand visions

I mentor and coach people on how to collaborate at an optimal pace, working in cycles that let them do their best work.

  1. Energy-generating behaviors that energize cultures

I remove unnecessary tension and politics from work situations.

Each of these behaviors includes criteria that help foster the right behavioral outcomes and culture-building principles. Consider the following questions:

  • What behaviors do you want to influence positively?
  • What behaviors are doing harm to people?
  • How can you lead with your heart to encourage explicit practices and enable the behaviors you want?
  • How do behavioral outcomes and principles speak to the values and, ultimately, the vision of the organization within which you work?
  • Do you sense that people have a clear sense of purpose in their work?
  • Do people seem energized or deflated by their work and why?
  • Are there any communities of support for people who might need help in the work they do?
  • Are you finding connection points between roles that combine their intentions and outcomes, looking at them separately from their transactional outputs and delivery work?
  • What routines could you already be developing to help people realize their current and unrealized potential through their practices?
  • What curriculum are you developing to encourage continuous learning and help people track their own potential and personal development over time?

Learning Communities Energize Culture

One of the greatest flaws in organizational design is the existence of departments. Departments can disconnect you from the people in other departments. They can fracture any sense of community within an organization, disconnect people from one another, and create barriers to receiving outside perspectives. This lack of connection results in a lack of caring, compassion, empathy, and even more problematically, shared practices across departments, which can cause people to make false assumptions about other departmental cultures that can get in the way of creating meaningful outcomes together.

Establishing learning communities is a lovely way of getting people to meet up, relate to and connect with one another, and share project stories to gain a sense of shared culture. These learning communities can help you to discover the following:

  • practice leads who can help others across departments and functions
  • facilitators who can help teams unite and create a sense of shared purpose
  • practice spotters who can identify useful practices from the stories people share, then add them to a practice library that is available to other functions across the organization
  • practice recorders who can help create and update practices, keeping specific contexts in mind
  • places in which people can practice and try doing deep dives, without feeling the pressures of the transactional nature of their work
  • places to socialize and discuss shared problems and opportunities to work better together

The main ideas here: Learning together creates community. Community can connect people, transcending the departmental barriers that might prevent people from getting to know one another. Community can create a common purpose that binds an organizational culture together. To better understand cultures, get to know the people who reside within them. Consider the following questions:

  • What do your current learning communities look and feel like?
  • What is the last thing you read and what did you learn?
  • What opportunities are there for reflecting on your work versus delivering your work?
  • Who do you consider a mentor and how do they help you?
  • Where do you go to improve and learn over time?
  • Where do you see opportunities for yourself to become a practice lead and why?
  • What would a healthy learning community look and feel like to you?
  • What practices do you believe contribute to healthy learning communities?
  • Where do best practices reside in your organization?
  • How can you implement best practices together?

Wrapping Up

UX professionals must play an even more explicit and important role in developing the values that drive best practices, encourage behavioral outcomes, and create cultures that rehumanize their organizations.

In accomplishing their work, UX professionals always should be aware of two things:

  1. The transactional nature of delivering the outputs of processes
  2. The meaningful nature of practice outcomes that positively impact culture

In your endeavors to understand culture, remember these key points:

  • UX professionals are cultural leaders.
  • Build trust and safety between people.
  • Use the four lenses to enable culture:
    1. Mindset and attitude
    2. Perspectives and opportunities
    3. Communication and intent
    4. Impact and time
  • Look at potential rather than performance.
  • Establish learning communities to energize a culture. 

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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