Onboarding Yourself

Mobile Matters

Designing for every screen

A column by Steven Hoober
March 8, 2021

When you get a new job at most companies, they have an onboarding process—a few hours or maybe even a few days during which they give you a computer, a badge that lets you in the office, and maybe an overview of the company’s history and products. A few companies, especially those in traditional manufacturing or retail, might even have you start off by working in the field for a day or a week, to see how the on-the-ground employees really live. Some big, well-run organizations might even have a team process that gets you up to speed on how they work and training documents and folders of information for you to review. Many assume it could be weeks or months before you get the hang of it all, so they plan for that.

However, many organizations don’t do onboarding effectively and leave you to fend for yourself. Even if your company provides onboarding, you may be the only UX designer, replacing a team that has left the company or taking over from a vendor who isn’t available or isn’t cooperative. You might be stuck in an IT department that doesn’t really understand users and their context at all. Even if you’re joining an existing design team, you might be their first mobile-centric designer, so you would likely fall into a gap they haven’t thought about before and have to make your own way. In such cases, how can you get oriented so you can become productive and get to creating high-quality work as quickly as possible? You’ll need to onboard yourself.

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Ask Questions

Before you even get hired, start preparing for the work you’ll be doing. You know how interviews always seem to end with the question “Do you have any questions for us?” Well, you should definitely have some. First, ask about their onboarding process—for the whole organization and the UX team.

If their onboarding plan doesn’t sound like it’s solid, think about how that would impact your ability to succeed and be happy in your new job. But people are often pretty chatty during interviews, so you can work around this deficiency if you’re up for the challenge. I find it’s pretty easy to gather a lot of the information you need during your interviews—about how the organization is structured, what their goals are, and how they really work together—in ways not on any org chart.

Some questions you should to try to ask during your interviews include the following:

  • What is the overall size of the organization—and, if there are different divisions such as manufacturing or retail, how big is the corporate office?
  • Where is the home office, and is all the staff in one place? These days, you should ask how they’re working remotely and what their plan is for getting back in the office? Or ask whether they think working-from-home forever might be on the table?
  • What department would you work in and in what division? What are the names and sizes of these organizations?
  • Who would you work with—both within the department and outside it? What other departments would you work with day to day.
  • Who would build what you design? An in-house or offshore team or a vendor?
  • What are the names of the other functions in the organization? You are likely being interviewed by people from not just your department but also some of those with whom you’d typically collaborate, so connect your interviewers to those roles.
  • What is the scope and domain of the job? Does it comprehend all products, all digital products, or just some subset of what the organization makes?
  • What digital products exist and why? For example, if there’s a marketing or corporate Web site and an iPhone app, why isn’t there an Android app? Why don’t they also offer the app’s functionality on the Web? There may be good reasons, so actually ask and listen to their response.
  • What’s their digital strategy? Do they recognize that most visitors are likely mobile now? If they prioritize iOS, for example, is there a good reason for that or is it just that everyone on the team carries an iPhone?
  • Do design standards exist? Would your designs require some higher-level approval—such as from a corporate-branding organization? Yes, you’ll have to ask this particular question because this won’t come out when you’re asking about other aspects of team collaboration.
  • How does work flow to you? Would you get to help set requirements or just fill orders to add user interfaces to product designs?
  • What do they expect of you, and what would they allow you to do? Research and information architecture or just user-interface and interaction design?

Especially now, when every interview—and job—is remote, simply go on mute and type everything they say. If you get hired, asking the right questions and capturing a complete set of notes can ensure that you get a great head start on understanding your role and work environment.

Understand the Organization

Whether as part of the hiring process or right after you start your new job, you can begin gathering up documents about how the organization and your department work. Find your team’s shared drive, online working spaces, document repositories, and corporate intranet. Even when you receive a good, thorough corporate onboarding process, they might not reveal all of these resources to you, so ask for them.

Ask questions about where all sorts of things are stored. Marketing and branding information—including important resources such photos, logos, and icons—might be on a secret, password-protected Web site. Training might be run by a different organization, making it difficult to find the information they produce unless you ask about it.

Look at all the posters and content on bulletin boards. There might be useful links to many different types of information there. What you might look for includes the following:

  • organization charts
  • job titles and descriptions
  • mission statements and company values
  • training documents
  • project overviews
  • marketing information
  • client or customer case studies
  • office hours for important individuals
  • open meetings and forums
  • online discussion groups

As you start gathering this information, don’t just store it away. Take full advantage of it and follow up on all your leads.

Become a Student of the Organization

As you start to understand the organization’s structure, reach out to people. At least send email messages to the people with whom you’ll be working to introduce yourself, then offer to meet with them and get a download about their thoughts and background, as well as their complaints and wishes.

Take classes and attend meetings. Large companies often have open forums, meetings, lunch-and-learns, or actual corporate universities. Many recognize that their industry or specific company is unique, so offer classes on the domain, the industry, and even the specifics of their technology. I have taken such classes, and they provide very interesting information that you won’t get elsewhere without great effort. This is important not just for onboarding but, over time, can help you with your job. So try to make this a continuing-education effort and keep attending these classes as long as you work at the company.

A surprising number of companies have a book about their organization. It might be a few years old or just a self-serving portrait of a particular CEO, but it’s often worth finding such books and reading them anyway. Plus, you might find many books about the history of a large organization.

In general, try to become a scholar about the organization. They might have published information on their corporate Web site or elsewhere. Periodicals or TV shows may have interviewed the organization’s leaders or written case studies about its projects. Search the general Internet, news sources, and academic repositories such as the ACM Digital Library.

Request a Take-Your-Designer-to-Work Day

Once you meet your coworkers, try to tag along with them or the people they manage as they do their work. This is especially helpful if they visit customers, the factory, the retail store, or provide service for your products. But it can be just as good to sit in the back of a room and listen in on meetings they attend, see what they discuss, and how the organization makes decisions.

Another favorite of mine is listening to customer complaints. Whether you visit the call center or just listen in to calls, you can begin to understand the process through which people interact with your organization. Yes, you can listen in on these calls. The disclaimer “All our calls are monitored for quality assurance” means there is a way to do that. Your need to gather general information or information for a specific project is very much why it exists. Make friends with the customer-care organization and find out how to do this. I’ve never encountered an organization where they wouldn’t let me listen to such calls.

Observe Real Customers

By customers, I mean the users of a product. The customers could be internal employees or a mix of paying and internal users. Don’t forget who the actual users are or that there may be multiple roles among them.

Either way, don’t take anyone’s word for what customers want. Observe them yourself. You’ll likely receive survey data, voice of the customer information, or other reports, but read their methodology and approach with a jaundiced eye, especially if the company had no UX or usability team before you. Often, the biggest issue with feedback is that the wrong people are giving it: marketing, sales, and senior leaders who go on site visits and talk to decision makers, who are very often not actual users. These customers have different needs from your users and filter the problems real users have.

I always say that we barely care what people say, but really care only what actual users do with our products. Get out in the field and see real customers using your products in their day-to-day life. Field research is called ethnography and is a rich area of study, but you can do fairly quick-and-easy studies with minimal training and the right mindset. For an introduction to doing research in the field, read my column “Succeeding with Field Usability Testing and Lean Ethnography.” Yes, doing this sort of research remotely is harder, but it is possible.

It also would be beneficial to set up site visits to observe users or iteratively conduct usability tests to validate your designs. Do this at a regular cadence. Ask for quarterly, but live with just twice a year. You may get to do more visits and travel to more sites as you prove the value of doing so.

Before going out to the field, research real-world experiences from the comfort of your desk. Search for ratings, reviews, and complaints for your products. Even if you are working on an entirely new product, it usually won’t actually be all new. Most organizations have similar legacy products or a pilot program they tried out. Or, if they’re entering a mature market with competitors, learn all about them.

If you’re new to a domain, you can find out about a day in the life of a typical worker before you visit a site. There are probably some industry magazines and articles. Even looking at job postings and resumes for a role can be very revealing. If you do all this, you won’t be surprised, and you’ll be able to ask good questions and make valid observations during your very first visit.

Absorb Analytics

With any luck at all, your organization has lots of analytics for their Web site and apps. Usually, one team handles analytics—or maybe even just one person. Find out who this is and make friends. Often, these people are badly overworked, so try to get your own access to their data and monitor and analyze it yourself.

Start by just getting on the distribution list for the weekly reports on analytics data and read them every time. Ask follow up questions. Analytics people often get ignored to some extent, so unlike their other coworkers, ask them for more data on a specific item. This would make them feel valued, and they’ll put in the extra effort for you.

One of the first things you want to find out is what devices and browsers people actually use, so you can start targeting your designs for them. However, be careful about taking these reports at face value. Often reports are just summaries, or they might slice up the data oddly. For example, you would care about total percentages for Android, not device makers. Very often, I encounter organizations that say, “No one uses the Web site on mobile,” just to try it and find that it doesn’t actually work in typical mobile browsers. That reality is skewing the data, but it also presents an opportunity for you to bring up a need to the product team.

Again, you should hit up the customer-care organization. In addition to reviewing their knowledgebase—the way they store information and look up how to help customers—they also are driven by metrics, so they keep good records. The part you care about most is the types of complaints they get and how they’ve resolved them. Try to get those reports, or get on the distribution list to have them sent to you weekly. You can find trends, see when problems began to arise, or discover whether people have complained about the new features you helped release. Some teams might allow you to see the types of customers, regions, and so on, so you can better target them. This data provides another view into who the real users of the product are.

As with the other analytics data, be careful and do spot checks—for example, by listening to some calls. A common behavior for customer care is to log only one call reason. Then, if the customer has more problems, they simply won’t show up in the report. Often, secondary issues are very important, but the data gets lost. So keep this in mind when you’re trying to discover what is causing users to have issues with your products over time.

Use Heuristics and Obtain Accounts and Devices

One of the best ways to get a glimpse into the organization’s products is to use them. However, make sure that you are using them in a formalized way and apply heuristics in evaluating them. Don’t just poke around—and don’t start by having someone walk you through it. Instead, perform an expert review or heuristic evaluation. Write down every issue and, even if you never share your findings, you’ll have a baseline understanding of them.

Of course, to do this properly, you need to approach a product as a real user would. The first part of using an application is getting access. It is often inexplicably difficult to get test accounts, but they are also often disappointingly unrealistic. While I first discovered this by accident, using my own mobile-phone account at a phone company, I now always get my own account—for public-facing products anyway. Going through both the signup process and bill payment and assessing the overall accuracy of the actual digital experience are invaluable. Signing up at the moment when you start a new job also delivers a parallel onboarding experience that lets you see what a real customer sees at the same time you’re learning about the organization.

Afterwards, go ahead and have someone give you that walkthrough of how the product works. They’ll see that you care about the product, and you could discover features or functions that are hidden or obscure. Plus, you can get the product team’s perspectives on what the product is for and how they think people use it. But compare how it actually works to they way they talk about how it works.

The other key part of your trial experience is interacting with the product on the proper devices. Don’t just use whatever phone is in your pocket. Make sure that you have access to the devices, browsers, and networks that real users use. Use the data you gathered earlier to find out what mix of device classes exists and build up a collection of devices, as well as a set of best practices to test. Install the app or regularly use the browser on all these devices. I discuss all of this in much more detail in my column “Build a Mobile-Device Lab!

Also, be sure to use different mobile networks periodically. Try using these services when you’re traveling. Don’t just rely on using Wi-Fi in the office. Various mobile networks work very differently, and many of your users won’t have great connections all the time. It is important that you understand this.

Find Out Who Your Consumers Are

Note that I said consumer, not customer. I mean who is absorbing the deliverables you create? It is probably a product manager from the business side, who needs to ensure that your designs meet their requirements and approve your work, and a series of analysts and developers from the technology side, who will implement your designs.

These people’s titles may vary widely, and there may be many more of them. You might discover that your process is very different from theirs. In many of the places where I’ve worked, I was only a fairly high-level designer and the final user interface had to go through a separate Visual Design team.

Either way, once you find your consumers, you need to talk to them about process. What do they expect, when? How should you deliver it? And, very often, especially if your entire role is new, everything is up in the air, and you’ll need to work with them to come up with the best solutions. I’m typically the mobile-specific designer on an existing team. The process of design and development is often totally different from that for a legacy Windows app or the Web. Even in experienced organizations, this still involves creating something nearly from scratch, so be prepared.

Then, of course, you should start establishing relationships with your coworkers. Talk with them regularly. I really like to push for greater involvement and, when that works, it works great. Of course, it sometimes means that I get dragged into software-design meetings or someone calls me for a clarification at 2 am because they forgot what time zone I’m in. But I’ll take that over a bad implementation, confusion, or the need for rework that causes delays.

You should bring a lot of the things you’ve created for yourself to your teams. Make the mobile-device lab available to everyone, and bake other tools such as remote-testing services into the test plan. For an organization that is new to mobile, people might forget about this or assume that they can use emulators or other improper or limited workarounds.

Create Your Own Job

Getting hired is just the first step. To be successful—and most of all happy—in many cases, you’ll be able to define the scope of your job and help improve the organization and the products you work on.

As I discussed in late 2020, in my column “Mobile Is Now Everything,” mobile and mobile-informed user experiences such as touch-screen notebook computers are the new normal. Yet just today, while I was writing this column, a desktop dashboard sort of client realized that their customers are using not only tablets but also mobile phones all the time.

The hardest part of our job is telling our coworkers, clients, and bosses when they are wrong and how to make things better. The better prepared you are with real data and proof, the earlier you can start moving your organization into the future, creating a space where you can do good work and really contribute above your weight. 

President of 4ourth Mobile

Mission, Kansas, USA

Steven HooberFor his entire 15-year design career, Steven has been documenting design process. He started designing for mobile full time in 2007 when he joined Little Springs Design. Steven’s publications include Designing by Drawing: A Practical Guide to Creating Usable Interactive Design, the O’Reilly book Designing Mobile Interfaces, and an extensive Web site providing mobile design resources to support his book. Steven has led projects on security, account management, content distribution, and communications services for numerous products, in domains ranging from construction supplies to hospital record-keeping. His mobile work has included the design of browsers, ereaders, search, Near Field Communication (NFC), mobile banking, data communications, location services, and operating system overlays. Steven spent eight years with the US mobile operator Sprint and has also worked with AT&T, Qualcomm, Samsung, Skyfire, Bitstream, VivoTech, The Weather Channel, Bank Midwest, IGLTA, Lowe’s, and Hallmark Cards. He runs his own interactive design studio at 4ourth Mobile.  Read More

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